U2, Lecrae, and the Paradox of Christian Music

Review: Songs of Innocence by U2, Anomaly by Lecrae 

Rembert Browne from the music blog Grantland recently mused on the boundaries between Christian and secular music, and what happens when those boundaries are blurred. He holds up Lecrae as an example. Lecrae is a Christian rapper, whose album Anomaly topped the Billboard 200 last month. This is his first Billboard No. 1 album, but each of his last five albums has hit the top of the Christian charts. Lecrae is a Christian artist now finding success on the secular charts, not a successful mainstream rapper who happens to be a Christian.

But Browne, after listening to Lecrae’s impressive new album, wonders whether it isn’t limiting to call Lecrae a Christian artist. After all, he is selling albums to a much broader audience than other Christian performers, and his subject matter is not as straightforwardly Jesus-centric as the average song on Christian radio. Direct references to Jesus are one thing that sets Christian music apart, but Lecrae’s Anomaly contains few of them.

This leads to the question: what, in fact, makes an artist “Christian?” Is he or she a “Christian artist” if they play his or her music on Christian radio, and a secular artist if they don’t? There are songs on Anomaly that are more about the sin of greed or about the sexual abuse Lecrae suffered as a child. These aren’t likely to get many plays on 98.7 Positive Life Radio. But in these songs, Lecrae is dealing with the darkness of sin in a robustly gospel-centered manner. In this case, perversely, that may entail more plays on secular stations than on Christian ones. I think it’s because of the narrow, blinkered subject matter of “Contemporary Christian Music” that Lecrae has publicly distanced himself from it. In an interview with The Exchange, he said “I am a Christian. I am a Rapper. But Christian is my faith not my genre.”

Browne agrees with Lecrae’s self-assessment:

Anomaly is a complicated album to analyze and listen to, because it’s difficult to think about it in a vacuum, purely as a piece of music. Before you hit play, chances are you understand you’re about to listen to Christian rap. And whether that’s a plus or a minus, it’s most likely a something. Then you begin listening, and it doesn’t come off as a Christian rap album, in the way you imagine a Christian rap album sounding. You know it’s being pushed as Christian rap, but, more often than not, it simply feels like rap that is Christian.

Here we could get into semantics: Lecrae is a Christian. But his genre is not. However, as Browne astutely realizes, it still can be. “…[T]he answer is still, yes he is a Christian rapper. Because with Christian music, there seems to be a one-drop rule. As in, if there’s one drop of vice — of unfavorable content — regardless of the representation of Christianity’s positive tenets, it ultimately becomes secular music. Lecrae’s status as a Christian rapper hinges on the fact that he never becomes a bad Christian, lyrically.”

Lecrae is attempting a delicate balancing act. Frustrated with the artificially limited subject matter of music on the Christian charts, as well as the lack of influence Christian rappers have on their mainstream counterparts, and perhaps as well with the limited audience for Christian music, Lecrae decided not to release a “Christian album.” Instead, he released Anomaly. And that’s what it is: an anomaly. If it’s a Christian album, it’s an uncommonly harsh and real one. If it’s a secular album, it wouldn’t talk about Jesus in such a reverent way, or address sins like greed and lust in the ways that it does.

And I think that’s just what Lecrae intended. He is conscious of his own status as an anomaly; he is a black man, a product of a godless upbringing in the inner city, but he is not an Baptist or Methodist like most African-American Christians. He is Reformed. Theologically, that means he has more in common with John Calvin than with Dr. King. But the contradictions don’t stop there. He is a chart-topping rapper, but he doesn’t glorify sexual profligacy, drugs, or rampant greed like Lil Wayne or Kanye (see the song “Nuthin'”). In fact, he glorifies monogamous, self-sacrificial love (see the incredible song “Runners”). He is a well-known entertainer, but a committed and humble Christian. He is good friends with both Kendrick Lamar and Billy Graham, and any man with those two names in his Rolodex must be dealing with some contradictions, or at least doesn’t quite fit in any box.  He is an anomaly, and he’s proud of it, and his album is an attempt to get us to see him uniquely, as he sees himself–and not as “just another” of something else.

There are fantastic songs on Anomaly: the lead single “Nuthin'” is spectacular. It’s dark, brooding, musical, and the verse is impeccable. “Say I Won’t,” “Outsiders,” and “Anomaly” are similar.  They’re in minor key much of the time, with vaguely menacing beats and great electronic samples. In fact, the whole album is a little dark, a little raw. The song “Dirty Water” is even darker, a sneering jeremiad against the roots of black poverty and white disdain. It’s a far more effective song than Kanye’s “Blood on the Leaves”, even though Yeezy samples the super Billie Holliday song “Strange Fruit.” The song “Fear” is perhaps the best example of Lecrae’s dark gospel truth. It sounds like nothing else.

It begins with Psalm 23:4, and then the metaphors for a Christian response to fear and death build until, it seems, Lecrae becomes dissatisfied with mere metaphor. He comes right out and says it:

I’mma tell that truth till it kill me
And I’m chillin’ with my Creator
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
To all of my haters
For the ones that think I forgot Him
And the ones who won’t let me say it
I ain’t scared no mo’

I could go on, but I advise you to explore Anomaly for yourself. It’s dark, haunting, faithful, and excellent.

Anomaly by Lecrae: 9/10

Lecreae’s release coincided with U2’s surprise free release of Songs of Innocence, their first album in five years. Unlike Lecrae, U2 is generally regarded as a secular act. But over the years U2 has recorded many songs with religious allusions, and a few superb songs that are more explicitly Christian than some of the music on Christian radio. Songs from their early albums like “40” and “Gloria,” as well as more recent songs like 2004’s “Yahweh” are as genre-bustingly reverent as Lecrae’s Anomaly.

It wouldn’t be true to call U2 a “Christian band,” but Bono, Edge, and bassist Adam Clayton all adhere to some sort of Christian faith. I’m not the one to tell you whether they take their faith very seriously; certainly their lyrics often make them out to be “bad Christians.” But Bono at least is on record as saying that he believes in a risen Christ. In fact, channeling C.S. Lewis, he went as far as to say that Jesus was either the son of God or He was insane.

The religious themes in U2’s music are incontrovertible, although they are frequently combined with romantic and erotic imagery that made me uncomfortable (before I read the Song of Songs in greater depth). U2’s music is, however, less religious now than it was thirty years ago, when Bono, Edge, and Clayton were all members of a charismatic Dublin religious collective called “Shalom.” Edge almost left the band in the early 80s as he struggled with the seeming contradiction between his newfound religious convictions and the world of rock and roll. Their 1981 album October, often regarded as one of their worst, is living proof that wrestling with contradiction isn’t always musically healthy. However, that album yielded “Gloria,” a superb song that takes the text of a Latin prayer and turns it into an incredible, rocking, guitar-driven anthem. I can’t think of many songs (and all the others are also by U2) that are equally spiritual and equally rocking.

In the 1994 book U2 at the End of the World, Edge candidly told the author that he and the other Christians in the band had not overcome the contradiction, either by becoming “Christian musicians” or by giving themselves over to their rock and roll demons, but rather embraced the contradictions and tried to bridge the gap between being Christian men and being rock gods. Some Christians would say they were hardly the former, and some critics would say that they are hardly the latter, but U2 has gone a long way toward proving both contentions by making chart-topping rock music while becoming world-famous for their charity efforts.

During the lengthy recording sessions for their new album, U2 tried to record an acoustic version of each song, as a safeguard against creating songs that were too big, processed, or distant. It shows: Songs of Innocence is an intimate and personal album. The acoustic versions, which are included on the deluxe version of the album available on Spotify, sometimes exceed the fully orchestrated versions. I think this is the case for album standout “Every Breaking Wave,” and I know it’s the case for album weak point “California.”

A few listens in, I thought Songs of Innocence was a disappointment. But now, after many more listens, I think it may be the best album U2 has produced since 1991’s Achtung Baby (that isn’t saying a whole lot). Songs like “Iris (Hold Me Close),” which is about the death of Bono’s mother, and “Song for Someone” are classic U2. Beautiful, ethereal guitar, combined with Bono’s voice, which has often been described as angelic. It’s a winning combination here, just as it has been for thirty-five years.

However, like a few other U2 records, there isn’t much to latch on to lyrically.  It seems like Bono is trying at times to express something spiritual, but doesn’t quite reach coherence. A recent article in the New Yorker by Joshua Rothman explored this:

Most people think of U2 as a wildly popular rock band. Actually, they’re a wildly popular, semi-secretly Christian rock band. In some ways, this seems obvious: a song on one recent album was called “Yahweh,” and where else would the streets have no name? But even critics and fans who say that they know about U2’s Christianity often underestimate how important it is to the band’s music, and to the U2 phenomenon. The result has been a divide that’s unusual in pop culture. While secular listeners tend to think of U2’s religiosity as preachy window dressing, religious listeners see faith as central to the band’s identity. To some people, Bono’s lyrics are treacly platitudes, verging on nonsense; to others, they’re thoughtful, searching, and profound meditations on faith.

It’s true, “Iris” is a beautiful song and a profound meditation, but it’s not quite a coherent whole, like many Bono-penned songs. Lyrically, this provides a clear contrast with Lecrae. Bono and Edge are a bit shy about their beliefs, and I believe that’s part of the reason they don’t quite make it to the listener on Songs of Innocence. Lecrae, on the other hand, is sometimes coy about his faith, but he never hides it under a bushel. It’s always there, just not in the form you might expect. As a Christian, I might easily wish U2 had Lecrae’s musical courage. But they’re in a radically different place in life, in the world, and in the music industry. Rothman concludes his article by proffering this narrative for U2’s faith journey.

The story of U2 might be this: having begun as a band that was uncertain about the idea of pursuing a life of faith through music, they have resolved that uncertainty. Their thin ecclesiology has become thick. Today, they are their own faith community; they even have a philanthropic arm, which has improved the lives of millions of people. They know they made the right choice, and they seem happy. Possibly, their growing comfort is bad for their art. But how long could they have kept singing the same song of yearning and doubt? “I waited patiently for the Lord,” Bono sings, in the band’s version of Psalm 40. “He inclined and heard my cry.”

It’s not a hard thing, I think, to make music that glorifies God. It just has to be true and beautiful. These two albums fit that description, and that proves God’s truth and beauty are deep and wide.

U2, Songs of Innocence: 7.5/10

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