Status Ain't Hood

Rap Grammys Matter, Except Not Really

In one of the more fascinating moments during Kanye West’s recent erratic Twitter spree, he mentioned next year’s Grammy Awards, saying that he wouldn’t show up unless the Grammy people promised him the Album Of The Year Grammy. Now: Kanye West will not win the Album Of The Year Grammy. He won’t even be nominated. Right now, I’m having a hard time imagining next year’s Grammys as anything other than an(other) Adele coronation ceremony, with an outside chance of David Bowie’s Blackstar getting that legacy-driven Album Of The Year trophy. The Life Of Pablo is way too raunchy and conflicted and frequently mean-spirited to get West anywhere near that podium. That’s not what’s interesting. What’s interesting is that Kanye still cares.

Kanye West really, really cares about awards. It’s one of his defining traits. One of the fulcrum moments of his career came because he couldn’t believe that MTV would pass Beyoncé over for a VMA, one of the most meaningless awards of all time. He’s been up for Album Of The Year three times and lost three times — to Ray Charles, to U2, and to Herbie Hancock, each loss more indefensible than the last. And because West cares so deeply about old-school signifiers of prestige, those losses seem to have played into the years-long existential crisis that’s still apparently dominating his decision-making. (A quick prediction: West will totally show up to next year’s Grammys, even though he won’t be nominated. Or, at least, I hope he does. They’re way less interesting without him there.)

But it’s not just West. West’s big brother Jay Z boycotted the awards in 2002, mad that the Grammys weren’t showing love to DMX. Drake made one of his best songs about realizing that he doesn’t need a Grammy. Simply by acknowledging that he’d like to win all the awards he’d been nominated for, Kendrick Lamar sent Jay Electronica into a fit of rage. Macklemore still seems to be struggling with the fact that he beat Kendrick for the Best Rap Album Grammy a few years ago, something that even Macklemore knows he didn’t deserve. And on and on it goes, right back to the first time the Grammys acknowledged rap: 1989, when DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince won but refused to show up and collect their awards, since the Grammys weren’t televising that one.

At this point, it’s received wisdom that the Grammys are clueless and arbitrary and meaningless. But they matter, within rap, because they’re a big, flashing arrow pointing to the music industry and how slow it’s been to recognize anything exciting happening, especially if it’s being made by young people of color. That first rap Grammy is a great example. I will ride for DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince forever — first rap tape I ever bought! — but they handed them that award in a time when Public Enemy and N.W.A and Eric B & Rakim and countless other groups were at or near their peaks. So that award fits into a grand pattern of finding the friendliest, least threatening thing possible and holding that up for the award.

And when it comes to the Grammys recognizing rap in the big categories, the ones that actually matter, things get even bleaker. The Album Of The Year Grammy has only ever gone to two rap albums: OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which is only half a rap album, and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, which is only, like, 20 percent of a rap album. Until the Fugees’ The Score got a nod in 1997, only one rap album had ever been nominated, and that was MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. On the rare occasions when great, important rap albums have landed Album Of The Year nominations, they’ve almost always lost to something that feels relatively inessential. The Fugees lost to Celine Dion’s Falling Into You. OutKast’s Stankonia lost to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III lost to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Rising Sand. Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP famously lost to Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature.

With all that in mind, I can’t believe anyone was surprised, or dismayed, when To Pimp A Butterfly lost to Taylor Swift’s 1989. To Pimp A Butterfly is a messy and discordant and knowingly challenging album, and those are not traits that Grammy voters have ever rewarded. (If Kendrick had made Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City Part 2, he would’ve at least had a fighting chance.) At least To Pimp A Butterfly lost to a good album, you know? (And Taylor’s acceptance speech showed that Kanye West figured out a way to make the ceremony about him even though he wasn’t there.) I get why people were upset, of course. I like both albums, and I play 1989 way more. But To Pimp A Butterfly was about things — vitally, immediately important things — while 1989 was a fun pop album, albeit an expertly executed one. When Taylor’s name was read, Kendrick did not look even remotely surprised.

But given the crushing boringness of Monday’s broadcast — and the low ratings it drew — maybe the people in charge of the Grammys would do well to pay attention to the one stretch of last night’s show when it crackled to life. First, the cast of Hamilton performed on their own stage, doing a smart and intricate and beautifully written musical-theater number that happened to come in the form of a rap song. And then, minutes later, Kendrick Lamar put in a confrontational, intense, spectacular performance of his own. Kendrick’s performance was slick, of course, but it was also, in its way, as confrontational as To Pimp A Butterfly. It had two sets — a prison and a tribal ceremony — and it built to Kendrick rapping hard as fuck, directly into the camera, while disorienting lighting hit him from all sides. The fact that a performance like that one can exist, in the context of the Grammys, is a victory in itself. And beyond that, fuck a Grammy.


1. Curren$y – “Fat Albert” (Feat. Lil Wayne)
During a less eventful week, I absolutely would’ve written this week’s column about Carrollton Heist, the new mixtape from New Orleans weed-rap underground star Curren$y and psych-rap production legend the Alchemist. It’s the follow-up to Covert Coup, their kinda-classic 2011 tape, and it’s very good. Its best moment, I think, comes on “Fat Albert,” when Curren$y once again teams up with Lil Wayne. Wayne was once Curren$y’s benefactor, during the early Young Money days, and then the two had a low-simmer beef for a while. But in the past few years, they’ve done a few songs together. This is, by far, the best one. Curren$y pretty much turns the track over to Wayne, and Wayne gives one of the best verses — loose, free-associative, fun — that we’ve heard from him in years. A couple more songs like this, and I might fuck around and convince myself of an imminent Wayne comeback.

2. Mr. Lif – “Whizdom” (Feat. Blacastan)
Mr. Lif back! This guy was my favorite member of the hallowed old Def Jux roster, and I have no idea where he’s been for the past few years. But now here he is, rapping over a track from fellow early-’00s backpack-rap standout Edan, acting like nothing has changed. And for him, I hope nothing has. Lif’s forthcoming album is going to be a concept LP, and if you’ve heard I Phantom, you already know that’s a good thing.

3. Boosie Badazz – “Choppers N Gunz” (Feat. Lil Durk & Young Thug)
Boosie is on a ridiculous tear right now; we scarcely ever go more than a few days without hearing a great new song. This one features two of the busiest melodic-rap stylists in the underground, and they both sound like supporting characters, even with Thug in full-on bugged-out form.

4. Young Thug – “Worth It”
There’s something so sweet and anachronistic and genuinely strange about the entire concept of a Young Thug love song. When you’ve been as weird for as long as Thug has, maybe that’s the next frontier: romantic contentment, and the musical expression thereof.

5. Jay Electronica – “The Curse Of Mayweather”
I love the idea that Jay Electronica is so enraged by the rise of Kendrick Lamar that it’s spurred him to actually make music. Jay Elec sounds sloppy and punchdrunk on this, but he’s got a power and a presence to him that all these years of inactivity just can’t dull. How great would it be to see him really get going again?