It has been two weeks since the 2021 edition of The Grammys aired, and the awards show seemed to leave a stale taste in the mouths of hip hop/rap fans. History has shown that the genre has hardly ever been treated correctly by the Recording Academy, lacking any nuance or respect for what an ever-growing and highly influential art form is. Sadly, this year did not seem to change that tradition whatsoever.
Amongst the numerous winners, there were some pleasant surprises. For instance, Megan Thee Stallion secured Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance. The victories from Meg were invigorating as a fresh new face, a woman in rap, that has quickly dominated not only the attention of everyone’s ears but their eyes too (I’m definitely referring to her part in WAP by Cardi B). Factoring in her chart-topping song Savage, which dominated Tik Tok, and her collaboration with Cardi, it is safe to say that Meg was one of the most talked about artists all year long, helping propel the genre forward.
But what the Recording Academy displayed at this year’s Grammys was, again, an ineptitude handling rap music’s recognition and appreciation. A truly beautiful, diverse, and ever-evolving music form, the academy’s approach to appreciating albums every year is horrifically skewed toward work that follows a strict minutia. Meg deserved her awards with her tough cadence and smooth flow that made Savage not only a rap hit but a pop culture phenomenon. But even with that following and a solid studio album, she wasn’t nominated for the top category of Best Rap Album.
So the question is what else did hip hop/rap garner from what is music’s most coveted awards? The question raised is most vivid when looking at The Grammy for 2021’s Best Rap Album.
On March 14th, Nas, the living legend from Crown Heights, took home the figurative crown for top album. The win marked the very first time that Nas has earned a Grammy. While no disrespect is meant toward this living legend of rap who did produce a decent, nostalgia-filled album in King’s Disease, Nas’ work is arguably the lesser project behind his fellow nominees. Somehow, Nas, whose album harkened back to his Illmatic classic but lacked the same punching power, was FINALLY heard by the Grammys amongst a crew of nominees that span a host of hardcore topics and styles that blanket the genre’s quality. It is subject matter and style that is commonly ignored or devalued.
This goes back to a history of hip hop/rap only being marginally recognized by the industry’s one percent. From the boycotts of Will Smith “The Fresh Prince” and DJ Jazzy Jeff next to DEF Jam Records, to recent protests from The Weeknd and Drake withholding their music for submission to be nominated, the Grammys are a frequent lightning rod for displeasure from the rap community, as it should be. Might I remind the world of the deplorable love the academy showed Macklemore and Ryan Lewis back in 2014 for The Heist? There’s no denying the fact that their music hit the airwaves and caught the world’s attention. However, the pale duo earned the Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Album awards over competition that included Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Kanye West. Insanely, they swept three out of four rap categories in a year that featured quite possibly Kendrick’s best work to date and a very well received Drake production.
All of this is to say that, even when the Recording Academy has nominees, like this year, that represent a wide spectrum of styles and respectable artists that are truly influential and unique to the art form, the Academy couldn’t help but select the guy everyone has known for years to finally give him an award. Again, this isn’t meant as a slight to one of the greatest MCs in history, but it’s curious that the Academy finally gave Nas the credit he’s deserved for years after being nominated only three times prior with losses all to more widely accepted industry acts. The point is that Nas was arguably not even close to being the best album in the category, but the Academy finally gave in because the others were too distant from what’s acceptable. The image of Nas, having existed over the last few decades, is more acceptable, because why not a legend finally gets his due instead of a new or unique voice like Jay Electronica, D Smoke, Royce da 5’9” or Freddie Gibbs?
In the last decade, the world has seen Eminem’s memeable work win three times, along with the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis victory. So, in nearly half of the last ten years, rappers that appeal to the mainstream, that project sales to certain audiences are the ones that receive these accolades. Sure, Kendrick Lamar has won twice now, and deservedly so considering his music is profoundly unique to the point that he was the first rapper ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for DAMN, but the Grammys have consistently skewed recognition toward acts that appeal to wider audiences, rather than the rap albums that are arguably the “best”.
That can explain the aforementioned white rappers that have won over strong competition. It also explains how Drake won in 2013 over a slew of phenomenal productions from 2 Chainz, Lupe Fiasco, Rick Ross, The Roots and even Nas too. It explains why Chance the Rapper won in 2017 over strong albums from 2 Chainz, Schoolboy Q, Drake and even Drake. There’s even an argument to be made that Cardi B’s win in 2019 as the first female rapper to ever win solo wasn’t the best work nominated considering she went up against stellar productions from the late Mac Miller, the late Nipsey Hussle, possibly the best project from Pusha T and the vibrant work that was Astroworld by Travis Scott. Shoot, even 2020’s win by Tyler the Creator was surprising considering Dreamville dropped a nuclear warhead of an album in Revenge of the Dreamers III (that one may just be my personal taste, to be fair).
Marketability, and essentially the rappers that appeal to the masses, are what determines these awards. That is why hip hop/rap has evolved beyond the need for the Grammys. Every artist named in this article alone represents a vast expanse of creativity and expression in the genre’s evolution that is more than worthy of critical acclaim. From Rapper’s Delight all the way in 1979 to Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage, rap has exponentially grown and splintered into a tapestry of unique approaches that don’t cover just the stereotypes perpetuated in common media.
While it is possible that the lack of unique winners can be attributed to a lack of unique nominees, which is determined from submissions from artists/recording companies, the Recording Academy itself lacks any real definition of what determines a true winner. The website states that the screening process is, “not to make artistic or technical judgments about the recordings, but rather to make sure that each entry is eligible and placed in its proper category” and then votes are counted once those final nominees are made. So what entails a vote? Votes should go to the “best” but is it truly going to the best work or just the voter’s favoritism that year? In essence, even the academy’s selection and voting processes are vague enough to let work be awarded not exactly for artistic quality and integrity, but for whatever the voter decides is worthy (kind of like how voting in American politics works).
Let me be clear here: I’m not the smartest person in the room, especially when it comes to how the industry works. But I just want my favorite genre of music, the one I grew up listening to and relate to most like many of you, to be given its love and respect on a wider scale, especially when you consider that it is by far the most influential form of music in the world. Hip hop/rap has influenced more than just American culture and music, it’s influenced generations now.
Hip hop/rap is full of honest and free-flowing content involving emotion, experience, loss, struggle, pain, salvation, prosperity, and so much more than guns, drugs and girls. Hip hop/rap is a true art form. The fact that mainstream artists, those that hit the radio waves heavily, lock in endorsements, get in good with industry heads and gain popularity are the ones recognized isn’t the issue. It’s that lesser-known artists, who may have submitted their best, honest work may not even make it to a nomination, let alone a win, because of those vague rules and practices by those same industry heads. And we have seen that play out time and time again.
But there’s no need to hold it too dearly, and some artists have picked up on that, like The Weeknd and Drake. We don’t need an academy to determine quality or the “best” work. We need our own ears, a collective conversation, and a respect for the art form to really appreciate and absorb the beautiful work that’s released every day within the genre. If hip hop/rap can move culture so fervently, then its fans can continue to move it fervently forward, absent of any business influence and solely through the value we have on its existence.