I recently heard a priest argue on a podcast that hip-hop—both as a culture and a musical art form—inhibits the Good News of Christianity. Of course, many hip-hop fans would probably make the converse case: that focusing on the Gospel inhibits the production of good hip-hop. “Christian hip-hop,” it would seem, is doomed to result in either bad religion or bad art—or both.
The truth (as any hip-hop fan will tell you) is that while some of the worst avatars of the genre—with the most vapid, egotistical songs—get all the radio and film promotion, there is a lot more to hip-hop than meets the ears. Under the radar you will find great art, great verities of the human heart, and even beautiful portraits of the divine heart made human—and sometimes, when the stars align, all three.
This is the case with The Gift, a new Christmas compilation from the Southern hip-hop collective 116. The Reach Records clique is clearly Gospel-minded—their name, 116, is a reference to Romans 1:16 (“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel”)—and yet The Gift sounds like an unearthed 1999 tape of the Dungeon Family and a young Kanye West joyfully reinventing classic Christmas songs together. It’s a unique formula that works—and all by design.
“Hip-hop and Christmas…The only way this could work,” one 116 member explains, “was if you take classic Christmas songs and reimagine them,” privileging “nostalgic, lo-fi, warm textures” over “trendy sonics.” The goal, he goes on to say, was a timeless sound that captured the “mood of joy in the room…a moment of joy, a moment of togetherness.”
The album is saturated, start to finish, with the joy of the Gospel and the exuberance of a holiday gathering with family and friends. Songs like “This Christmas” (reimagining Donny Hathaway’s classic) and “Angels” (reimagining “Angels We Have Heard on High”) bring a needed dose of levity and brightness to a self-serious age.
But it would be all too easy, especially for those not accustomed to hip-hop, to miss the spiritual depth of some of the lyrics. In fact, The Gift is like a bridge connecting the joy of Christmas day to the Epiphany in January. This feast—the traditional conclusion of the Christmas season—celebrates the revelation of God incarnate in Jesus Christ to the whole world.
And this is the source of all the album’s joy. In the opening track “O’ Come,” a gathering song that reinvents “Come All Ye Faithful,” the focus is on the kingship of the Christ child in the manger. “Come let us adore him,” the chorus repeats. “Kneel right down before him.” In “Joy,” a bouncy take on “Joy to the World,” Trip Lee raps: “Why pain gotta chain us? Will the unjust ever have to pay up? / Yeah, joy comes if we wait up, even came in the flesh long ago to obtain us… Now me and my squad just gonna feast on the bliss he brought us / Why wait for tomorrow? Joy came and he called us.” In “Noel,” a gritty spin on “The First Noel,” he raps:
Creation been groaning
Then the sun showed up, good morning
Even those who waited for him
Could’ve looked him in the eyes and wouldn’t know him
I’d like to say that I would, but I can’t bro
Who would’ve known that a baby would reign though?
The one who made the skies, he cried
Still surprised you could swaddle up God
Spotlight, give him center stage
Follow north star down the interstate
Silly sheep, we went astray
But he arrived, not a minute late
Heart conquered too, came to renovate
Came to serve, gave me Word on the dinner plate
Who would’ve known that this babe was the King on the throne?
Here we find not just echoes of Scripture but a reiteration of Chesterton’s classic insight in The Everlasting Man:
A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded.
But my personal favorite is “What a Time,” a slower, more meditative song that draws all these threads together beautifully, placing them against a backdrop of real-world suffering and struggle:
What Child is this?
Whose crown is this?
On the ground I live
Falling on my knees
Giving everything to the King of kings
Oh, what a time
All must align
Greater than wine
Got a lot of stress, and a lot of pain
But we all alive, and we all okay
It’s a holiday, it’s a holiday
Thank God for the holiday
And thank God for this aptly named album!
Hip-hop may forever not be to some people’s liking. It might always seem to them that nothing really good or true or beautiful could ever emerge out of such a cluttered, coarse, improvised shell—that only elegant, lofty sounds can carry the human soul to the heights. But as we celebrate the shock of the incarnate God emerging not from a palace or a fortress but from a crude manger-cave in an outpost of the Roman Empire, perhaps they might take a second listen.