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Grammys rap categories wrestle with untimely deaths and the SoundCloud scene

Grammys rap categories wrestle with untimely deaths and the SoundCloud scene
The late Mac Miller received a Grammy nod. (Rolando Otero / TNS)

The rap categories for the 2019 Grammy nominations are full of a number of the usual, laudable contenders (Kendrick Lamar, Drake) as well as worthy ascendant acts (Cardi B, Travis Scott). What they lack, notably, is much representation from the wilds of streaming service SoundCloud and the young, often troubled stars who redefined the genre for young fans on the internet.

Call it a generation gap or a values question. But no other genre has such a split between the breakout acts that racked up gobsmacking streaming numbers in 2018 and the Grammy establishment looking for less-divisive acts to champion as standard-bearers.

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And in a year with, sadly, so much significant hip-hop from deceased young artists in contention, those absences are even more striking.

The exception here is the very-much-alive Post Malone, who earned nods in record and album of the year, and pop solo and rap/sung performance. Malone’s rise and general aesthetic can be attributed to the SoundCloud scene, but his mix of folk balladry, Auto-Tuned crooning and pop-friendly trap has settled into the mainstream. It’s telling that almost all of his nods came outside the rap categories.

XXXTentacion, Lil Peep and Mac Miller were very different but significant hip-hop acts who passed away during the 2019 Grammy eligibility period. Each was a giant on streaming services and earned co-signs from the hip-hop elite, rock, EDM and even jazz worlds alike.

Miller, who emerged before the SoundCloud scene but had similar internet-driven early success, did earn a single nod for rap album, for his lauded 2018 LP “Swimming.”

Given the depth of support he had across the music world (just look at the lineup from his posthumous tribute concert at the Greek Theatre), it’s perhaps surprising he didn’t have more. Travis Scott, Childish Gambino and Anderson .Paak, all fellow Grammy rap nominees, each performed or paid tribute to Miller at that Greek Theatre set. “Swimming” was just the kind of omnivorous, reflective and musically virtuosic rap album the Grammys often looks to reward.

It’s a crowded field this year, but his now-haunting single “Self Care” could have been an important gesture in a nomination as well.

Lil Peep’s LP “Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt.1” just missed the cutoff for the 2019 ceremony (its followup, released in November, will be eligible for the 2020 Grammys). But several singles, including the XXXTentacion-featuring “Falling Down” and “Spotlight,” a collaboration with the EDM superstar Marshmello, could have made the cut for eligibility this year.

Peep was one of the most promising stars to emerge from the SoundCloud rap scene, and although he suffered from similar substance abuse issues that plagued many of his peers, he avoided the violence that wrapped up so many of its stars and was widely loved in rap, EDM and even experimental music circles. A rap or dance music nod could have been a worthy posthumous notice from the Grammys.

It’s less surprising that the late XXXTentacion didn’t make it in. The 20-year-old rapper was perhaps the most divisive figure in music this year, with an array of sordid legal troubles and disturbing allegations against him even before his murder in June. His Capitol-affiliated label faced a backlash for even releasing his second LP, “?.”

But his streaming figures are indisputable (his total Spotify play count is well into the billions), and for those who looked past his criminal pursuits, his music was often compelling and praised by fellow artists. Grammy favorite Kendrick Lamar is reported to have threatened to pull his music from Spotify when the service planned to blacklist XXX from its playlists.

XXX’s SoundCoud peers probably stood even less of chance for Grammy nods. Tekashi 6ix9ine has all of XXX’s sordid criminal baggage but almost none of his reluctant critical appeal. Lil Pump’s self-titled debut was eligible, but he’s exactly the kind of rapper Grammy ignores: beloved by teens but aesthetically raw and seen as unrefined.

So maybe Post Malone is the ideal candidate for Grammy to reward in the fraught world of underground, internet-driven rap. He has face tattoos and huge streaming figures, but he’s a white dude who covers Bob Dylan, insults his own genre and has avoided jail cells and overdoses. More hardcore rap fans have long since turned on him, but he’s found an audience right smack in the middle of America.

And that’s just who Grammy loves to reward when rap is at the top of the ticket.

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