As the bass coming from the speakers rattles the nearby windows, Lecrae Moore bobs his head instinctively, the power of his own beats providing the subconscious reaction.
It’s a couple of weeks before “Gravity” is set to drop, and Lecrae – no capital C, no last name used professionally – is as proud as he was on the days of the births of his children as he debuts his new record at a small listening party in the New Era store in downtown Atlanta.
“Gravity” is Lecrae’s sixth album, not including his first mixtape, “Church Clothes,” released in May. But this one feels different. Bigger. Ready to explode and make the striking rapper wearing impeccable white sneakers and sipping a Red Bull into a star.
The album arrived on Tuesday and is expected to make a notable showing next week on the Billboard charts.
Lecrae, who turns 33 next month and has lived in Atlanta for four years, is already known in Christian rap circles, but “Gravity” should propel him into a wider realm. He’s won Dove Awards and been nominated for a Grammy (in 2010, for “Rehab,” in the all-inclusive category of best rock or rap gospel album).
He’s the co-founder of Reach Records, which includes five other artists alongside him who spread their faith through their music. But while there is no mandate to make “preachy” music, Lecrae assures that “we want to make music that isn’t going to go against Christian views.”
His story is similar to many in the hip-hop industry, yet completely different.
He wasn’t always a Christian, nor did he regularly practice typical Christian values. He grew up a latch-key kid in Houston, raised by a single mother, surrounded by peers who robbed liquor stores and sold drugs, which he admits to doing a handful of times himself as a teen.
But comparatively, he was the good kid –or so he thought.
“In my mind, I thought I was fine. We had a roof over our head. I ate dinner every night. But you get older and you realize some of the dysfunction,” said the soft-spoken Lecrae last week, sprawled casually in a chair in a studio at the Reach Records office near Grant Park, red baseball cap turned backward on his head, tattooed biceps poking through his tank top.
Growing up, he listened to Nas and Tupac, gravitating toward their authenticity and appreciating that they rapped about more than clothes and jewelry. He started writing his own rhymes that pinpointed the favorite topics of a young man: “Me, money, me, girls, me,” he said with a sheepish grin.
About a decade ago, he returned to Texas after some time at Middle Tennessee State University and graduated from University of North Texas, where he studied sociology and electronic media. A cousin and some friends lived in Atlanta and suggested he venture east to attend a spiritual conference with them.
He agreed because they told him girls would be in attendance. Then he arrived – and it wasn’t the girls who blew his mind.
A message from speaker James White was potent enough to make Lecrae feel the allure of Christianity. But then he noticed the people around him.
“They rapped. They sang. They looked like me, dressed like me. I thought, ‘You guys can’t be Christian because you look like me.’ But then it flipped to, ‘Well, maybe I can be Christian because you guys are.’”
But Lecrae’s faith transformation didn’t directly correlate to “rapping about Jesus.” Instead, his newfound purpose prodded him to write and rap about his own transitions.
He also met his wife-to-be, Darragh, at the conference, but the pair wouldn’t marry until years later. Now six years into their union, they are parents of two boys and a girl, ages 1, 3, and 4.
Darragh handles the administrative logistics for Lecrae’s tours – he heads out on the six-week “Unashamed” jaunt next month that comes to The Tabernacle Oct. 19 – and their partnership isn’t exempt from Lecrae’s candid lyrics.
On “Gravity,” he dedicates the song “Buttons” to Darragh, rapping over a military-style drumbeat, “For better or for worse/Sometimes I make you sick, and you get on my nerves/Make it work/I ain’t goin’ nowhere, and I give you my word/I will be right here.”
The rest of the 15-track album features cameos from all of the Reach roster, as well as Southern rapper/producer Big K.R.I.T. and Ashton Jones, an “American Idol” also-ran from 2011, who both perform on the track “Mayday”; it’s a massive song filled with crashing cymbals and thundering drums that Lecrae said at the listening party is about “those days when we’re just throwing up a prayer.”
But the standout track on an album filled with meaningful, robust songs that are richly produced and expertly delivered, is “Violence,” which Lecrae described as, “a call to resolve things in a peaceful manner.” It’s his most musically ambitious track, with a slamming Reggaeton beat layered under slicing lyrics and a haunting refrain of, “war, pain, violence should stop.”
The songs fit Lecrae’s goal of spotlighting issues not to glorify them, but to provoke thought and discussion.
“I think there’s an outlook that people want to escape reality – hip-hop being one of the culprits because it’s just escape music,” he said. “But it doesn’t deal with real issues that people deal with on a regular basis, so I want to be a voice in there. Let’s deal with some reality. Let’s deal with who we are.”
Lecrae and his wife celebrate their faith at Renovation Church near Grant Park, and Lecrae actively participates in outside projects working with troubled kids.
Though he keeps his burgeoning celebrity low-key around his younger fans, he also hopes “Gravity” introduces him to a wider audience that sees him not only as “authentically Christian,” but “authentically hip-hop.”
“I really am a hopeful, inspired individual who really believes that kids from the projects can go to college and I can do something about it,” he said, and then shrugged with a smile. “I guess I’m a glass half-full kind of person.”
Lecrae will perform with Trip Lee and Tdot at 7 p.m., Oct. 19. $22. General admission, all ages. The Tabernacle, 152 Luckie Street, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.livenation.com.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene