Despite being the biggest night in music and the biggest music genre, the Grammys and hip-hop have had a … tense relationship. For hip-hop, it seems like it just can’t get any respect from the Grammys. The Grammys, meanwhile, need hip-hop’s youth and relevance (not to mention, its sizable audience), but can’t quite seem to stop getting it wrong when it comes to rap, resulting in some controversial wins and awful misses for The Recording Academy.
For one thing, the Grammys keep ignoring rap or downplaying its importance to pop culture. It took ten years to embrace the genre, then declined to air the first-ever rap award, causing a boycott and setting the precedent for the next 30 years. Talk about getting off on the wrong foot. That’s why, when the show whiffs on high-profile awards, as it did in 2014 by giving the Best Rap Album award to Macklemore over Kendrick Lamar’s seminal debut Good Kid, MAAD City, it always seems to sting a little more and build the wall between both institutions a little higher.
The Grammys have to hope that the barrier isn’t surmountable, but with three of rap’s biggest names turning down offers to perform, it’s starting to look like the show is running out of real estate for error. The show’s producer, Ken Ehrlich, thinks he knows the solution: Making sure rap gets some of the higher honors to reverse the perception that the Academy doesn’t know or care about rap.
For now, though, the course is set and Ehrlich has to be praying the voters got it right, if only to stem the tide and give the show time to right the ship. Will 2019 be the year they finally stop digging the hole they started three decades ago? That remains to be seen, but here are some of the ways the Grammys can screw over hip-hop with this year’s show, and how to avoid them.
Wrong Rap Category Winners
Admittedly, it’d be difficult for the Grammys to mess these up. Hypothetically, pretty much any of the nominees for awards such as Best Rap Performance, Best Rap/Sung Performance, Best Rap Song, and Best Rap Album would be legitimate and appreciated (theoretically) by most hip-hop fans. Of course, there are plenty of sexists who’d pull out their hair at the thought of Cardi B having the best rap album in the country, or rap purists who will spill their Mountain Dew if Post Malone wins anything and Eminem doesn’t. But the baseline picks are for the most part solid, meaning no one but the most stalwart backpacker should be too annoyed.
However, we can sort of guess which picks would be the least popular or most controversial. For instance, for Best Rap Performance, anything other than “Sicko Mode,” the most recent and widely-beloved nominee of the five (“Be Careful” by Cardi B, “Nice For What” by Drake, “King’s Dead” by Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock, and “Bubblin’” by Anderson .Paak), would inspire much head-scratching and side-eyeing. No one who’s seen an arena full of people go ballistic for Travis Scott’s Drake-featuring hit would ever think the others live up to that effect. Meanwhile, the most egregious pick in Best Rap/Sung Performance would obviously be Christina Aguilera featuring Goldlink. No disrespect to either artist but I’d bet many readers saw that pairing and thought I was joking and didn’t realize “Like I Do” even happened. Compared to the utterly seismic responses to “This Is America,” “All Of The Stars,” and “Rockstar,” all of which experienced extended shelf life thanks to some creative marketing and unfortunate legal circumstances, it’s hard to argue that “Like I Do” even moved the needle.
Rap Losses In The High Profile Categories
With eight rappers nominated across nine songs (two of whom rapped in Spanish on their offering), Record Of The Year looks like a near-lock for the genre. That’s fool’s gold, of course — the wider fields for Record and Album Of The Year mean rap votes, which are already in shorter supply, will be even more split among more nominees. However, it could still hurt the Grammys’ credibility with rap fans should “Shallow” or “The Joke” take home the golden phonograph. Meanwhile, Album Of The Year, for which rap music has seldom competed and rarely won, contains four nominees of eight (five, if you allow Janelle Monae, whose “Django Jane” from Dirty Computer was an immaculate display of capital-B Bars). Kendrick Lamar and his Black Panther soundtrack are the presumed favorites, but we all remember what happens when Kenny counts his chickens.
And even though Beerbongs & Bentleys could technically be considered a win for hip-hop, many aficionados feel that Post is very much an outsider adopting rapper posturing solely to more records (if he is, it’s working. Beerbongs & Bentleys is still hanging in the top 50 albums on the Billboard 200, damn near a year later). The message a Post Malone win would send isn’t the one the Grammys want to put forth. Cultural appropriation conversations abound within the culture, many with Post at their heart, and confirming the suspicions of rap’s biggest critics would almost certainly tank the Academy’s validity with rap fans until the sun burned out.
The Sneaky Loophole
As my colleague, Uproxx Deputy Music Editor Phil Cosores pointed out on Twitter earlier today, Prior to 2017, all collaborators/producers would win Album Of The Year Grammys, but a new 33% rule requires a collaborator to have worked on at least a third of the album to get the golden gramophone. That means that if Black Panther does win, the only folks to get the award would likely be Kendrick, Top Dawg, Dave Free, Sounwave, and MixedByAli, who are credited as executive and associate producers, with Ali doing engineering duties and Sounwave producing on every track (Kendrick also appears uncredited on every track in some capacity).
The same applies to the competition (not the part about Kendrick appearing on every track, although that would be crazy cool). Although 21 Savage, G-Eazy, Nicki Minaj, Ty Dolla Sign, and YG all appear on Post Malone’s album, they wouldn’t be eligible to affix that prestigious “Grammy Award-winning” prefix to their stage names just yet. The same goes for the various voices Drake employed on Scorpion and Cardi on Invasion Of Privacy — insert your “ghostwriting” jokes here.
The Grammys may not be able to turn around the show’s standing in rap fans’ hearts and minds all at once, but avoiding these gaffes could go a long way to restoring its benefit of the doubt. While other fixes have been suggested, like creating new categories to allow for the influx of diverse talent and styles available in the genre, the one thing that could truly bring rap back to the Grammys is a big win for an album that feels worthwhile. If that means the relatively staid Scorpion gets one, that’s okay. If the Grammys cap Cardi B’s incredible, unlikely rise with an Album Of The Year, it may open several cans of worms, but it will also show that the Academy is willing to embrace youth and gender equality. And if Kendrick takes home the hardware for his work on a corporate sponsored, glorified tie-in (albeit a really good one), it at least acknowledges all the times he was snubbed in the past (in the words of the incarcerated 21 Savage, “A Lot”). The first thing the Grammys needs to do to get out of this hole, though, is put down the shovel.
Some of the artists discussed above are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.