Apart from the shocking shutout of The Weeknd from all 2021 Grammy nominations, the hip-hop and R&B categories have arguably been the most controversial and criticized in the 2021 slate. At a time when hip-hop is the most popular and influential genre and R&B is a field of wide-ranging innovation, the nominees are a puzzling mix of safe (John Legend, Chloe X Halle, Beyonce’s annual nods), relatively obscure (Mykal Kilgore, Yebba) and rather inexplicable — and some of the categories themselves are confusingly if not questionably defined.
Insiders tell Variety the Best Rap Song lineup is strong — with Roddy Ricch, Drake, DaBaby, Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Baby’s incisive “The Bigger Picture,” it’s a combination of social relevance, swagger and hits — and they give a “s’alright” to the Rap Performance category, approving the late Pop Smoke’s (only) nomination while questioning the inclusion of Big Sean, who isn’t really known for his fiery delivery.
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However, one insider calls the Best Album lineup “a travesty,” with little of the relevance of the song list. While Lil Baby downplayed the lack of a nod for his double platinum “My Turn” album — “This award, that award; I ain’t gonna trip,” he said on “The Breakfast Club” radio show — fans and insiders were surprised to see it overlooked in favor of less popular releases by Freddie Gibbs, Royce 5’9” and particularly “Rhythm & Flow” alum D Smoke (some conspiracy theorists posit that D Smoke was confused with Pop Smoke by some voters, which is hopefully not likely). Regardless, many are surprised by the exclusion of enormously popular and of-the-moment albums from Lil Uzi Vert, Roddy Ricch, Polo G and the late Juice WRLD and Pop Smoke.
In R&B, the exclusion of The Weeknd and Alicia Keys from is at least explainable — the screening committees may have considered those releases to be Pop — and Childish Gambino’s stealthily released “3.15.20” seemed to fly under the radar by design. However, the total exclusion of Summer Walker’s heavily favored “Over It” and releases by Brandy, Lianne La Havas and Teyana Taylor took many by surprise.
Even more confusing is the categorization: This year, the Grammys replaced the ill-defined Urban term (which 2020 Best Rap Album winner Tyler, the Creator called “a politically correct way to say the N-word”) with Progressive R&B. That is reflected in some of the nominees, which comprise boundary-pushing artists Jhene Aiko, Robert Glasper, Thundercat and the Free Nationals alongside the more-conventional Chloe x Halle. Oddly, the Traditional R&B category is primarily lesser-known artists Kilgore, Yebba, Ledisi and the Baylor Project alongside … Chloe x Halle, who are apparently traditional and progressive at the same time. Confusingly, Gregory Porter, who has arguably made the most traditional R&B album in the entire slate, is instead under Best R&B Album alongside Ant Clemons, Giveon, Luke James and the seeming shoo-in John Legend.
While many of the nominations are on point, overall these categories are an uneven reflection of a tumultuous year for the Grammys, the industry and the country.
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