The Grammy’s vs The Hip-Hop Industry

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By: Jack Stewart and Hank Bartholomew

Winning a Grammy is the most prestigious award in all of music. Throughout the Grammy’s 65 year history, they’ve always awarded three main awards; “Album of The Year”, given to the artist with the best full length album, “Record of The Year”, given to the song with the best production, instrumentation, and sound engineering, and “Song of The Year”, which is awarded to the song with the best composition and songwriting. However, despite the long history of these awards, one music genre hasn’t received the same recognition as others: hip-hop. 

Hip-hop has only won once for “Record of The Year”, twice for “Album of The Year”, and once for “Song of The Year”. It might not be intentional, but it seems almost as if the Grammys see themselves as too good for hip-hop. They are a primarily pop-focused award show, and thus shouldn’t be considered the definitive source for music prestige. Here is the long and twisted story of the world’s most renowned music award and the most controversial genre of all time.

It wasn’t until 1995 that the Grammy’s, founded 1958, added a “Best Rap Album” category. It’s important to keep in mind that hip-hop had already been around for over a decade prior, starting with the Sugarhill gang and Rapper’s Delight back in 1979. In the late 80’s, N.W.A. dominated the scene, with their 1988 smash-hit Straight Outta Compton.

In 2014, The Grammys made one of their most controversial decisions to date, in which Macklemore’s The Heist took home the award for “Rap Album of The Year”. The nominee list was considered one of the most prestigious of the decade, containing some of the greatest hip-hop projects of that time. Jay-Z released Magna Carta, Holy Grail, which was praised for its modern sound and almost “cinematic” scope. Drake came out with Nothing Was The Same, which was a megahit commercially and performed well with critics. Kanye West released Yeezus, which is widely considered one of the most influential albums of the decade. It revolutionized a new sound of hip-hop music with a style of production and sound engineering never heard before. Despite Kanye’s obviously terrible personal side, the influence some of his music has had is undeniable.

Finally, there was Kendrick Lamar, whose album Good Kid Maad City was universally hailed at release as the greatest of the year. It was a deep dive into the life Compton entailed, and was a brutally honest depiction of the struggles many like Lamar faced. Despite these four albums (by four African American men) being both critically acclaimed and influential, the Grammys still selected Macklemore, a white man, to win the award. While not panned by critics, The Heist mainly received mixed reviews, making it so bizarre that it received the award. Macklemore himself was even confused by his own win, with him stating how he felt he “robbed” Kendrick of the award. This win began to open up a conversation on race and its effect on the award shows like The Grammys. 

The penultimate of The Grammy’s complicated relationship with hip-hop came in 2016 in which Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly lost the “Album of The Year” award to Taylor Swift’s 1989. Despite 1989 being undeniably one of the most commercially successful albums of all time, even having seven of the thirteen songs being released as singles, To Pimp a Butterfly was held to a higher standard. It was regarded as a once in a generation masterpiece and a benchmark in music history. Not only is it held as the best rap album of all time, it’s also widely considered the greatest album of all time in any genre. On online music review platforms such as rateyourmusic.com and musicboard.app, To Pimp a Butterfly is the highest rated album of all time, as voted on by roughly 700,000 users. This sentiment carried over to the top music critics as well. Many of the topic music publications praised To Pimp a Butterfly for its bold fusion of jazz and rap, its exceptional lyrics, and its political commentary. The album scored a perfect 100/100 from Entertainment Weekly and The Observer, a 9.3/10 from Pitchfork and a 90/100 from Rolling Stones Magazine

In all, To Pimp a Butterfly was a unanimous masterpiece according to both general fans and critics. At the Grammys, it received 11 nominations, just one shy of tying the record set by Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Despite all of these factors, it still fell short to the far less revered 1989. While undeniably more commercially successful, 1989 fell far short of To Pimp a Butterfly critically. In comparison to the 9.3/10 To Pimp a Butterfly received from Pitchfork, 1989 would only go on to score a 7.7/10. Furthermore, it would receive an 80/100 from both The Observer and Rolling Stones Magazine, and a 75/100 from Entertainment Weekly. While 1989 still received positive feedback overall, it severely staggered in comparison to the incredibly high pedestal that To Pimp a Butterfly was placed on. This made its eventual triumph over To Pimp a Butterfly so confusing to both critics and general audiences. This again reopened the conversation of race and how it played into the winners of the awards. The overwhelming majority of Grammy voters are white men, who probably wouldn’t connect to the civil rights commentaries found on To Pimp a Butterfly, and while they are entitled to their opinion if they do enjoy 1989 more, many felt that an album as cultural impactful, innovative, and powerful as To Pimp Butterfly is more deserving of the highest award in music.  

Perhaps the explanation lies in the origins. Hip-hop has always been undeniably connected to the drill scene. N.W.A. consisted of members from the gritty streets of Compton, Los Angeles. It didn’t just speak of the daily violence of the poor, predominantly-populated-by-minorities area; it embraced that culture. Decades of pent-up frustration against the government’s lack of response to the crises occurring in areas like Compton all over America spilled out, and continued in the 90’s. But in the 2000s, slightly more “artsy” rappers came into view. Now, and in the later 2010s, the hip-hop scene is much more like it was in the late 80’s and 90’s. Many of the problems that artists like Easy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac, and the Notorious B.I.G. spoke of are still issues. Take a look at some of the most popular rap songs of the last five years. Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa”. “Pop Out” by Polo G featuring Lil Tjay. The J. Cole masterpiece “Middle Child”. “Bank Account” from 21 Savage. All drill. Look at today’s artists. Before he became a global superstar, Lil Baby was a convicted drug dealer from Atlanta. Prior to “21”, “Rapstar”, “Dyin’ Breed”, and “Finer Things”, Polo G saw his best friend Gucci shot and killed by a rival gang at the age 16. The late Lil Durk-signed rapper King Von was killed during an altercation with NBA Youngboy-signed artist Quando Rondo and his crew. Drill violence.

Perhaps it’s this, the volatile nature of rap, that makes it difficult for the Grammy’s to accept. Rap is complicated, poetry for a social and economic class that has been ignored and discriminated against for years.

The Grammy’s like what they know. They want more viewers, and want to establish themselves as sophisticated, something many award shows struggle to achieve. So when a new music genre that is controversial comes in, they shut down, and rarely let it get their prestigious main awards.

The argument may be made that hip-hop has failed to receive the proper recognition only because it is a newer genre. But in 2014, Daft Punk received the award for Album of the Year with Random Access Memories. The album was made up of primarily electronic music, with few words. Yet the album achieved the highest award possible for the Grammys. Hip-hop, which has much older roots, deserves more recognition.

The Lil Baby Issue

Some may say that rap isn’t mainstream enough. Yet examination of the sales proves otherwise. Lil Baby’s My Turn, released in 2020, was the #1 selling album of the entire year overall, featuring hits like “Woah”, “Sum 2 Prove”, and “Emotionally Scarred”. And in June, where Black Lives Matter protests were at an all time high, following the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, the Atlanta native released “The Bigger Picture”. Its entire four minutes and fourteen seconds became the anthem of these protests. “The Bigger Picture” is a statement about police brutality and racism, told through rap. Baby speaks from the heart, with lines like, “Throw us in handcuffs and arrest us/While they go home at night, that sh*t messed up/Knowing we needed help, they neglect us” and “It’s too many mothers that’s grieving/They killing us for no reason”. “The Bigger Picture” was the voice of change, a call to action and something providing a glimpse of hope.

The Grammys threw it out the window.

My Turn received no nominations. “The Bigger Picture” was nominated for “Best Rap Song” and “Best Rap Performance”. It won neither.

Record of the year? Billie Eilish’s “Everything I Ever Wanted”, a repetitive trek through a landscape that’s been walked on so much it practically has a highway.

The Grammys understand what they are doing. Lil Baby grew up with nothing, a poor kid from Atlanta who’s never known his father, who had to bring a gun to school because of the environment he lived in, who started selling drugs before he was old enough to vote. Who has confirmed gang affiliation, and seen best friends die. Who, despite all of this, became a millionaire through his music, and provided the soundtrack to one of the largest movements in the last decade.

But why choose that, when there are generic pop songs that have done little to spark social change, and often have no deeper meaning than the surface?

Because for the Grammys, a survivor of one of the worst environments in America who speaks his mind through beautiful music just doesn’t cut it. Too controversial. Oh well.