The crowd at Gospelfest 2013 didn’t initially know what to make of Lecrae, a Christian rapper with a Southern hip-hop sound and delivery. By the end of his set, though, he’d convinced the audience that he was just as resolute in his faith as any of the singers and preachers with whom he shared the stage — and demonstrated to the old nonbelievers that hip-hop could be devotional music, too. Since his success at Gospelfest, Lecrae has been busy converting the rest of America to his celebrity, if not his creed. Anomaly, his strong 2014 album, made its debut atop the Billboard 200, and singles “Say I Won’t,” “Nuthin” and “All I Need Is You” earned him respect among gospel listeners and secular music fans alike. Lecrae is now the most commercially successful Christian hip-hop artist in history, and there’s nobody particularly close.
Anomaly has been advertised as a pivot toward a pop audience, and indeed it is more of a compromise with the mainstream than the rapper’s Church Clothes series of mixtapes. Lecrae rhymes about politics, romance, family history and the legacy of slavery; in “Welcome to America,” he plays the roles, in three eloquent verses, of a returning combat veteran, a child living in poverty and a would-be immigrant. But he also rhymes about the perils of philandering (“Runners”), supplication to God’s will (“Broken”) and the courage that real Christian belief requires (“Outsiders”), and confronts divisions within the community of believers. “The most segregated time of day is Sunday service/Now what you think that say about the God you worship?” he asks in the terrific, provocative “Dirty Water.” If you’re one of the 175,000 people who bought a copy of Anomaly (I am), you’ll want to be at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair on Saturday night to catch Lecrae in action. He’s touring with Andy Mineo, a Christian emcee from upstate New York whose guest verse on “Say I Won’t” is one of the highlights of Anomaly. The success of “Say I Won’t” virtually guarantees that Mineo and Lecrae will be onstage together.
Two well-established Jersey singer-songwriters take to stages in Asbury Park on Friday night.
The Stone Pony hosts Pete Yorn of Montville, who is taking a break from recording his seventh album to do a run of acoustic shows. The Me & You Tour (that’s what he’s calling it) promises to be intimate and direct, and the stripped-down arrangements of his songs ought to give listeners a clear picture of why his popularity has endured. The architecture of Yorn’s roots-rock is sturdy, and he’s always been able to decorate his songs with elements borrowed from blues, folk, Bowie-style glam and Jeff Buckley-like art-pop. More than a decade into his run, Yorn feels like a Garden State version of the Atlantan polymath Butch Walker — a craftsman with encyclopedic knowledge of pop and rock history, but one who does not let his knowledge get in the way of his swagger, or vice versa.
A few blocks to the east, Manalapan’s Val Emmich plugs in at the Saint. Emmich is almost as well known for his acting — he was a star on Ugly Betty — as he is for his music. A recent commercial he did for United Airlines spent months in heavy rotation on MLB.tv; every half inning, there was Val ordering pecan pie and boarding international flights, and I now associate him as closely with the pennant race as I do Madison Bumgarner. But when he’s writing songs, Emmich is no actor. The records he’s made — and this is especially true for his recent sets — are bloodlettings. Bulldozzzer, released in 2012, is a long insomniac’s stare at the ceiling, and an existential howl set to acoustic guitar. Aide Memoire, the sonic hurricane he blew together in 2011, is a collection of 10 full-band guitar workouts, including several that push well past the five-minute mark. At the Saint, Emmich will be joined by the Veeries, his rock group, which means he’ll be bringing the thunder — and, most likely, applying it to some new songs.
One of the most underrated singers and songwriters in contemporary country makes a stop at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville on Friday night. David Nail makes pure, conservative Nashville-machine music: Not an ounce of backwoods grit is apparent in any of his recordings. Nail never demands attention — the music he makes is modest and humble, and it’s all designed to go down smoothly. Nevertheless, each of his albums contains songs that stick: “Let It Rain,” a Nail composition, is a gorgeous soft-rock repentance story, and “When They’re Gone (Lyle County),” a collaboration with Little Big Town, is quietly searing. Echoes of ’70s pop-country singers like Eddie Rabbitt and Ronnie Milsap are audible in his vocal performances, too. He’s an easy artist to respect and appreciate, even if his name never gets called at those country award shows.