Can Hip-Hop Finally Win Top Honors at 2018 Grammys?

Kendrick Lamar
via White House / Public Domain

Hip-hop dominated Grammy nominations this year with seven nominations in the general categories, more than any other genre. Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar hold five of the seven general category nominations, and are highly anticipated to win album of the year.

But the question is, can they?

The last hip-hop album to win album of the year was Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below at the 2004 Grammys. Since then, 12 hip-hop albums have been nominated, but not one has been able to win The Recording Academy’s most prestigious award.

via Sven Mandel / CC-BY-3.0

While The Academy has the right to vote on the music they deem the most worthy, it is peculiar why album’s such as Kenrick Lamar’s 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, the highest rated past decade, lost out to albums such as Taylor Swift’s 1989, a decently reviewed, yet much less critically acclaimed record.

Perhaps it’s because The Academy goes off album sales to determine who wins the award. While both Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 200, Swift outsold Lamar by about 2 million units. The following year showed a similar pattern. Despite Beyonce being a favorite to win at the 2017 Grammy, Adele won the award in an amazing upset.  Yet, Adele also outsold Beyonce, moving over 8 million units compared to Beyonce’s 2.1 million units.

Grammy snubs aren’t always this consistent. Beck sold only 310,000 copies total when he won Album of the Year for Morning Phase in 2014, a fraction of the 3.8 million units sold for The Marshall Mathers LP 2. A hip-hop album wasn’t even nominated for Album of the Year at the 2015 Grammys, despite the release of strong contenders such as School Boy Q’s Oxymoron, which fared better than Morning Phase critically and commercially.

This isn’t the only time a hip hop album was notoriously missing from the Album of the Year category. In 2012,  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one of the highest rated albums of all time with over a million saleswasn’t even nominated for Album of the Year to the chagrin of many critics. This was especially confounding, considering the fact that West was the most nominated artist that year, with seven Grammy nods and four wins.

Criticism of the Grammys over a perceived bias against not only hip-hop, but against black artists is nothing new. Taylor Swift’s 1989 was largely seen as the safe choice for The Academy when it was released, as it was an attempt to make “blatant pop music,” according to Rolling Stone. Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, on the other hand, was a lot more experimental, abrasive, risky and most importantly, black.

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly

As Tom Barnes states for “TPAB sought to capture the psychic trauma of living as a black man in a country that’s suspicious of your culture and person. It was bewilderingly powerful. Its songs became national protest anthems that could be heard in the streets of Chicago, Cleveland and Minneapolis. ”

Given the politically volatile atmosphere, along with Kendrick Lamar’s politically-charged performances and lyrics, it’s possible that The Academy sought to avoid further controversy. Barnes explains, however, that 1989’s win was “proof that, when given the opportunity, the Grammys will always shun hip-hop in favor of awarding the most marketable, accessible — and yes, the whitest — artist possible.”

Kendrick Lamar’s infamous snub at the 2014 Grammys, where Good Kid M.A.A.D City lost Rap Album of the Year to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ The Heist, exemplifies this bias.  The Heist was a more commercial “pop-rap” record, as it spawned numerous hit singles, including the viral hit “Thrift Shop,” whereas GKMC was a vivid concept album of black youth in Compton.

Macklemore texted Kendrick Lamar after he won the Grammy.

Taking commercial viability into consideration, Speakerboxx/The Love Below‘s 2004 Album of the Year win was likely achieved thanks to the help of hit singles such as “Roses,” and “Hey Ya!”  The album eventually achieved a rare diamond status in the United States, selling more than 11 million copies, solidifying the album’s popularity with a mainstream audience.

Yet, unlike Speakerboxx/The Love Below; DAMN and 4:44  are polished, but strictly back to basics hip-hop records that deal with the various issues including racial identity as a black man in the United States. Both showcase the genre at a lyrical high, relying solely on their abilities as an MC, during a time when mainstream hip-hop has branched out into multiple genres. A win for these albums would mark the first time that a hip-hop record didn’t need to try to appeal to a mainstream audience to win.

Jay-Z 4:44 album stream

The other “Album of the Year” nominees — Lorde’s Melodrama, Childish Gambino’s Awaken My Love! and Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic — all have their merits, yet the consensus displays a desire to have a rapper finally win the award after so many years of snubbing rap artists. Considering how hip-hop has finally surpassed rock as the most popular genre, an album of the year win is long overdue.

Jan.28 2o18, the day of the 60th annual Grammy Awards, will show us whether or not The Recording Academy will grant hip-hop the recognition it deserves. It’s time for The Academy to catch up with the rest of us.