Sunday’s Grammy Awards reiterated the traditions that accompany celebrating “Music’s Biggest Night”: a union of industry veterans and newcomers, the world’s most enviable talent roster and a swath of awards recognizing artists from music’s biggest genres.
For the third time in the past four years, the Recording Academy declined to present a single rap award during the ceremony’s live telecast. Pop, rock, country and R&B categories regularly receive airtime for at least one of their genre’s prizes, but the rap awards are routinely relegated to the pre-telecast ceremony, removed from the eyes of all but the most diligent Grammy enthusiasts. The disparity increases when rap’s misfortunes are compared directly with the prestige given the pop field. Four of the last five ceremonies have included two televised pop awards, and last year’s ceremony squeezed in a third. (A representative for the Recording Academy could not be reached by press time to explain rap’s awards absence from the main telecast.)
With more than 70 categories, it’s foolish to expect every award to be presented on-air, but the Recording Academy’s prioritization of certain categories as worthy of coveted airtime suggests to all viewers — both industry watchers and casual fans alike — that these awards are simply more important. Even if the ceremony’s endless runtime is the suspected culprit, can’t the Recording Academy substitute one of its multiple pop prizes for a rap award? As host LL Cool J noted during his opening monologue, Sunday’s ceremony showcased 23 performances but sprinkled a mere nine awards among them. When the full award ritual — reading of the nominees, winner announcement and acceptance speech — clocks in at barely half the length of a performance, is it too much for the Academy to carve a spare two minutes out of three-and-a-half hours to recognize one of the dominant genres of music today?
Unlike most genres in the pre-show telecast, concern surrounding viewer interest hardly applies to the rap awards. The categories boast several of today’s most popular (and best-selling) acts. In the past few years alone, Eminem, Kanye West, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé and Jay Z have graced voters’ ballots but rarely received their trophy in front of the camera.
This is hardly the first discord between the Grammys and rap music. When best rap performance was introduced for the 1989 ceremony, nominees Heavy D, Salt-N-Pepa and eventual winners DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince boycotted the awards after learning the rap category would be (surprise!) untelevised. Yet, the also-new best hard rock/metal performance category secured a place in the lineup. Within the past decade, however, the rap field earned consistent on-air status. Of the seven ceremonies between 2005 and 2011, six featured an on-air rap award presentation, with the sole exception — 2007 — remedied by giving two awards the following year. The sudden break from this pattern reads as a bizarre change, especially as no other key genre has experienced a similar decline in fortune.
In the past four years, at least one act who triumphed in the pop field duplicated that success in the general field that contains the night’s biggest prizes: album of the year, record of the year, song of the year and best new artist. As Sam Smithdiscovered Sunday night, the likelihood of these repeats suggests that pop category winners will arrive onstage at some point in the ceremony. For their rap counterparts, however, the prospect of multiple trips to the podium is incredibly slim. As West has decried over the past decade, rap artists rarely land in the winner’s circle for the biggest prizes of the night. (Besides Macklemore & Ryan Lewis‘ win for best new artist last year, rap hasn’t scored a major award since Outkast‘s album of the year victory in 2004.) As such, rappers whose sole chance to cross the Grammy stage depends on a televised rap award find themselves glued to their seats all evening as pop winners race back and forth to collect awards.
And they’ll remain stuck in those seats until the Recording Academy restores rap to its deserved place among the major genres of the current era. In an era in which hip-hop is the most-discussed genre of the most-discussed topic (music) on Twitter, rap albums consistently win over both buyers and critics, and rap-sung collaborations have reigned atop the singles charts for 40 percent of the past two years, excluding it from the televised ceremony accentuates the irony that a leading genre of our times has little reason to revel in what is continually advertised as “Music’s Biggest Night.”