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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
"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.
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