Here are this year’s nominees for the Rap Album of the Year Grammy Award:
Jay-Z –- 4:44
Kendrick Lamar -– DAMN.
Migos -– Culture
Rapsody — Laila’s Wisdom
Tyler, The Creator –- Flower Boy
And here are the nominees for the more prestigious Album Of The Year category
Kendrick Lamar –- DAMN.
Lorde –- Melodrama
Jay-Z –- 4:44
Childish Gambino -– Awaken, My Love!
Bruno Mars –- 24K Magic
Notice something amiss? Despite releasing one of the most commercially lucrative — two million copies sold — and culturally viable projects of 2017, More Life, Drake will be a non-factor at this year’s Grammy ceremony. No, the big man Drizzy wasn’t snubbed by the nominating committee. He simply decided he was tired of playing along with their games, took his ball and went home.
While some may try and paint a portrait of Drake as an artist fueled by sour grapes, choosing to sit out the ceremony rather than potentially lose to two cold war-esque nemeses in Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar, his absence speaks to far larger issues facing “Music’s Biggest Night” in the years to come. Put plainly, in 2018 the Grammys need Drake a whole lot more than Drake needs the Grammys and his decision — along with an increasing number of black superstar performers — to go further than simply not showing up is putting the future of the prestigious television show in a very precarious position.
Though this is his first full boycott, Drake has had a pretty fraught history with the Grammys. Up for several awards last year, he decided to skip the festivities and move forward with a pair of concerts already booked in the U.K. This turned out to be a good move, as Chance The Rapper ended up sweeping all of the major rap categories, and the two awards Drizzy did win were untelevised anyway. As he explained in a lengthy interview with the British DJ Semtex, “I was pitched by the Grammy’s to cancel those two shows and fly and go sit in the audience to lose because they don’t air the other rap awards on TV,” he said. “I would have left 30,000 people hanging to sit there and just be there for their own ratings you know?”
From a financial perspective, that was an easy choice. Go make a ton of money playing a pair of shows, or sit in an audience in Los Angeles and put on your best fake smile while someone else took home all of the awards you were up for. What would you do? But it still doesn’t fully explain why he decided to abstain from even submitting More Life for consideration this year.
To that end it seems, Drake echoed the same concerns expressed by artists like Frank Ocean. He appears to be insulted by the box that the decades-old ceremony has forced him in. From the same interview with Semtex:
“I am referred to as a Black artist, last night at that Awards show, I’m a Black artist. I’m apparently a “rapper” even though “Hotline Bling” is not a rap song. The only category that they can manage to fit me in is a “rap” category, maybe because I’ve rapped in the past, or because I’m Black, I can’t figure out why. Just like I can’t figure out why “One Dance” wasn’t nominated, maybe because they can’t… I mean, well it’s just there’s pop obligations that they have and I fluked out, I fluked out and got one of the biggest songs of the year that is a pop song and I’m proud of that, you know. I love the rap world, I love the rap community, but you’re right I write pop songs for a reason, I wanna be like Michael Jackson, I wanna be like artists that I looked up to, those are pop songs but I never get any credit to that.”
Drake is right! It’s stretching the limits of rap to call “One Dance” a rap song in 2017. It’s equally a stretch to call “Passionfruit,” my own personal pick for the best song of 2017, a rap song. If “One Dance,” which, attained over 1,000,000,000 streams and went No. 1 in over 15 countries can’t earn classification as a pop song, what the hell chance does “Passionfruit” have of breaking into that sector?
“Glow” is another example. That is a pure R&B track featuring no less than Kanye West, and yet what are the odds the nominating committee would’ve been able to think outside the box enough to place it within that context? I’m not saying “Glow” necessarily deserves a nomination or, further, that it should win, but is there a universe you can envision where that song is nominated for Best R&B performance instead of battling it out in the rap category? I can’t.
“It doesn’t feel right to me,” Drake explained. “I feel almost like alienated or you’re tryna purposely alienate me by making me win rap awards, or either just pacify me by handing me something, putting me in that category, cause it’s the only place you can figure out where to put me.”
The further you look back, the easier it becomes to understand why Drake was finally fed up with the Grammys in 2018. Over the last eight years, he’s been nominated an impressive 35 times. He’s won three statues. But the issue runs far deeper than a Susan Lucci-esque record of losing. This year, the Grammys have done a far better job than in the past of nominating black artists for top album and top record prizes. Four of the five nominees for Album Of The Year are black. All five of the nominees for Record of the Year are either Black or Latino, though none of them are women, which is another essay altogether.
Even more aggravating for Drake, of 35 Grammy nominations, only six have come outside of rap-centric categories. He’s lost in all of them. In 2011 he was up for Best New Artist. In 2017, Views lost in the Album Of The Year category. His other four non-rap noms all came as a feature guest on someone else’s project. He’s been nominated in a featured guest role for Album Of The Year on Rihanna’s Loud in 2012, Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D. City in 2014 and for Beyonce’s self-titled album in 2015. The final non-rap nod came from his appearance on Rihanna’s single “Work.” In that same time period, he’s taken home a multitude of non-rap prizes from Billboard, BET, iHeartRadio, the Junos, and more. It’s notable that the MTV VMAs also has a similar track record as the Grammy’s, though it’s yet to be seen how he’ll treat that institution in the year to come.
At a time when black artists like Beyonce, Drake, Kanye West, The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, SZA, and so many more represent such a large majority of the pop music’s upper-crust, there’s a palpable sense that the deck is stacked against them when matched with their white counterparts. The Grammy voting block has consistently chosen to award their top prizes to white pop stars over arguably more celebrated projects by black artists. Just last year, the internet was indignant when Adele blockbuster 25 won over Beyonce’s heady Lemonade. Adele herself used much of her acceptance speech profusely apologizing on behalf of the voters to Beyonce sitting front-row, dead-center.
As Frank Ocean put it in a Tumblr post directed at the organizers of the Grammys specifically. “I’ve actually been tuning into CBS around this time of year for a while to see who gets the top honor and you know what’s really not ‘great TV’ guys? [Taylor Swift’s] 1989 getting album of the year over [Kendrick Lamar’s] To Pimp A Butterfly. Hands down one of the most ‘faulty’ TV moments I’ve seen. Believe the people.”
It’s been a decade since the last time a black artist has won an Album Of The Year Grammy. Herbie Hancock was the latest recipient for his collection of Joni Mitchell covers titled River. It’s been nearly a decade-and-a-half since the last time a contemporary black artist — OutKast — won. What incentive is the Grammys giving people like Frank Ocean or Drake to play along when walking through the doors they already feel like their presence is futile? It’s not like Drake needs the screen-time. What’s 90-seconds on television for 25 million people when you already have almost 40 million followers keyed into your every move on Instagram?
“Remember,” Drake warned last year, “They don’t decide the winners, but they do decide the nominations.” By refusing to throw his hat in the ring, Drake is undercutting the very purpose of the Grammys itself, insofar as it exists, to evaluate and award the best and most impactful musical statements of the year. Though Drake is only one artist, what do the Grammys become if other singers, rappers, producers, and musicians start to follow his lead? What good is the process if voters can’t even properly judge the field? There was a time when Drake cared about “Grammys.” In 2018, that ship sailed.