At the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards in 2014, the hip-hop world watched in confusion as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ debut album, The Heist, took home the award for Best Rap Album. Even Macklemore, so stupefied by his own victory over Lamar and his classic major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city (and Kanye’s Yeezus, lest we forget), couldn’t help but bury himself in “Kendrick was robbed” takes.
Unfortunately, that polarizing moment is often remembered mostly for the backlash faced by The Heist, an objectively decent album with well-mannered and progressive intentions, and less for all of the negative symbolism that its victory represented.
To call that fiasco a watershed moment for the GRAMMYs would be shortsighted when The Heist’s win remains only one of several examples in a long, uneven history of disconnect between the Recording Academy and hip-hop. For the last 22 years, the GRAMMYs’ relationship to rap music has historically ebbed and flowed with less rhythm than white dads on a sporting event jumbotron. Instead of highlighting a wide range of well-deserved works, the Best Rap Album category has by and large been presented as a randomized list of hip-hop albums that is more about name value than the actual music.
To have such a directionless history for an award commemorating the “best album of the year” in such a sprawling, popular genre has always proved to be one of the Academy’s biggest obstacles in gaining credibility. Some of its biggest blunders, such as Ludacris’ Release Therapy winning over Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor and T.I.’s King, Eminem winning Best Rap Album for his last three projects pre-Revival, or inexplicable nominations like Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic, Nelly’s Suit, or Common’s Universal Mind Control being given the spotlight over objectively better bodies of work, have either felt like the Recording Academy wasn’t listening at all or didn’t care about the award enough.
Last night, however, for the first time since 2001 (which fielded Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, Dr. Dre’s 2001, and Nelly’s Country Grammar), the GRAMMYs put itself and hip-hop in a winning situation for Best Rap Album no matter the ultimate victor. Although Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., the eventual winner, was the clear-cut favorite, the field he was up against—JAY-Z, Migos, Rapsody, and Tyler, The Creator—proved to be a moment of hope. Even more, it showed a shocking awareness on the Academy’s part in realizing that hip-hop’s importance can’t be rewarded through faux-progressivism and random nominations, but through actually acknowledging the artists creating the genre's most impactful conversations.
Kendrick’s DAMN., widely agreed upon by critics as the best rap album of 2017, was not just a masterfully executed, conceptually complex project about religion, self-fulfillment, and the insecurity of one’s purpose in the world, it was also an exhilaratingly enjoyable listen. At the heart of DAMN. was proof that a hip-hop icon doesn't have to sacrifice entertainment in his music to be artistic, and hits like “HUMBLE.,” “LOYALTY.,” and “LOVE.” only further solidified that our most important artists are those who are able to strike the delicate balance between being an auteur and an entertainer.
Matching Kendrick’s iconicism with an arguably more fascinating perspective was one of hip-hop’s greatest in JAY-Z. On 4:44, Jay delivers his most personal and emotional album to date, taking listeners on a voyage through his infidelity with wife Beyoncé to his relationship with his mother through her coming-out process, all while highlighting a vulnerability that a hip-hop icon like Hov has never been recognized for at the GRAMMYs. Although albums like Kanye’s Late Registration, Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP, and Nas’ Life is Good were rewarded with either a nomination or victory, Jay’s progression came much later in his career, and with it carried a far different weight. 4:44 wasn’t just a typical self-reflective project from a rapper in desperate need of a new angle, but promotion for mental health, and a road-paver for how to age gracefully in rap. If Jay is the iconic rapper other rappers have long attempted to emulate, 4:44 served as a timely reminder of the cost of reaching that status and how to come to grips with all the mistakes one may have made along the way.
In addition to accurately recognizing Kendrick in his current state of iconicism and Jay in the later stages of superstardom, the GRAMMYs also notched a much-needed win by recognizing Migos and their breakthrough album, Culture. For despite their sometimes problematic and regressive comments, such as the group’s backward thinking towards the LGBTQ community, the Atlanta trio has become a shining example of what it means to sound and look like a “rock star” in hip-hop, flaws and all.
That progressivism and the idea that no artist is ever truly lost from disengaging from their worst habits is none more present than on Tyler, The Creator’s pièce de résistance, Flower Boy. Juxtaposed with a career that came to prominence through Tyler’s angriest and often worst habits musically, Flower Boy showcases the fluidity of hip-hop, and how no artist can ever be banished from finding his or her best self. Tyler was never going to top Kendrick or Jay, but the Academy’s acknowledgment of Flower Boy showed that the recognition of an artist transitioning into his best musical form is an important and necessary part of the conversation.
Buried beneath all of the above storylines about Kendrick, Jay and what the GRAMMYs this year meant for hip-hop was Rapsody’s Laila’s Wisdom and the overturning of outdated ways in which we recognize talented female artists. Laila’s Wisdom wasn’t just an incredible album because it was made by a rapper who happens to be female, but because Rapsody released a gorgeous panorama of the modern-day black woman.
The first woman not named Nicki Minaj or Iggy Azalea to be nominated for Best Rap Album since 2006, Rapsody's nomination was a step in the right direction, one towards female empowerment—black female empowerment. It highlights the fact that a black woman put out one of the very best albums across any genre—sales, streams, and radio success be damned. A nomination shouldn't be the bar, but considering the Academy has rarely done black women justice on such a grand scale, it's at least a positive step.
The GRAMMY Awards still have a long way to go in proving that the Academy's voting members understand, appreciate, and know how to properly identify the most deserving hip-hop artists and works. Their reluctance to take hip-hop more seriously was once again evidenced by the fact that Lamar was good enough to open the entire show but not good enough to take home two of the biggest awards of the night (Records of the Year, Album of the Year), losing both times to the very talented but wholly unoriginal and safe Bruno Mars. But instead of focusing on the negatives—and there are plenty of negatives—let's use this opportunity to celebrate all five very deserving nominees for the Best Rap Album category.
Kendrick Lamar might have taken home the gilded gramophone for DAMN., but the nominations proved there can be more than one winner.