The Rap Grammy Nominations Are Weird As Hell

The Rap Grammy Nominations Are Weird As Hell

The very first time that the Grammy Awards recognized rap music, it was an utter fiasco — a clear case of an aging pop-music establishment failing to understand this vital new youth music that had sprung up and rewritten the rules. For the 1989 awards show, the Grammys added one rap category, Best Rap Performance. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince won it for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” beating out LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa and Kool Moe Dee and JJ Fad. The show didn’t deign to recognize Public Enemy, N.W.A, EPMD, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. & Rakim, or Ice-T, all of whom had released classic albums within the voting window. The award wasn’t televised, and most of the nominees, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince included, skipped the show, attending a “Boycott The Grammys” party instead.

Since that night, the history of rap at the Grammys has been a series of baffling, embarrassing decisions. It’s Steely Dan winning Album Of The Year over The Marshall Mathers LP. It’s Gretchen Wilson winning Best New Artist over Kanye West. “It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.” It’s also a history of rappers getting angry over the Grammys: “I never let a statue tell me how nice I am,” “You think I give a damn about a Grammy?” In 2019, Drake showed up to accept Best Rap Song. In his acceptance speech, he talked about how the Grammy voters weren’t necessarily the right people to define rap success. The broadcast cut him off mid-speech. Earlier this year, Kanye West, a man who once cared more about Grammy Awards than anyone else not named Neil Portnow, tweeted a video of himself pissing on one of his Grammys. (The Grammys still nominated West this year, for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album.)

Yesterday, the Grammys nominated Freddie Gibbs and the Alchemist’s Alfredo in the Best Rap Album category. That’s great! Freddie Gibbs is a great underground rap success story, a guy who bet on himself and kept doing great work in his own lane even after multiple major-label situations fell apart. Gibbs has never made a hit song in his life, and he’s gotten himself into a position where he doesn’t need to make hit songs — where he can just follow his instincts and keep his own style intact. Alfredo isn’t my favorite rap record of the year. (Even in the field of Alchemist-produced 2020 rap albums, I’d give the slight edge to Boldy James’ The Price Of Tea In China.) But the nomination for Alfredo is still a very cool surprise, the kind of thing that I would’ve never expected to see from the Grammy nominating committee.

And yet Gibbs’ nomination doesn’t exactly announce a new golden age of Grammy rap consideration, a time when Recording Academy voters are finally figuring out how to approach the genre. Instead, his nomination points toward something else: An institutional recognition of middlebrow, middle-aged, respectable rap music.

All of this year’s Best Rap Album nominees are Black men between the ages of 35 and 47. The oldest nominee is Nas, who is now on his fifth Best Rap Album nomination and who has never won the award. (The Best Rap Album Grammy didn’t exist in 1994, when Nas released Illmatic, but there’s no way in hell that Nas would’ve won it anyway. The Academy would’ve given the award to Coolio’s It Takes A Thief or something.) The youngest nominee is D Smoke, a former high school Spanish teacher who is also the brother of the TDE R&B singer SiR. D Smoke made his way into Grammy contention after winning the first season of Rhythm + Flow, the Netflix rap-competition show. (Two of the three judges from Rhythm + Flow, Cardi B and Chance The Rapper, have won Best Rap Album themselves. T.I., the other judge, has been nominated three times and never won.)

D Smoke isn’t exactly a revered or popular rapper, and I have’t seen anyone calling his perfectly-OK album Black Habits a masterpiece, though the man has certainly done better than anyone could’ve expected from a rap reality-show winner. But D Smoke raps exactly like a diet version of Kendrick Lamar, so his nomination works as a clear indication that the Grammy voters really, really wish they had a Kendrick album to nominate. D Smoke is also up for Best New Artist, alongside fellow rappers Chika, Megan Thee Stallion, and (I guess) Doja Cat. Presumably, Megan’s Good News would also be nominated if it had come out early enough to be eligible. Meanwhile, Chika hasn’t released an album, and Doja Cat is nominated in the pop categories, not the rap ones.

Instead, then, we’re looking at five guys hovering around the age of 40, all of whom are respected technicians with boom-bap inclinations. Jay Electronica, who’s nominated for A Written Testimony and who should probably be considered the front-runner, is technically a New Orleans native, but nobody thinks of him as a Southern rapper. (Jay-Z is all over A Written Testimony, to the point where anointing Jay Electronica feels a bit like throwing awards love to Jay-Z in a year with no Jay-Z album.) All the albums up for Best Rap Album are, at the very least, solid. A couple of them, Alfredo and A Written Testimony, are very good. But this is still a remarkably stodgy list — one that shows that the whole middle-aged respectability fetish that’s long plagued the Grammys is now embedded in its rap voting wing.

Freddie Gibbs and Nas and Jay Electronica and D Smoke and Royce Da 5’9″ are all gifted rappers who have done great work. Most of them could justifiably be considered legends. But none of them really show the world where rap music is, let alone where it’s going. By recognizing those albums, the Grammys have pointedly elected not to recognize something like Lil Baby’s My Turn, which is probably 2020’s most popular album in any genre and which is also a fine example of the 808-heavy depressive melodic-goo rap music that currently dominates the genre’s mainstream.

Other hugely popular, artistically important albums are also absent: Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake, Roddy Rich’s Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial, Polo G’s The Goat, Gunna’s Wunna, Rod Wave’s Pray 4 Love. Instead, the rap albums getting nominated are the 2020 equivalents of the Steely Dan album that famously beat Eminem. That’s not an indictment of the nominated albums. It’s an indictment of the stuff the Recording Academy values. It’s also a cautionary look of how things might look if the Recording Academy ever gets its way, if rap comes to rely on accepted ossified skill-sets instead of its current state of constant, furious stylistic evolution.

As someone who’s around the same age as this year’s Best Rap Album nominees, I’m not all that amped to see emotionally troubled, pill-gobbling 20-year-olds dominating rap music. But those kids are crucially moving the genre past whatever old men like me might want it to be. Fortunately, there’s at least one Grammy category that has done a pretty good job capturing where things are right now, and that’s Best Rap Song. The list of nominations there — Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture,” Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” Drake’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later,” DaBaby’s “Rockstar,” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” — isn’t necessarily perfect, but it’s a fairly accurate representation of the kind of rap that moves people right now. I don’t know why the division between the Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song nominees is so stark. Maybe it’s a signal that the album is increasingly irrelevant. Maybe it reflects two different voting bodies. Either way, it’s striking.

Look, the Grammys are weird. They are always going to be weird. Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters should’ve been the biggest lay-up in the world, but it isn’t up for Album Of The Year. Instead, the Academy’s voters went for Coldplay and Jacob Collier and a deluxe edition of a Black Pumas album that didn’t even come out in the eligibility period. “Rockstar” and “Savage” are both up for Record Of The Year, but Post Malone’s Hollywood’s Bleeding is the only album that’s even rap-adjacent that’s nominated for Album Of The Year this year. I thought for sure that Lil Baby’s My Turn would be the token rap album that would inevitably lose to Taylor Swift. Instead, we didn’t even get one of those, and My Turn got snubbed even in its own category. Nothing makes sense.

But this year’s Best Rap Albums nominations still show a weird alignment between Grammy Voters and a certain streak of real-hip-hop rap conservatism. Watch out for that. Nothing good, except maybe a Freddie Gibbs Grammy win, will come out of that.


1. Roc Marciano – “Downtown 81”
It’s not on streaming services yet, but Roc Marciano’s new album Mt. Marci is out in the world now, and it is marvelous. (I can’t tell you whether the digital download is worth the $40 that Marci is charging on his website. Make your own financial decisions.) Right now, the only song out for general consumption is one of the few that Marci didn’t produce himself. (It’s a Jake One beat.) But otherwise, “Downtown 81” is exactly the sort of laid-back, intricately worded deadpan splendor that you can expect to hear on the LP, whenever it goes wide. So maybe that’s worth the price of a full tank of gas.

2. Meek Mill – “GTA” (Feat. 42 Dugg)
Meek Mill released his Quarantine Pack EP on Friday, and the track currently getting the big push is the downbeat Lil Durk collab “Pain Away.” But the real thrill here is in hearing Meek and 42 Dugg getting bracingly urgent over a Detroit-ass bassline.

3. Chief Keef & Mike Will Made-It – “Status”
Sosa and Mike Will have evidently chosen to name their new song after this column. Gentlemen, I see this tribute, and I appreciate it. I love you too.

4. Willie The Kid & V Don – “Mother Of Pearks” (Feat. Eto)
This is pretty.

5. Statik Selektah – “Play Around” (Feat. Conway The Machine, 2 Chainz, Killer Mike, Allan Kingdom, & Haile Supreme)
Once upon a time, maybe 13 years ago, I was apparently such a recognizable and influential part of the New York rap press that Statik Selektah noticed me at an MOP show, introduced himself, and tried to get me to listen to his mix CD. All these years later, Statik is a globally acknowledged boom-bap specialist with enough juice to put three of the world’s greatest middle-aged rappers on a track together. I’m proud of Statik. I bet he gets nominated for a Grammy someday.


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