The Grammys almost got Jay-Z to perform this year. Here’s why he declined.

Jay-Z accepts the President's Merit Award onstage during the Clive Davis and Recording Academy's pre-Grammy gala and salute to industry icons honoring Jay-Z on Saturday.
(Michael Kovac / Getty Images for NARAS)

With hip-hop dominating nominations for the 60th Grammys, all eyes will be on how the ceremony will showcase a genre that has historically been underrepresented. This year Jay-Z leads with eight nominations, followed by seven for Kendrick Lamar, and both emcees are front-runners for album of the year and landed in either record or song of the year.

It’s a rare feat for hip-hop acts. And while one of the night’s highlight performances will surely come from Lamar (he’s set to open the show with an explosive medley), the night’s leading man, Jay-Z, declined to perform anything from his incredibly personal “4:44,” show producers confirmed during rehearsals last week.


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“We’ve been kind of quiet about that,” said Ken Ehrlich, the telecast’s longtime executive producer. “We had a conversation that we thought was going to lead to a performance and really only two weeks ago he basically said he’d rather not. He wanted to come and enjoy the show. And I understand. This is not a man who has been under-tributed. His life has been full of these moments; he’s given us a couple great ones too. But still, there was that conversation of, ‘Are you sure?’”

Weeks before Sunday’s ceremony there were chats of a blowout performance that would trace rap’s origins in New York starting with the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and bowing with Jay’s Grammy-winning “Empire State of Mind,” according to a source close to production.

Although the rapper has been a major fixture at the Grammys (he’s won 21 over his storied career), he’s been vocal about his feelings about hip-hop’s position with the Recording Academy — even protesting the ceremony by declining to attend for a number of years. He used a chunk of his speech at Saturday’s pre-Grammy gala, where he was given the Industry Icon award, to reflect on his relationship with the awards.

“I [remember being] nominated for some awards but there was this other guy, DMX, who put out two albums that year and wasn’t nominated — and I actually boycotted. I didn’t come back from 1998 to 2004 when a beautiful young lady, whom I love dearly, had a breakout album [that was] nominated,” he said, nodding toward his wife Beyoncé’s sweep at the 2004 ceremony.

“I realized that art is super-subjective. The academy, they are human like we are and they are voting on things they like. And we can pretend we don’t care, but we do. We really care because we are seeing the most incredible artists stand on that stage and we aspire to be that — and so I was like, ‘I have to be there.’ And that’s the idea for all of us to come together to push this thing further. Now what happens at the Grammys, it is what it is.”


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