It’s 2019. Hip-hop has been the biggest genre in music for more than two years now, but The Grammys still reek of bias against the genre. Recent snubs of iconic albums like Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy sting badly, but sadly they weren’t a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. And while The Grammys can continue to deny all the accusations made by fans and artists, it’s much more difficult to deny cold hard facts.
Here is the data that quantifies The Grammys’ bias and proves that it disrespects hip-hop more than than any other contemporary genre.
Hip-Hop and The Grammys: A History of Snubs and Bias
Every business deal needs to be mutually beneficial. The best negotiators spin and twist language and behaviour to make the other party feel they are getting an equal (or close to equal) cut of the earnings. Even circumstances and situations that look, from afar, entirely one-sided, either have a brilliant negotiator skewing the expectations of one party, or there are underlying benefits not visible to the naked eye.
The deal that The Grammys made with hip-hop is no longer mutually beneficial, and hasn’t been for a long time. The Grammys need hip-hop, but hip-hop doesn’t need them.
Hip-Hop’s (at times) perplexing relationship with The Grammys was once explained via the concept of “mutually beneficial”. As the newest major genre (Rock, Pop, Jazz, Country, and R&B have all been around significantly longer), acceptance and visibility from the music industry’s most iconic ceremony was a sure-fire way to increase the mainstream appeal of hip-hop.
We scoff at this idea in 2019, when the culture is more entrenched and mainstream hip-hop careers now span 4 decades, even dictating the sound of pop music. But it took time to get to this point, and as much as hip-hop began as an anti-establishment voice for a group of people who had been systematically oppressed for over 350 years, it’s undoubtedly also become a business.
When hip-hop arrived on the mainstream radar in 1986 via Licensed to Ill by The Beastie Boys (the first rap album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200), The Grammys became a part of growing the genre beyond local hubs, expanding it to all parts of the country. And in 2013, Jay-Z summed up this desire for mainstream visibility in a Breakfast Club interview, when discussing Kanye West:
‘Yeah I don’t want any money, I want to be a pure artist, and I don’t want to have’ uh, you know it’s the music business. If that’s the case then you should, any artist, not Kanye West, you should, they should just record in their basement and never enter the music business.” – Jay-Z on The Breakfast Club (2013)
Hip-hop entered the music business, and The Grammys are the industry’s most visible ceremony. At the time, it was mutually beneficial for both the genre and the awards show to collaborate, for vastly different reasons. Hip-hop is undoubtedly a distinct music genre, and for The Grammys to remain the all-encompassing, “revered” music award it wishes to be, hip-hop had to be included. So, in 1989, they created the award for Best Rap Performance, which extended to “Best Rap Solo Performance” in 1991, and finally, “Best Rap Album” in 1996.
The Grammys felt they were keeping their musical integrity by recognising hip-hop, and hip-hop was receiving huge mainstream exposure. But the history of the awards is littered with disrespect and dismissal of the genre, even leading to Jay-Z boycotting the awards completely from 1999 to 2004, despite his own record Vol. 2 Hard Knock Life recieving the nod for Best Rap Album in 1999.
Jay-Z boycotted because DMX released two huge No. 1 albums that year and didn’t receive a nomination. DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince boycotted the ceremony 10 years earlier because the hip-hop award for Best Rap Performance wasn’t even televised. Eminem skipped the ceremony when he won Best New Artist.
There are statistics that confirm the disrespect The Grammys have for hip-hop. By using the Album of the Year category, and looking at the numbers behind it, it becomes very very clear how the award show treats the genre.
Hip-Hop spent 171 weeks longer in the top 10 than Pop, and 280 weeks longer than Rock
It also made up 35 of the 52 weeks at No. 1, Pop was the other 17
Weeks in Top 10
— Hip Hop By The Numbers (@HipHopNumbers) February 9, 2019
In 2019, hip-hop is the most important and vital and popular genre in North America. I argue that the relationship hip-hop has with The Grammys is no longer mutually beneficial. The Grammys need hip-hop, but hip-hop does not need The Grammys.
Hip-Hop and AOTY: A History of Disrespect
Hip-hop’s first nomination in this category was MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt Em in 1991. By then, there were numerous No. 1 albums, numerous platinum albums, and The Beastie Boys were well on their way to Diamond status for their record Licensed to Ill. The same year as MC Hammer’s record was nominated, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet held an aggregate review score of 97/100. It was not nominated.
Rock has dominated the winners list since 1986. Surprisingly, jazz and folk have both out-performed hip-hop, and although R&B also won more often than hip-hop, considering how many nominations it’s received, 3 wins is quite low.
Folk has been nominated 3 times, and won 3 (Raising Sand, Babel, Morning Phase). Electronic also holds a 100% nomination-to-win ration, thanks to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories in 2014. Classical had one nomination but no wins, and isn’t significant in this analysis.
Both hip-hop and R&B have been burnt by the award show many times over. As the next graphic will show, the Grammys keep teasing, keep offering carrots to the genre by nominating hip-hop albums in the Album of the Year category, but continually overlooking them.
This graph shows an interesting trend. Rock was dominant all the way until the mid-2000s, and it began to taper off. Since the early 2000s, all 4 major genres have been represented more evenly in nominations. Look at the way hip-hop has risen, though, in the last 2 years. This clearly reflects the shift in mainstream dominance between the genres. Pop has fallen away since 2017. Hip-hop is now consistently out-charting and out-selling pop music on the whole.
Yet, hip-hop has been popular, relevant, and critically acclaimed since the late 1980s. So why exactly has it received fewer nominations and wins than rock and pop?
Any idea that the most popular or successful album of the year isn’t a major chance of winning the award is debunked by this graph. The prior award winners have been ultra successful and almost all very well received by critics.
13 of the 32 winners have been certified Diamond for doing $10 million in sales in North America. While the sales boost that accompanies winning the award can’t be discounted in these statistics, it’s unlikely that an Album of the Year victory would lead to 10 million extra sales. And 6 of the 13 Diamond albums were released since 2000, 3 of them this decade, including Adele’s album 25 in 2017.
Considering the above statistics, it becomes even more perplexing that more hip-hop albums haven’t been nominated, let alone won the award. There are more than 10 hip-hop albums that have sold above 9 million copies in the U.S., and only 4 of those have been nominated, with only 2 winning (Lauryn Hill and Outkast). Missing entirely from the nominations list are Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, DMX, Ja Rule, and 50 Cent. And despite the upturn in rap fortunes since 2007, the award hasn’t been won by a rap album since 2004.
There have been notable albums since 2000 that haven’t even received a nomination, including The Blueprint by Jay-Z (88 on Metacritic), and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West (94 on Metacritic). Both these records sold over 1 million copies.
There have been plenty of albums from other genres that have a score above 90 on Metacritic from the last 10 years, but very few of them meet the commercial success requirements that seem to be essential in winning Album of the Year. Artists like Leonard Cohen and Ry Cooder released critically acclaimed albums since 2009, but they didn’t sell particularly well in North America. This indicates the critical acclaim, impact, skill, talent etc are part of the criteria, but certainly not the defining criteria. Sales plays a huge role, and hip-hop sells more than any other genre in the past 3 years (judging by chart weeks, which are based on sales).
There have been rap albums nominated in the past that meet both the commercial and critical requirements to win the award, yet were overlooked. Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP is certified Diamond and picked up an 86.3 approval rating from critics, yet it lost to Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature, a record that is only certified platinum, with a 77 approval rating from critics.
Kanye’s The College Dropout lost to Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company. Their sales are similar, yet Kanye has an approval rating 13 points higher than Ray Charles. Kanye, perhaps more than any other artist, has been consistently snubbed in this category. In 2006 he was beaten by U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, which sits 6 points lower on Metacritic with similar sales than Late Registration. Then Kanye somehow lost in 2008, when Graduation was beaten by Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters. Hancock’s album sold 100,000 copies, with an approval rating of 73. Kanye’s Graduation sold 2 million copies, with an approval rating of 79.
I wrote this article prior to the 2018 Grammys ceremony. In it, I compared the chances of the two hip-hop albums nominated (4:44 by Jay-Z and DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar) with the other nominees. I predicted Bruno Mars would win with 24K Magic, and he did. That win is a brilliant example of why Kacey Musgrave’s Golden Hour nod in 2019, over Cardi B and Drake, makes no sense.
Both 24K Magic and DAMN. are certified triple Platinum. It could be argued, though, that 24K Magic had more commercial appeal: the album contained 3 singles that made it into the Hot 100 Top 4, including a number 1 hit. Whilst it’s a close comparison, on the whole, 24K Magic probably held more commercial cut-through than DAMN. (although both spent almost equal amounts in the Billboard 200: DAMN. 36 weeks in top 10, 24K Magic 40 weeks).
When you compare the critical receptions of the two albums, the gulf is damning. 24K Magic has a 70/100 aggregate rating on Metacritic. DAMN. has a 95/100 rating, which is 25 points higher – indicating universal, rapturous acclaim. Critics take everything about an album into consideration, except sales, as reviews are usually written well before charts are finalised. Impact, cohesion, artistic expression, these are all traits admired by reviewers. And clearly, DAMN. had this in excess, whilst 24K Magic has significantly less of it.
So, maybe 24K Magic won because it had bigger singles and a more mainstream appeal. Maybe.
Fast-forward just twelve months later. Kacey Musgraves wins with Golden Hour, an album that peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, has sold 141k total, and spent just 5 weeks in the top 100 of the album chart. However, it does hold an 89/100 on Metacritic…
Compare to Invasion of Privacy by Cardi B (2x Platinum, 43 weeks in Top 100 of album chart) and Scorpion by Drake (1x Platinum, 31 weeks in Top 100 of album chart). Even Black Panther Soundtrack performed better commercially than Musgraves’ award-winning album.
Cardi B’s record received 84/100 on Metacritic, but even if it had received 70/100 on Metacritic, it’d be impossible to argue that it had less cultural impact than Kacey Musgraves’ record.
So, in 2018, commercial and mainstream success was deemed more important than critical response (which incorporates impact, artistic expression, cohesion etc), and a hip-hop album lost. In 2019, critical response was deemed more important than commercial and mainstream success, and a hip-hop album lost.
If you are confused, imagine how the snubbed rappers and producers feel. It makes no literal or logical sense, and whilst music is subjective, if you are awarding someone “Album of the Year”, there must be some rhyme or reason, some structure to the criteria, some cohesion between winners. The only cohesion across the past 33 years of the award is an unceasing disrespect and dismissal of hip-hop.
The Grammys Need Hip-Hop, Not the Other Way Around
It’s 2019. Hip-hop no longer needs the Grammys. There is no longer a mutually beneficial relationship at play, and there hasn’t been for at least 15 years. The way the Grammys tease hip-hop every year to keep the genre interested, by offering performance slots and very very occasionally throwing a bone in the form of a major award (this year it was Childish Gambino winning Song of the Year, the first time a rapper has EVER won that award, which is wild), indicates the Grammys know full well they need hip-hop, and that hip-hop doesn’t need them. They don’t seem willing to accept the genre as the driving force behind music and pop culture in North America, and it’s time for hip-hop to stop accepting the Grammys, period.
Additional Reading on The Grammys’ Bias Against Hip-Hop:
This graph is a little old (current only through 2017) but it’s very nicely put together and also graphically shows how ridiculous The Grammys’ Album of the Year category has been with regards to hip-hop.