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Grammys 2023: They Still Can’t Get Rap Right

The Grammys have a checkered relationship with rap, from not airing their major rap categories on the official Grammy telecast to infamous snubs like Macklemore over Kendrick and confusion over the actual parameters of rap that came to a head this fall with Nicki Minaj and Latto. There were fewer glaring mistakes in this year’s nominations, especially with Drake’s boycott freeing up slots. However, a few head-scratching decisions highlight how far The Grammys are from getting it right.

Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is the sole rap nomination for Album of the Year, snubbing Pusha T’s widely acclaimed album, It’s Almost Dry. DJ Khaled and Jack Harlow were nominated multiple times, while in-demand artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Durk, and Vince Staples are on the outside looking in. “God Did” and “Churchill Downs” seem to be nominated predominantly for stellar verses from Jay-Z and Drake, respectively. And once again, there were no nominations for rappers making music outside the major label bubble.

But things weren’t all bad. Hittkidd and Glo Rilla’s “F.N.F. (Let’s Go)” smash received a much-deserved nod for Best Rap Performance, putting a bow on a banner rookie season for the young Memphis native. The Hitkidd-produced track was a TikTok sensation that eventually became the song of the summer for many. There would have been years that the academy would overlook a young rapper with a grassroots ascendance, but “FNF” was too fun to deny. You could even say she was snubbed in this year’s Best New Artist category. 

Still, Gunna and Young Thug’s nominations for “Pushin P” are a welcome addition. Gunna was poised to have the biggest year of his career before being swept into the YSL indictment in May. “Pushin P” was the catalyst of his would-be breakout, as the “P” emoji became a viral sensation that buoyed the sleek DS4Ever single to Gunna’s first top 10 selection on Billboard Hot 100. The sobering reality is that we don’t know the next time Gunna or Young Thug will be in the Grammy conversation; it was great to see them there this year. 

Hip-Hop is the fulcrum of popular music, but the Grammy committee still tokenizes it. For example, only Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers will be in consideration for Album of the Year, even though Pusha T’s It’s Almost Dry is worthy. Pusha T isn’t the commercial powerhouse that Kendrick (or Beyoncé, Adele) is, but that shouldn’t factor into discussions about musical quality. For many, the debate over 2022’s best rap album has been between Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, and It’s Almost Dry. Deciding between the two is mulling a polarizing, introspective double album vs. a lyrical masterpiece produced by a suite of musical geniuses; it’s one of the most exciting discussions in music this year, and the Album of the Year nominees should reflect that. 

Elsewhere, the Grammy committee opted to laud a few prominent names to a needless degree. Jack Harlow’s Best Melodic Rap nomination for the ubiquitous “First Class” makes sense, but his other two nominations don’t. Drake’s resurgent verse is the sole highlight of “Churchill Downs,” and he’s boycotting the Grammys — is the Best Rap Song nomination about forcing the Toronto megastar into the mix? Harlow’s Come Home, the Kids Miss You, nominated for Best Rap Album, debuted at number three on Billboard and contained multiple hits. Still, the overall body of work was underwhelming. 

DJ Khaled benefitted from a similar kind of inertia this Grammy season. For years, the bombastic sloganeer has dropped his feature-laden projects, rode their stardom overload to number one, rinsed, and repeated. He billed God Did as another rap all-star game. Still, the project’s Best Rap Album nomination comes at a time when more people than ever acknowledge that the DJ Khaled album is akin to a pro-am game where artists appear more as a gesture to their friend than out of any competitive zeal. Khaled benefitted from Jay-Z’s stellar appearance on “God Did,” as the verse carried the otherwise fine song to two nominations, including Song of the Year. Khaled has consistently lambasted a mysterious “they” obstructing his path to success. But based on how the Grammy committee rewarded an otherwise flat album full of big names, it’s hard to imagine who he thinks is stopping him.

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Future’s I Never Liked You, Kendrick’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, and Pusha T’s It’s Almost Dry are all fair Best Rap Album nominations, but two of the remaining spots could have gone to better albums. Vince Staples, whose autobiographical Ramona Park Broke My Heart is more personable and incisive than anything on Come Home…, and more compelling than God Did, deserved at least some recognition. Ditto for Earl Sweatshirt, whose January release, SICK!, offered some of the beloved lyricist’s best work. It’s equally disheartening that work from artists like Roc Marciano, billy woods, ELUCID, Mach-Hommy, Rome Streetz, Conway, and many others will never get their just consideration, as they are among the actual best rappers in the world. While there’s likely a shortage of indie rap fans on the Grammy committee, one would hope that the goal would be for the selection process to reward the innovation of the scene as they did with Freddie Gibbs and Alchemist’s Alfredo in 2020. 

Even Lil Durk, one of the defining artists of this decade, has zero Grammy nominations. So it’s not surprising that many rap fans have never taken the awards all that seriously. Admittedly, this year’s aren’t the worst ever, but without a wider crop of artists even being considered for the award, it’s hard to see them without a loaded asterisk. 

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