It's a big year for rap at The Grammys, but who's really winning?
This weekend’s Grammy Awards will mark only the third time in the history of the ceremony that two hip-hop LPs are nominated for Album of the Year. But unlike The Eminem Show vs. Nellyville in 2003 (both albums lost out to Norah Jones’ cabaret juggernaut Come Away with Me) and OutKast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below vs. Missy Elliott’s Under Construction in 2004 (the Atlanta duo rightfully claimed the award after dominating the charts with “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move”), this year’s contest feels like a real showdown. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city is up for the ceremony’s most prestigious honor alongside Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ commercial breakthrough, The Heist. If either wins, it’ll be a good look for hip-hop: hip-hop and R&B were ubiquitous on pop radio this year, and the award’s only gone to a rap album twice before. But after a year where not a single black artist had a number one single on Billboard’s pop chart, Macklemore’s nominations feel like further evidence of the color being blanched out of a genre first borne out of the inner city and the struggles of its inhabitants.
good kid and The Heist found Lamar and Macklemore at similar stations in their career, and both represent years of hard work finally paying off handsomely. By the time of their respective releases in October, 2012, Kendrick had been at it for nearly ten years, and Macklemore almost thirteen. But their music played on that experience in very different ways. Kendrick’s album told the tightly wound story of a group of Compton teens falling prey to drugs and crime while still finding time for thoughtfully knotty hits like “Swimming Pools (Drank),” a song about the ills of alcohol abuse cleverly disguised as a drinking anthem. Macklemore, meanwhile, was powered to national renown by “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love,” both supremely, even gratingly poppy singles that hip-hop insiders criticized for their sanctimonious ideology, the former for its ribbing of hip-hop materialism and the latter for sermonizing its support of gay rights (I quote: If I was gay, I would think that hip-hop hates me). While Kendrick surveyed neighborhood rot at street level, Macklemore wrote with a distance that many read as smug. As such, some people will see a Macklemore Album of the Year win as a loss, proof that the bratty pop-rap of “Thrift Shop” carries a greater commercial and critical currency than the conceptually dense, lyrically dexterous brand of hip-hop that Kendrick champions.
Clearly, the Grammy rap committee has reservations of its own about Macklemore. Earlier this week, an unnamed AP source divulged that a majority of voters on this year’s rap committee did not want Macklemore & Ryan Lewis nominated in any of their categories, citing their overwhelming “success on mainstream radio and their appeal in the pop world.” Hip-hop radio agreed. While “Thrift Shop” topped Billboard’s 2013 year-end Hot 100 chart, it never topped the R&B/Hip-Hop airplay chart, and in February of last year, when it bypassed Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” to claim the Hot 100’s top spot, it wasn’t even a blip on the hip-hop radio chart. Macklemore himself is acutely aware of his music’s greater appeal to the pop community than the hip-hop one. Asked about his Grammy prospects in the latest issue of The Source, he judiciously laid out his case: “We obviously had massive success on commercial radio, and I think that, in ways, The Heist was a bigger album, but Kendrick has a better rap album.”
He’s right. Though both albums have sold at the same pace, good kid was a more cohesive and deliberately arranged work, while much of The Heist’s appeal to a Grammy voting committee will probably revolve around the three singles that went platinum two, four, and seven times over, respectively ("Same Love," "Can't Hold Us" and "Thrift Shop.") Their familiarity is due in part to Macklemore’s presentation of hip-hop in a package that’s palatable for middle America. “I’m a white guy,” he told Rolling Stone in August. “Parents feel safe. They let their six-year-olds listen to [my music].” But safety and six-year-olds have scarcely made for great hip-hop, and Macklemore’s busing of rap into suburban SUV speakers on the strength of earworm hooks and listeners’ comfort with his whiteness isn’t necessarily grounds for a win—not when there’s a more challenging and rewarding work by a rapper who's also in running, and one who speaks for, not at, the black community.
Perhaps the safest prediction is that Lamar will win the Best Rap Album award that both have been nominated for, but not Album of the Year, since the Compton rapper’s singles weren’t as impactful as his competition’s. (There’s also a good chance that Album of the Year will go to Taylor Swift’s beloved country-pop opus Red, which sold well over a million copies the first week out and proffered an army of Billboard Top 10 hits, or perhaps Daft Punk’s swanky AOR comeback album Random Access Memories, home to the ineffable, inescapable “Get Lucky.”) Whether or not it wins a top honor, The Heist will inevitably take home something this year—it’s too big not to—so that leaves Macklemore & Ryan Lewis as probable winners for Best New Artist and possibly Song of the Year, for “Same Love.” To avoid widely broadcast gripes from black artists and fans lashing out against appropriation, it’s likely the Recording Academy will try and spread this year’s awards around, knowing that a Macklemore sweep would offend more than it would please.
2013 wasn’t a year with one clear dominating musical force the way, say, 2012 was, with Adele’s unstoppable 21, and it behooves this year’s ceremony to do justice to the far-ranging variety of artists who killed it last year by acknowledging their efforts. One would hope the rap community’s mutiny, expressed by this year’s nominating committee and across Twitter, will create a space for wins by equally qualified rap nominees who, like Macklemore, work somewhere on the cusp between the increasingly hard-to-distinguish rap and pop genres (Drake, Kanye, Jay-Z). As for this Sunday’s top award, a win for Kendrick isn’t impossible. If we learned anything from the Arcade Fire’s Album of the Year win for The Suburbs in 2011, it’s that every now and then, the Grammys will toss the young, hip nominee the win to show they aren’t the army of dads and granddads people take them for. Maybe that would kick off a move toward the academy voting in tandem with popular public opinion rather than against it.