Rap At The Grammys

Paul Grein
Stop The Presses!

Nicki Minaj has seemed to be the front-runner to win the Grammy for Best New Artist since her debut album, Pink Friday, entered The Billboard 200 at #2 in November 2010. The album later reached #1. Minaj has amassed five top 10 singles, counting featured credits on hits by Trey Songz, Drake, Big Sean and David Guetta. But there's a complicating factor: Grammy voters rarely vote for rap artists in the "Big Four" categories—Album, Record and Song of the Year and Best New Artist.

Although rap has been a key part of pop culture for three decades, just two hip-hop artists (Arrested Development and Lauryn Hill) have won for Best New Artist.

Puff Daddy was nominated as Best New Artist of 1997, but lost to Paula Cole, who had a pair of big hits that year ("Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" and "I Don't Want To Wait"), and then faded from view. Despite having the #1 album of 2003, Get Rich Or Die Tryin', 50 Cent lost as that year's Best New Artist to the rock group Evanescence.

The following year, Kanye West lost to Maroon 5. Yet West was nominated for Album of the Year for each of his first three albums, The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation. He was nominated for Record of the Year for his 2005 smash "Gold Digger" (featuring Jamie Foxx). Maroon 5 has yet to be nominated in either of those headline-generating categories.

Drake was nominated for Best New Artist last year, but, in one of the most jaw-dropping moments in Grammy history, lost to classical artist Esperanza Spalding.

But at least those rappers were nominated for the award. Jay-Z and Eminem weren't so lucky. That's not so surprising in the case of Jay-Z. His debut album, Reasonable Doubt, was a hit in 1996, but he really came into his own with the release of his third album, Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, in 1998. But it is surprising in the case of Eminem, whose 1999 debut, The Slim Shady LP, was an instant hit. (The winner that year: Christina Aguilera.)

So will Minaj's name be called out on Feb. 12 when the 54th annual Grammy Awards are presented at Staples Center in Los Angeles? It may come down to whether the voters' attraction to female solo artists in the New Artist category (females have won in 13 of the last 20 years) outweighs their inclination not to vote for rap artists in this and other "Big Four" categories.

No rap hits have ever won for Record or Song of the Year. Just two hip-hop albums (Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill and OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below) have won for Album of the Year. (And Hill's album was slotted in R&B rather than rap, which suggests that the academy saw her on the R&B side of hip-hop.)

This year, all five nominees for Best Rap Album reached #1 on The Billboard 200, which is a sign of the strength of the field. Those albums are Pink Friday, Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the West/Jay-Z collaboration Watch The Throne, Lil Wayne's The Carter IV and Lupe Fiasco's Lasers. Yet none of these albums was nominated for Album of the Year.

Is this a "snub," to use the favorite word of pundits? Not any more than it's a "snub" that no country albums made the Album of the Year finals this year, despite such strong entries as Taylor Swift's Speak Now and Jason Aldean's My Kinda Party. The simple fact is that there are many albums from many genres competing for just five slots. Some worthy contenders are bound to be left out.

Besides, with rap, the problem isn't so much getting nominated in the top categories as winning.

In January 1980, Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" became the first rap hit to break into the top 40 on Billboard's Hot 100. But the Grammys didn't have any categories devoted to rap until 1988, when they added one for Best Rap Performance. (The first winner was D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's universally relatable "Parents Just Don't Understand.")

Tone Loc was the first rap artist to receive a Grammy nomination in one of the "Big Four" categories. The rapper, who had two smash hits in 1989, "Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina," was nominated as Best New Artist that year. (He lost to Milli Vanilli, whose award was subsequently revoked after it was revealed that the photogenic duo hadn't actually sung on its album.)

M.C. Hammer's 1990 blockbuster Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em was the first rap album to receive an Album of the Year nomination. Hammer's exuberant smash "U Can't Touch This" was the first rap single to receive a Record of the Year nomination.  These were the only rap recordings to receive nominations in these marquee categories under the old voting system, in which voting members of the Recording Academy determined the final nominations in the top categories. Starting in 1995, largely in an effort to make the nominations more contemporary and relevant, a panel was instituted to review the members' choices and make the final selections.

The first year that the panel was in place, two hip-hop smashes were nominated for Record of the Year: "Gangsta's Paradise" by Coolio featuring L.V. and TLC's "Waterfalls," a category-defying blend of pop, soul and rap elements.

Since 1995, 13 rap or hip-hop albums have been nominated for Album of the Year. But, as noted, only two have won. (While the panel decides the final nominations in the top categories, the full voting membership determines the winners.)

Three times, rap albums have been defeated by albums by veteran R&B or jazz musicians. Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em lost to Quincy Jones' Back On The Block. West's sophomore album, 2005's Late Registration, lost to Ray Charles' posthumous Genius Loves Company. West's third album, 2007's Graduation, lost to Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters.

All three of those winning albums had a retrospective quality to them. Jones' album was billed as a trip through African American musical history "from be-bop to hip-hop." Charles' album was a series of duet recordings of his greatest hits. Hancock's album was a dip into Joni Mitchell's acclaimed songbook.

Don't get the idea that rappers go home empty-handed from the Grammys. Kanye West, Eminem and Jay-Z have won a combined total of 40 Grammy Awards. (West has won 14, more than any other rapper. Eminem and Jay-Z have each won 13.) But just three of those awards have come outside of the rap field. Eminem's 2002 video for "Without Me" won Best Short Form Music Video. Jay-Z won Best R&B Song of 2003 for co-writing Beyonce's "Crazy In Love," on which he was featured. West won Best R&B Song of 2004 for co-writing Alicia Keys' hit "You Don't Know My Name."

Grammys in the rap field count, of course. No one questions Grammy voters' love for Aretha Franklin just because all but three of her 18 Grammys have come for R&B. (Those other three were for gospel or soul gospel.)

Eminem and West have each received three Album of the Year nominations. Jay-Z has yet to be nominated for Album of the Year for one of his own albums, though he was nominated as a featured artist on Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III.

Eminem's history at the Grammys is instructive. The rapper fully came into his own with his sophomore album, The Marshall Mathers LP, which was the second best-selling album of 2000. But it lost to Steely Dan's Two Against Nature. Steely Dan had long been Grammy favorites (their 1977 album Aja and its 1980 follow-up, Gaucho, had both been nominated for Album of the Year), but the duo's win in 2001 was probably also due to the fact that some voters just couldn't bring themselves to vote for Eminem. (The reason that year probably had more to do with his envelope-pushing language, and perceived misogyny and homophobia, than the fact that he is a rap artist.)

Eminem's 2002 follow-up album, The Eminem Show, lost to Norah Jones' blockbuster, Come Away With Me. That wasn't seen as a "snub" of rap, but merely a choice of one worthy album over another.

When Eminem was nominated for a third time last year for Recovery, it seemed like he couldn't miss. Since the Steely Dan upset, he had proved his staying power, come back from a mini-slump and even won an Oscar for Best Song for the anthemic "Lose Yourself." What's more, the key hit from Recovery, "Love The Way You Lie," dealt with a serious issue, domestic violence. But Recovery lost to Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. Arcade Fire is a critically-lauded group, but it's telling that they didn't have to "wait their turn," as rap artists often do. They won with only their third album.

The academy strives to be even-handed in its treatment of all genres. This year, the academy has four awards in the rap field, the same number as in the pop, rock, R&B, country, jazz and Latin fields. Just three fields have more categories. Classical leads with seven. Two broad fields have five categories each: "Gospel/Contemporary Christian Music" and "American Roots Music," an umbrella field which includes such genres as bluegrass, blues and folk.

But there are indications that the academy hasn't always seen rap as equal to other leading genres. The academy added an award for Best Rap Album in 1995, one year after it introduced album awards in pop, rock, R&B and country. Granted, one year isn't that big a deal. But how about this? The academy added an award for Best Rap Song in 2003. It had had a category for Best Country Song since 1964, Best R&B Song since 1968 and Best Rock Song since 1991.

If the academy sees the lack of awards for rap in the "Big Four" categories as a problem, there are several ways to address it. An obvious one would be to have the panel that selects the nominees in the top categories also choose the winners. That would probably get the job done, but it would give too much power to too few people. A better way would be to step up the academy's ongoing effort to attract more voting members from the rap community.

A third way would be to have voting members have to demonstrate that they are still actively involved in the music industry by re-qualifying for voting membership every five or seven years. As it stands now, once someone has earned credits on six or more projects, they qualify for lifetime membership (as long as they keep paying their annual dues). Under a system where members would have to re-qualify to retain voting privileges, members who didn't have fresh credits would shift to "Member Emeritus" status, where they would be non-voting members. This would probably push those members who are most resistant to rap out of the voting body.

Early rap recordings are now eligible for the Grammy Hall of Fame. (Recordings must be at least 25 years old to qualify for this honor.) This year, "The Message," the socially-conscious 1982 classic by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, became the first rap song to be voted into the Hall of Fame. It wasn't even nominated for a Grammy back in 1982.

"The Message" of this blog is that the Grammys have come a long way in coming to terms with rap, but still have a ways to go.