Rap has been associated with the word race in one way or another since its emergence onto the music scene. Rap music started with and today is still dominated by African Americans. This isn’t to say that a white rapper can’t have musical success: take Eminem for example. He has thirteen Grammys to his name, none of which were debated. This year at the Grammys when another white rapper, by the name of Macklemore, took home best rap album of the year, there was massive backlash. While I agree with critics that Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” was robbed of best rap album and probably some other awards as well, I disagree with the reasoning behind the backlash. People are upset over Macklemore’s “robbery” for the wrong reason. The debate behind the best rap album of the year shouldn’t be about white rappers threatening rap or African American culture, nor should it have anything to do with Macklemore winning because he has a pro-gay rights song in a genre that has largely been considered homophobic. But in today’s popular culture that is apparently still very black-and-white, we’re again discussing black or not black, and pro-gay or who-knows-what-this-guy-thinks, and then using these rhetorics for reasoning behind winning awards. I disagree with the backlash surrounding the awarding of best rap album of the year because we’re not talking about the music here.
Kendrick Lamar made the better album, Macklemore said it himself. Kendrick is also the better rapper. His 2012 release, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” is one of the best albums to be released since the turn of the century. This concept album has been regarded by many in the rap community as an instant classic. So why didn’t he win? GKMC throws punch after punch at the listener. Kendrick delivers crisp, meaningful metaphors alongside eerie, creeping beats that propel ballard-like tracks throughout the album. Then, as if out of nowhere, his left-hand man, Schoolboy Q, has everyone screaming “YAWK! YAWK! YAWK! YAWK!” and all memories of ballard-rap have disappeared. When I first heard GKMC, I couldn’t get enough. I listened to it start-to-finish countless times. I yelled obscenities and lyrics at my friends until they gave into my love for the album. It’s safe to say that I became Kendrick-crazy after this release, and I still am to this day. Despite my obsession with GKMC and my love for all things Kendrick, I can honestly say I am not biased towards him when it comes to the Lamar/Macklemore debate.
Hell, I am a proud Pacific Northwest native. If anything, I should have a bias towards Macklemore. I’ll say it — I was hip to Macklemore before most of his fans today. I’m proud of all his recent success; his sudden surge into the music industry is a credit to his hard work. His Grammy victories are a victory for the independent label movement. But Macklemore didn’t win best rap album of the year because he deserved it. He won because his music appeals to a wider audience, plain and simple. His lyrics are (mostly) clean, sober, and safe. His 2012 release “The Heist” is full of catchy hits that have gained a ton of radio and commercial rotation, the key into the music industry’s heart. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won best rap album of the year because today’s music industry is set up for the Macklemores, Bruno Mars’, and (god forbid) Justin Biebers to win. Although that is harsh company to place Macklemore with, the truth today is radio play equates listeners, and the number of listeners equates quality. This is how the music industry thinks, an industry which is headed by a bunch of corporate big-wigs. Their priority is revenue. If we as listeners continue to fall into their cash crop, the music industry will continue to push whatever they believe will yield the largest profit, in turn manipulating what the public hears. In this market, there’s no room for a Frank Ocean to win album of the year. A phenomenal R&B singer/songwriter, Ocean produced an emotionally moving record, his song “Bad Religion,” explaining his own personal gay sexual experiences. I have a hard time knowing this didn’t produce the same response as “Same Love.” Is it because he’s black? Maybe his personal accounts are too real for the listeners? Or is it because Macklemore is a straight, white rapper pushing a pro-gay message? The real answer is that people aren’t listening to the music, not completely. They’re hearing the words, without looking for the message within them.
If listeners took the time to listen and relisten, to read the lyrics and analyze the rhymes, maybe they would realize that Kendrick’s single off GKMC, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” isn’t a party-starting anthem designed to get everyone and their mother drunk. This is why we have English classes right? We read literature and extrapolate from the text to find the author’s deeper message. Although Kendrick’s hook in Swimming Pools chants the word “Drank” almost incessantly, he’s not urging people to go “Bottom’s Up,” like rapper, Trey Songz, does in his track of the same name. Kendrick is in fact discussing peer pressure and the motives of some drinkers. “Some people like the way it feels, some people wanna kill their sorrows. Some people wanna fit in with the popular, that was my problem,” raps Kendrick. His next verse takes the form of his conscience, advising himself to listen and slow down before he gets too nauseous. Tell that to your momma next time she complains about Kendrick being a bad influence.
Kendrick Lamar is far from a bad influence. If listeners (and voters) took the time to really get into the message he’s pushing, they would realize this as well. Kendrick is a poet at the highest level — this is a fact. Too many people believe that radio play, listeners, and awards give factual validation for quality. I stopped holding major award ceremonies in high regards years ago. We shouldn’t stop paying attention to the Grammys and similar award shows, but we need to think of them as a component of the corrupt music industry which is pushing their own agenda of radio play and profit. As listeners, I encourage everyone to learn about what songs they’re playing on their iPods, because it might be sounds the industry wants you to hear. There’s a whole world of music beyond what radio and industry pushes.
“Look inside of my soul and you can find gold and maybe get rich. Look inside of your soul and you can find out it never exist.” —Kendrick Lamar