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Why Common Deserves the Grammy for Best Rap Album

The Grammys do still matter. Because of that they need to make the right choice, and that choice is Common.

by Slava Pastuk
Jan 16 2015, 10:00am

Leading up to and following the Grammy awards every year, music fans of many persuasions share a common criticism: The Grammys don’t matter anymore. It’s a reactionary response used by fans when their personal favorite doesn’t take home a prize or by those who want to drive home the point that the old system holds less and less weight with each passing year. But the truth is that the Grammys do still matter. They are essentially the Olympics of Music, and winning a Grammy can cement legacies, help validate careers, and reaffirm purposes in life—not to mention help you get a bigger advance on your next album. According to a 2012 Forbes article, the “Grammy Bounce” following an award helps raise concert ticket sales for the winning artist and allows producers who worked on the award-winning album to increase their future fees. Even being nominated for a Grammy can have effects: Childish Gambino recently talked about getting his TV show pilot greenlit after receiving his Grammy nomination. They may not be the only marker of a successful music career, but the Grammys do ultimately matter.

The Grammy for Best Rap Album of the Year was created in 1996. It is one of the most fiercely debated categories and an indication of just how much the Grammys can still spark conversation. Last year, in particular, the backlash was fierce when Macklemore received the award for The Heist, beating out more critically respected projects by Jay Z, Kanye West, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar to be crowned the best rap album of the year (the Grammy year goes from September 30 to September 30). In addition to the fear that the RIAA was promoting the white-washing of hip-hop by rewarding a new white artist over more seasoned and deserving black acts, there were also claims of disingenuity levied against Macklemore—a straight white male who made a song about, and ultimately profited from, the issue of gay marriage.

This year, similar issues will be up for discussion, but the stakes will be higher, the importance of making the right decision for this specific award even greater in light of the conversations about Macklemore last year. The 2015 nominees include Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 2, Wiz Khalifa’s Blacc Hollywood, Iggy Azalea’s The New Classic, Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron, Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet, and Common’s Nobody’s Smiling. And the only logical choice to win is Nobody’s Smiling.

Common’s tenth studio album may not be an obvious contender, as it wasn’t on the minds of many rap fans in 2014. Though it debuted at number one on Billboard’s US Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, it didn’t secure any singles on the Top 40 and sold only 24,000 copies in its opening week—it was far less of a commercial success than the other nominations. However, Nobody’s Smiling is a thematically and sonically cohesive album full of social commentary, wrought with emotion, and delivered with a deft touch. It was made by two seasoned veterans—Common and longtime collaborator No I.D.—who managed to create a rap album that honored genre traditions and appealed to older fans while remaining interesting and in touch with contemporary rap trends.

Common makes a strong argument for what “lyrical” hip-hop should look like in 2014, offering vivid imagery and high emotional stakes rather than allowing any display of technical chops to get in the way. He lets his guests shine and wisely gets out of the way of both the production and the hooks when necessary, his own raps providing an anchor to a project that is, as a result, bigger than him. On the beautifully produced “Kingdom”, a song that features a show-stealing verse from Vince Staples, it’s Common’s poignant lines that stand out and paint the gravity of the city’s problems: “Second row of the church with my hood on / My homie used to rap, he was about to get put on / At his funeral, listening to this church song / His family yelling and screaming, I hurt for ‘em.”

Though there are a few eyeroll-worthy punchlines, much of Nobody’s Smiling paints vivid tableaus of life in the Windy City. “The Neighborhood” starts the album off by framing Common’s experiences in the streets of Chicago against the current reality, illustrated by Lil Herb. Both verses of the song begin with the rappers rattling off the names of gangs, but Common lists old ones like the Vice Lords and the Four CHs, while Herb lists off new ones like 300 and O Block. This makes for an interesting perspective where Common not only expresses how crazy modern Chicago has gotten on its own merits, but also how much worse it is than when he was growing up.

Beyond Common’s savvy lyrical framing of his own experiences with Chicago alongside the current realities, the album manages to tastefully blend Common’s musical world with a newer one as well. No I.D.’s production is full of traditional R&B elements from a sampling era that now feels long gone, but the incorporation of newer vocalists like James Fauntleroy and Elijah Blake keeps the album from sounding stuffy. Meanwhile, with up-and-comers Lil Herb, Dreez, and Vince Staples being called upon to breathe fresh life into their verses, Nobody’s Smiling is the most in-touch Common has been in a decade. It’s an album that both understands where lyrically oriented rap is right now and one that, by its very nature as a Common and No I.D. project, is naturally rooted in tradition. It is contemporary, but it is that way without making sacrifices.

While there are definitely other rap albums from the last year that accomplished similar balancing acts and offered tasteful cohesion—YG, Young Jeezy, Freddie Gibbs, and Pusha T all would have been worthy nominees in this field—nothing among the nominees is quite as effective or coherent in what it’s attempting to be. Iggy Azalea and Schoolboy Q went pop, allowing their labels to dictate which singles to push and how (to considerable success, it must be said), while also making sterile album cuts. Eminem continued to become an ever-fading ghost of himself, crafting technically precise lyrical patterns that ultimately amount to nothing but tattered motivational posters. Childish Gambino made an existential rap album where he sang on most of it, rapping from the point of view of a character so underdeveloped that he had to create an accompanying screenplay to flesh the guy out. And Wiz Khalifa threw some shit together and gave it an album cover—but hey, “We Dem Boyz” was dope as fuck.

(This is the mandatory paragraph where we have to address the fact that Iggy Azalea might win a Grammy for Best Rap Album. If this were to happen, it would be the worst case scenario, as it would give the world tacit acknowledgement that the public faces of rap in the mainstream space are a white dude from Seattle and a white woman from Australia who not only seems kinda racist, but refuses to acknowledge that there’s even a chance that impression of her could be true. I personally believe that Iggy winning is very unlikely, as I think this award will devolve to a battle of sexes after already devolving to a battle about race. That’s why Eminem and, ultimately, the patriarchy will come out on top.)

Yet even beyond the merits of awarding Common with the Grammy for making a great body of work that happens to be the best project in the field of nominees, Common deserves to win based on his legacy. Common’s importance to the genre of rap is huge, and he’s managed to maintain his authority while still maturing as both an artist and a person. The 2015 awards will mark Common’s fourth nomination and would be the perfect occasion to award his legacy in conjunction with his stellar work, particularly given his position in the genre relative to the other nominees. In every other genre, the rest of the nominees are terrified whenever a Bruce Springsteen or Willie Nelson is up for the same award as them. That’s because the academy has a long tradition of awarding legacy artists far past their expiration date. Just last year the Grammy for Best Rock Song was given to an over-the-hill Voltron combination of artist that included Dave Grohl, Paul McCartney, Krist Novoseli, and Pat Smear, and the academy gave Led Zeppelin the Grammy for Best Rock Album. In 2014!

The Grammys do ultimately matter for an artist’s career and legacy. Because of that, the Best Rap Album award should go to the project that not only best encapsulated hip-hop’s potential this year but also the one that best represented the genre’s longstanding ideals. The award isn’t meant to reward a strong single, or even a strong collection of singles. Are teenage girls getting ready to go out on a Friday night, putting on makeup to “Kingdom” in the same way that they might do with “Fancy” or “3005” or “We Dem Boyz”? No, but that’s not what the award is about. The Grammy for Best Rap Album should go to the artist who made the “best” “rap” “album,” and the only nominee that deserves that designation is Common’s Nobody’s Smiling.

Slava Pastuk is Noisey's Canada editor and therefore disqualified from winning a Grammy. Follow him on Twitter.