A problem that has leached the Grammys of credibility in many genres is its tendency to favor established artists who are making irrelevant mid- and late-career work. While hip-hop is still a relatively young genre, it still has an informal caste system of artists who are deemed Grammy-worthy, even long past their primes. Elders like Jay Z, Common and Eminem continue to receive nominations, seemingly irrespective of whether the music they make is commercially or aesthetically successful. There’s a recognition factor for less informed Grammy voters, who can check a box for a known entity rather than trying to comprehend the movements of a constantly mutating genre.
In some years, that matters little, but in the past three years, especially, this tendency has led to some striking shutouts: There have been no nominations for the Atlanta deconstructionists Future and Young Thug, or for the California neo-traditionalists YG and Vince Staples. Occasional breakthrough artists have gotten nominated, like Schoolboy Q and iLoveMakonnen, but they exist in the shadow of more famous mentors (Kendrick Lamar and Drake). And when it comes to artists who thrive in regional contexts, like Atlanta’s Gucci Mane or the Bay Area’s E-40, the Grammys have ignored them altogether. The result is a chasm between a pool of artists that appear to be implicitly approved by the Recording Academy and ones who have to knock extra loud to be allowed in — if they ever will be.
Confusion Over R&B’s Shape
At the 2011 Grammys, there were eight categories for R&B; in 2012, there were just four. The changes came as part of a broader Grammy effort at slimming, but it was during a period when R&B — at least as filtered through hip-hop — was nearing a peak of its mainstream influence. In 2013, a new category was added — best urban contemporary album — that simultaneously acknowledged that R&B itself contained multitudes but also muddied the waters with a subgenre name used by almost no one.
The result is a set of awards that don’t reflect the ways the genre exists in the mainstream, and also — especially with the best traditional R&B performance category — tend to overinflate the impact of the genre’s adult-contemporary wing (except when Beyoncé is nominated in that category, in which case everyone else need not show up). It’s a circumstance that has earned Lalah Hathaway, one of Donny’s daughters, three Grammys. (Another Grammy blind spot: Familiar names, like genre elders, can easily dominate niche categories.)
Add to all of this the ongoing disruption caused by the ways in which hip-hop and R&B mingle. In 2002, the Grammys introduced a category for best rap/sung collaboration, seeking a way to acknowledge the ubiquity and importance of those collaborations, though it didn’t do much to separate them from the rest of the genres. Plenty of songs have been nominated in that category, as well as the straight-ahead rap categories. But this welcome innovation proved not to be enough: This year, the category was changed to best rap/sung performance, an acknowledgment of a new generation of artists — Drake chief among them — who do both of those things themselves.
Undervaluing Free Music
In June, the Recording Academy announced a change to its eligibility requirements, allowing streaming-only (or streaming-mostly) albums to be considered for Grammy acknowledgment for the first time. The initial beneficiaries of this evolution are Chance the Rapper and Kanye West, both of whom did not make their albums available for sale on major digital services. (Mr. Ocean, too, would have been helped by this rule change.)
This is a worthwhile recognition of the direction that the music industry is heading, but it also leaves out large swaths of hip-hop, which have relied upon a free model for years. Mixtape download/streaming sites have abounded since the mid-2000s, and almost every mainstream star of note as well as thousands of not-yet-stars use free music as part (or all) of their release strategies.
But the Grammys are only acknowledging music released on major services like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal, and overlooking sites like DatPiff and LiveMixtapes — places where some of hip-hop’s most creative work exclusively lives, but which exist in a legal gray area. Still, it is sites like these that helped set the template for the success of an artist like Chance the Rapper, who, if he wins any of his seven nominations, will be the first artist to benefit from a Recording Academy that’s moving slowly toward enlightenment, as opposed to Mr. Ocean, who chose instead to take a stand, and then turn away.
What Was Nominated? What Should Have Been.
Category: 2011 Best Rap Album
WAS NOMINATED Jay Z, “The Blueprint 3”
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED Rick Ross, “Teflon Don”
Both albums reach for a grand-scaled sound, with vastly different results. This is one of Jay Z’s weakest, with dim, edgeless hits. Meanwhile, Mr. Ross was honing his Southern maximalist take on hip-hop spectacle, helping to permanently shift the genre’s power center below the Mason-Dixon.
Category: 2014 Best Urban Contemporary Album
WAS NOMINATED Salaam Remi, “ONE: In the Chamber”
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED Ty Dolla Sign, “Beach House 2”
By the 2010s, R&B was almost as reliant on free mixtapes as hip-hop, and in that space the singer-songwriter-producer Ty Dolla Sign began to shine. “Beach House 2” was vital and entertainingly sleazy, far more innovative than the pretty but haphazard retro collection helmed by Mr. Remi, the producer who gave Amy Winehouse her throwback swing.
Category: 2015 Best Rap Album
WAS NOMINATED Iggy Azalea’s “The New Classic”
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED YG’s “My Krazy Life”
As usual, the Grammys prioritize white artists in a black genre, even someone as lyrically challenged as Ms. Azalea. (Fun fact: Eminem has won every time he has been nominated in this category, save one.) YG’s debut album was a storytelling master class and proud Los Angeles gangster rap revivalism.
Category: 2016 Best Urban Contemporary Album
WAS NOMINATED Lianne La Havas, “Blood”
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED Tinashe, “Aquarius”
A duel between polite and sweaty, backward-facing and forward-running: Ms. La Havas’s second album is robust but polite, while Tinashe’s debut was one of the most inventive R&B albums of recent years, a throwback to Janet Jackson dance-floor propulsion.
The Award Shows That Get It Right? They’re on BET
When Prince died last April, it was only one month before the Billboard Music Awards, which scrambled to put together a tribute featuring Madonna and Stevie Wonder that didn’t quite hit the mark. That night, BET tweeted a promo for its coming BET Awards ceremony with a photo of Prince and the tagline “Yeah, we saw that. Don’t worry. We Got You.”
It was provocative and, as it turned out, completely accurate. When the BET Awards aired a few weeks later, its Prince tribute, woven throughout the show, was riveting, with standout performances by, among others, Mr. Wonder, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Jennifer Hudson and Bilal, whose segment was one of the most invigorating televised performances of the year. The celebration of Prince was one part of a spectacularly executed night that also featured whip-smart hosting by Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson, a fiery speech by Jesse Williams and a forceful performance by Beyoncé with Kendrick Lamar.
Each year, the Grammys struggle to adequately represent contemporary black music onstage, leaning on awkward cross-genre collaborations (Slash inserted into a Jamie Foxx and T-Pain performance, Kendrick Lamar in a rumble with Imagine Dragons). Hip-hop and R&B deserve better. For inspiration, the Grammys need look no further than BET, which has three award-show franchises reverent of music and its performers: the BET Awards, the BET Hip Hop Awards and the Soul Train Awards.
In 2016, all three were outstanding. The Soul Train Awards featured throwback revues from Dru Hill, Carl Thomas and Brandy, celebrated internet stars like Jay Versace, and were hosted by a chipper, mercurial Ms. Badu. The BET Hip Hop Awards showcased young talent like Lil Yachty, Desiigner, Lil Uzi Vert and D.R.A.M., and opened with an intense medley by Gucci Mane, Travis Scott, Young Thug and Quavo. And the D.J.-backed ciphers strewn throughout the show remain annual appointment viewing. In each show, performers are taken on their own terms, not shoehorned into uncomfortable boxes. And though the awards themselves are largely incidental, these ceremonies demonstrate through knowledge, intimacy and devotion that the most effective honoring of hip-hop and R&B comes with no compromises.