The Grammy Awards have long overlooked hip-hop when it comes to its most coveted prize, album of the year.
That could and should change at Sunday’s 56th Grammy Awards when two rap albums, Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “The Heist,” are among the five nominees for top record.
Between those two, Lamar’s “Good Kid” stands taller, a concept album that weaves fiction and fact to tell a story about growing up in Compton.
I don’t care much for the concept behind the Grammys or award shows in general, because art is not a competition. It’s about expression, so to judge one as superior to another feels like a criticism of the artist instead of the creation.
That said, the scope and quality of Lamar’s goals and the manner in which he achieves them is admirable. It’s the most ambitious of this year’s nominees, which also includes “The Heist,” Sara Bareilles’ “The Blessed Unrest,” Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” and Taylor Swift’s “Red.”
Swift makes an unlikely victor as she’s already captured Grammy’s top honor for 2008’s “Fearless.” Eureka-born Bareilles crafted a pleasant though nonthreatening effort in “Blessed Unrest.”
Daft Punk, heretofore known for its French house take on electronic dance music, turned its digital animal into freaky funk, introducing live musicians and a neo-disco vibe. Though bold, it’s not as cerebral as “Good Kid.”
That leaves the two hip-hop nominees, a genre the Grammy Awards have missed opportunities to recognize before.
In fact, aside from OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” from 2003 – half of which is rap, the other a mix of soul, funk and R&B – no rap album has ever won the most coveted award.
When Eminem unleashed one of hip-hop’s most acclaimed albums, 2000’s “The Marshall Mathers LP,” he was nominated, but the honor went to Steely Dan for its “Two Against Nature” comeback album.
More recently, Kanye West’s magnum opus “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was left off the 2010 nominee slate, a snub even West detractors perceived as a slight.
That brings us to this year, with “The Heist” and “Good Kid.”
“Good Kid” is a gritty, dangerous effort that analyzes the effect of growing up under the specter of violence and alcoholism without glorifying either.
“Everybody gon’ respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever,” Lamar raps on “Money Trees.”
I feel Lamar’s internal struggle in a place where his character may not be hard enough for the life into which he was born, but might be smart enough to find a way out. It’s a story of salvation, tracking his transformation into a mature adult. It’s a concept record that ascends to a prayer with Maya Angelou.
Lamar’s biggest direct competition is Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.
The two are representative of how wide a stylistic net hip-hop casts. Macklemore inverted rap’s taste for riches and excess with a celebration of penny-pinching on “Thrift Shop,” supported same-sex marriage with “Same Love” and touched on a relapse with alcohol addiction in “Starting Over.”
That makes the two similar in subject matter. Lamar banked a hit with “Swimming Pools (Drank),” a song about the effects of drinking and the art of peer pressure.
Though both “Good Kid” and “Heist” espouse positive values, what distinguishes “Good Kid” from the other four nominees is that its story doesn’t encapsulate just a few tracks, but pens a narrative throughout the entire record. It stands as a landmark effort in rap, one that will leave a lasting impression both in and outside of its genre.
That’s the kind of record the Grammys should bestow its highest prize.
Lamar deserves it not because hip-hop is overdue for serious Grammy consideration, but because he crafted a work that stands above his competitors and will be one of the essential hip-hop records of a generation.
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.