Lecrae Devaughn Moore — better known simply as Lecrae — has always valued his independence. The Atlanta-based hip-hop recording artist and producer — who says “I am a hip-hop artist who happens to be Christian, believes in God, and follows the teachings of Jesus,” although he prefers not to be called a “Christian rapper”” — co-founded his independent record label, Reach Records, when he began dropping solo albums with 2004’s “Real Talk.” He maintained that autonomy up through 2014, when he entered a joint venture with Columbia through Reach and released “All Things Work Together,” which yielded his first platinum single “I’ll Find You.” He was still affiliated with Columbia in March, when his new single, “Set Me Free,” was released right as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold. After a month and a half’s worth of silence and quarantine, Lecrae returns this week with news of a forthcoming album, “Restoration” — with guests such as John Legend and Kirk Franklin — and a return to real independence with it. The new album, due to be released sometime this summer, will be released solely on his Reach label, which also reissued the “Set Me Free” single independently this month, following the break with Columbia.
Variety caught up with Lecrae after Memorial Day to discuss his own personal independence day, as well as the responsibility of having an independent label at times of crisis and joy.
VARIETY: How has the quarantine been for you? It looks as if it’s been a busy one.
LECRAE: The initial phase was anxiety, bewilderment and discombobulation. Then it moved into embracing whatever new normal there was, finding a new rhythm. Now, we found a rhythm. It’s been challenging and yet refreshing. Plus, I’ve cooked more than I have, ever, during my lifetime.
You are a Christian man. During this time, some spiritually minded artists have claimed that COVID-19 was God’s way of saying we need to realign the planet. What’s your take?
I totally believe that when things are out of control, God is in control. All things work together for our good, if we know Him and trust Him. Obviously, I think there is something going on behind the scenes that is ultimately for our good. What that is, I can’t say. Is it possible that God is saying that we better take better care of the earth? Sure. But whether the coronavirus happened or not, we should be taking better care of the earth.
Talk about the health of your business. At the end of March, Columbia was sending out press releases about your new single. Here we are two months later, discussing your return, in full, to your Reach label. What happened during those eight weeks?
When you’re an independent artist, there’s a fluidity that you have, a nimbleness that allows you to react and respond quickly in the midst of chaotic circumstances. When you’re responsible for hundreds of artists, like Columbia, you cannot pivot quickly — especially during a crisis. There were pivots that needed to be made, responses that I wanted to execute toward things in society — like the homeless community and the prison community — and things I wanted to be involved in. Historically, my music has been an expression of that.
As a musical first responder.
I’m connected to issues of substance in society. When you find yourself in a position where you are chained due to the vision of a major label and you can’t move with nimbleness, you realize that you’ve got to do something different. I had a No. 1 album independently, so it wasn’t as if I didn’t believe in myself and my crew. I had nine other artists on the label and didn’t want to take away from their ability to produce. Since this new record (“Restoration”) was pretty much done, I didn’t see that there was much heavy lifting that my label couldn’t do on its own. We would be better suited (than Columbia) to move at the speed we need to move.
I want to release music when I want. People need this. When you’re part of a major, there are decisions such as having to release another artist’s single on the same day. Or you can’t talk to the label president because they are dealing with another artist’s situation. If I’m being 100% candid, when you have that many artists, there are simply other priorities that are not you. When you are an independent, you are your own priority. You don’t have to wait in line to make them see the value of who you are as an artist… Also I don’t have to wait to approved to do a feature or be a guest on somebody else’s record, where (with a major), by the time I get all the department heads to say yes, the moment is gone. Now I can do whatever I want.
With Reach, you’re a label head. What happens when one of your artists wants to release a record on the same day as yours?
We are more nimble. There is less overhead. Plus, I’m an artist myself. I understand the pressure and the desire. We have an artist, Gawvi, who wanted to put out music during the pandemic. Initially, that wasn’t our plan, but he wanted it out. So, absolutely: You’re our priority. You matter to us. We can figure out an alternative plan. Often in the majors, they don’t figure things out so fast, and if it doesn’t work, oh well, they move on to the next. That’s unfortunate. Sometimes, it takes a single months on TikTok to go anywhere.
Your label drops sacred and secular product. Does the audience react quickly to your releases?
There is an expectation of hope and sobriety in our music. People want to consume that in times of desperation and joy.
Why, since you were doing well without a major before 2014, did you reach out to Columbia in the first place? Was it ever a good relationship?
Yeah, it was. We decided around 2014, because we had a No. 1 album, what would it look like to broaden our reach — no pun intended? In order to do that, we had to talk to those who had connections and networks we didn’t have. Plus, before Columbia, we never approached radio, We never wanted to get tangled up in what that looked like, so we hooked up. It was a good relationship, and there’s no bad blood. We just realized that this is not for us. If you’re an independent artist who knows what you want and have the means to get there, I highly recommend staying there.
Last week you jumped on Instagram and answered people who asked where “Restoration” was, as it was supposed to drop last Friday. You said, “Blame God.” Do you believe that God had a say-so in you answering the call to independence?
Yes. If I’m being honest, God was directly and indirectly involved in this new direction. In one aspect, I had nothing to do with COVID-19 hitting, now, and having to go through the process. What’s going on with the weather, and society, is a God thing. Also, I thank God that I was able to walk away from Columbia so cleanly with the new album. That’s rare.
You mentioned having guests and features, like John Legend. He came up in the church, but not everybody knows where his faith is. You don’t just jump at a name in order to sell records. How do you choose collaborators?
It comes down to common ground. And can we stand on that. Hey I don’t stand on the same ground as most Christians. But if we have some common ground I can respect and stand on that. As far as John is concerned, he did come up in the church, so that his journey — his faith walk — is his story to tell. But what I know and made public is his desire to see change in society, that things can be restored, that we can be better tomorrow, more so than we are today. On that we have solidarity.
Unlike many Christian-based artists, you didn’t come from the church. You didn’t even come from God, as you started off as atheist, then an agnostic. How did you get to this place?
Historically, I looked up to artists with authenticity — those who were authentically themselves, and not just making songs that were distant from who they were as people. I probably never would have been the type of artist to discuss jewels and miscellaneous things. I wanted to communicate something. And I wanted to believe in what I communicated. As far as my faith went, it was rooted in evidence. Where was the evidence? What changed my vantage point was that I did have worth and purpose. I wanted to live as a person who had that worth. I wanted to live my dreams. And if you’re just a cosmic accident, just a result of smattered articles, I don’t think you get to have and live out those dreams or desires, because nothing matters. I had to wrestle with that. If I have value it had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere was a deity. I just had to figure who that deity was. I landed at Christianity because every other route I took, it was about me becoming a better person in order for God to accept me, where with Christianity, I was not good enough, but asked Jesus to accept me as I am. Now, I make music out of that vulnerability.
For the new album, how has your faith evolved in tandem with your aesthetics? What is the relationship between you, God and the audience?
I cannot make a person know that God loves them. They have to experience that. I’m not concerned with forcing anyone to believe in anything, save for love, respect and restoration. If you’re not a Christian, restoration is still possible. There is a physical level and a spiritual level of restoration. If you choose the spiritual, the deeper level, God bless you. If not, if all you get from this album is that you can overcome, then great. My maturity and my evolution is not about force-feeding people the word, rather that you just got fed.