Last week, for the third time ever, a rapper won an Oscar. And for the first of those three times, it didn’t feel like a fluke. The first rapper to win was Eminem, who would’ve taken home the trophy for “Lose Yourself” in 2003 if he’d bothered to show up. That was the Academy acknowledging a pop-cultural force that couldn’t be denied, giving it up finally for a genre that it had long spurned, knowing full well that its members would look perfectly out-of-touch if they gave it to anything else. Em’s whiteness probably wasn’t incidental there, and neither was the quality of the song, which is up there with “Theme From Shaft” as one of the best songs ever to win a Best Original Song Oscar. But this was an award for commercial dominance more than for anything else. It was the Academy giving in to a juggernaut. The second rap Oscar was DJ Paul, Juicy J, and Frayser Boy joyously accepting the award for “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” in 2006. That was part of a long line of glorious Oscar flukes. The Academy picked the only remotely fun song in a weak-as-hell year for the category, giving that year’s show maybe its most memorable moment in the process. But when Common won his award the Sunday before last, it wasn’t a shock. It felt inevitable. “Glory” was the sort of song that seems engineered to win an Oscar. It was rap music — or rap&B, anyway — graduating to the prestige-drama big leagues.
“Glory” is a fine song and an even-better showcase for John Legend’s vocals. Its performance last Sunday was the most stirring moment of an endless Oscar telecast, with its unrobed gospel choir and its fake Edmund Pettis Bridge and its energetic Com-Sense-has-got-to-be-the-sure-shot rap hands and its making Chris Pine cry. But the thing that strikes me the most about it is the way it fits seamlessly into the Academy Awards’ entire self-important puffed-up self-image. The Best Original Song win for “Glory” was the consolation win for Selma, a movie once considered a Best Picture frontrunner, and it was built for orchestral swells and dramatic poses. “Glory” really made the rounds during the awards-show season. Common and Legend also won a Golden Globe, giving Com occasion to make a powerful acceptance speech that fellow Oscar winner Juicy J sampled on his Blue Dream & Lean 2 mixtape a couple of weeks later. And they gave a less-notable performance of the song at the Grammys, with Com standing in a well-tailored suit at a skinny mic stand, looking like Social Issues Pitbull. Here’s the funny thing about that Grammys performance: Other than the couple of bars of “Going Back To Cali” that host LL Cool J spit at the beginning of the night, Common was the only person to do any rapping at the Grammys.
Common wasn’t the only rapper at the Grammys, of course, and he wasn’t even the only rapper to perform. But the Grammys are the most prestige-addled of our major awards shows — even more so than the Oscars — and they still haven’t figured out what the fuck to do with rap music. That’s how Macklemore walked away with every rap award last year and how Kendrick Lamar won those “oh, whoops” awards this year. If you’re going to get rap over at the Grammys, you need to do it in sweeping, nonthreatening, uplift-the-universe ways, and that’s what “Glory” did. And that brings me, as it must, to Kanye West. Kanye wasn’t directly involved in “Glory” in any way, but no way does that song happen without him. After all, Kanye more or less ignited Legend’s career and restarted Common’s when, in his first big post-College Dropout move, he signed Common to G.O.O.D. Music and produced every song on Be. These guys, in some sense, owe their careers to Kanye, who cares so much about prestige and awards that he once named a posse cut “Grammy Family,” like that’s a family you would even want to be in. Kanye’s awards-shows outbursts are fun and silly and all, but he lets them out because he believes in awards. He wants there to be an objective setup for rewarding artistic excellence. But Kanye also knows how to play the prestige game, and that’s how he managed to perform twice at the Grammys without rapping a single word.
He undid it all by stage-crashing Beck, of course. But up until then, Kanye spent his Grammys moving laterally toward award-show respectability — first cooing softly about his mother and his daughter, and then sharing the stage with Rihanna and Paul McCartney. If you’re trying to convince Grammy voters that you fit their criteria for greatness, “get a Beatle” is pretty much the most direct way to go. I really like “Only One” and “FourFiveSeconds,” and both of those Grammys performances, but both looked a bit like Kanye distancing himself from rap, trying to win America’s heart back after the Yeezus noise-rap meltdown. With that in mind, then, Kanye’s performance at the Brit Awards last week was a bigger middle-finger to bourgie respectability than any stage-crash could ever be. Kanye was actually onstage as I was finishing last week’s column, and when I checked Twitter after hitting “post,” my entire timeline was pretty much “HOLY SHIT, FLAMETHROWERS.” This was the right reaction. Kanye’s new single “All Day” is a good song, even if its impact has been dulled a bit by all the low-quality leaks over the past few months. I’d convinced myself that “All Day” was probably a relic from a scrapped album, that it would never come out. But here he is, rapping for the radio for the first time in a few years, talking fly shit and getting assists from Kendrick Lamar and French Montana and Vic Mensa, all of whom have songwriting credits on the song. But the song itself doesn’t matter, to me, anywhere near as much as his Brit Awards performance, an uncompromising example of bust-you-in-your-shit rap aesthetics on an awards-show stage.
That “All Day” performance had plenty of evidence of Kanye’s designers’ eye, with all those black-clad bodies arranged in a rough trapezoid on an all-white stage. But it still had the thrilling chaos of a great rap show, of the sort where Cam’ron has 40 goons on the stage behind him or whatever. It was hard and intense: Dreads flying, jets of flame scorching the ceiling tiles, Kanye shouting to be heard over the boom of the track. This was Kanye doing rap shit, embracing the idea of staging a Wu-Tang or Boot Camp Clik video on an international stage. I don’t know too much about the Brit Awards beyond the fact that they got PJ Harvey and Björk to cover “Satisfaction” together in 1994. That fact alone makes them cooler than any American award show, but Kanye still could’ve easily gone for prestige. If he’d trotted McCartney out for an encore, he assuredly wouldn’t have had Liam Gallagher calling him “utter shit” on Twitter. Instead, he spat in the face of respectability, disrespected the idea of accessible uplift. Good for him. As nice as it was to see Common win an Oscar, I’d hate to see rap lose any of its fundamental goon-music power as the music ages into Oscar prestige. With that performance, Kanye forced rap music, on rap music’s terms, onto the big stage. That’s artistry.
Starlito – “Don’t Do It” (Feat. Young Dolph & Kevin Gates)
Nashville’s Starlito is one of those permanently underrated rappers, a guy who can sound tough while getting sensitive and whose technical command is so smooth and conversational that you almost don’t notice it. He deserves to be a star, and a tense, visceral track like “Don’t Do It” is an excellent exhibition of what he can do. But Lito’s friend and frequent collaborator Kevin Gates is on such an unstoppable roll right now that he can’t help but steal every song he’s on. Gates is in low-key mode on “Don’t Do It,” but his snarly authority, on the final verse, is still what takes “Don’t Do It” from “good song” to “holy shit.” Gates: “Before Gucci went to jail, these other rappers was timid / He got his time, they poked they head out, now they talk like they killers.” Just goddam.
Kool John – “Blue Hunnids” (Feat. P-Lo)
Over the past year or two, Iamsu! has become an increasingly feelings-based rapper, and that’s fine, especially with Kool John out there. With Iamsu! off on his personal journeys, Kool John is now the guy within Iamsu!’s HBK Gang crew who most dependably cranks out sparse, bass-heavy, proudly ignorant party music. You will hear nothing socially uplifting on the strip-club slapper “Blue Hunnids,” but that sandworm bassline from producer and guest-rapper P-Lo is something you need in your life, and I love Kool John’s ultra-charismatic half-asleep flow.
Jay 305 – “Thuggin” (Feat. Joe Moses)
A year or two ago, you could be sure that any DJ Mustard track would be a catchy-as-fuck California banger, one that made some half-anonymous rapper sound incredible. But now Mustard has spent so much time making Fergie songs or hitting the EDM-DJ tour circuit that it’s almost a surprise he can still make a song like that. “Thuggin” is sparse, itchy, propulsive shit-talk from two guys who sound ready to explode. That’s what I like from a Mustard track.
Shy Glizzy – “Score”
D.C.’s Shy Glizzy sounds like Meek Mill after a hit of helium, and he’s in that great evolutionary stage where he somehow gets better at rapping every time he makes a new song. “Score” is an out-of-breath rant that never lets up. It’s not as catchy as “Awwsome,” Glizzy’s breakout single, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s bracing.
billy woods – “Warmachines”
Woods is a longtime New York DIY-underground stalwart and half of the duo Armand Hammer. “Warmachines” sounds like the platonic ideal of New York underground rap: Dense and reference-heavy muttered verbiage over an easy lope of a beat and a warm, gorgeous horn loop, no hooks required.