By: Angela Silva
Editor’s note: This article contains explicit language and profanity. The writer quoted lyrics and titles containing the N-word and other profanity. They are not the writer’s words.
Last year may not have been the strongest year for mainstream hip-hop and rap, but that does not mean there were not any notable projects worth praising. Between Oct. 1, 2018 and Aug. 31, 2019 — the dates a music product needed to be released by to be eligible for a Grammy nomination —, the public was granted amazing projects like Tyler the Creator’s “Igor,” “Some Rap Songs” by Earl Sweatshirt and even up-and-coming hip-hop group Pivot Gang’s “You Can’t Sit With Us.” However, only five projects officially receive a nomination for best rap album, and in the advent of the 2020 Grammy Awards, here are the five nominated albums and whether they’re worthy of the title of Best Rap Album of the Year.
1. “REVENGE OF THE DREAMERS III,” Dreamville
“Revenge of the Dreamers III” is a collaboration of over 100 artists that gathered during a 10-day studio session in Atlanta hosted by J. Cole and the rest of the Dreamville label. This collaboration resulted in over 180 songs, featuring a variety of artists from the popularity continuum like Smino, 6lack, Guapdad 400, Young Nudy, DaBaby, Dreamville’s own roster and of course Top Dawg Entertainment’s REASON and Kendrick Lamar. However, only 18 songs made the final cut and the result was an eclectic art piece that embodied all different branches of rap, showcasing what new school hip-hop talent had to offer. However, that seems to be the only focus of this album; it seems as if J.Cole was using his platform to help rising artists and his label receive more recognition rather than composing one complete, holistic project. The album goes from hard trap on “Costa Rica,” to relaxed soul on Earthgang’s “Swivel,” to Ari Lennox’s slowed R&B on “Got Me.” It is easy to leave listeners confused as to what direction the album takes, considering that the songs barely string together. Still, there is no doubt that there are strong individual songs on the album.
The lack of female artists should also be noted, since only three women were featured in the album, which is not something one would like to see in a Grammy-nominated compilation album.
The album was no doubt a difficult feat to accomplish and the Grammy appeal is there, but its collective sound is misleading and meant more for fun rather than a serious work of art that should be worthy of a Grammy.
2. “CHAMPIONSHIPS,” Meek Mill
Meek Mill is better known for his constant struggle against the American prison system after going through unfair mishaps himself and he aims to shed light on those issues in “Championships.” In the album, he discusses how he’s never known what true freedom is and calls for prison reform by narrating his own heartbreaking experiences in his song “Trauma.” In the song, his voice is assertive and confident. Although he is rapping about dark issues, his tone remains optimistic. It has taken Mill years in the rap game to develop his voice and perfect his craft, and in “Championships,” he is strong, he is winning and he knows it. His lyricism pays homage to hip-hop legends Jay-Z, Nas and B.I.G mixed with modern features from Drake, Young Thug and Roddy Rich, creating a perfect blend of past and current hip-hop. However, there are some weak tracks in the album such as “Splash Warning,” but its imperfections can arguably be overshadowed by the activistic purpose of the album and the story behind it.
The heart of “Championships” can definitely give the other nominated albums a run for their money, but is it the top contender? Maybe with extra refurbishments it could have been. Nonetheless, the Grammy Committee has never been immune to a good underdog story.
3. “i am > i was,” 21 Savage
Trap artist 21 Savage has been criticized for his monotone voice, but it only makes his work more honest and straightforward in “i am > i was.” Here, 21 goes more in-depth into his persona, exploring the person he used to be versus the experienced man he is now. He is genuine and lays himself flat by retelling his stories of mistakes, loss and pain in the song “Letter to Momma,” where he reaches enlightenment as to who he truly is and encourages other trap artists to do the same. The lines “niggas drop an album, then pretend to be gangster / done made up dead homies, man this niggas a prankster” allude to how 21 sees other trap artists fake their personality and experiences for the sake of fitting in. “Before I walk around trying to act like I’m something I ain’t, I quit rapping,” he says in the song “A&T,” trying his best to remove himself from the narrow stereotype that trap music seems to place him in. 21 Savage also gets creative with his voice by whispering his raps in the song “asmr,” sending chills down the spine of the listener. This song proves to be a great alternative to his already unique voice.
“i am > i was” stands out because it shifts the tide of contemporary trap music by slowly trading shallow lyrics for more soulful ones, though the album does not lack its superficial lyrics on occasion. It is the spark that will hopefully push future trap projects to be more insightful and influence other artists into thinking twice about the persona they portray to the public. “i am > i was” is a strong contender for the Grammy and it would be no surprise if 21 Savage takes the win. He is, without a doubt, worthy.
4. “The Lost Boy,” YBN Cordae
YBN Cordae is the youngest star in the running for the Grammy. The 22-year-old is bright, optimistic and full of energy in “The Lost Boy.” This album acts as a refreshing contrast to the grim topics his older peers rap about. The album is about Cordae exploring his talents and developing his skills, but most importantly, he shows he is hungry to reach his full potential, even while admitting confusion about how to do just that. Still, Cordae is fearless and unafraid of being the new guy when he says, “old [explicit], boy, your days are over” and “I penetrate it, been the greatest, new house, renovate it” on the song “Have Mercy.” Cordae brings elements of funk on his track “RNP” featuring Anderson .Paak, gospel on “Bad Idea” featuring Chance the Rapper and soft trap on “Nightmares Are Real” featuring Pusha T. Cordae is the most confident on his track “Broke As Fuck,” where he delivers aggressive bars about starting from the bottom. He then seamlessly transitions to the more honest, hurtful lyrics on “Family Matters.” Cordae makes good use of a choir throughout his album too and it is not hard to see the influence Kanye West’s “The College Dropout” had on him.
Overall, Cordae’s debut album is solid, worthy of praise and impressive, but he is still a fairly new artist with lots of room for improvement as he finds his own voice. “The Lost Boy” is a good contender, but Cordae is not quite ready to earn a Grammy.
5. “IGOR,” Tyler, the Creator
The most fun and emotionally charged album of all the nominees, “IGOR” is a near-perfect fifth studio album from the masterful Tyler, the Creator. “IGOR” is not a typical rap album; it tells the story of a hyperactive man caught in a love triangle between a man and a woman, desperately trying to reel in the man for himself and kick the woman out. The storyline is a rollercoaster of emotions going from a soft infatuation on “I THINK,” to an intense, cynical obsession on “NEW MAGIC WAND,” to a sad relinquishment on “PUPPET” and “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?”
What makes “IGOR” so unique is its colorful chords and sparkling synths, as Tyler’s signature sound proves he has found his own individual voice in a world full of lost artists and imitators. The music production is unmatched, the tracks are never stagnant, and every second is an experience. However, “IGOR” has been criticized for trading rapping for singing and, although it works well for the album, controversy has stirred as to whether it classifies as a rap album at all.
“IGOR” is vulnerable and full of pain, both for the character Tyler is portraying and for his inner self too. Tyler has faced a decade-worth of criticism for his music production and style, but it is “IGOR” where he finally receives the recognition and respect he has desperately craved since the age of 17. This is Tyler’s most thoughtful product and proves he is a perfectionist and a true artist at his core. “IGOR” revolutionizes contemporary hip-hop sound and breaks the barriers of what hip-hop is meant to represent, making it more than worthy of receiving the title.
As expected and deserved, Tyler the Creator’s “IGOR” wins best rap album of the year.
“You guys took a seed and watered it, and I thank you for trusting my ideas,” Tyler said in his acceptance speech. “I never fully felt accepted in rap and stuff, so for y’all to always stand by me and get me here, I really appreciate that.”
Tyler the Creator deserved the Grammy and much more, and the most exciting thing about his win is that it is only the beginning for him; he has way more to offer people if they just take a chance on him. If there’s something to take away from Tyler, it is that people can accomplish amazing feats if they have someone believing in them, because then that would teach someone to trust in themselves. And once someone trusts in themselves, the world is for their taking.
It is only about time until Tyler the Creator goes down in history as a legend and a hip-hop pioneer for future generations. Congratulations, Tyler the Creator, for inspiring the masses and truly winning best rap album of the year.