The Grammys are the theoretically the most prestigious award a musician can win. The only problem is that everyone knows the the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences consistently fail to rightfully determine which artists make the best music — especially in rap. All genres and categories have had questionable winners that looked odd at the time and now seem even more baffling. For example, how did Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down win album of the year in 1985 over Purple Rain? More eyes roll when it comes to rap and they haven’t even given all the awards to the Macklemore yet.
Below are the winners and losers in the best rap album category. The goal here is to see how accurate they were. (Actual winners appear in bold.)
The first nominees for the award featured three great albums, a one-hit wonder, and a mediocre album by a legendary group beginning to fall off. Naturally, the Grammys chose Naughty by Nature’s album as the inaugural winner. Maybe the controversy around Pac blocked his chance of winning but Me Against the World is the first album that displayed the full range of his talent. Records like “Dear Mama”, “So Many Tears”, “It Ain’t Easy”, and ”Old School” showing his versatility, he deserved to win over his buddies from the Bricks.
This year was a two-horse race. As great as All Eyez on Me was, the record being a double disc added a bit of filler that if condensed to one album would be undeniable. The Score was a great body of work catapulted by the single “Killing Me Softly.” Contrary to popular belief, Pras wasn’t that bad and held his own while Lauryn Hill was the unbelievable lyrical rapper who could also sing. Wyclef added his international flavor. The Grammys got this one right. Surprise.
Some may remember that ODB crashed the stage and gave his legendary “Wu-Tang is for the children” speech but the Osiris was right. Puff used recognizable samples from the 80s and excellent ghostwriters to make him a rap star but his former artist deserved this award posthumously. Biggie’s last true project (forget Born Again and Biggie Duets) changed the way rap albums were made by incorporating regional sounds from all over the country and showing rappers how to do a double album properly. Even joke fillers like “Playa Hater” were still catchy and the overall spirit of the album revealing a 24-year-old at the height of his genius.
Pun and Ma$e made great debut albums. And as we’ve seen, through the last couple years, the Grammys enjoyed enshrining respected groups past their prime and A Tribe Called Quest received their last nomination in this category — a shame it didn’t exist in their prime. Mr. So So Def’s nomination is a head scratcher, while Jay’s single “Hard Knock Life” was his coronation to the mainstream and the album remains the Jiggaman’s highest selling album ever at over five million copies. Hov deserved the praise and became a Grammy darling ever sense.
Another two-horse race, but this time it’s between the highest selling rapper of all time and the greatest band in rap history. Both rose to the mainstream during this span and although The Slim Shady LP had Eminem rapping his ass off and making a point that he wasn’t a gimmick because of the color of his skin, the production and excess of skits take away from the product [ed. note: false]. Things Fall Apart found The Roots giving all killer and no filler making a cohesive body of work that still sounds fresh today. Jimmy Fallon’s house band should’ve been the winners.
Dr. Dre’s sequel to The Chronic was solid but over-long and DMX made a decent third album but the singles stood out more than the body of work. Beyoncé’s husband was in his album-a-year run and excluding “Big Pimpin’” the album was sub-par. Nelly won Grammy voters with his sing-song delivery, but the Dre’s protégé got more personal on his sophomore album, while still incorporating his humor and disdain for pop stars. He was rapping an insanely elite level and was probably the best rapper alive at that moment. Henceforth…
The Grammys sometimes pretend to be fans of the avant-garde, but Aquemini wasn’t even nominated for best rap album prior. This seems to be a way of righting their previous wrong. Stankonia was a brilliant work but scattershot. The Blueprint found Jay at the height of his powers. Kanye West, Just Blaze, and Bink’s production revolutionized sampling once again. The master plan to stay King of NY over Nas, DMX, and Ja Rule deserved the prize.
Mystikal’s fifth album was very good and Ludacris was doing well trying to be the southern Redman on Word of Mouf. But Eminem’s growth as a producer and global figure expanded exponentially with the release of this album and 8 Mile dropping later that year.
This year was between the blockbuster albums of 50 & Outkast. Outkast had two Billboard number one singles in “The Way You Move” and “Hey Ya!” and their double album was a unique body of work showcasing the group as unique solo artists. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was a project that featured some of the best production of the decade, released hit single after hit single, had 50 rapping his hardest ever, killed Ja Rule’s career, made G-Unit a household name, and 50 Cent an international star. The Queens native wins in a close call.
In the immortal words of Mr. West: “I made Jesus Walks, so I’m never going to hell.” His debut album caused a paradigm shift in rap and even though his big brother was “retiring” he wouldn’t be sorely missed because the Chicago native was ready to become the new leader.
In a 2005 story for Vibe Magazine, writer Noah Callahan-Bever noticed that West had side-by-side track listings of Be and Late Registration “so that he can be sure that his LP hangs song-for-song with Common’s.” His attempt failed because while West’s sophomore album is an improvement on his debut, its lacks the cohesion of Common’s masterpiece and should’ve lost. [Ed.Note: Dubious.] Imagine Ye’s reaction if he lost an award to his own artist.
In a pretty competitive year, the worst album nominated won. Pharrell made a decent debut opting to sing on the majority of his album, T.I. continued to grow his fan base across the country with hit records “What You Know” and “Why You Wanna.” On their Def Jam debut, The Roots made their darkest album yet. But Lupe Fiasco’s debut deserved the award. The Chicago native made an excellent album with sharp lyrics, great production, and a diverse topical terrain that briefly positioned him to be an important figure in rap.
One again the G.O.O.D. Music label mates were battling each other as Jiggaman’s return to rap resulted in his worst solo album, his new artist Nas had a great album title but a mediocre album, and T.I. took a step backwards with his fifth album. Common’s follow-up to Be was great but West went on another level and foreshadowed the EDM craze early with “Stronger”, used trap music to make his anthem “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, expanded his production, improved lyrically, and crushed 50 Cent in their sales battle to make his third album an undeniable classic
The buzz around Wayne during his prolific mixtape and feature run had fans and media ready to proclaim Tha Carter III a classic before it was even released. The album had many hits but opted to showcase the YMCB leader’s versatility while ignoring his star-eating rapping, save for rappity rap standouts “A Milli”, “Phone Home”, “Dr. Carter”, and “Let the Beat Build.” He even tried to be conscious on the album’s outro “DontGetIt” criticizing Al Sharpton who five years later received a book deal from Cash Money Publishing.
Paper Trail was a similar to Tha Carter III in that it had hit records, but the album left you wanting more. American Gangster was Blue Ivy’s father using a movie as an excuse to rap about selling drugs again. The album was very good but far from his best. Lupe’s sophomore followed a similar concept to his debut and was a darker body of work but it had too many tracks that dragged on. Nas’s most political album deserved the crown. It had one of his strongest intros ever in “Queens Get the Money”, working with the Last Poets on “You Can’t Stop Us Now” and “Project Roach” showed him looking at his predecessors and coming up with unique concepts, “Fried Chicken” with Busta Rhymes details how blacks suffer from soul food, “Sly Fox” tackles Fox News and how media can change the coverage of topics, and the centerpiece of the album “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Master & The Slave)” perfectly explains his concept of the record. It found the QB rapper spitting some of his most poignant bars ever.
On Em’s song “Not Afraid” he stated “In fact, let’s be honest/ That last Relapse CD was ‘ehh’/ Perhaps I ran them accents into the ground.” Of course, he still won because out of all the nominees he was the most commercially successful but his album wasn’t as good as his previous works. Mos Def’s fourth album was very worldly and a nice expansion of his catalog but The Abstract’s sophomore album was the real winner with Q-Tip sounding like he was still in the early 90s spitting over jazzy grooves.
B.o.B- B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray
Drake- Thank Me Later
Jay-Z- The Blueprint 3
The Roots- How I Got Over
Once again. a so-so Eminem album won and this year was filled with run-of-the-mill albums that were nominated because of high charting singles. The Roots’ ninth studio album had them in a very collaborative zone and making great thought-provoking music like on songs like “Dear God 2.0”, “Now or Never”, and “The Fire.” The Philly natives were the rightful winners this year.
No further comment needed here.
Last year was between Nas and Drake. Nas made a solid body of work based off his experiences in the past, his divorce to Kelis, relationship with his daughter, and several other topics. The album was arguably Nas’s best album since Stillmatic but unfortunately just like that album, sequencing was an issue. The Canadian on the other hand made his sad robot masterpiece which his producer and engineer 40 brilliantly put together to give it a thematic feel. It had the OVO boss flexing lyrically on songs like “Over My Dead Body”, “Lord Knows” and “The Ride”, his symp anthems like “Marvin’s Room”, “Doing It Wrong” and “The Real Her” and he even made the national anthem of twerking a full-blown ballad. The call is very close but Drake deserved his trophy.
If you weren’t keeping score at home this means the Grammys were roughly 8 for 18, also known as a good night shooting from J.R. Smith. So don’t be shocked if The Heist beats good kid, m.A.A.d city this year because we saw a trend of the album with the most commercially successful singles win the award instead of the records that have a cohesive body of work.