Due to the often self-celebratory and micro-managed nature of award ceremonies, The Grammys regularly fall short of their audience’s expectations. Though the show should be a night where music’s best and brightest are commended for propelling culture forward, the reality is often a sterile affair, which is surely part of what’s led to a consistent plummet in ratings over the past few years. Save for occasional stage invasions or a timely political statement, the status quo is not just regularly adhered to, it’s consciously reinforced by the nominees and winners alike.
Even so, The Grammys’ position as the most esteemed prize in music means that it retains a seldom-enlisted capacity to ruffle the industry feathers, and even denote shifts in pop culture. For instance, at the 2004 ceremony, the unmistakable chimes of revolution seemed to resound off the walls of the Staples Center as Outkast made their way onstage to the sound of “Hey Ya” to collect their Album Of The Year prize. In their victory, there was a sense that pop music’s brashest step-sibling had finally been demarginalized and hip-hop was crowned king. There was no false modesty from Big Boi when he remarked “I can’t believe it,” and that same surprise was expressed in looks of exhilaration and heartfelt embraces shared by everyone who had helped make Speakerboxx/The Love Below into a genre-altering hip-hop project, Although they could’ve accepted this token of acceptance from the industry at face value, it’s telling that the ever-enigmatic Andre 3000 used his speech to eschew the misconception that Stankonia was their first album, imploring those in attendance and the millions watching at home to “do the history!”
— 935 KDAY (@935KDAY) February 11, 2018
Even at the predisposed highest height that an artist can reach, the ATLiens still seemed defensive, fighting for level pegging alongside rock and pop acts. Fifteen years on from this historic victory, hip-hop doesn’t just command the same reverence as those other genres, but has all but usurped them by becoming the most popular genre in the USA. Now responsible for twenty-five percent of all streaming, the assumption that this exponential growth would have led to many innovative hip-hop artists following in Outkast’s footsteps to that top prize would’ve been an easy one to make. Instead, the modern generation still finds itself rallying against a historical deficit that has prevented adequate representation for rap when it comes to the Grammys and the prestige they bestow.
Ever since The Fresh Prince & Jazzy Jeff chose to boycott the ceremony after learning that their historic win of the first-ever Grammy for Best Rap Performance wouldn’t be televised, the relationship between hip-hop and “music’s biggest night” has been tumultuous at best. With four dedicated categories as of 2004, when Best Rap Song was instated, much of the necessary framework is in place to give rap’s finest artists their due, but the nominations and eventual victors rarely strike to the heart of the culture.
The Grammys’ blind spot when it comes to hip-hop has been a prevailing blemish on the institution, one that’s left countless paradigm-shifting projects and rappers out in the cold. The most infamous example of their impaired judgment came in 2014 when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist fended off Kendrick Lamar’s modern classic GOOD Kid M.A.A.D City. Made all the more newsworthy by Macklemore texting K-Dot to apologize for his unjust victory, what was initially viewed as a cringe-inducing attempt to save face was perhaps an attempt to publicly address a systemic issue that’s plagued the genre for decades.
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My text to Kendrick after the show. He deserved best rap album… I'm honored and completely blown away to win anything much less 4 Grammys. But in that category, he should have won IMO. And that's taking nothing away from The Heist. Just giving GKMC it's proper respect.. With that being said, thank you to the fans. You're the reason we were on that stage tonight. And to play Same Love on that platform was a career highlight. The greatest honor of all. That's what this is about. Progress and art. Thank you. #grammys
In recent years, commercial hip-hop’s sonic palette has reached its most experimental point since the days when the jazz rap of A Tribe Called Quest and the Native Tongues collective ruled the roost. Sure, there’s always been outliers and boundary-pushing acts on the fringes but now there is a real sense that producers and rappers can break from convention without sacrificing mainstream success. Much like their modern-day counterparts, even artists as canonized by hip-hop as ATCQ can still find themselves left out in the cold when award season rolls around.
Rather than being centralized around one particular sound, this sense of freedom has allowed for some truly daring work to splinter off in different directions and still earn recognition at the highest level. If this climate of innovation was comparable to anything else in history, it would be the late ‘60s heyday of prog rock when artists such as Pink Floyd, Cream, Yes and King Crimson were lauded for injecting nuance into the allegedly “lower” art-form of rock without having to compromise on its financial or critical acclaim. Over the last few years, hip-hop has proved itself capable of infiltrating specialized year-end lists as well as those from outlets that cover popular music as a whole but recognition of its most fiercely creative acts has yet to be adopted by the most distinguished voting panels in the industry.
Overall, the 2019 Grammys fall notably short of the mark. Save for Pusha T’s Daytona, Travis Scott’s dual nominations and Mac Miller’s posthumous nod for the bittersweet swansong of Swimming, there is little to represent the audacious and awe-inspiring period that we’ve found ourselves in. After instating a “rap committee” aimed at helping independent artists in 2016, it was reasonable to expect that the committee had begun to grasp what makes a hip-hop album not just commercially but culturally important. Yet, in the wake of this year’s nominations, Head Of Awards’ Bill Freimuth’s conciliatory remarks demonstrated an acute awareness that they are still lagging behind: “We’ve really done a lot of proactive outreach to the hip-hop community over the last several years, really.”
Considering the fact that not a single rapper has been nominated for Best New Artist, it’s no surprise that Freimuth feels the need to reiterate that they are trying to make change. In terms of artists that are popular but have not yet reached superstardom, there are many rappers that could feel rightfully aggrieved by their omission from all categories. For instance, the liberating agent of change that is Noname with her personal and socio-political tour-de-force Room 25 or the multi-faceted artistry of her Goat Trio running mates Smino and Saba that are each subversive and essential in their own ways. Fans of Denzel Curry, Flatbush Zombies and JID were bestowing album of the year honors on them at every opportunity, and the revolutionary sounds of groups like Brockhampton, that galvanized disenfranchised youths, certainly deserved acknowledgment. These rappers exhibit exemplary unions of exquisite wordplay and conceptual grounding that epitomize the influence of what a best new artist should achieve.
And it wasn’t just underground or emerging artists who the Grammys overlooked this year — the same fate befell just as many well-established acts who refused to play it safe. Alongside releases from Earl Sweatshirt, Anderson Paak and Vince Staples — that all bristled with musical and lyrical ingenuity — a notable exclusion that spawned no end of bewilderment from fans was J. Cole’s KOD. In fact, with a grand total of seven nominations to his name, the Dreamville mastermind has yet to capture a single trophy from The Recording Academy during his career despite being recognized by many as a shoo-in for this generation’s hip-hop Mount Rushmore.
However, The Grammys’ tendency to reward pedestrianism over pioneering work means that Cole and every artist that was cast aside this year find themselves in illustrious company. Renowned as one of the most fiercely creative groups of all time, the aforementioned A Tribe Called Quest received four nominations over the course of their career but never brought a single Grammy back to Queens. After their final album We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service was omitted from contention in 2018, the placating stance the awards show has historically held toward hip-hop reared its head when Awards’ Emeritus Jimmy Jam suggested their 2017 performance was enough recognition in itself. In response, ATCQ’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad perfectly encapsulated the shortcomings of this participation medal mindset: “To say that the group performed and that should be your consolation prize, I think is very disrespectful to the art that you put forth.”
In addition to Tribe’s contentious dealings with The Grammys, legendary innovators that have never had their name read out from a shiny envelope include The Notorious B.I.G, Nas, Tupac, Busta Rhymes, DMX, RUN DMC, Public Enemy, Rakim, Mos Def, Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg — who is tied with Brian McKnight for the most nominations without a solitary win at sixteen. What this laundry list of icons illustrates is that as a disruptive, challenging and pioneering art-form, creativity will always bubble to the surface in hip-hop with or without Recording Academy approval.
And as the 61st Grammy Awards fast approaches, it’s clear that the disconnect between the genre’s innovative direction and those who cast the deciding votes is as real as ever. To avoid making themselves seem as out of touch as they did when My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was snubbed in 2011, there is only one logical winner of The Best Rap Album category that can be considered credible. As if its absence from Album Of The Year isn’t disgraceful enough, overlooking the vivid sonic tapestry of Travis’ Scott’s Astroworld would be to show no understanding of the unabridged onus on innovation that’s propelling both Scott and hip-hop itself forward.
Chosen as Uproxx’s favorite record of 2018, the sprawling fever dream that brought us “Sicko Mode,” “Houstonfornication,” and “Skeletons” is a sterling example of the pioneering direction hip-hop is headed in. Every bit as groundbreaking and prevalent as Speakerboxx/The Love Below was to the generation before , A win for La Flame would help to salvage any sense that the Grammys can boast more than a rudimentary awareness of the most popular genre in the world today. Otherwise, the contrast between hip-hop’s progression and the uninformed regression of those in charge of “music’s biggest night” will be more indefensible than ever.