Macklemore & Kendrick Lamar: How Hip-Hop (Not The Grammy’s) Turned Sunday Into a Fail (Food For Thought)

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The day after the Grammy Awards, the conversation about Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ win for Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city (G.K.M.C) grew from a buzz to a roar. Social media platforms and the web, generally, were on fire. The frenzy was fueled in part by Macklemore himself, who took to both digital and traditional media to make people fully aware that even he believed G.K.M.C was the best Rap album of the year and should have taken the prize. He even went as far as to share his text exchanges with Kendrick and squarely address the many factors he believed contributed to his win—race, commercialism and the prevalent ignorance of the Grammy voting community when it comes to Rap.

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The Problem With The “Pop Music” Label

For Hip-Hop fans, this should not be news. Since the very first year Rap was acknowledged by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the organization that presents the Grammy Awards) in 1989, the organization’s treatment of the genre has been laden with controversy. The Hip-Hop community was up in arms that the presentation of the award for the category was not televised (the category of Best Rap Album still is not…) and many were unhappy that the first award, for Best Rap Performance, went to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince because they considered the group (and the winning song, “Parents Just Don’t Understand”) to be too “Pop”…Sound familiar?

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The reality is the same factors that contributed to the controversy around the first Rap Grammy award are still present today and always have been. Generally, the award goes to the most popular artist that year, whether it’s Jay Z, Drake, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Eminem or otherwise. Even in years when the artist thought to be most deserving won, it was often simply because popularity and art aligned that year, with Lauryn Hill and OutKast (the only Rap artists who also took overall Best Album honors) being the prime examples.

But that conversation is old and not the one we should be having about the 2014 Awards. Instead of lamenting and denigrating the Grammy’s, Hip-Hop should be taking a hard look at itself today and it should be ashamed. What is most disturbing about the controversy around Macklemore’s wins is not the conversation about why he won, but why he was nominated.

So What Genre Exactly Is Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist

According to reports, the committee that determines eligible nominees for the Rap category initially omitted Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist from consideration for Best Rap Album. The AP-published rumor is the album was considered to be “Pop” rather than Rap. Whether or not this is true may never be known, but it is clear, based on the social and traditional media fury, that several critics and fans, alike believe that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are not “real” Rap—and that, specifically, is a discussion that needs to be had.

When you start to unfold the argument that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are Pop, not Rap, it becomes dubious and even dangerous. What is Pop, after all? On the album charts, Pop is simply representative of the most popular albums in the land at any given time. The Top 5 at times certainly included Macklemore and his Heist over the voting period but it also included albums by J. Cole, A$AP Rocky, Wale, Jay Z, Kanye West and…Kendrick Lamar. Though some might complain that those artists are also too commercial, none could credibly say they did not represent Rap music. So…if popularity does not somehow magically transmutate music from one genre to another, what’s the basis for saying Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ album should not be part of the Best Rap Album category?

This is where the slope starts to get slippery. Some say the lyrical content of his music is not real Rap; that it is tailored to audiences who are not true Hip-Hop fans. The irony in this thinking is that, traditionally, the Rap music that has been celebrated as the “realest” has been that music that provides raw narratives about the realities the artist faces, whether lived or observed. This is what elevated Nas to God (son) status and what allowed artists like Chuck D and Ice Cube to be perceived as part of the “Black CNN.” It’s also why Kendrick Lamar’s coming of age story in Compton resonated so strongly in the Hip-Hop community. That being the case, Macklemore’s lyrical content is some of the realest in Hip-Hop. His biggest songs spoke to his penchant for finding cool clothes on the cheap (something he still does), his desire to succeed (damn if that didn’t come true) and his steadfast belief in equal marriage rights for all people (did you see those 68 people get married during his performance?). His lesser-known songs tackled issues such as the dysfunction of the major record label system (he remains indie to this day) and the destructive materialism facing today’s youth. That actually sounds much realer than most of the boasts of body counts and Bugattis in Hip-Hop today.

Macklemore Is Not Only A Rapper, He’s Hip-Hop

If his legitimacy shouldn’t be questioned purely because he’s popular or because of his subject matter, what is it? His sing-songy hooks? Go back and listen to Ja Rule, and knock it til’ he tried it nemesis 50 Cent, or even Naughty by Nature. His diction? This is a careful area, as the opposition to Macklemore being classified as Rap stems from a growing intolerance in the genre for any diversity outside of an increasingly narrow, increasingly cliche set of sounds and subjects. The currently-accepted sounds are primarily Trap and East Coast ’90s recycles, with touches of Dungeon Family and Death Row influences. And, the subjects are still women, whips, money, murder and [insert drug of choice]. Macklemore’s breakthrough album did not fit neatly into any of these boxes. What’s more, to get really real, the race factor that Macklemore, himself, says assisted him in his win, ironically hindered him in his ability to attain legitimacy in the Hip-Hop community (whether Black, White, Latino, Asian, etc.). Be clear: African-American rappers who deviate from the aforementioned Hip-Hop norms are deemed “alternative,” take Chance The Rapper, Childish Gambino or even Kanye West, or “emo,” as labeled upon Kid CuDi and Drake. But Macklemore, who checks none of the boxes, does not even get a qualifier in the Rap game from many in the Hip-Hop community.

This type of close-mindedness is unacceptable and, if you know your history, is antithetical to the fundamental culture of Hip-Hop. Real Hip-Hop and the Rap music that drives it was built on diversity. It started off as party music with groups like the Sugar Hill Gang, Funky Four + 1 and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. It morphed to include music with a “Message” and, during the period many refer to as its Golden Age, it simultaneously embraced groups like De La Soul and N.W.A. and everything in between.

Heads may not agree with the winning album for the Rap category. Something as special as G.K.M.C was clearly the kind of project so many fans were waiting years to hear, especially from a new voice and perspective. Clearly, the same was true of the winner, coming from his own vantage point. However, the distinction from one to the next within the five albums nominated says something great about where mainstream Hip-Hop is at at the moment. While the winner may not align with the populist opinion, or even Macklemore’s opinion, it most certainly does represent Rap music, and it represents it well.

The reality is the 2014 Grammy Awards were a win for Hip-Hop, a massive win. Two Rap albums were nominated for album of the year. Two of Rap’s biggest artists were nominated for seven awards each. And, those two artists gave two of the most memorable performances of the night. That is where the conversation should begin and end.

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