Grammy Preview 2016: Kendrick, Nicki, Dre, Drake and Future Could Make the Best Rap Album Category a Fierce Battle

More than a month-and-a-half ahead of the Dec. 7 announcement of the 2016 Grammy nominees, the only real certainty is that the impending best rap album award is bound to be unusually competitive, even by the two-decade-old category’s typically fierce standards. Within this year’s eligibility period (Oct. 1, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015), there has been an abundance of excellent hip-hop full-lengths from long-established veterans and underdog newcomers alike.

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Those who have followed the past year’s most prominent rap releases shouldn’t be surprised at the three most likely contenders to clinch a nomination: Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Dr. Dre’s Compton are practically shoo-ins for the category. No matter that Drake’s blustery surprise release exists in some semantic gray area between album and mixtape -- all three of Aubrey Graham’s studio full-lengths have received best rap album nods (including a 2013 win for Take Care), so it seems likely that even his stopgap “commercial mixtape” would be a sure shot. Lamar’s third studio album received widespread critical acclaim: a dense thicket of heady jazz by way of West Coast gangsta rap, its staunchly pro-black politics and barely contained fury felt like the necessary accompaniment to a year when America’s racial inequities glared more blindingly than ever. It would be Lamar’s second nomination, and one that is all but guaranteed, not only as a measure of excellence, but to compensate for any lingering unease over Macklemore’s best rap album upset over Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City in 2014. And no rap release commandeered the zeitgeist this past year quite like Dre’s Compton, a substitute for the elusive Detox, which has long seemed like hip-hop’s white whale. Sixteen years after the Beats billionaire’s last album, 2001 (for which he received a nomination at the 43rd annual Grammys), and released in tandem with this summer’s blockbuster N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, the album is an easy contender.

Nicki Minaj hasn’t been nominated for best rap album since her 2010 debut, Pink Friday, but her third and most mature album -- December 2014’s The Pinkprint -- would seem a likely fit. On similar footing is J. Cole: Though the Roc Nation rapper is a newcomer to the category, his 2014 Forest Hills Drive was widely acclaimed. And though the Grammys don’t often acknowledge more overtly street-oriented rap releases, it’s practically impossible to ignore Future’s tremendous year. After a trifecta of redemptive mixtapes, his murky Dirty Sprite 2 album established the Atlanta native as Southern rap’s most indomitable force. For further proof, there’s his recent joint project with Drake, What a Time to Be Alive: Though it is a lesser work than either of the duo’s solo projects this year, the union of 2015’s two biggest trendsetters shouldn’t be counted out.

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Though they haven’t been as central to the conversation this past year, there’s still a chance for Big Sean’s third studio full-length, Dark Sky Paradise; Meek Mill’s sophomore album, Dreams Worth More Than Money; and ASAP Rocky’s At.Long.Last. A$AP. None of the three ascendant rappers has been previously nominated for the award, but each firmly established themselves as mainstays rather than passing phases in 2015. Not to be forgotten: Run the Jewels second studio album, Run the Jewels 2, also came out in time to qualify for consideration. And though it is not the most likely nominee, duo Rae Sremmurd’s self-titled debut spawned an unexpected bounty of hit singles (“No Flex Zone,” “No Type”), and Long Beach, Calif., old soul Vince Staples’ gut-punch of a double-album, Summertime ’06, is an immensely impressive dark-horse contender. Suffice to say, this may be the most contentious best rap album Grammy in years.

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This article originally appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of Billboard.

2016 Grammys