There are many benefits to living in a post-racial society: The rise of the minority-owned business, political de-polarization, proliferation of “possession receivers” in the NFL, King Magazine, etc. One important benefit (to me, at least) is that a thirty-something, well-to-do white guy is perfectly qualified to comment on state of rap music. Sure, I’ve only listened to rap music as a cultural voyeur with no real-life exposure to the hip-hop lifestyle, but so what? Rick Ross was a cop. So, suck on that, Kevin Powell.
With 16 nominations from both Eminem and Jay-Z, the 2011 Grammy Awards is loading on up on the hip-hop. And with good reason. According to SoundScan, all music sales dropped 2.4% in 2010, with one notable exception: Rap/Hip-Hop, which actually increased by 3%. As a consequence, the Academy is finally taking notice of the genre, which saw the release of a number of critically and commercially successful records this year. As such, I am breaking-down the rap-related categories from this year’s show in the most thugged-out 2500 words you will read this year. So, sit back and enjoy my explicit content.
Best Rap Solo Performance
A quick history of this category will be instructive. Beginning in 1991, the award was dominated by uber-commercial pop acts and one-hit wonders for nearly a decade (save for Dre’s award for “Let Me Ride” in 1994). Eminem would later spark a noticeable shift in the early 2000s, begetting a series of entirely competent winners from Jay-Z to Kanye West to T.I. A snapshot of the nominees from this latter period reveals a relatively small core of acts who continue to serve as the standard-bearers of the genre. This year’s nominees continue this trend.
• Over / Drake / Track from: Thank Me Later [Cash Money/Young Money/Universal Motown]
• Not Afraid / Eminem / Track from: Recovery / [Aftermath/Shady Records/Interscope]
• How Low / Ludacris / Track from: Battle Of The Sexes / [DTP/Def Jam Recordings]
• I’m Back / T.I. / [Grand Hustle/Atlantic]
• Power / Kanye West / [Def Jam Recordings/Roc-A-Fella]
The Academy’s sampling of nominees in this category is reasonable enough, though could do without Ludacris’s fairly pedestrian club-hit “How Low” (a suitable replacement would have been the aforementioned Ross’s “B.M.F.”). Drake’s “Over” is one of the more interesting (albeit clunky) hits of the year. T.I.’s “I’m Back” is appropriately angsty and reflective, but does not particularly advance the genre in any meaningful way. While’s Em’s “Not Afraid” does separate itself (stylistically) from the pack, the track is completely neutered, both lyrically and musically. The song tends to prove the indubitable rule that if you like Eminem’s radio hits, you will hate—or at least merely tolerate—the remainder of the album. Sadly, the guy who gave us “I don’t rap for dead presidents / I’d rather see the president dead” now gives us “come take my hand and let’s walk this world together.” Relately, male fertility continues its steep downward decline.
Undoubtedly, West’s “Power” leaps from the pack. Yes, the guy is culturally tone-deaf, egomaniacal, and a bit dense at times (“I’m like a tree; I feed the branches of the people”), but the dude generates more relevant and provocative contemporary rap music than anyone this side of Tupac. From its opening chants to the King Crimson-sampled chorus, the track checks all of the appropriate boxes. One of the more fascinating aspects of the song (and West, in general) is its strange dichotomy of genuine angst and utter pettiness. I am fascinated that West can produce a track with as much serious apocalyptic gusto as “Power,” and yet use the platform to expend four lines dissing the (current!) cast of Saturday Night Live. This cat is straight-up weird. And he is the finest of our generation.
Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group
The “Due or Group” category is a relic of a by-gone era. In contemporary rap music, it is no longer desirable or economically efficient to market groups of rappers as a collective brand. Rather, the group category is dominated by the “collaboration.” In this new Coasian rap world, Rapper A recruits Rapper B to perform on the tract and capitalizes on sales from two distinct fan bases. These guys are not a “group”, in the traditional sense of a “musical group”, but are rather contract-counterparties (in the nature of the Miami Heat). True to form, this year’s nominees include:
• Shutterbugg / Big Boi, Bosko, Cutty & Mouche / Track from: Sir Lucious Left Foot…The Son Of Chico Dusty [Def Jam Recordings]
• Fancy / Drake, T.I. & Swizz Beatz / Track from: Thank Me Later [Cash Money/Young Money/Universal Motown]
• On To The Next One / Jay-Z & Swizz Beatz / Track from: The Blueprint 3 [Roc Nation]
• My Chick Bad / Ludacris & Nicki Minaj / Track from: Battle Of The Sexes [DTP/ Def Jam Recordings]
• Lose My Mind / Young Jeezy & Plies [Def Jam Recordings]
This year’s duo or group nominees may foretell the death of the category. “Fancy”, “My Chick Bad” and “Lose My Mind” are notable in that (a) each chorus lacks an important linking verb (“Uh You [Are] Fancy, Huh?”), and (b) each represents the absolute worst from their respective albums. It’s almost disturbing that the taste-makers of the recording industry consider these tracks the most marketable songs from these artists, who are legitimately skilled in their own right.
“Shutterbug” is an addictive synthesizer-infused track worthy of the $1.29 premium price on I-Tunes. It also provided us with one of my favorite rappy non-sequiturs of the year (“I’m Sergeant Slaughter, I keep my **** cooked to order”). Nevertheless, the cream of this year’s due-or-group crop is the Jay-Z/Swizzy collaboration “On to the Next One.” Like a number of hit songs from 2010, the track showcases Swiss Beats blue-chip production skills. The beat is relentless; the lyrics ambitious: A solid effort from both. And, as a bonus, the demonic images portrayed in the music video spawned internet rumors concerning Jay-Z’s affiliation with the Illuminati, which are, of course, 100% accurate.
Best Rap/Sung Collaboration
The rap/sung collabo is a relatively new category that features some of the more unique releases from the last year:
• Nothin’ On You / B.o.B & Bruno Mars / Track from: The Adventures Of Bobby Ray [Rebel Rock/Grand Hustle/Atlantic]
• Deuces / Chris Brown, Tyga & Kevin McCall [Jive Records]
• Love The Way You Lie / Eminem & Rihanna / Track from: Recovery [Aftermath/Shady Records/Interscope]
• Empire State Of Mind / Jay-Z & Alicia Keys / Track from: The Blueprint 3 [Roc Nation]
• Wake Up Everybody / John Legend, The Roots, Melanie Fiona & Common [G.O.O.D. Music/Columbia Records/Home School Records]
Since 2002, the category has been dominated by Hov. This year may be no exception: Jay-Z and Alicia Keys achieved critical and commercial success with the nearly ubiquitous “Empire State of Mind.” The song hovered at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks and enjoyed tremendous success internationally. While the world reached its saturation point with this song around March-ish, I’m sure that this one will stand the test of rap time.
Of course, most critics expect the “Love the Way You Lie” to win multiple song categories this year. The song is fine, but just fine. I’m still amazed that a poppy salute to domestic-abuse can arouse so many international fans. Specifically, I am recalling a be-dredded taxi driver bobbing his head to the beat as he drove my wife and me down the beautiful, rustic southern coast of Barbados. There, as we stared down a melting Caribbean sun, the driver turned to us and mouthed “Imma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire.” We quickly gathered our belongings and aborted the trip (coincidentally, Rihanna is a national hero in her home country of Barbados. Our driver, and two thirds of the indigenous population, claim at least two degrees of relationship to the pop star).
Speaking of domestic abuse, my personal favorite is Chris Brown’s hit “Deuces.” And while my segue is snarky and insensitive (if not predictable), the sentiment is real: The tract is among my favorites from 2010. The song evokes Brown’s tumultuous break-up with fellow nominee Rihanna, which gives the song an air of authenticity. The production is stripped and simple. The vocalization is refined. All-in-all, a fine return to form for Brown.
Best Rap Song
So, you may ask, what’s the difference between a “performance” and a “song” in Grammy-world? Not much. Suffice it to say that “song” awards are awarded to songwriters and based, primarily, on the quality of the song itself (the lyrics and music). The singer’s performance of the song is (theoretically) disregarded. Ideally, the Song of the Year should be a song that would sound good no matter who performs it. This year’s rap nominees include
• Empire State Of Mind / Shawn Carter, Angela Hunte, Alicia Keys, Jane’t “Jnay” Sewell-Ulepic & Alexander Shuckburgh, songwriters (Burt Keyes & Sylvia Robinson, songwriters) (Jay-Z & Alicia Keys) / Track from: The Blueprint 3
• Love The Way You Lie / Alexander Grant, Skylar Grey & Marshall Mathers, songwriters (Eminem & Rihanna) / Track from: Recovery
• Not Afraid / M. Burnett, J. Evans, Marshall Mathers, Luis Resto & M. Samuels, songwriters (Eminem) / Track from: Recovery
• Nothin’ On You / Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, Bruno Mars & Bobby Simmons Jr., songwriters (B.o.B & Bruno Mars) / Track from: The Adventures Of Bobby Ray
• On To The Next One / Shawn Carter, J. Chaton & K. Dean, songwriters (G. Auge & X. De Rosnay, songwriters) (Jay-Z & Swizz Beatz) / Track from: The Blueprint 3
While I’ve touched on Eminem and Jay-Z throughout, some quick points should be made about their fellow nominees B.o.B. and Bruno Mars, and their smash hit “Nothin On You.” The track is a light-hearted love song that evokes images of carrousels and summer sun. B.o.B. waxes “I’ve been to London, I’ve been to Paris / Even went out there to Tokyo . . . But you always steal the show / And just like that girl, you got me froze / Like Nintendo 64 / If you never knew, well, now you know, know, know, know.” Please be reminded that this category rewards gifted songwriting. Note also that this song was certified platinum in Australia.
Between the two serious nominees (Jay-Z and Eminem), Mathers is perhaps the more gifted lyricist (although neither song really evidences this), as Jay-Z’s subject matter continues to become comically redundant: What’s that, Jay? Oh, you were born in the Bed Stuy projects in Brooklyn, New York? You made your way selling drugs on the streets? And then you became a wealthy entrepreneur and business man? Well, if I were you, I would collaborate with a popular R&B singer and producer and craft a chart-topper recounting all of the foregoing.
For all of the corniness of Eminem’s hit songs, at least he stretches the boundaries of rap-able subject matter. It’s nevertheless discomforting to know that all of the truly ingenious lyrical content is found elsewhere on the record and not showcased at the Grammy’s. I guess that’s why they call it window pain.
Best Rap Album
Like the “duo or group” category, the “best album” category may also be reaching its cultural nadir. As music becomes increasingly digitally-based (and therefore increasingly ephemeral), music consumers are driven less by albums, and more by jingles. And this, in my opinion, is a bad thing. Fortunately for the world of hip hop, several fully-formed and surprisingly interesting albums received acclaim this year:
• The Adventures Of Bobby Ray / B.o.B [Rebel Rock/Grand Hustle/Atlantic]
• Thank Me Later / Drake [Cash Money/Young Money/Universal Motown]
• Recovery / Eminem [Aftermath/Shady Records/Interscope]
• The Blueprint 3 / Jay-Z [Roc Nation]
• How I Got Over / The Roots [Def Jam Recordings]
Yes, Eminem is again the favorite. Since his Grammy debut in 2000, Eminem has dominated this category with four awards. And while I agree that Mathers’ whiteness attracts more critical acclaim than is merited, he clearly deserves deference in the album category. Unlike most of his competitors, his records are generally thematic, wordy and extremely provocative. Recovery is no different. From the opening salvo in “Cold Wind Blows” (“I’m nuts, Michael Vick in this bitch, dog, fall back you muts”, Mathers is clever (as rap goes), topical and suitably offensive. He is at his best when he dispenses with the mock seriousness of his radio hits and evokes the hyper-absurdist content and complex internal rhyme schemes of his junior work. Cinderella Man, No Love and W.T.P. (White Trash Party) are all high points.
While Em is the likely winner, a personal favorite is Thank Me Later. Drake is musically unique in that he is a more-than-competent rapper and singer who alternates between both with great effect. Vocally, he shifts gears better than any other contemporary pop artist. The result is truly innovative song-crafting that overlays multiple vocal-rhythms and intonations into a fairly tight musical structure. Save for a few dropped-passes, the lyrics are range from standard “Cash Money” fare to some truly emotional and introspective observations.
I heard they just moved my grandmother to a nursing home
And I’m acting like don’t know how to work a phone
But hit redial you see that I just called
Some chick I met at the mall that I barely know at all
And plus this woman that I messed with unprotected
Texts me saying that she wished she kept it
And the girl I’m laying next to just looked over and read it
Man I couldn’t tell you where […] my head is
I’m holdin’ on by a threadIt’s like I’m high right now
The “guy” right nowYou can’t tell by looking in my eyes right now
That nothing’s really comes as a surprise right now
It’s “we just tryin’ to have the time of our lives” right now…
Maybe the sentiment is saccharine. Maybe the lyrics are not-at-all worthy of serious consideration as poetic language. But in the context of rap music, this is good stuff. And this record is filled with this stuff—from Fireworks (featuring Alicia Keys) to Karaoke to Unforgettable (featuring Jeezy).
Perhaps most striking is the production of Toronto-based producer Noah “40” Shebib. Shebib’s tracks are less “beats” and more “soundscapes.” They are multi-layered with organic instrumentation and electronica that seem to have been lifted from European-themed resort. The result is a type of adult-contemporary rap sound that (surprisingly) complements Drake’s unique vocalizations.
In short, Thank Me Later advances the ball father than any of its fellow nominees. Of all of the new-ish artists with Grammy nods this year, Drake clearly has the longest shelf-life. Drake’s sophomore effort, Take Care, is set to be released this Spring.