Chapter & Verse: Grammys' Rap Nominations Show Progress, Spark Cautious Optimism

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Jay-Z performs onstage during the Meadows Music And Arts Festival - Day 1 at Citi Field on Sept. 15, 2017 in New York City.

Five months ago, when the Recording Academy added a rap nomination review committee to its Grammy Award process, the announcement was greeted with cheers by some and side-eyes by others in the black music community. But overall, optimism prevailed as outlined by one longtime industry veteran in a June 16 Billboard story: “The hope is that this nomination review committee will do its due diligence in recognizing the biggest names of the genre, up-and-coming talent and non-mainstream artists that delivered impactful, quality rap music. Ideally, it will usher in a lush diversity that truly represents this expansive and urgent genre.”

Well, the verdict came in yesterday as nominees for the 60th Grammy Awards (taking place Jan. 28) were revealed. Leading the rap pack are JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar, whose critically-acclaimed projects -- 4:44 and DAMN., respectively -- nabbed the pair nominations in all four of the rap genre categories: best rap performance (Jay-Z’s “4.44,” Lamar’s “Humble."); best rap/sung performance (Jay-Z’s “Family Feud” feat. BeyoncĂ©, Lamar’s “Loyalty” feat. Rihanna); best rap song (Jay-Z’s “The Story of “O.J.,” Lamar’s “Humble.”); and best rap album (4:44 and DAMN.). In the mix as well are Big Sean (best rap performance for “Bounce Back”) and Tyler, the Creator (best rap album for Flower Boy). So, check off recognition of some of the genre’s biggest names.

Check off up-and-coming talent too. Those receiving nods include SZA (best rap/sung for “Love Galore” feat. Travis Scott), Cardi B (best rap performance and best rap song for “Bodak Yellow”), 6LACK (best rap/sung for “PRBLMS”) and Migos (best rap album for Culture and best rap performance for “Bad and Boujee” featuring Lil Uzi Vert).

Mark off as well non-mainstream artists, represented on this pivotal Grammy derby by two acts on the verge of breaking through: GoldLink (best rap/sung for “Crew” feat. Brent Faiyaz & Shy Glizzy) and Rapsody (best rap song for “Sassy”; best rap album for Laila’s Wisdom). And there’s always a surprise element. In this instance, it’s the best rap song nod for the songwriters of “Chase Me,” recorded by Danger Mouse feat. Run the Jewels & Big Boi.

As for the possibility of the rap nominations review committee also helping to “usher in a lush diversity,” that was addressed, too. Social media, online and print reporters were all over the welcome news yesterday that the Grammys’ coveted marquee categories -- record of the year, album of the year, song of the year and best new artist -- are dominated by people of color.

Executives who participated in the June story as well as other creatives in the R&B/hip-hop community are primarily pleased by the big steps forward this year within the upfront and rap categories. As one executive notes, we are “celebrating the blackness” in the wake of past missteps (BeyoncĂ©, Lamar). It also vindicates what the black music community has known all along -- even before streaming numbers provided validation for the rest of the industry -- that R&B/hip-hop is a popular and influential mainstream fixture that deserves to be recognized as such.

While this year’s Grammy slate is closer to mirroring what’s really happening in rap, it still raises some questions. Are the nods still too heavily-skewed toward the major commercial, top-selling artists? Why were Future, A Tribe Called Quest and Vic Mensa, among other deserving rap artists, overlooked? But that's a situation that will always exist for the Grammys and other major award shows: They can’t make everybody happy.

For now, at least, the Grammys have made more people happier than not as the countdown to the 60th ceremony begins. Yet there’s still some cautious optimism floating around. In the midst of the Grammys’ embrace of change, will a rap album finally be crowned album of the year after a 13-year drought? Most important: Will this progressive momentum sustain itself next year, the year after that and so on and so on?

2018 Grammy Awards