"Hip-hop is an expression of what is dearest to you," says Christian rapper KB. "It's coming from who I love. And who I love is Jesus."
The religious artist's passion was rewarded earlier this month when his most recent EP, "100," became a minor crossover success -- in part because of a special promotion that involved free devotions for fans through the YouVersion Bible app. 100 went on to hit No. 1 on Billboard's Christian Albums chart, No. 4 on Rap Albums and No. 22 on the Billboard 200, selling more than 14,000 the first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The release, about living life with love, is the latest hit for Atlanta-based Reach Records, founded in 2004 by Christian rap star Lecrae. The label is making inroads into the mainstream, much like its owner, who last year performed at Los Angeles' Rock the Bells concert with Kendrick Lamar and Wu-Tang Clan. In addition to working with Christian hip-hop artists who are appearing on secular charts, Reach has created a more receptive environment for the genre, which a decade ago struggled to be taken seriously.
"We live under the banner of Romans 1:16, which says: 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,' " says Bradley Tomlinson, Reach director of marketing. "We have a fan base. They support us. People are looking for something new and outside of the typical messaging."
This year, Reach artists KB and Andy Mineo have placed titles on the Rap Albums chart, with Mineo's "Never Land" EP bowing at No. 2 in February. Last year, three of the 12 debuts by Christian hip-hop artists on the list were Reach albums, including Mineo's "Heroes for Sale," which peaked at No. 4. And in 2012, nine Christian rappers placed titles on that chart. Three of them were Reach artists, including Trip Lee, whose "The Good Life" peaked at No. 3, and Lecrae, whose "Gravity" hit No. 1.
For the religious music market, the success of Christian rap is a welcome bright spot. Last year, sales of Christian/gospel music dropped 15 percent, to 19.5 million units, according to SoundScan. The category is down 31 percent from 2009, when 28.3 million were sold. To compare, the overall album market was down 8.4 percent in 2013 and down 24 percent since 2009.
"We've seen explosive growth in Christian rap in the past decade," says Greg Davidson, CFO of Central South Distribution, a Nashville-based distributor that is ending a nine-year deal with Reach but still represents other Christian artists. "The lines are starting to blur between what is Christian rap and rap in general. A lot of the artists don't want to be identified as Christian rappers, but rather as rappers with a positive message."
While mainstream rap is sometimes criticized for glorifying materialism and misogyny, Christian rap tends to emphasize community and upbeat values, says Flame, whose album "Royal Flush" debuted at No. 11 on Rap Albums last fall.
For corporations looking to connect with the rap audience, those kinds of rhymes are less likely to conflict with a business agenda, notes Atlanta-based Christian hip-hopper Shonlock. The singer's sophomore album, "A Night to Remember," was released March 18; now its signature track, "I Like to Win," will get airtime during NCAA March Madness, thanks to a licensing deal with ESPN.
"You can only take so much death and destruction in music before you want something that will make you feel good and encourage you," says Shonlock, who got his start as a choreographer working with R. Kelly and Aaliyah, and who toured for 11 years with Christian rap/rocker TobyMac before going solo.
"There is absolutely a new energy behind [Christian rap] and a new acceptance for it," says KJ-52, a Christian rapper who has been around the business for 20 years. "The hip-hop generation has gotten older, so it's not something that's looked at just for the youth. The parents are buying it and that's the difference now. Families come to these shows where people used to drop off their kids."