Grammy Awards 2016: Drake gets nominated by applying new models to rap traditions

Drake performs during his headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio.
(Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times)

Drake might be in the running for five Grammys, but it’s his entry in one race that has elicited the most buzz.

The Canadian rapper-singer landed two nominations in rap performance: “Truffle Butter,” the Nicki Minaj house banger that he guested on and his own track, “Back to Back.”

Released in the middle of summer, “Back to Back” wasn’t a radio promo single or an album track. Instead, it’s a diss track aimed toward another rapper, Meek Mill, who dared to push the superstar into a corner.


FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards | Complete list of nominees

“Back to Back,” one of two tracks released at the height of his summer beef with the Philly emcee, came after some pretty serious allegations that Drake employs a ghostwriter for his lyrics, which is the most serious indictment you can lob toward a rapper.

After being blasted on a Twitter rant that spawned biting memes and speculation into the rapper’s entire discography, Drake steered clear of social media and opted for an old school approach: He penned a great diss record, and two of them at that. (The other song, “Charged Up,” was released at the same time.)

While diss records have long been part of rap tradition, Drake’s release via Apple Music --part of a high-profile deal he struck with the streaming service -- allowed him to flex more than biting lyrics.

Recording a track that sends fans of your opponent on the defensive puts points on the scoreboard. But having the biggest digital music retailer at the ready to release your track and feature it prominently on its service is a game-ender.

Rap beefs historically aren’t Grammy fodder. Winners in the rap performance category (which has gone through a few confusing changes by the Recording Academy) have traditionally skewed toward ubiquity.

“Gold Digger,” “Get Ur Freak On,” “A Milli,” “Not Afraid” – all previous winners that were inescapable upon release, and signature hits for each of the artists.

Now think about some of the great rap disses of all time -- Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline,” Nas’ “Ether” and 2 Pac’s “Hit Em Up” come to mind -- and see if they have been nominated. Fans were quick to react with shock and awe that a diss from one of the genre’s most commercially successful emcees was the one to buck the trend.

At its core, “Back to Back” was about Drake silencing detractors, addressing Mill’s taunts and looking to come out as the victor.

That the track competes against Mill’s high-profile girlfriend (and Drake’s labelmate), Nicki Minaj, on a song that features Drake should be looked at as the knockout blow, even if this isn’t a song that becomes part of the canon that’s often revisited (that’s not the point of diss records, even if this one was hot enough to easily move an arena crowd).

Beyond the diss record, a few of Drake’s other nominations also reward the new, Apple-boosted approach he took to releasing music this year.

In February he quietly released “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” on iTunes. The 17-song mixtape -- a placeholder for his much-teased “Views From the 6” – wasn’t a freebie for fans the way mixtapes have been in the past. It was sold in a year when fans were already expecting a full length from the performer, and that didn’t keep it from becoming an instant smash.

It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was the first album from 2015 to cross the million sales mark, according to Nielsen Music. In April, months after its digital release, it received a physical release.

One of the project’s standout cuts, the anthemic “Energy,” landed a surprise nod for rap song as the performer’s latest ear worm, “Hotline Bling,” owns the zeitgeist.

“Hotline Bling” (which sadly wasn’t submitted for consideration) follows “Back to Back” and “Charged Up” as a non-album single that was pushed out to Apple Music.

Maybe he’ll lean toward tradition and smartly do a “Hotline Bling” remix with Adele for “Views” and hit the Grammys back to back.

For more music news follow me on Twitter: @gerrickkennedy