The 2023 Grammys’ Efforts To Include Hip-Hop Look More Like Talk Than Action

Well, I regret to report that the Grammys, despite staging a celebration of 50 years of hip-hop history (supposedly), still can’t seem to get hip-hop right despite all the ways the world makes it easy these days. And we’ll get to that performance in a minute, but first, let me dust off the drum I’ve been banging for the past six years to once again call out the rap establishment for either overlooking or downplaying the contributions and accomplishments of women in hip-hop for, well, the past 50 years.

From the obvious, like omitting Gangsta Boo from the In Memoriam segment to the subtle, like the vague respectability politics displayed by which female stars’ songs didn’t make it into the 10-minute-long tribute, the Recording Academy members’ biases were evident throughout the rap-focused portions of the ceremony.

Now, hip-hop doesn’t need and has never needed the Grammys’ approval or acknowledgment. But the Grammys have been striving for more relevance through engagement with hip-hop and to continue to do so on a purely surface level after all this time despite being called out repeatedly over the past decade isn’t going to get them there.

Make no mistake; that engagement is definitely surface-level. I’m not arguing that the Grammys should be honoring the most underground rappers… We don’t need Griselda menacing the crowd or a full slate of Memphis trap rappers dominating the nominations. But look, when one of the very pioneers of Memphis trap rap passes away a month before the ceremony, it makes very little sense for her name to be omitted from the In Memoriam segment (this isn’t the first time this has happened, either).

But let’s stick a pin in that thought because it’s going to tie into some of my points about the 50 Years of Hip-Hop tribute performance. Judging from that performance, the Grammys have also taken what feels like a reductive outlook on hip-hop in general. Check out the list of songs that supposedly represent 50 years of hip-hop history.

It looks a lot more like something that would have been done in 2003 than in 2023, doesn’t it? How else can you explain that 15 of the 23 songs were from before the year 2000 and only six of those were from between 1990 and 2000? The jump from The Lox to Lil Baby was called jarring on Twitter but even more than that, it belies the Grammys’ commitment to honoring younger, more diverse artists.

Sure, the logistics of pulling together something like that performance are likely Herculean, but do you truly mean to tell me that Soulja Boy was doing something more important than the Grammys on Sunday night? What about Chief Keef? Future was in the room, awaiting his eventual disappointment as the rightful Rap Album Of The Year winner, they couldn’t ask him to do “Turn On The Lights” or “March Madness?” [Update: According to New York Times’ Joe Coscarelli, Lil Wayne and Future were both originally billed to add performances of “A Milli” and “F*ck Up Some Commas,” but pulled out at the last minute. Point stands, that’s two songs out of 25.]

I could expend at least a couple more paragraphs on just the missing 2010s. It appears the Grammys’ current contingent of hip-hop representatives – to be sure, a crowd of Gen-Xers who all remember “Rapper’s Delight” coming on the radio in 1979 but who couldn’t name a recent Young Thug song to save their lives – are more than content to let that decade fall by the wayside while paying lip service to the last year or so of contemporary hits.

I certainly understand the compulsion, I really do. For literal decades, not just one, but two generations who grew up on rap watched those old-school pioneers of the ‘80s get overlooked or ignored – hello, the first untelevised Rap Grammy in 1989 – so it makes sense they’d want to give themselves these flowers now.

But they shouldn’t come at the cost of throwing their successors under the bus. That only starts a cycle that is self-destructive and counterintuitive – although it is also, to be fair, instructive of the way the Grammys works in the first place (see: Bonnie Raitt winning Song of the Year for a song literally no one listened to). And it’s a modus operandi that first and second-generation hip-hop stars have been employing for far too long, dumping on ‘90s and 2000s kids because they don’t like the greater emphasis on melody and trap aesthetics.

It’s also telling that the only women included were the upright-seeming, “wholesome” ones. Salt-N-Pepa may have been sex-forward and unapologetic for their time, but compared to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, they are downright tame. Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott – who are among my personal favorites, and are indisputable legends – are also the most often pitted against contemporary faves like Nicki Minaj as the role models for girls to look up to.

Even Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, largely credited as the godmothers of modern “pussy rap” – the subgenre of hip-hop that women are mostly allowed to dominate – were absent from the celebration, giving the impression that the history of hip-hop is being sanitized as the disruptors of yesteryear age into the conservative parental figures youth movements are designed to rebel against.

Rap music is the most popular genre in the world. Hip-hop culture has permeated every corner of the globe. It’s done so largely by the efforts of the members of the Recording Academy who helped push rap forward. But now that they’ve done so, they seem intent on holding it back.

From predictably awarding Kendrick Lamar Rap Album Of The Year, seemingly for breaking with the conventions of the genre rather than embracing them, to overlooking so many contemporary rap heroes to trying to shrink and demean women in hip-hop, it seems the Recording Academy has had a bad influence on its rap delegation. They seem to be trying to conform rather than shake things up – and that’s not hip-hop.

No institution can ever be perfect or get everything right, but it’s clear that whatever measures the Grammys have supposedly taken to balance things out aren’t working. Perhaps more transparency is needed – I’d love to see how the ranked voting results are actually shaking out, personally – or maybe more expansion and a larger youth contingent are needed to ensure that more options appear on the ballot. One way or another, the Grammys have to do better, or else why even bother with hip-hop honors in the first place?

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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