Hip-hop’s relationship with the Grammy Awards is historically turbulent at best. In 1989, 40 years after the first Grammy Awards show aired, the Recording Academy introduced an award for Best Rap Performance, despite hip-hop had been thriving for years prior. And it wasn’t entirely just the Grammys who were late to the party: The mainstream had generally just assumed hip-hop would just be a flash-in-the-pan art form rooted in temporary rebellion.
It speaks volumes that DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince beat out LL Cool J (for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” over “Going Back to Cali,” respectively) for that first rap Grammy -- timed perfectly to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s debut on TV a year later. Ironically, LL hosted last year’s Grammys to witness that flick of the switch. Still, the Grammys were an aspirational paragon of mainstream acceptance for hip-hop, though their feelings on the matter would continue to volley for three decades. It would intensify as hip-hop’s sound evolved and as the tax brackets of the purveyors jumped. Now, hip-hop is at a crossroads; one in which Drake seemingly has no interest in participating.
In February, Drake voiced his frustrations with the Grammy categorization process in an interview with DJ Semtex where he divulged that he didn’t consider “Hotline Bling” a rap song, despite winning two Grammys for it, including best rap song and best rap/sung collaboration. In the past, Drake has relished his musical ambiguity, since the moment 2009’s So Far Gone went from a mixtape to a retail project. He also enjoyed blurring the lines of what defined “hip-hop” specifically; a student of the Kanye West “Rappers Have Feelings” school of thought. Artists like himself and Kid Cudi inserted the emotional element of rap music into the ether, which has dictated much of the present day newcomers’ take on hip-hop.
But there’s also one other glaring fact about Drake’s career: he’s always wanted to be considered hip-hop when most have tried to pry that microphone from his hands.
Drake has proven he can demolish both Billboard charts and rap beefs; his battle with Meek Mill being the most obvious testament to the latter. He is today’s hip-hop in its purest form, but now that’s he’s finally gotten there, he’s taking a step back. Sure, it could be that he’d rather reside at the table with his Kingly rap elders; both Jay-Z and Kanye have openly dismissed the Grammys, both bigger than any gilded gramophone. And Drake’s insistence that More Life is a playlist rather than an album speaks to his aforementioned frustration with categories, despite willfully accepting the project as his seventh consecutive No. 1 album on the Billboard 200. The “playlist” also broke a streaming record, with 384.8 million streams of its songs in its first week of release.
But what does all of this say to the current generation of hip-hop artists who have consistently asked to not be called “rappers”? It says that they’re right and Drake agrees with them.
Drake is an artist who has built an entire multi-million-dollar empire out of caring too much, though when it comes to this year’s Grammy’s he seems to be saying, instead, that he doesn’t care at all. While hip-hop fought for decades to be considered by the award show, Drake seems to be taking a knee and quietly saying that all music is black music and a tiny slot for hip-hop is now too vague. Whether that's his intention or not, it’s a conversation worthy of everyone's -- particularly the Grammys' -- time. Hopefully it won’t take another 30 years to happen.