An Opinion Piece On The Continued Degradation Of Hip Hop’s Cultural Impact And Importance
Last night the 55th Annual Grammy Awards was televised. In what has been christened the defining ceremony to award the music industry’s brightest, most accomplished, and most talented, the program aired to an estimated 28.37 million viewers. Many of music’s highest profile celebrities were on hand, the gorgeous Jennifer Lopez strutting her thigh across the red carpet. R&B’s edgy royalty Chris Brown and Rihanna cozily sitting hand in hand in the front row. Taylor Swift representing her wholesome brand of pained country longing with a wide smile and a twinkling eye. The Grammys kicked off without any major hitches, with performances from Maroon 5, Alicia Keyes, Miguel, Frank Ocean, and the pop group Fun. There was however, one crucial element missing from the festivities….
Oh sure, Some of Hip Hop’s heavy hitters were present at the ceremony. The King and Queen of Cool themselves, Jay-Z and Beyonce, were seated right up front. Hip Hop’s rising superstar Drake, along with 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa and Tyler The Creator were also in attendance. Hip Hop legend Nas was a presenter and fellow legendary artist, actor, and author LL Cool J was the Master Of Ceremonies. So how could it be fact that with such an ensemble of the culture’s most respected and accomplished musicians present that Hip Hop was subjected to the bare-minimum of coverage and commemoration?
Well for starters, of the four categories dedicated to Hip Hop and Rap music that the Grammys currently have, Best Rap Album. Best Rap Performance. Best Rap Song. And Best Rap/Sung Collaboration; three of those four categories (including Best Rap Album) were NOT televised. That’s right, the televised Grammy ceremony only saw fit to air ONE category and their nominees during the roughly 3 1/2 hour stint. The three major Hip Hop awards are banished into the smaller Pre-ceremony event. Giving a genre which is estimated to bring in over $10 Billion dollars worth of yearly revenue no chance to receive proper appreciation.
The systematic disregarding of Hip Hop’s stature amongst popular music is nothing new. In 1989, a pre-megastar Will Smith, as one half of the popular rap duo D.J. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, boycotted their win of the first Grammy award ever given for Hip Hop, Best Rap Performance. Along with fellow nominees Salt & Pepper and LL Cool J, Smith’s reason for the boycott was because the award presentation was not televised.
“I’m not as happy as I could have been. . . . (The presentation not being televised) detracts from the excitement” Smith lamented in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. This sentiment was echoed 2 years later by the trail-blazing Rap group Public Enemy, who boycotted the 1991 Grammy ceremonies in which they were nominated for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group for their groundbreaking album Fear Of A Black Planet. Their boycott was in support of Russell Simmons, then president of Def Jam Recordings, remarks that not televising the award was “the same old broken-record snub of inner-city contributions to the music industry.” Again, Hip Hop’s major statesmen Jay-Z, until most recently would annually boycott the Grammys as a means of protest against the all too real disrespect that Hip Hop was subject too from the ceremonies.
“I didn’t think they gave the rightful respect to hip-hop,” Jay told MTV News in 2002, explaining why he has avoided the awards show since 1999 despite several nominations and a win for Best Rap Album.
“It started that they didn’t nominate DMX that year,” he said. “DMX had an incredible album. He didn’t get a nomination. I was like, ‘Nah, that’s crazy.’ “
While it is true that here and there the Grammys have seen fit to throw Hip Hop a bone or two when it comes to properly acknowledging its artists and their incredible contributions, it often comes as a result of overwhelming sales success. Of the thirteen Rap albums to be nominated for the prestigious Album Of The Year Category since 1997, two have won. Lauryn Hill’s genre defining landmark The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill in 1999 and Outkast’s sprawling magnum opus SpeakerBoxx/The Love Below in 2004. Both albums had the distinction of being the best selling albums amongst their competition as well as receiving unanimous critical acclaim. Both albums were experimental combinations of genre mixing, with Ms. Hill incorporating elements of Neo Soul, Jazz, R&B and traditional Hip Hop. While Outkast opted to package two solo albums as one double album with both showcasing opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Big Boi’s half was more traditional Hip Hop, with elements of George Clinton inspired funk and heavy southern bass. Andre 3000′s offering was an ambitious departure from Hip Hop almost entirely, singing soulfully over spacey high concept production while infusing elements of pop, jazz, blues, classical, and every psychedelic wet dream Prince ever dared whisper into Apollonia’s ear into a wonderful soundscape of perfection. Those two albums were unfortunately to be the exception, not the rule, of Hip Hop’s presence within the major categories.
Kanye West, unarguably Hip Hop’s most progressive artist of the 2000′s, lost his first three nominations for Album Of The Year, despite attaining almost astronomical critical and commercial success. His first album, The College Dropout is routinely cited as one of the most influential albums of the last decade, inspiring a legion of newer artists such as Drake, Big Sean, Childish Gambino, J.Cole and Kid Cudi (all of whom have sustained sizable success of their own) as well as popularizing various methods of sampling and production. The College Dropout lost out on the 2005 Album Of The Year award to a posthumous Ray Charles release, Genius Loves Company, which was neither an above average release for the legend himself nor as critically acclaimed or successful as Kanye’s release. Hear the Grammys chose to award a deceased legend instead of a prodigal newcomer, fair enough. However, what certainly strikes one as an affront though, is that when five years later upon the release of Mr. West’s fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he was completely snubbed from the Album Of The Year category. Well perhaps Mr. West’s album wasn’t as critically or commercially successful as his album’s of past you might venture to guess.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was, as calculated by Metacritic, the highest reviewed ALBUM of the year 2010. Garnering a rare 5 Star rating from Rolling Stone, A 5 Mic “Classic” rating from Hip Hop’s The Source Magazine editorial, a 95 from Billboard, and a placement at number 1 from Time Magazine’s Best Of The Year listing. It debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Top 200 charts with 496,000 copies sold in its first week, marking the fourth best opening week of an album for the year 2010.
Neil McCormick of The Telegraph said of Kanye’s masterpiece
“My Dark Twisted Fantasy may be the Sgt. Pepper of hip hop. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that mashes together the sonic invention and cut and paste construction of hip hop with the scale of stadium rock, the grooves of clubland, the passion of soul music and the melodic and harmonic daring of a classicist. It’s lovingly assembled with megalomaniac grandeur but driven with the emotional neediness of a man desperate to express himself.”
“Kanye West has made the album of the year. Here is an artist so far ahead of the field, he may as well be in a different field altogether.”
And yet, with perhaps the entire industry singing his praises, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was misrepresented at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, garnering only 1 nomination amongst the 4 major categories (For Song Of The Year: All Of The Lights) which he would lose to Adele. He garnered three other nominations amongst the rap categories (only one of them televised) with a win for Best Rap Album. On the snubbing, renowned music journalist Toure’ wrote
“I don’t pretend to understand the Grammys. I have never been able to discern a consistent logic around who gets nominated or who gets statues. I comprehend the particular logic of the Oscars, but not the big awards for music. My normal state of confusion around what drives Grammy decisions was exponentialized this week when, to the shock of many, Kanye’s masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was not nominated for a Grammy for Album of the Year. MBDTF was nominated for Rap Album of the Year and one of its singles, “All of the Lights,” was nominated for Song of the Year, but these are unwelcome booby prizes that remove the excuse many thought of first: that the album was forgotten by Grammy voters because it came out relatively long ago, by which I mean at the very beginning of the eligibility period.”
All of these instances of disregard for Hip Hop’s shining stars and their musical endowments are egregious, but what of the other side? What about the rappers who DO win in the respective Hip Hop categories? Be they televised or not, many artists who win a Grammy can benefit from the platform of being recognized by the academy, with sales for artist’s albums routinely increasing after the renewed media attention that a Grammys victory brings them. So which albums and songs are being rewarded and what do giving these awards say about Hip Hop as a genre of music?
Let us use last night’s categories as an example. Legendary Hip Hop lyricist Nas led the way with nominations in all four Rap categories. His superbly brilliant Life Is Good album was released last year to resounding critical acclaim (currently ranking at 81% on Metacritic, which denotes universal acclaim) decent sales (debuted at number 1 on billboards top 200) and made several Best Of Year End Lists. ( Rolling Stone, The Source, XXL) The album included the single Daughters, a highly poignant, mature accounting of the struggles of raising a teenage daughter as a single man. The song’s often at times self-deprecating honesty about his fatherhood flaws as well as unconditional commitment to his daughter’s well- being is a deeply unique viewing of paternal love that is not seen prevalent in mainstream rap songs.
Jayson Greene of Pitchfork writes
“He’s more open-hearted on Life Is Good than he has been since God’s Son. “Daughters”, his sweetly reflective response to the condom-gate that is no less sweet for its slight lyrical awkwardness (he refers to what is presumably Twitter just as “the social network”), finds him examining the responsibilities of fatherhood with fond bewilderment”
If the Grammys were to reward a song of substance from an album of substance from an artist of substance who has represented the genre in its highest musical excellence for the past twenty-one years, it would be Daughters. Nominated for both Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance it represents the pinnacle of what Hip Hop can be. Poetic, introspective, descriptive, beautiful, entertaining, and cultivating. So when the Grammys instead awarded Jay-Z and Kanye West’s musically infectious but lyrically lacking anthem of sophisticated ignorance Niggas In Paris with both Best Rap Performance and Rap Song it speaks to what academy truly thinks of Hip Hop. The best rap song and the best rap performance are two distinct things, Jay-Z and Kanye can PERFORM Niggas In Paris 11 straight times during a sold out tour and the crowd will whip themselves into a euphoric frenzy each and every time, if that’s not the definition of the best rap performance I don’t know what is. However, as a SONG it can’t equate to the craftsmanship of Daughters. Daughters is a song that will resonate with generations of fathers to come, with a message of fatherly devotion that is timeless. Niggas In Paris will ultimately be remembered along with Nelly’s Hot In Herre, Souljah Boy’s Crank Dat, and Ja Rule’s entire discography as a song that captured the essence of the urban club scene at a moment in time. Nothing wrong with either song, however one was more suited to win one category and the other another. That the same song won BOTH, simply because of the mainstream name recognition of Jay- Z and Kanye cheapens the genre’s creative contribution.
An artist known for his ability to write and craft incredible songs goes unrewarded in a category for which his song should have been easily recognized. So not only are the Grammys snubbing deserving Hip Hop artists of major all genre inclusive categories, failing to televise the categories that they ARE nominated for, and refusing to reward the deserving artists in those categories. They are perhaps, inadvertently ( PERHAPS purposefully) sending the message that only one type of Hip Hop music, namely that which caters to simplicity, is the only music from the genre that deserves recognition. This type of message is deeply troubling, as it perpetuates a certain negative stereotype of the genre. A stereotype that Puff Daddy, who writes none of his own lyrics and produces none of his own beats, has a Grammy while Nas, who was recently dubbed by CNN as the greatest lyricist of all time, has zero. A stereotype that Kanye West is undeserving of an Album Of The Year nomination because his critically acclaimed album happened to be a RAP Album. A stereotype that while LL Cool J might be good enough to host the entire awards ceremony, when its his time to perform along with elder statesmen Chuck D, his set gets cut short. It is a stereotype that Hip Hop, as an extension of African American culture, despite the numerous contributions that that culture has endowed to popular music, is not good enough.
How long will we allow this message to permeate? How many of our legends, our pioneers, our idols, our authors, our producers, and our Artists will go unsung?
“ I love Maroon 5, but when I lost Best New Artist to Maroon 5 … you know what I mean? Or when ‘Watch the Throne’ and ‘Dark Fantasy,’ neither of them got nominated for Album of the Year, you know what I mean? Or when ‘N*ggas in Paris’ didn’t get nominated for Record of the Year, you know what I mean? So don’t expect to see me at the Grammys”- Kanye West
In 2013, this is NOT good enough.
Alonge “Ziggiy” Hawes