The 2014 Grammys featured perhaps the most stacked list of nominees for “Best Rap Album” imaginable. Between Drake and Kendrick Lamar’s instant classics “Take Care” and “good kid m.A.A.d City,” Kanye West’s then polarizing but now widely acclaimed “Yeezus,” and Jay-Z’s impressive “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” the voting committee certainly had a tough decision to make. While I hoped and expected that Kendrick Lamar would walk away with the award, I was excited by the prospect of any of these talented artists being recognized. Imagine my surprise then, when Macklemore’s commercially successful but artistically underwhelming album “The Heist” ultimately won the award. Even Macklemore himself was taken aback by the decision. “You got robbed. I wanted you to win,” he texted Kendrick shortly after. It was at this moment that I first realized the incredibly flawed nature of the Grammys.
Many rationalized Macklemore’s 2014 win by insisting that the Grammys simply value popularity over artistic merit. They pointed to the success of Macklemore’s hit song “Thrift Shop,” which reached number one on Billboard and also won Grammy awards for “Best Rap Song” and “Best Rap Performance.” In reality, despite the success of “Thrift Shop”, Macklemore’s album had sold far less than any of the other albums nominated. Furthermore, Macklemore released his album independently, whereas everyone else had released theirs through a major label. While Macklemore’s win could have been seen as a victory for independent artists over powerful corporate interests, this was not at all a part of the discourse that emerged.
Overshadowing his independent status was the fact that Macklemore was a white rapper in a genre dominated by Black artists but controlled by white executives. In addition to his whiteness, Macklemore made light-hearted pop-rap songs about things like buying used clothing. This maximized his appeal to the older, mostly white voters that outfitted the Grammy’s selection committee. Especially compared to the egoism of “Yeezus” or “good kid m.A.A.d city’s” candid descriptions of inner-city violence, “The Heist” more closely matched the committee’s standards of respectable artistry.
Fast-forward to 2021 and the Grammy Awards continue to show the same kind of cultural bias in their assessment of rap music. This year, the artists nominated for “Best Rap Album” were D Smoke, who is better known for his appearance on Netflix’s “Rhythm and Flow” than for his latest album; Freddie Gibbs, a talented veteran who is now enjoying overdue mainstream recognition; Jay Electronica, who previously hadn’t released an official project in almost thirteen years; Royce da 5’9”, whose prime was over a decade ago and Nas, a legendary artist who infamously hadn’t won a single Grammy in his thirty-plus-year career. Each of these artists is at least 35 years old and employs a fairly traditional, lyrically-focused approach in their music. Like in 2013, I was hopeful that Freddie Gibbs’ “Alfredo”— the most culturally relevant and sonically impressive album in my calculation — would receive the award. Instead, it ultimately went to the 47-year-old Nas, the oldest nominee.
While Nas certainly deserves the recognition, the failure to nominate more popular albums from across rap’s emerging subgenres, such as Pop Smoke’s “Shoot For the Stars Aim for the Moon” (New York drill), Mac Miller’s “Circles” (funk and emo rap) or Lil Baby’s “My Turn,” (southern trap), the Grammys have again demonstrated that they remain out of touch. Lil Baby and Pop Smoke each received nominations for their hit singles (“The Bigger Picture” and “Dior,” respectively, neither of which won), but were not deemed apt for the more prestigious album of the year distinction. With this decision, the Grammys declared that the new popular styles of rap, focused on atmosphere and melody, are not as respectable or authentic as older approaches focused on intricate lyricism. This is a short-sighted and pretentious approach that will seem almost as absurd relative to Macklemore’s victory in 2014.
It may be hypocritical to declare this at the conclusion of an entire article about them, but the best way to solve the Grammys’ blind spots is to stop watching them. Artists should seek validation from their fans and themselves, not the so-called “experts” in the archaic Recording Academy. I do not know anyone who still has “Thrift Shop” on their playlist, but “good kid m.A.A.d city,” “Nothing Was The Same” and “Yeezus” are timeless. The same will prove true for “Circles” and “My Turn” among others, despite their lack of Grammy recognition. The Grammys are incapable of forecasting the future, woefully out of touch with the present and need to be left in the past.