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!”
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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.