By virtue of its own name, OutKast seemed to have a Grammys death wish. Too powerful, innovative, edgy, and maybe worst of all, too popular.
But on Thursday, voting members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences got it right, bestowing upon the hip-hop houdinis a well-deserved Grammy nomination for Album of the Year and Rap Album of the Year for “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.” It eased fears. It satisfied aficionados. It again brought hip-hop to the mainstream while maintaining the integrity of its roots.
Then again, Kelly Clarkson of “American Idol” hype got a nomination, so you wonder just how seriously we’re all supposed to take the little gramophone statuette.
In all, Thursday’s announcements were primarily about the continued impact of hip-hop, and that’s a good thing, because as sometimes happens with Grammy’s kudos cousins in the film and television arena, membership tends to age and become blind to revolutions. Not so here.
Beyonce, Jay-Z, OutKast and Pharrell Williams came away from the nominations phase with six apiece, leading all others, proving that hip-hop’s clout isn’t confined to Billboard Magazine’s list of money-makers. Such a strong showing keeps Grammy relevant in an era of strife characterized by corporate takeovers of music labels, rampant illegal downloading and saccharine overdosing from made-for-TV talent competitions.
And let’s not forget 50 Cent, the not-so-rare rapper with a rap sheet. He’s been shot, stabbed, dropped by his record label, signed by Eminem’s, arrested for gun possession and welcomed as the new owner of a Connecticut mansion once owned by Mike Tyson. On Thursday — also not a surprise, but a positive development music-wise — he received a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album for “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ” a title that apparently explains his entire adult life. It was another case of the public clamor for an artist with merit and talent shaking hands with the influence of Academy voters, with both parties walking away happily.
Maybe this will keep him out of trouble now.
50 Cent received five noms, as did Eminem and Missy Elliott. This was as close to a landslide as one genre gets. When the 46th annual awards are handed out February 8 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, it is likely to be one bling-bling happening.
But the Academy didn’t just come through in acknowledging burgeoning hip-hop trends. Justice was done on other fronts.
Skeptics can sneer that Grammy noms went to the late Warren Zevon and George Harrison as well as Luther Vandross out of sympathy, but that would be denying their considerable talents as well as their continued importance. Zevon, who died Sept. 7 at the age of 56 from lung cancer, was nominated for Song of the Year for “Keep Me In Your Heart,” not an unreasonable request for a singer-songwriter of Zevon’s stature and popularity. Harrison, who passed away, also of cancer, on Nov. 29, 2001, received a nomination for Best Vocal Album for his final studio effort, “Brainwashed.”
Innovators still rewarded
Amid the deluge of hip-hop developments, it’s nice to know the Academy retains a long-standing appreciation for groundbreaking artists of another time and another milieu. The same sentiment applies to Vandross, who suffered a debilitating stroke this year. Acknowledging the underlying influence on hip-hop of classic rhythm and blues standardists like Vandross, the Academy recognized him in the Song of the Year category for “Dance With My Father.”
Fortunately, the intrusion by manufactured stars did not spoil Thursday’s festivities. If anything, it focused the spotlight on more deserving performers.
The key categories of Album, Song and Record of the Year most assuredly will go to hip-hop artists. The deck is stacked, and rightfully so. Public opinion in Album seems to be leaning toward OutKast and Missy Elliott in a two-horse race, with Evanescence, The White Stripes and Justin Timberlake bringing up the rear.
In Song, the one major category where hip-hop lyricism often defers to more mainstream fare, it looks like the one representative, “Lose Yourself” by Eminem, is a longshot to Vandross and Zevon. In Record of the Year, hip-hop again crowds the category, with OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” looking like the one to beat.
If a Grammy took human form this year, it would wear baggy pants, an iced-out nameplate with “Grammy” spelled in bold letters, and a baseball cap worn askew. In fact, if this year’s nominations are any indication, that figures to be the look for quite some time.
Michael Ventre is a Los Angeles-based writer who contributes regularly to MSNBC.com.
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