Oh, the Grammys.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took home four awards, including Best New Artist and Best Rap Album, while Kendrick Lamar went home empty-handed. Observers on the Internet, as anticipated, unleashed a collective raspberry; Macklemore responded with an awkward display of white guilt.
What I find most interesting about the reaction to Macklemore’s wins is that it illustrates hip-hop’s persistent chip on its shoulder. It belies any contentions that the Grammys are irrelevant to the genre. After all, if the awards didn’t matter, then why would the record exec Steve Stoute ever have bought a full-page ad in the New York Times to berate Grammy voters for not awarding Eminem or Kanye West Album of the Year?
In other arenas, hip-hop has made significant inroads into traditional cultural institutions. Jay Z’s book Decoded makes the case for readers (and listeners) to analyze the rapper’s lyrics as closely as, say, Wallace Stevens’s verses of poetry. Harvard has an institute devoted to the study of the genre; last year, the rapper Nas announced an eponymous fellowship there that will support scholars in the field. Others, such as 9th Wonder of the hip-hop group Little Brother, have turned full-time to academia.
Then of course, there’s the world of industry. Long gone are the days when rappers were merely unpaid pitchmen for sneakers and vodka. First, there was the proliferation of hip-hop-infused fashion labels, from Phat Farm to Rocawear, with Diddy even nabbing an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for his brand Sean John. In recent years, hip-hop artists have begun to make inroads in industries from media to tech. After reading Danyel Smith’s recent story for ESPN The Magazine on the convergence of sports and hip-hop culture, I couldn’t help but remark on Twitter, in a nod to Netscape founder and investor Marc Andreessen, that “hip-hop is eating the world.”
Oddly enough, hip-hop has struggled to attain that influence in its most immediate backyard—at least among those considered the gatekeepers of music’s legacy. By now, it’s ancient news that hip-hop acts can top Billboard sales charts (though this past year has revealed an interesting disparity in the makeup of songs versus albums charts) and achieve some measure of crossover success. Yet hip-hop artists have largely been confined to receiving genre-specific awards: no hip-hop artist, for instance, has ever won for Record or Song of the Year.
At the same time, however, there has been a gradual trend toward the collapsing of genres altogether. In recent years, the Grammys have made a big show of pairing artists from distinct genres in seemingly improbable collaborations. This year, for instance, featured the snubbed Kendrick Lamar alongside the alternative-rock band Imagine Dragons, as well as Metallica and concert pianist Lang Lang. The Grammys have also, controversially, minimized the recognition of genres it considers to be niche: the number of awards for R&B, for instance, has been slashed by half.
This blurring of genres has extended to the sales charts as well. In 2012, Billboard expanded its criteria for defining record airplay, and in many cases, crossover acts have overtaken artists with followings primarily within one genre. The change has arguably hit country and R&B hardest, but hip-hop hasn’t been immune from its effects: for instance, the Korean artist Psy quite dubiously topped Billboard’s rap charts for “Gangnam Style.”
Macklemore has been beset by a similar genre controversy, as he draws his fan base largely outside of the core hip-hop community. For this reason, the Grammys’ rap committee reportedly sought to bar his nomination in that category. But it’s hard to argue that Macklemore isn’t a rapper, at least in strictly technical terms. (During the awards show, a friend of mine wondered if his song “Same Love” should be considered spoken word rather than rap or hip-hop, but I suspect that distinction would be lost among Grammy voters.)
All of these factors produce an environment in which hip-hop is, paradoxically, both mainstreamed and marginalized. Unlike in decades past, when blues artists received neither recognition nor compensation after their songs became fodder for hits by rock ‘n’ roll acts, the stakes for today’s hip-hop artists aren’t financial. But for a genre—and culture—seeking to burnish its legacy, the slight still wounds.