Rap music and the Grammys go together about as well as peanut butter and shellfish and the voters happen to be allergic to both. Whether it’s Macklemore winning over Kendrick or Kanye never receiving Album of the Year, the seemingly tone deaf nature of the process has been very evident in recent years. This year’s rap honors were a mixed bag of the triumphant and the head-scratching.
Let’s start with the former. Chance the Rapper singlehandedly changed the game with Coloring Book. In his already legendary feature on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam,” he said that he had to “sell it to snatch the Grammy” but with a rule change allowing streaming-only projects to be considered for awards, free music was finally getting the chance to be recognized by the industry as a viable format of consuming music. Not that it needed the validation, but it’s always nice to be recognized for excellent work. Chance’s beautiful juxtaposition of gospel, rap, R&B, and pop made for a monster mixtape, or whatever term you want to label it, and it was deserving of all honors.
Now let’s move on to the head-scratching. In the pre-show, Best Rap/Sung Performance and Best Rap Song were awarded to Drake’s mega-hit “Hotline Bling.”
Two questions arise in the wake of last night: Is “Hotline Bling” a rap song? Is the award given based on chart impact or listener impact?
I’ll answer the first question with another question: are there actual raps in “Hotline Bling?” Drake, being the versatile artist that he is, creates music that spans multiple genres. He makes rap, pop, and r&b and just because he is a “rapper” doesn’t mean that he is pigeonholed to make music in that specific lane. The song would’ve been better suited for the pop category. Then again, the rap genre is an eclectic genre with many different sounds and textures so in that regard it’s hard to say what exactly a rap song is, but for argument’s sake, there were nominees with more “traditional” rap performances.
Definitions aside, the question of more importance is the second one: is a song in the top 10 on the charts more deserving of an award solely based on its performance? One could argue that a song like “Ultralight Beam” by Kanye or “Freedom” by Beyonce is more impactful based on it’s subject matter, production, and the context in which it was released. It sometimes seems like the Recording Academy is consistently reckless with the rap categories but let’s take a closer look.
The recent history for the Best Rap/Sung Performance category before this year:
- 2016: “These Walls”- brilliantly executed song on a universally acclaimed album. No competition in my mind
- 2015: “The Monster”- A pick based on history in a weak nominee class. I would’ve picked Bound 2
- 2014: “Holy Grail”- Two of music’s biggest stars made this a super hit in a year where both artists dominated
- 2013: “No Church in the Wild”- great verses by two of rap’s biggest stars and an amazing feature by emerging star Frank Ocean
- 2012: “All of the Lights”- standout track on one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the last decade
When it comes to this category, they get it right more times than not. Some years there’s a weaker pool of nominees or the musical climate changes due to political or social issues. That’s what makes this year particularly confounding: a category with such powerful nominees in a year that saw some amazing music being released combining social issues, pop appeal, and great songwriting and they opted for the big hit.
What we know for sure is to expect the unexpected and that there’s always going to be something that is beyond our comprehension but rest assured: awards don’t definitively determine what music is “good” or not. Music impacts everyone differently and no award should ever dictate what is worthy of your ear, your mind, and your heart.
P.S. Anti or Work deserved at least one Grammy