There’s much that can be said about Kanye West these days, but it’s undeniable that he’s aimed to push the boundaries of musical categorization. That’s why he submitted his and Kid Cudi’s “Freeee (Ghost Town, Pt. 2)” track from their Kids See Ghost collaboration album to the 2019 Grammys in two Rock categories. While it would be easy to chalk up the decision to another zany instance of Kanye being Kanye, the move made a valid statement. Not only is his submission a cue to wildly popular rap artists like him seriously considering their role as the modern rock stars, but it also sets a necessary precedent for the Grammy committee to consider the ever-widening gulf of hip-hop subgenres and create more categories to reflect them.
Ask yourself: If Future, 21 Savage, and the trio of Saba, Noname, and Smino are all nominated for Best Rap Album in 2020, what’s the Grammy committee’s substantive rubric for determining which album deserves an award over the other? How can you pit the melodic, emo-leaning stylings of a Juice Wrld against the experimental linguistics of an artist like Earl Sweatshirt? It’s not fair for hip-hop heads to compare the two, and it certainly doesn’t make sense for them to be in the same Grammy award category anymore.
It’s time for hip-hop to get the same treatment as rock music, with more categories that properly reflect the divergent sounds that hip-hop artists are creating these days. There’s a need for a best Alternative Rap Album category, as well as one for Best Rap/Sung Album. The Grammy committee should also overhaul the existing standards for the Best Rap/Sung Performance category by highlighting singles from genre-bending artists like Post Malone and Young Thug while giving traditional rapper-singer collaborations their own category.
If Rock music can have Best Rock, Best Metal and Best Alternative categories to differentiate Deafheaven from Greta Van Fleet, then rap deserves categories that allow them to differentiate Cardi B from Saba. These categories wouldn’t imply that any one hip-hop subgenre is “better” than another, but the Grammy committee currently has varying rap musical aesthetics lumped into just two categories, which can result in a lot of snubs and a legitimate amount of mystery behind the evaluation process.
Consider just last year, when A Tribe Called Quest believed they were snubbed because their massive comeback album We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your service album didn’t receive a single Grammy nomination. The well-regarded record didn’t have mass appeal to a wide spectrum of music listeners like Migos’ Culture II, but there was massive appeal among the hip-hop heads who believed Tribe’s late-career revival to be one of the best rap albums of the year. Many wanted to see late hip-hop legend Phife Dawg, who died of diabetes complications in 2016, rewarded for his last musical effort.
If there was a Best Alternative Rap Album category, then Tribe’s album could’ve been lumped in with other revered 2017 albums like Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory, Joey Badass’ All-American Badass, Oddisee’s The Iceberg, or Open Mike Eagle’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, among other highly regarded projects. The current Best Rap Album category seemingly looks to acknowledge every popular hip-hop aesthetic with a representative nomination, then arbitrarily chooses one album over the others. Among this year’s nominees for Best Rap Album, what is the basis for evaluating Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy versus Pusha T’s Daytona, or Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap versus Travis Scott’s Astroworld? A Best Alternative Rap Album category offers more opportunity for mainstream appealing artists to have their own bubble, while traditionalists and experimentalists have their own category. It’s much easier to assess projects with similar qualities. If there was a best alternative rap album this year, consider the strong choices to choose from: acclaimed albums like Saba’s Care For Me, J. Cole’s KOD, Kids See Ghosts, Flatbush Zombies’ Vacation In Hell, JPEGMafia’s Veteran, Phonte’s No News Is Good News, Royce Da 5’9’s Book Of Ryan, and Lupe Fiasco’s Drogas Wave all offer more than enough quality to consider for the five nominations.
In 2017, the Grammy committee announced a step in the right direction by changing the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration category to the best Rap/Sung Performance to reflect “the current state and future trajectory of rap by expanding the category…to include recordings by a solo artist who blurs the lines between rapping and singing.” The official explanation of the category, according to Billboard, is “a solo or collaborative performance containing both elements of R&B melodies and Rap.”
It was a progressive decision, but there’s more work to be done. Among this year’s nominees for the Best Rap/Sung category are Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All The Stars,” J. Cole and 6lack’s “Pretty Little Fears,” and Christina Aguilera and Goldlink’s “Like I Do,” three songs that harken to the category’s classic standard of a rapper dropping bars with a singer on the track. These nominations don’t see the vision of the “line-blurring” all the way through.
SZA singing around Kendrick’s bars on “All The Stars” isn’t the same thing as Post Malone’s “Rockstar,” where the Dallas artist’s autotuned crooning is obviously blurring the line between rapping and singing. It would be prudent for the Grammy Committee to make a separate award category for rapper-singer collaborations like “All The Stars” and SZA’s feature on Cardi B’s ”I Do” while strictly confining the Rap/Sung category to solo or collaborative songs where the artists are employing today’s sing-songy flow. Additionally, it’s time to consider an award for Best Rap/Sung Album. With this category, albums from genre-benders like Drake, Post Malone, Kid Cudi, Anderson Paak, Future, Young Thug, Gunna and more can receive their own acknowledgment. Even artists like Rihanna and Beyonce could join that party if they continue on the trajectory of making melodic, genre-bending songs or albums that both have been on.
These might seem like radical changes, but hip-hop is the most-streamed music genre in the world and is at the nucleus of popular culture. It deserves to be evaluated properly. One of the Grammy committee’s main problems is its limited respect and scope for hip-hop, as exemplified by the high-profile snubs of Jay-Z last year and Kendrick Lamar in 2014. Grammys have long been popularly regarded as the pinnacle of musical achievement, but the committee’s inability to consistently get it right when it comes to rap saps their credibility. Unless the system is overhauled, they will continue to lose relevance among teens and young adults who recognize rappers as today’s rockstars. The line of logic will be that if they can’t get the biggest genre right, then why should they be trusted with anything else?
There are countless thriving rap subgenres and scenes that deserve more light than the five nominations for Best Rap Album can give them. And yes, the Grammys are known to predominantly celebrate top-selling “mainstream” albums, and many hip-hop heads completely disregard the Awards ceremony, but that doesn’t absolve the Grammy committee of accountability from improving their process.
It seems platinum and gold selling albums are the only rap albums that get considered for Grammy nominations, but Beck’s Morning Phase, which controversially won Album Of The Year over Beyonce’s Lemonade in 2015, has sold only 470,000 copies as of October 2015. Platinum rap albums aren’t the only ones worth being honored, and having more categories will force the committee to add more hip-hop voices — which is only a good thing,