On the Recording Academy’s Up-and-Down Relationship with Rap
The scent of weed wafting its way down the hall to my room from Andre3000’s neighboring after party cements the night in my mind like it was yesterday.
Andre had reason to celebrate: it was 2004, and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below had just won what is generally considered to be the top prize on “Music’s Biggest Night”—the Grammy Award for album of the year. I remember the night, and that smell of success, like it was yesterday.
But it was hardly yesterday, was it?
It’s the most oft-mentioned, ongoing streak of embarrassment for the Grammys, but it must be repeated annually until it’s broken: it has been fifteen years since that Outkast win, and no rap project since has reached the Grammy summit. Plenty of worthy LP’s have been nominated, but all have come up short, including exceptional releases by Lil Wayne, Drake, Jay-Z and—three times each, Eminem, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. That’s fifteen years, mind you, in which hip-hop has only solidified its place as contemporary culture’s preeminent sound and style. What can you say? Fool me once…but fool me fifteen times?
The 61st Grammy Awards will take place this Sunday in Los Angeles, and once again, hope springs eternal that that long drought will come to an end. There actually may be some reason for optimism. Last June, the Recording Academy expanded the number of nominees in its “big four” general categories—album, record, and song of the year, and best new artist—from five to eight. The move was widely seen as an effort to give women more shine, but the possibility that it might increase rap’s chances in those prestigious top categories was there as well. And sure enough, four of this year’s eight album of the year contenders are hip-hop: Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, Drake’s Scorpion, Black Panther: The Album, by Kendrick Lamar and various artists, and Beerbongs & Bentleys from Post Malone. A good sign, right? Maybe.
Those four nominees could well split what may be a finite number of Grammy votes that will go to any rap record up for album of the year, and the big prize will go to someone else, likely Kacey Musgraves. About this time every year, in the lead-up to the Grammys, I inevitably find myself having a conversation with someone about the album award, and one or both of us will express our hope that some hip-hop record will come out on top. Then reality kicks in, and I have to rain on the parade and add, “Yeah—I don’t think that’s gonna happen.” Only a year ago it was Kendrick’s DAMN, the favorite of virtually everyone I knew, that ended up losing to Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic. Don’t shoot the messenger, but I’ve been down this road before. We all have.
Still, album of the year is just one category. We can’t be all glass-half-empty about the Grammys, because God knows they’ve improved when it comes to hip-hop. I’ve been to maybe a dozen Grammy ceremonies, and covered others from afar, and I was around in the bad old days of the Nineties—more on that later. These days, it’s a complicated relationship, a mix of getting it mostly right and at times, maddeningly wrong. When you drill down into the rap-specific categories, there’s generally more hope and credibility to be found, and this year is no exception, even if they are dominated by superstar names. Kendrick Lamar, as beloved a rapper as the Grammys have at the moment, with twelve Grammy wins to date, is up for eight more this year. The force of commercial hip-hop that is Drake has surprisingly only won three Grammys despite 35 prior nominations, but could pick up as many as seven this year, thanks to Scorpion and its inescapable singles. Travis Scott, whose inspired and simultaneously trippy and nostalgic Astroworld may have been the event album of the year, could win his first Grammys—he’s been nominated three times before—as could Pusha T, J. Cole, Cardi B, Post Malone, 21 Savage and Jay Rock.
A quick look at how the four categories in the Grammy’s “Rap Field” shape up this year:
Best Rap Album You have to figure this will come down to Cardi B vs. Travis Scott. While I think Pusha’s Daytona is the most deserving of the nominees, and although the Academy seems to have, happily, a growing affection for Cardi, in this category, it feels like Astroworld’s year. A posthumous win for Mac Miller’s Swimming would be beautiful, but seems unlikely, and Nipsey Hussle’s will have to save his Victory Lap for another time.
Best Rap Song Only two things seem for sure here: it won’t go to Eminem and Joyner Lucas’ “Lucky You” or “Win” from Jay Rock. Whilch leaves us with three songs that were inescapable in 2018. “Sicko Mode” is the most adventurous, thrilling choice for me, but some might see it as more a feat of production and features than songwriting—remember, this is a writing, not a performing, award. Kendrick is beloved by the Grammys, so “King’s Dead” would not be a surprise to take this one. But it’s likely voters will see Drake’s comparatively cuddly “God’s Plan” as the more well-crafted song.
Best Rap Performance Here’s where “Sicko Mode” gets its shine, and ought to. Like a ride at the old, actual Astroworld (where I spent quite a few summers as a kid) it offers twists and turns and thrills and was ubiquitous from the summer of 2018 through to today. Its only real competition here is Kendrick and friends’ equally impactful “King’s Dead”. Also nominated in the category: Cardi B for “Be Careful”, Drake’s “Nice For What” and “Bubblin’” from Anderson .Paak.
Best Rap/Sung Performance It would be great to see Childish Gambino’s bold throat-grabber “This Is America” take this one, though it’s possible that the early controversy over the song’s similarity to Jase Harley’s “American Pharoah” could hurt its chances. It’s more a likely win here for Kendrick and SZA, with Black Panther’s “All The Stars”—cherished, quality artists, momentous film, likeable song, durable hit—it checks the boxes. But who’s that coming up on the outside? Oh, it’s Post Malone and 21 Savage, with “rockstar”—haters be damned, Posty could score an upset.
The rap categories are stacked with major, respected artists. What you won’t find are many fresh, new generation names. Frankly, that’s also an issue in other genres at the Grammys, who tend to favor the familiar over the independent. But in an era when there is such a flood of young artists in hip-hop getting their due at an ever-earlier age, their being ignored come Grammy time is a problem. You have to wonder how close—or not—artists like Sheck Wes, Lil Skies, Flipp Dinero, or Brockhampton got to a nomination this year. Being included in “Sicko Mode”’s all-star cast is nice for Swae Lee, but where’s the love for Rae Sremmurd’s “Powerglide”, hands down one of the singles of the year? Didn’t Denzel Curry’s boldest stroke to date, TA13OO, merit a serious look? And although the Grammys tend to eschew controversy-prone artists, a strong case can be made for 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj’s summer smash “FEFE” as a Rap/Sung Performance contender, likewise the late XXXTentacion’s “Sad”.
To be fair, some of the strongest hip-hop releases of 2018 didn’t qualify because they came out after the Grammy deadline of September 30th, including the latest from Gucci Mane, Ski Mask, Metro Boomin, Vince Staples, Meek Mill, Blueface, and—especially—Earl Sweatshirt, with the much-praised Some Rap Songs. Whether any of them will be remembered when next year’s Grammy nominating gets underway is anybody’s guess. Still, two artists stand out as conspicuously overlooked: Tierra Whack, whose Whack World was universally acclaimed, and Juice WRLD, unquestionably one of the breakout stories of the year. They’re two unique voices who by all rights should be competing for best new artist—which brings us to that perennially problematic category.
Best new artist is historically the most maligned Grammy, and if you’re a rap fan you understand why. To say it has not been kind to hip-hop is like saying Donald Trump might have narcissistic tendencies. Not a single rapper was nominated for best new artist prior to 1990—chew on that for a moment. And in the Nineties, rap’s vaunted “golden age”? The lone best new artist nominations from the genre went to—wait for it—Tone Loc, Arrested Development, Kris Kross, Digable Planets, Lauryn Hill and Diddy (then Puff Daddy). Only Arrested Development and Lauryn Hill won—and Hill is only hip-hop in the broadest sense. The 2000’s? Even worse, if you can believe it, with Sisqo(!) the closest thing to a hip-hop nominee for best new artist the entire decade. Seriously shameful.
Since 2010, hip-hop’s presence in the category has only improved slightly: a win for Chance the Rapper in 2017 (a few years late, some would say); last year’s nice surprise of a nomination for Lil Uzi Vert, who lost to Alessia Cara; and, in what still rings today as one of Grammy’s greatest missteps—Kendrick Lamar losing 2014’s award for best new artist to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who also won in three of the four rap categories that year, topping the likes of Kendrick, Drake, Jay and Kanye. I was in New York and swore I could hear the howling all the way from LA’s Staples Center.
But no such worries about a rap injustice in best new artist this year, because there’s not a single hip-hop artist in the running, even with eight contenders,. Granted, the Grammy definition of a “new artist”—a combination of number of singles and/or albums released plus the incredibly subjective “breaks through into public consciousness and impacts the musical landscape”—always makes for a debatable slate of nominees. H.E.R. is the favorite to win it, and that’s fine. But the Recording Academy really couldn’t find one hip-hop artist worthy of a nomination? Not Tierra, Juice, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, even a posthumous nomination for X? Best new artist makes the album of the year drought look—maybe not so bad.
Still, it is bad, and it looks to continue. Oddsmakers mostly agree that Kacey Musgraves’ genre-crossing Golden Hour will take the album prize on Sunday.
Meanwhile, a hip-hop song has never won song of the year, and this year Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” from A Star Is Born is the heavy favorite. Nor has a rap single or track has ever won record of the year. There’s a chance that could change this year—with Drake, Kendrick and SZA, Childish Gambino, Post with 21 Savage all in the category. It’s not hard to imagine any of them winning, except again for the possibility, as with album of the year, that they split the number of voters inclined to vote for hip-hop at all, and something else takes the prize, say, Zedd, Marin Morris and Grey’s pop earworm “The Middle.”
Which gets to the essence of why hip-hop has fared so badly in those “top four” categories—why albums get nominated, but don’t win; why song of the year and record of the year seldom get hip-hop nominations, and have never won; and why rappers in the running for best new artist are such a rarity. There are clearly some voters who simply won’t vote for hip-hop. The Recording Academy’s roughly 12,000 voting members have long been overwhelmingly older, white and male—due in part to the fact that, although in order to become an academy member you have to show a certain number of current recording credits, once you’re in, you never age out, regardless of your recording activity. In theory, someone who joined the academy in 1965, and is effectively retired could still be voting on the Grammys. According to Grammy rules, members are encouraged, but not required to vote in their “areas of expertise”, but all members are assumed to vote in the top four categories, meaning that voting member from 1965 might be looking at an album of the year ballot asking, “Cardi who?”
In 2018, in response to growing complaints about diversity, especially the lack of women in last year’s show, the Academy formed a Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, and in October invited 900 new members—all either female and/or people of color and/or under 39 years old. We’ll see if that makes a difference when it comes to hip-hop’s chances in the big four—but I’ll believe it when I see it.
This is a relationship that began on a bad foot, way back in 1989: the first ever Grammy for best rap performance wasn’t included in the telecast of the show (the majority of the 84 awards are handed out in a pre-telecast ceremony), a disrespect that prompted a boycott of the show led by the winners of that award, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. The following year, Public Enemy’s iconic “Fight the Power” lost the award to…Young MC’s “Bust A Move.”
The list of gaffes is lengthy. After denying Kanye an album of the year win three times, the Academy didn’t even nominate him for the tour de force My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (though it did win 2012’s best rap album). Jay-Z’s won 21 Grammys, but it wasn’t until last year and 4:44 that he ever even had a nomination for album of the year. And the rap categories? They could certainly stand to youthen up and grab some edge at a time when a new crop of artists is injecting both bar spitting and punk and emo-tinged melodic sounds into the culture.
Maybe some of those young artists coming up would ask, “Who gives a fuck about a Grammy?” and it’s a fair point, at a time when there are ways of defining success never envisioned a generation ago. A golden gramophone given out by an organization that may or may not have a clue about the music you make isn’t necessary to validate your work. But it remains, for many, a box to check off, a goal to achieve, and even now, a dream come true. The Grammy Awards’ relationship with hip-hop remains complicated—improving, but not fast enough for many. So, watch or don’t watch the Grammys on Sunday—but if you do, manage your expectations.
Cover photo by Nicholas Warren