By Steve Jones, USA TODAY
Album-of-the-year hopeful Lil Wayne leads the field with eight nominations. He’ll join fellow rap superstars Jay-Z, T.I. and Kanye West at Sunday’s 51st annual show (CBS, 8 p.m. ET/PT), performing Swagga Like Us. Jay-Z and West also have six nominations each, while T.I. has four.
“It’s nice to see that Lil Wayne is the darling of the Grammys this year,” says Danyel Smith, Vibe editor in chief. “It’s an acknowledgement of his talent and the huge impact he’s had on music this year.”
Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III has sold close to 3 million copies and was 2008’s biggest-selling album; he has had or been featured on nearly a dozen hits.
This year’s nominations are a far cry from two decades ago, when the Grammys first recognized rap by honoring crossover acts like Will Smith and nominating Vanilla Ice while more respected or edgier artists were ignored. Acts like Public Enemy boycotted the event.
That changed as rap became more mainstream. Lauryn Hill’s R&B-heavy The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won album of the year in 1998, and Outkast’s Hey Ya-fueled Speakerboxxx/The Love Below won in 2003.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, Hammer and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were among the few really commercially viable artists,” says Chuck Creekmur, CEO of the news site allhiphop.com. “Now hip-hop is still commercially viable, but it’s not as clear-cut who is crossover and who is underground.”
He points to the diversity in the rap album race, in which Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III faces Jay-Z’s semi-autobiographical American Gangster, T.I.’s hit-laden Paper Trail, Lupe Fiasco’s inventive The Cool and Nas’ controversial racial treatise Nas. Arguably, Lil Wayne’s album isn’t the best among them, but “its impact is undeniable.”
Smith sees the category’s glaring omission as Young Jeezy’s The Recession, which has proven prescient. “He was saying we were in a recession long before anybody would admit that,” she says. “And he was rapping ‘My president is black’ long before we knew that then-Sen. Obama was going to be elected.”
Overall, though, Grammy’s rap picks were solid, she says. “Clearly, there are more rap fans in NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) than there used to be.”
Young Jeezy did get his first nomination this year for Put On with West in rap duo/group performance. That same category yielded a nod to longtime rivals T.I. and Ludacris for their beef-squashing Wish You Would. Nominations for Nas’s incendiary N.I.*.*.E.R. (The Slave and the Master) for rap solo and Big Boi’s Royal Flush featuring Raekwon and Andre 3000 for rap duo/group also point to voters’ increased sophistication.
“I’m shocked that (Nas) song got nominated,” Creekmur says. “It’s very honest hip-hop. And then there’s Big Boi. The only way to know about a record like Royal Flush is to be listening in the grass roots.”