In 2016, Travis Scott scored his first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with the well received Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight — but on Grammy night in 2017, his name was absent from the nominee list. In 2015, Future, then a rising star with his first Billboard 200 No. 1 for that year’s DS2, was also shut out.
For the rap community, which was accustomed to seeing the genre’s on the verge artists ignored on Grammy night, the snubs were still painful. But at this year’s Grammys, emerging acts like Migos, Lil Uzi Vert, Cardi B and Logic may have a better shot at glory, thanks to a new (and long awaited) panel of experts that has been assembled: the rap nominations review committee.
Announced in June, the anonymous committee — comprising artists, songwriters, producers and engineers — is the first to address hip hop (an R&B group already existed). It joins 12 other genre review groups (including another new one, for contemporary instrumental and new age) established expressly to ensure emerging artists and late in the year releases have a fair chance at competing.
After the first round of member voting, committees vote among themselves to narrow down the top 15 vote getters in each of their genre’s categories to five nominees (it’s possible they may add an overlooked name); previously, rap nominees were determined simply by the initial academy wide vote.
“One of the hip hop community’s stated goals is to give more recognition to newer and emerging acts,” says Recording Academy Senior VP awards Bill Freimuth. “The community felt the voting membership was going for some of the more recognizable, established artists. And they also weren’t seeing some of the music coming from more independent artists that was really exciting the core community. There’s a lot of rapid progress happening in the rap field, and the community wanted our nominations to reflect that.”
“The whole industry is changing, and rap has become the dominant genre of music. It’s time to rewrite history,” adds Grammy winning producer Zaytoven, who has crafted hits for Future, Migos and Gucci Mane. “I believe [the committee] is going to give rap a more level playing field.”
At the 2017 ceremony, change seemed imminent when Chance the Rapper, an independent artist, took home three awards, including best new artist, thanks to a rule change that made streaming only recordings like his Coloring Book eligible. RCA senior vp marketing Carolyn Williams calls Chance’s wins “a big turning point” that could have a trickle-down effect, inspiring voters to consider rap for more general field nominations.
“It will be important for this committee to recognize projects not just based on popularity but also on criteria like creativity,” says Williams, whose roster includes SZA, Khalid and rapper GoldLink as well as Bryson Tiller. “The optics behind this nominations review committee are good. I remember artists boycotting the Grammys because they didn’t like the way rap was being treated.”
Since best rap performance, the Grammys’ first rap category, was added in 1989, the relationship between the Grammys and the hip hop community has been fraught. That year, winners DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were no shows (along with fellow nominees LL Cool J and Salt N Pepa) when they learned that the award wouldn’t be presented during the national telecast. Since then, stars like JAY-Z and Kanye West have publicly taken the Grammys to task. And as recently as 2016, Kendrick Lamar’s 11 nods were overshadowed when Taylor Swift’s 1989 won album of the year over Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
As Zaytoven notes, winning a Grammy is “definitely” still important to the hip hop community. “That’s what we’re all striving to get,” he says. “It’s the biggest struggle we can win.” With online voting instituted for the first time this year, younger voters more tuned in to hip hop might start to give the genre’s artists a better chance at the top awards. In the meantime, the rap committee is just one step toward mending a difficult relationship. “The urban community is still very skeptical of the Grammys,” says Williams. “It’s a work in progress.”