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Hip-Hop at the Grammys: The Perils of Doin’ It for the Culture

Chuck D and LL Cool J / Photo by Getty Images

As is always the case with rap music and the Grammys, nearly all of the rap-related awards were given out during the pre-show ceremony. Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Niggas In Paris” won both Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song. Meanwhile, Best Rap Album, which you think they could’ve crammed somewhere in between every single televised country award, went to Drake’s Take Care. About a year and a half later (because Grammy cut-offs are weird), Take Care remains a frustrating, fascinating, and inspired album. Good for Drake.

Almost like an immediate victory lap, Drake released the video for his new single “Started From the Bottom” right before the televised ceremonies. “Started From the Bottom” places Drake in hi-def variations of his suburban struggle life as a youngster, including working in a CVS-like pharmacy and bowling with his friends, slowly building up to his current life in which he parties in a Playboy Mansion-style house like a creep. That’s capital-V victory in Drizzyland. Save for an obnoxious interlude straight out of Benny Hill in which a woman with large breasts approaches the counter and Drake’s buddy gets all flustered, “Started From the Bottom” is this year’s first truly interesting video. Footage of Drake quasi-ghostriding a convertible in the snow is iconic. It’s at least GIF-worthy.

The big deal for rap fans this year was LL Cool J hosting the Grammys (again). It’s less notable once you realize he’s on the weekly CBS show NCIS: Los Angeles, so you know #NetworkSynergy, but still, if a rapper can host the music industry’s annual circle-jerk twice in a row, that is progress. Even if he did have to call Taylor Swift “T-Swizzle” and shill for Twitter like no human has ever done. Also, Neil Patrick Harris introducing fun. with a quote from Katherine Hepburn and calling her a “gangsta rap icon,” was one of those, “This is really where we’re still at?” moments that makes rap fans die a little inside. Better handled was a quick tribute to the late Dick Clark, which began with footage from LL’s 1986 performance on American Bandstand.

Rap-related performances were all in service of R&B. Miguel performed “Adorn” expertly, despite Wiz Khalifa’s guest verse, which was, like all Wiz verses these days, effective only because it got completely out of the way. Then, Miguel and Wiz introduced an award for Best Country Performance. There’s some sort of way to unpack everything wrong with the Grammys in that sequence of events, I think: R&B super talent and populist rapping stoner twerp are forced to rush through last year’s most luxurious and patient song to make way for more country music.

Beyoncé and Ellen DeGeneres walked out to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” and introduced Justin Timberlake who did “Suit & Tie” and another similarly “mature” song called, “Pusher Love Girl.” Jay-Z knocked out his “Suit & Tie” guest verse, and that was interesting only because Jay-Z was sitting in the audience when Beyoncé approached the stage, which means he pretty much rushed up onto the stage with little preparation and boasted about wearing a tuxedo for no reason. Dude’s a pro. By the way, Justin Timberlake was quietly Twitter-schooled by Justin Bieber who tossed out a lounge-tinged Neptunes-like snippet on SoundCloud called “You Want Me” that is way better than either of these The 20/20 Experience non-starters.

More rap-by-way-of R&B because that’s all we’re going to get: Kelly Rowland and Nas giving out the award for “Best Urban R&B Contemporary,” which really isn’t a genre of music, but whatever. Not to mention, the category only included Chris Brown, Frank Ocean, and Miguel. Frank Ocean won, and made sure to thank “everybody at Odd Future records” which felt like a small victory for a rap group everyone is trying to ignore these days like some embarrassing relic from their mall-punk days. Tyler was seen mugging in the background behind Ocean’s reverent mother. Later on, after Ocean’s daring if not entirely successful performance of “Forrest Gump,” Earl Sweatshirt was shown standing and applauding. Very OFWGKTA.

Only one rap-related award was afforded any airtime: “Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.” That means a rap song with a singer on it, which means every rap song, kind of? “No Church in the Wild” won and Jay-Z, Frank Ocean, and The-Dream accepted. Only interesting because the-Dream was wearing a “Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics” skullie as well as a Boyz n the Hood baseball cap and, well, acting like The-Dream. He was thankful, though he also hinted at his 2010 anger when his speech was cut off, because that’s how The-Dream rolls. Jay-Z made a dumb joke about Terius’ hat being from “a swap meet,” though it was really just Jay-Z being a nervous boring professional who wanted to steer clear of The-Dream’s oncoming huge asshole egomaniac vortex that threated to take over the entire moment. Truthfully, the show needed more IDGAF personality bursts from people like The-Dream. Internet eccentric old-soul Riff Raff was somewhere on the premises. Shame on him for not ODB-ing a Mumford at some point.

The biggest takeaway on the rap tip, though, was that hip-hop is now old enough to get the full-on reverent classic-rock treatment. During the obituaries segment, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys received a massive round of applause, which was validating, and the inclusion of mogul Chris Lighty was a nice touch. Not to mention the entire show ended with a rap-rock nostalgia trip featuring LL Cool J, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Tom Morello, Z-Trip, and Travis Barker. They hammered out what seemed like a medley of “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Rock the Bells,” and a quick Yauch tribute via “No Sleep Til’ Brooklyn,” but is really a new song called “Whaddup” off LL Cool J’s upcoming album, Authentic.

Hip-hop fans are embattled, often for good reason, but there’s something bittersweet every time the music gets acknowledged by the kinds of people who haven’t acknowledged it very much before. It just never comes out right. Even when it’s helmed by two of the greatest rappers who ever lived, there’s a “For the culture”-ness that feels important on paper, but comes off embarrassing and forced in execution. Replacing classic-rock nostalgia with old-school hip-hop nostalgia is probably inevitable and necessary, but it doesn’t make it any less cringe-worthy. If LL and MistaChuck bringing down the house on some explosive rap-rock hit you in the gut, that’s great. It was certainly less pathetic than all the languid guitar whiners we had to endure the rest of the night.

But then, as if on cue, and just as the LL and company’s performance hit a 1988 headbanging crunch gone 1998 nü-metal fever-pitch, it was interrupted by advertisements for hotels and airplanes. Yep. The Grammys could not let them finish good and proper. At least they were given the stage for a little while there. Congratulations hip-hop, you’re finally old and withered enough to be formally dismissed by the Grammys.