Why have rappers been virtually shut out of the Grammys’ album of the year category?
Only two hip-hop acts have ever taken home the prestigious award, despite the genre’s popularity
Sunday night, the Recording Academy will try to break the chokehold this year’s Oscars had on just about everyone when it presents the 64th annual Grammy Awards. While people will likely be glued to their TV screens to see if this year’s ceremony — or host Trevor Noah’s monologue — will provide any drama (especially if Kanye West attends), I’m keeping my eye on something else: whether or not hip-hop artists will be snubbed again.
Since the Recording Academy began handing out its album of the year award in 1959, only 10 Black artists have won the coveted honor. And of those 10 artists, just two Black hip-hop acts — Lauryn Hill in 1999 and Outkast in 2004 — have hoisted the trophy. This year, three rappers are nominated in the category — Lil Nas X, Doja Cat and West — and if the past is prologue, they, too, may come up empty-handed.
Though music has changed quite a bit in the decades since the history-making haul Hill received for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Big Boi and Andre 3000 took home the Grammys’ highest award for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, they both have something in common with the hip-hop artists nominated for this year’s top album: They’re hybrid acts. Of Miseducation‘s 10 nominations that year, only one was in a hip-hop category — and Hill took home best female R&B vocal performance, best rhythm & blues song and best R&B album.
“That was really an R&B album,” cultural critic Naima Cochrane said of Hill’s classic. “With Outkast — and this is by no means a knock toward Big Boi — but even now, if you ask a lot of people who love ‘Hey Ya!’ … not us, but a lot of people, if they listen to any other song off that s—. It’s an earworm and you can’t help but bop and sing along to it, but it’s not even the best thing Dre’s ever done.
“In reality, if you wanna call a spade a spade, we have those two albums, but neither of those albums were seen in the eyes of the people who voted for them as true hip-hop albums.”
Lil Nas X’s Montero, Doja Cat’s Planet Her and the ever-controversial Kanye West’s Donda help round out the crowded field for album of the year. All are highly successful projects: The albums by Lil Nas X and Doja Cat both hit No. 2 on Billboard‘s Hot 200 chart and elevated them to superstar status. West’s project — though not his most impressive — was almost guaranteed a spot in the category based on his star power. One is left to wonder, though, why the genre’s finest body of work in 2021, Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost, isn’t being considered for the award at all.
Tyler, the Creator’s project is up for best rap album, which he also won in 2020. His project was more of a, as Cochrane said, “true hip-hop album.” But that’s not a slight to the current crop of album of the year nominees. It is, however, an acknowledgment of how the overall sonic texture of the genre has morphed in recent years to a melodic, R&B-infused blend at times. Tyler, the Creator’s album was a more traditional hip-hop album — complete with hard-hitting beats and a Gangsta Grillz co-sign from DJ Drama, one of the most respected mixtape DJs in hip-hop history. Call Me If You Get Lost was both a critical darling and commercial powerhouse, earning Tyler, the Creator his second consecutive No. 1 album. So one’s left to wonder: Is there a certain style of rap the Recording Academy prefers? The kind that’s not too much like rap? Like everything else in the organization’s long history, the answer is more complex than just a simple yes or no.
It’s blatantly obvious that the Grammys and hip-hop have a contentious relationship. It’s a topic of conversation dating back more than 30 years. When the genre was finally recognized at the 1989 Grammy Awards, Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, Salt-N-Pepa and others boycotted the event because the rap categories were not televised. In Public Enemy’s “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic,” Chuck D called out the show, rhetorically asking, “Who gives a f— about a god damn Grammy?” In 1999, Jay-Z boycotted the Grammys over a slight to DMX, who wasn’t nominated despite dropping two No. 1 albums in 1998 with It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. And just this month, legendary Rap-A-Lot CEO James Prince called on Drake, West, Nicki Minaj and more to boycott this year’s show following West’s removal from the lineup of performers and the Grammys’ tense history with the genre.
Since Outkast’s win, there have been 104 Grammy nominations for album of the year. Of those, Black rap artists account for 16 (15%), while Black artists across all genres tallied 37 nominations (or 36%). A 2021 analysis of streaming numbers reinforces what’s long been obvious. Rap music is the face of popular music in America with 31.1% of all music streams in 2020 coming from hip-hop and R&B artists. How is it that a genre that wove itself into every aspect of the culture from sports to political campaigns and now fast-food diss track ads has come up empty-handed for the last 20 years in the album of the year category?
“The Recording Academy is absolutely akin to U.S. politics. What I mean by that is we represent a small minority, but a loud minority,” said Los Angeles-based music manager Bryan Sallis. “But as loud as we are about lack of representation, lack of being able to get certain people elected — the same in the academy — we’re also not going in and becoming voting members.”
Just how meaningful a shift has occurred within the Recording Academy remains to be seen. But its membership has become more diverse in recent years, starting at the top. In May 2021, Harvey Mason Jr. became the first Black person to serve as the body’s president and CEO.
Sources familiar with the Grammys told me its Black voting membership jumped over 5% in the last several years. Organizations such as Color of Change and the Black Music Action Coalition have been working to hold the Recording Academy accountable. And earlier this year, the academy announced a partnership with GLAAD to support and enhance LGBTQ+ inclusion in the music industry.
Like the Oscars and, unfortunately, politics, the Grammys are often a popularity contest. Because Recording Academy voters decide what’s worthy of praise, especially when it comes to the album of the year category, unfamiliarity with the breadth of the genre leaves deserving artists out. Sallis, a member of the academy, says a lot of progress can be made by mere participation.
“When Nipsey [Hussle] got nominated for best rap album for Victory Lap, [a lot of] people may not realize just how hard he worked and networked within the academy that entire year,” Sallis said. “He showed up to the mixers. He showed up to the meetings. He shook the hands. He kissed the babies. They knew who he was.
“Imagine a political candidate getting themselves on the ballot and then not doing any rallies, campaign stops or speeches. Unless you’re overwhelmingly popular like Drake or Kanye, [winning a Grammy] is campaigning. We have to participate in the process.”
Participation raises awareness about other artists. Since Outkast’s triumph, eight different hip-hop artists have been nominated for album of the year, with West receiving the most nods. But if a potential voter hasn’t listened to many projects, they can be tempted to vote for a person based on name recognition alone — not exactly the greatest indicator of quality. By adding younger, more diverse members to the Recording Academy, the Grammys is desperately hoping to avoid what happened to Kendrick Lamar and good kid, m.A.A.d city in 2014.
Lamar was far from the first artist to be snubbed at the Grammys, but just how it happened is a stain on the academy’s record. Not only did he lose to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for best rap album, he lost in all seven categories in which he was nominated that night, including album of the year. Couple that with Rihanna’s shutout in 2017 for Anti and Jay-Z’s winless night in 2018 for 4:44, and that’s an almost unfathomable 0 for 23 Grammy victories, including album of the year, for three of the most important albums and artists in recent history.
The only conclusion we can draw is that it’s not about the quality of the body of work, but rather the composition of the body that determines what wins and what does not.
Lamar has been involved in the two biggest snubs in recent Grammy history: the aforementioned fiasco with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis — who, to their credit, had a monster year with The Heist — and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, which he was featured on and lost to Adele’s 25 (the British singer would go on to praise Beyoncé from the stage, telling the audience she deserved to win instead). Lamar currently has 13 Grammy wins, but he is 0-for-5 in the album of the year category. This includes all of his solo projects, the Black Panther soundtrack he oversaw and Lemonade.
“DAMN. won a f—ing Pulitzer. How do you not get album of the year?” Cochrane asked rhetorically. “Whatever this next Kendrick album is, people have to pay attention. At some point you have to give him the Grammy.”
When and if Lamar wins, Cochrane said, it may be another first in Grammys history. Using his previous work as a guide, it could be the first “pure” hip-hop project to win album of the year.
“In his relatively short career, Kendrick’s output has been exceptional. He’s part of every critical conversation. He’s in the sociopolitical conversation. And Kendrick don’t be outside a lot. I wouldn’t know what Kendrick looks like right now had it not been for the Super Bowl,” she said, laughing. “He works with exceptional talent, too. His work, artistically, is at a really high level. Kendrick is our best hope [for album of the year]. I just don’t know how the Grammys don’t acknowledge him on that level at this point.”
Until then, though, the question of whether a hip-hop album can ever be a viable album of the year contender — and not just a token nominee — remains to be answered. That is, unless all hell breaks loose and West wins for Donda.
There isn’t one solution to fix the Grammys’ rap problem. The Recording Academy must continue to reverse course on the problematic way it conducted business in the past. Artists have to make better, more cohesive projects — and commit to promoting them. And academy members who view hip-hop as the world-shifting culture it’s proven to be must actually vote.
“It’s no different than when Obama won in 2008 because he got new voters involved,” said Sallis. “We gotta get younger and more diverse. When we have that, you’ll see those wins.”
Of course, one win this year or the next won’t suddenly change the structural issues that have plagued the Recording Academy since it was created in 1957 — the same year America balked at civil rights legislation and the NAACP protested for integration in the NFL and in public schools. The Grammys’ beef with rap is, in fact, the genre’s longest-running feud.
Social, cultural and ideological change matters if the Recording Academy’s next 60-plus years are to be better than its first. Black artists, hip-hop included, have been done dirty by the Grammys in the past. Now it’s up to the academy to decide just how clean it truly wants to become.