Do you know who Lecrae is? He was once featured on a BET Hip-Hop Awards cypher. He won a Grammy in 2013 for his 2012 set “Gravity.” He’s worked with the President of the United States of America and offered up PSAs promoting the same cause as NBA star Dwayne Wade and no less a name than Jay-Z. He’s appeared on “106 & Park,” performed at South By Southwest, been nominated for Billboard and BET awards, and essentially brought back from the dead the one half of hip-hop heavyweight duo Clipse who’s not named Pusha T.
He’s also arguably the biggest name in Christian hip-hop today.
It’s a complicated (if not somewhat fascinating) subset of the hip-hop culture that’s historically had endless trouble crossing over into the mainstream. Lecrae, for instance, has carved out an exceptionally successful career as a rapper, but unless you seek out the niche in which he dominates, chances are you’d be predisposed to discount him as an artist due to his religious beliefs. Which isn’t necessarily fair. But it’s also more than likely true.
Enter Frederick’s own Stitch Early, who earlier this year released “All Rise,” a set of faith-influenced hip-hop creations that are as spotlessly produced as the latest J. Cole record and as socially conscious as anything The Roots did all year. The only catch for those who are predisposed to ignore anything with a Christian message? Stitch Early, as he explains in “Number7even,” means, “Spiritually Touching Individuals Through Christ’s Hands Early.”
So doubt him all you want, but if you do, you’re robbing yourself of some quality hip-hop that more often than not transcends any religious beliefs one may or may not have. Take single “Free” as an example. Backed by a beat that might be the step-child of producers No I.D. and Just Blaze, Stitch (born Lorenzo Nichols) has a flow that fluctuates nicely with the crescendos that rise with the help of horns. “Look at where they’re going, not where they are/ Because you never know, you might just find a star,” he repeats, and it’s as major-label ready as anything you might hear on Datpiff.com. Plus, dude gets points for finding a way to mix in a flute.
Other spots showcase the MC’s ability to write a top-level hook that will stick with you even when you don’t want it to. “Feel Good,” for instance, draws a picture of persistent positivity that will infiltrate even the most peculiar pessimist’s mind. “I feel good, great, extraordinary, lovely,” he proclaims, parsing each word effectively. Better yet is the way the final two words bleed into one another, essentially announcing Stitch as a thinking-man’s Crafter of Songs. There’s just too much nuance to his presentation to not respect the consideration he so clearly gives to the structure of the chorus.
Ditto for “I Do,” which could be either a declaration of love for God or a backpack-rapper’s wedding reception speech. Despite the lazy nod to OutKast (“Forever/ Forever ever/ Forever ever” should have been banned from all of hip-hop after Kanye West abused it in “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”), its down-tempo pseudo-ominous production works as a great contrast to Stitch’s inevitable shout-outs to love and commitment and anything else that Hallmark has made trillions of dollars from selling.
The only real issue with the set are the obligatory throwaway skits. And because this isn’t, say, Eminem, whose skit-tracks pretty much serve as the antithesis of literally anything you could possibly hear from a Christian rapper, Stitch goes with — what else? — flight attendants. And that’s fine and all — the skits are as old as hip-hop itself — but on a record with 11 tracks, three of them are wasted by 30-second clips of what a flight to heaven might sound like. Another precedes a hidden track at the end of the record.
So that leaves only seven real songs here, and for a talent as promising as Lorenzo Nichols, you’re left sort of hoping to hear more of what he can offer. As “All Rise” stands, you can’t get a sense of how deep he might be able to go with his wordplay or, for lack of a better term, his ideas. Because it’s not as though God is necessarily the star of the show in this instance; rather, he’s just a very strong second lead. Introducing other characters and exploring other stories never hurt anyone, especially in hip-hop.
But a lot of that is forgiven with the guy’s natural ability. If nothing else, this is a record that genuinely feels like it can reach far beyond the parameters of Frederick, Maryland. Whether you believe in God or not, “All Rise” proves that believing in Stitch Early might not be the worst idea in the world. Besides, he said it himself, remember: “Look at where they’re going, not where they are/ Because you never know, you might just find a star.”
Amen to that, sir. Amen to that.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***