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The Grammys Love Hip-Hop Now, But It’s a Strained Relationship

The Grammys seem to know that they have to reflect rap’s enormous popularity in their nominations, but don’t fully understand what’s going on in the genre

Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Drake

Hip-hop nominations rule the 2019 Grammys. But can the genre bring home the night's biggest awards?

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The Grammy nominations are out and it’s a rapper-heavy affair. This year at music’s most prestigious awards ceremony, the three artists with the most nominations all belong to the genre: Kendrick Lamar (8), Drake (7) and Boi-1da (6). Six out of the top 10 artists with the most nominations are either rappers or hip-hop producers.

The general award categories are stacked as well (rather than hip-hop’s typical role as bridesmaid, not bride, that relegates rappers to more specific categories). Five out of the eight nominations in Record of the Year — “I Like It,” “This Is America,” “God’s Plan,” “All the Stars” and “Rockstar” — are either headlined by a rapper or feature one. Three of the eight nominations for Song and Album of the Year belong to hip-hop. The Grammys seem to know that they have to reflect rap’s enormous popularity in their nominations, but not enough to truly understand what’s going on in the genre. It makes for an ultimately confusing slate of nominations this year.

What the Grammys are trying to avoid is a repeat of its 2014 mistakes. Four years ago, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis swept the rap categories and contentiously beat out Kendrick Lamar for Best New Artist. The blowback and enmity was swift, and Macklemore quickly posted a (condescending) text message he’d sent to apologize to Lamar.

“You got robbed. I wanted you to win,” he wrote. “You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.”

Since then, the Recording Academy has tried to avoid a similar fiasco. In 2018, 900 new members who were either female, people of color or under 39 were invited to become voting members of the Academy. For scope, there are 13,000 voting members of which “21 percent are women… 55 percent of the voting membership identify as white, 28 percent as people of color and 17 percent declined to disclose,” according to Billboard. It’s helped — hip-hop’s representation in the nominations this year is far more reflective of the realities of the music industry — but there’s still a ways to go. Nominations, especially in the general categories, are essentially meaningless if there are no wins to show for it. There has yet to be a hip-hop win for Song or Record of the Year in the history of the Grammys. Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below is the only rap project to win Album of the Year, back in 2004 (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won in 1999, but it’s classified as R&B). Only four rappers have won Best New Artist, the last being Chance The Rapper in 2017.

In recent years, the rap category has gotten more adventurous and diverse, but those wins haven’t impacted the general categories. In 2017, Jay-Z and Lamar led the pack with eight and seven nominations, respectively. However, when the show aired, Hov walked away with zero awards, while Lamar walked away with five. Unsurprisingly, neither of them nabbed a general award that wasn’t Best Music Video.

This year, the nominations suggest a passing, idiosyncratic familiarity with the hip-hop landscape. Lamar is the most nominated artist, which is Good and Cool because Lamar is an exceptionally talented rapper. But it’s for his Black Panther soundtrack, a project underwritten by Disney that, while impressive for a movie soundtrack with some genuine high points, is decidedly not his best work. Travis Scott is nominated for two rap Grammys, which both seem like consolation prizes for being snubbed in the general categories after this year’s titanic Astroworld. Drake got a nomination in the general album category, but not the rap category.

Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap is an outlier in the Best Rap Album category. It didn’t have the commercial heft of Invasion of Privacy or Astroworld, or the press storm that came from the Kanye West production and general G.O.O.D. Music mania that Daytona kicked off. Although it was critically acclaimed upon its release, it’s hard to imagine how this reached a critical mass of Grammy voters to get such a high profile nomination.

Mac Miller’s Swimming was met with praise upon its release, but wasn’t a runaway hit — it getting a nomination in another year would be a surprise. However, after Miller’s September death, it’s possible the album received a bump among Grammy voters.

If there’s anything voting members aren’t willing to wrestle with, it’s anything new on the horizon.

If there’s anything voting members aren’t willing to wrestle with, it’s anything new on the horizon. The rise and sudden fall of SoundCloud Rap stars was a defining feature in hip-hop over the past year — stars are being minted more quickly than ever, and their commercial impact has never been more immediate. However, there isn’t a single rapper nominated for Best New Artist, despite a number of seemingly obvious candidates. Controversial streaming behemoths Tekashi 6ix9ine and XXXTentacion are also absent from the category, perhaps due to their wide range of legal accusations spooking voters. Juice WRLD, a rumored favorite, is mysteriously absent, even as his breakout single “Lucid Dreams” spends its 29th week on the Billboard Hot 100 — Juice doesn’t come with the built-in controversies of his peers, and his exclusion suggests the Grammys are washing its hands of this newest wave of rappers altogether.

It’s also not clear how the Academy plans to honor the memories of deceased rappers like Lil Peep or the controversial XXXTentacion. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow was vague when asked if XXX, accused of abusing his then-pregnant girlfriend, would be included in the show’s in memoriam segment.

“We do track those that we lose in our industry in any given year. And we’re in the between 5- and 600 range now,” Portnow says. “So what we do is, we keep a compilation of that and then we have a process by which we go through it. And our on-air in memoriam — we’re lucky if we wind up with 10 to 15 percent of those we lose. Because it’s always hard choices. I don’t have any answers for you now, but obviously artists who were prominent and well-known by the public are people who are recognized and we’ll just wind up having to see how it plays out.”

Statistically, hip-hop’s chances at the 61st Grammy Awards are getting better — even if many viewers of the show know better than to expect any big wins for a rapper. The Recording Academy is certainly taking steps to fix a broken system, but even as it embraces hip-hop, it still prefers to keep things at arm’s length.

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