Long before Chance The Rapper and Kanye West reflected on their relationship with God in their rhymes—and backed them up with tambourines, organs and their soulful, respective choirs—hip-hop has had quite the melodic bond with the man upstairs, his son and the Holy Spirit.
Using gospel music and influences in hip-hop goes back to the early 1990s when MC Hammer rapped about the power of prayer, and in recent years with concept albums like The Game’s 2012 release Jesus Piece. Today, gospel choirs are replacing Auto-Tune, Kirk Franklin appears on more tracks than most and artists like Rick Ross, Towkio, Nas and J. Cole have all used either powerful preachers or heavy gospel backings in their songs as of late—yes, rapper’s connections to the Father are more than just their “Only God Can Judge Me” tattoos.
Even Snoop Dogg is preparing to drop some holy bars. Last month, the rap veteran spoke to the good folks over at The Pharmacy on Beats 1 Radio and let his fans know its “always been” on his heart to drop a gospel album. “I just never got around to it ’cause I always be doing gangsta business or doing this or doing that. But I just felt like it’s been on my heart too long. I need to do it now.”
Hip-hop is more experimental than it’s ever been, and along with mumble rap, holy music has fittingly made its way to the hip-hop forefront and is seemingly here to stay. Read on as XXL highlights seven times hip-hop stars have incorporated the gospel sound into their bodies of work.
It’s safe to say Kanye West played a substantial part in spreading the religious movement throughout hip-hop culture. Calling it “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it,” The Life of Pablo delivered enough singles for each quarter of 2016, though his collaborative effort “Ultralight Beam” with Chance The Rapper remains a fan favorite for its poetic praise and production. The certified platinum album shows us the holier side of ’Ye we haven’t witnessed since his Grammy Award-winning single “Jesus Walks.”
Back in 1990, MC Hammer came out with a single equally as solid as “U Can’t Touch This.” That year, the rhythmic hip-hop artist moved to a new tune with “Pray,” taking the time out to show how grateful he was for his short, albeit influential music career. Backed by high-spirited dancers, singers and a sample from Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” MC Hammer was one of the earliest on this list to infuse gospel-inspired lyrics and vocals into the hip-hop scene.
Faith Evans leads the hip-hop gospel in Saigon's “Clap,” an inspirational track sampling 1970’s songwriter Lamont Dozier. On the track, the rapper spits about the power of U-N-I-T-Y and how the Big Man will never lead his followers astray in this rap rendition of a preacher's sermon.
Three years ago, producers The Alchemist and Budgie teamed up to create The Good Book, an exclusive, leather-bound collective packaged to look like the sacred text its influenced by. Featuring Action Bronson, Blu and Domo Genesis—who all spit bars on “The G Code”—The Good Book is one filled with 1970’s samples and a plethora of choir-like vocals, bigging up the Man upstairs and proving the Devil is, in fact, “a muthafuckin’ liar.”
Back in 1994, the late Nate Dogg released the video for “One More Day,” a solo track thanking God for giving him another 24 hours, complete with a band of inmates using instruments played during a Baptist church service. Shortly before his untimely passing, Nate Dogg decided to place his focus on gospel music and different choir groups. Raised in church, the hip-hop singer moved away from the genre to form a gospel choir by the name of InNate Praise, who went on to perform several tributes dedicated to the Long Beach, Calif. musician after his death.
This time last year, Chance The Rapper dropped Coloring Book, his highly praised mixtape heavily loaded with gospel instrumentation and influences. Opening up the project with the powerful Chicago Children’s Choir—and Kanye—Chance continually handed over the mic to them on several tracks, once uncommon on a hip-hop platform. During the 2017 Grammy Awards ceremony, the three-time winner delivered a groundbreaking performance of “How Great” and “All We Got” with Kirk Franklin, Tamela Mann and, of course, Chance’s cousin Nicole, proving religion isn’t taboo in hip-hop, and undoubtedly paving a way for more rap artists to do the same.
The conscious rapper and unapologetically proud Christian is known for being in tune with his spiritual side, so it it's not surprising when he takes cues from gospel choirs for his music. On “Kingdom,” we see Common and XXL Freshman Vince Staples rapping to God as vocalists back them on this haunting track about their respective hoods. He puts God in the spotlight again on “Faithful,” questioning how his perception of Him would change if He were Her. The Kanye-produced cut also sees John Legend and Bilal near the end engaging in a soulful back and forth, intentionally meant to sound reminiscent of a church choir.