This Sunday, the 56th Annual Grammy Awards will air on CBS. If Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist wins the Grammy for Best Rap Album, it’ll be both the best and worst night of Macklemore’s career. Macklemore is nominated for a total of seven awards, including Best New Artist, Song of The Year, and even Album of The Year. But no award this year is more important than Best Rap Album. Why? Because in that category he faces off against rap’s golden boy, Kendrick Lamar, and his universally acclaimed rap masterpiece, good kid, m.A.A.d. city.
Despite the fact that there’s three other nominees, only Macklemore and Kendrick’s albums are also facing off for Album of the Year1, which means one or the other will certainly win Best Rap Album. (Sorry Kanye, Drake, and Jay Z). Kendrick is also nominated for seven awards, and Kendrick is signed to a major label, while Macklemore is an independent artist—so you might think Kendrick has a better shot at winning. But cynical rap fans know better.
Kendrick is black and Macklemore is white. This, at a time when Uncle Scarface is warning that hip-hop is becoming whitewashed and the Grammy voters are debating whether or not Macklemore is even a rapper. If Macklemore wins Best Rap Album, it’ll be a classic example of white privilege at work. Should Macklemore win, it won’t be because he’s a better rapper than Kendrick (he’s not) or because he made a better album than Kendrick (he didn’t). It will be because he’s safe and white and the kind of guy out-of-touch Grammy voters could get behind. This is the double-edged sword for Macklemore. Winning Best Rap Album would no doubt make him a bigger star, but it would also, very likely, make him into a major rap villain.
History is what’s at stake here. Whoever wins the award for Best Rap Album is viable to become the face of hip-hop to a television audience that doesn’t know any better.
Macklemore knows this too. He has already tried to preempt the backlash.
“We’re up against Kendrick, who made a phenomenal album,” said Macklemore, to The Source. “If we win a Grammy for Best Rap Album, hip-hop is going to be heated. In terms of [that category], I think it should go to Kendrick. He’s family. TDE is family, and I understand why hip-hop would feel like Kendrick got robbed [if he didn’t win].”
Macklemore is right. And rap fans come into every Grammys season expecting to get screwed over. There's a traditionally strained relationship at play. Over the years, hip-hop has been snubbed so many times by the Grammys that last year Complex made a 23-slide feature about it. In fact, the award in question—Best Rap Album—didn’t even exist until 1996. In other words, it was only invented after some of the genre’s greatest achievements—Boogie Down Productions' Criminal Minded, Wu-Tang Clan's Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory, Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back—had come and gone without so much as a nod.
It's an open topic of discussion. On It Takes A Nation’s “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic” Chuck D asked, “Who gives a fuck about a Goddamn Grammy?” Disdain for the Grammys is a long-held ethos in hip-hop. Hip-hop's not alone in this. Serious fans of many genres believe the Grammys get it wrong all the time, thanks in part to a flawed voting process (as Complex’s Senior Editor and voting member of the Recording Academy Rob Kenner recently explained.) But with rap, there's an ever greater sense that, “They don’t understand our culture.” Still, that doesn’t mean the Grammys don’t matter.
Even if a Grammy is seen as an acknowledgement from a white, mainstream establishment that many in the hip-hop community hold in low regard, it’s still a major accolade, a giant feather in one's cap. More pragmatically, award shows, with their huge national televison audiences, make stars. Last year, when Complex did The 50 Hottest Rappers Right Now, Ranked According To Google Trends Macklemore landed at No. 6 (three spots ahead of Kendrick) because he saw a huge spike in traffic after winning a couple of VMAs. Now you might say you don’t give a fuck about a Grammy, but seriously, who gives a fuck about a VMA? (Well, except for Kanye, apparently.) But look at what TaylorGate did for the fame and celebrity of everyone involved—Kanye, Taylor Swift, and Beyonce. For better or worse, award shows introduce you to a bigger audience, and Grammys winners always enjoy a healthy sales boost.
Really, it’s Kanye who has the best take on the Grammys. Last year, in an interview with The New York Times he explained, “I don’t care about the Grammys; I just would like for the statistics to be more accurate...I don’t want them to rewrite history right in front of us.”
Macklemore is no Eminem. Eminem was won awards when he was the Best Rapper Alive, something Macklemore isn’t but Kendrick is.
History is what’s at stake here. Whoever wins the award for Best Rap Album is viable to become the face of hip-hop to a television audience that doesn’t know any better. Grammy awards make memories. Ask the average younger rap fan who Evanescence is, and all they’ll know is how they beat 50 Cent for Best New Artist in 2004 and it was total bullshit. (Even though Evanescence went on to have a pretty successful career). And I’m sure those old guys in Steely Dan are great and all. But I’m sorry, I’m just never ever going to forgive them for beating Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP for Album of the Year in 2001.
It’s worth noting that five of the 18 Grammys for Best Rap Album have gone to Eminem—someone who also enjoys the benefits of white privilege. Eminem certainly deserved to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album for the trifecta of classics at the start of the century: The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and The Eminem Show in 2000, 2001, and 2003, respectively. He might have been less deserving in his wins for Relapse and Recovery in 2010 and 2011, but those were weak years for traditional rap releases in general. Em wasn’t facing off against an artistic achievement like good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Either way, Macklemore is no Eminem. Eminem won awards when he was the Best Rapper Alive, something Macklemore isn’t but Kendrick is.
Despite all this, Macklemore and his legion of fans don’t deserve such shabby treatment. The Heist deserves its nominations. You don’t have to be a fan of his music to respect Macklemore’s independent hustle, and it’s easy to appreciate his bold stand on social issues like gay rights—a topic about which hip-hop remains woefully behind-the-times.
In fact, Macklemore’s been taking on social issues for years now. Including the issue of white privilege. Way before he was a huge star, before the recent explosions of white rappers, the first song on Macklemore’s 2005 album, The Language of My World, was called "White Privilege.” On it, he rhymed, “Where's my place in a music that's been taken by my race?/Culturally appropriated by the white face/And we don't want to admit that this is existing/So scared to acknowledge the benefits of our white privilege.”
"But it's something that I absolutely, not only in terms of society, benefit from my White privilege but being a Hip Hop artist in 2013, I do as well. The people that are coming to shows, the people that are connecting, that are resonating with me, that are like, 'I look like that guy. I have an immediate connection with him.' I benefit from that privilege and I think that mainstream Pop culture has accepted me on a level that they might be reluctant to, in terms of a person of color. They're like, 'Oh, this is safe. This is okay. He's positive.' I'm cussing my ass off in 'Thrift Shop.' Families are like, 'Fucking awesome.' I think that it's an interesting case study and something that I feel, as a White rapper, I have a certain amount of responsibility to speak on the issue of race, knowing that it's uncomfortable, that it's awkward and that, in particular, White people are like, 'Let's just not talk about it. Everyone is equal.' The reality is that...that's bullshit. We absolutely see race. We all do. I think we can evolve as long as we are having discussions about it."
It’s hard to guess what a “discussion” will be worth when Macklemore is up on the stage accepting his award. But at the very least, if Macklemore does win, I’d imagine he would include some kind of acknowledgement to Kendrick—if not white privilege itself. (That would be cool!) That’s really the best thing he could do. Poor guy. He made the best album he could make. It will be unfortunate if he can't fully enjoy the accolades it gets because of this country’s complicated racial history.
But who knows? Maybe Kendrick will win and all will be right with the world. But, umm, I doubt it. Call me cynical, but I just can't see it. And if Macklemore wins, it's not really right to hold it against him. He can't help being born white; it is what it is. But certainly, you can't blame anyone who gets heated when a board of voters who don't appreciate the nuances of hip-hop culture effectively alter history by misrepresenting the present. Like Kendrick says on "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe," we'll be left asking, "How can I paint this picture when the color blind is hanging witcha'?"
1. I highly doubt Kendrick or Macklemore will win Album of the Year. They’re rookies to Grammy voters who tend to vote for famous names they recognize. Not to mention they're up against Taylor Swift and “Most-Likely-Win-Lifetime-Achievement-Award-In-Form-of-Album-of-The-Year” candidate, Daft Punk.
Insanul Ahmed is a rap writer living in the Bronx. He loves watching the Grammys, even though they always disappoint him.