Graham: At long last, it’s rap’s turn at the Grammys
Kendrick Lamar is favored to win Album of the Year on Sunday, becoming the first rap artist since OutKast to win the prize
A prediction for Sunday night’s Grammy awards: A rap album will win Album of the Year.
This shouldn’t be a huge deal now, in 2018, almost 40 years since the Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight” and changed the sound and scope of modern music. Yet it has only happened twice in Grammy history: in 1999 when Lauryn Hill won for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and in 2004 when OutKast won for “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.”
There have been plenty of other chances for rap albums to win on music’s biggest night. M.C. Hammer’s “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em” was the first rap album nominated for Album of the Yea in 1991 (it lost to Quincy Jones’ “Back on the Block”). The Fugees were nominated in 1997 (they lost to Celine Dion), Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP” famously lost to Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature” in 2001, and albums by Kanye West, Missy Elliott, Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, to name a few, have been nominated for but have failed to win the Grammy’s biggest prize.
That changes now. All signs point to Lamar’s “Damn” winning best album, which would make him the first non-white performer to win the trophy in a decade. And it’s about damn time.
It’s not just corrective, it’s deserved. Hip-hop is not only the sound of the youth, it’s the sound of the culture.
Look at the Spotify charts. Routinely, hip-hop or rap tracks dominate the service’s most-streamed songs. This week, the Top 10 songs on Spotify’s U.S. chart included eight rap songs, while the other two were collaborations between pop artists and rappers. Last year, of the 14 songs that reached the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, seven were rap songs.
Yet when it comes to awarding rap albums at the Grammys, there always seems to be a hiccup.
In 2005, Kanye West’s “The College Dropout” lost to Ray Charles’ posthumous duets album “Genius Loves Company,” a career honorarium for Charles and an album that no one has listened to since. Kanye fell again the following year to U2’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” an album which, in retrospect, began the band’s slow fall from relevance. Kanye was blanked a third time when his “Graduation” lost to Herbie Hancock’s Joni Mitchell tribute album “River: The Joni Letters,” which, what? Huh?
Kanye hasn’t been nominated in the category since, despite warranting nominations with “808s & Heartbreak,” “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and “Yeezus.”
It’s not just that the Grammys are out of touch, but that’s part of it, especially when it comes to Album of the Year. In 1994, the year of Green Day’s “Dookie,” Hole’s “Live Through This,” Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral,” Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy,” Weezer’s first album, Portishead’s “Dummy,” Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” and the debut albums from Nas and the Notorious B.I.G., the Album of the Year nominees were: Seal, Bonnie Raitt, The Three Tenors, Eric Clapton and eventual winner Tony Bennett, crowned for his “MTV Unplugged” album. Grammy ballots were apparently mailed alongside AARP newsletters that year.
The Grammys have gotten better in recent years, with nomination pools better reflecting the sound of the times. Recent winners include Taylor Swift (2010 and 2016), Adele (2012 and 2017) and Daft Punk (2014). But performers of color have curiously been left out of the winner’s circle, most notably when Beyoncé’s self-titled set lost to Beck’s “Morning Phase” in 2015.
This year, there’s no excuse for a rap album not to take home Album of the Year honors. Lamar leads the pack with likely winner “Damn,” a timely, stirring set from hip-hop’s poet of the moment. Jay-Z’s “4:44” is also a worthy candidate, but a win may be seen by some as veteran favoritism. Jay has never been nominated in the category before, and a win could be read like a late pass, the same way the Grammys gave Bob Dylan Album of the Year for “Time Out of Mind” in 1998.
The other Album of the Year nominees are Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic,” Lorde’s “Melodrama” and Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!” A strong field, but it’s Lamar’s award to lose. And it’s the Grammys time to get things right and make up for lost time.
Other major categories to watch:
Song/Record of the Year: Song of the Year is a songwriter’s award, and Record of the Year goes to the performer and the producers. Both awards should go to Luis Fonsi’s cross-genre megahit “Despacito.” The song was perched at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for four months and was streamed billions of times across the globe. If it doesn’t win, something is wrong.
Best New Artist: R&B singer SZA, aka New Jersey newcomer Solána Rowe, is the favorite in a field that includes Khalid, Lil Uzi Vert, Julia Michaels and Alessia Cara. But don’t count out Cara, who has a handful of megahits to her credit, including “Stay,” her collaboration with Zedd.
Best Pop Vocal Album: Ed Sheeran’s “Divide” — snubbed in the big categories — will likely shine here, over entries from Lana Del Rey, Coldplay, Kesha, Imagine Dragins and Lady Gaga.
Lamar should be happy Sheeran isn’t nominated in the Album of the Year category; it would be the perfect opportunity for the Grammys to be the same ol’ Grammys.
But not this year.