Iggy Azalea aka the white, blond, Australian woman who "runs" hip-hop, made headlines in 2014 for all the wrong reasons. She culturally appropriated black styles but ignored black issues, and on her way to the top, Azalea displayed a complete disregard for what makes hip-hop the vital and compelling genre that it is. Yet she's favored to win Best Rap Album at the Grammy Awards on Sunday. A year after Macklemore beat Kendrick Lamar for the award, it will yet again go to a white artist who is more pop singer than rapper.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino, one of hip-hop's most persistent underdogs, is in the category too. After years of struggling against the idea that he was too white to be a rapper, he released the brilliant Because the Internet. In the process, he began a revolution in hip-hop and carved a niche for himself as one of the genre's cleverest and most profound voices.
Donald Glover should win Rap Album of the Year, not Iggy Azalea. And if the Grammys were set up to celebrate real artistic achievements, his record would without a doubt.
The album completely redefined the way hip-hop culture looks at Glover. When he was starting out, he was ridiculed as being too "goofy" and "too white" for rap. But he took those criticisms with humility and turned them into a compelling storyline on Because the Internet. In fact, the album is all about what it feels like to be seen as a "silver spoon coon" within a genre that places values tremendous value on gritty backstories. Glover never shied away from his critiques. Instead, he used them as opportunities to explore aspects of black identity and otherness.
He also used them to create a record that completely redefined what a rap album looks and sounds like. The album is musically brilliant and lyrically innovative, and it was released with an accompanying screenplay and a short film called "Clapping for the Wrong Reasons." Equal parts brilliant lyricist and performance artist, Glover turned his record into a compelling reflection on what it means to be alive today, what it means to be black today and what it means to rap today.
Iggy Azalea, however, couldn't be less interested. And though she received racial criticisms like Glover, she's done nothing to examine her behavior — or even to acknowledge the racial element of hip-hop. Last year in the heat of the Ferguson debates, Azealia Banks criticized Iggy for being one of the most visible names in hip-hop (a historically political and black art form) while being notably silent on black issues.
Azalea responded in the least delicate way, claiming she has no responsibility to speak on black issues — even though she's appropriated black musical styles and a black accent to build her career.
After her ignorant response, numerous hip-hop legends rushed to school her on the importance of hip-hop's past. "Hip-hop is fun," Q-Tip told Azalea via Twitter, "but one thing it can never detach itself from is being a sociopolitical movement." Yet if people like Azalea (and plenty of other pop rappers) continually wash out its revolutionary aspects in order to top the charts, nobody will be able to save the music.
Meanwhile, Azalea has none of Glover's interest in innovating within hip-hop. Instead, none of the musical elements of her hits were her own. "Fancy"s beat is a straight DJ Mustard rip-off, and "Black Widow" is one of the worst rap songs ever to land in the Top 10 — and it sounds exactly like "Dark Horse." She succeeded largely because the industry put a lot of effort into making her a star. Though three of her singles flopped, a Clear Channel marketing tactic requiring that hundreds of radio stations played her fourth, "Fancy," ensured that she became popular.
Glover, on the other hand, understands what hip-hop is all about. His success was entirely grassroots — it was completely based on the quality of his music. He doesn't shy away from social issues. He was incredibly visible on Twitter during the Ferguson conflict. He even wrote a thought-provoking and controversial poem on what it means to be a white rapper. "I wanna be so white I can have a number one song with cursing and parents are fine with it. / I hope I'm so big and white my cousin wasn't shot and stabbed twice in the neck," he wrote.
Like Azalea, Glover came to hip-hop as an outsider. Unlike Azalea, he used that status to understand what the genre was really about and to make something amazing within it.
Azalea is safe, white and poppy. "Fancy" is a marketer's dream, but it's not hip-hop. Gambino's erratic and currently Twitter-less artistic presence is a marketer's nightmare. But music is art, not product. And Because the Internet is just the kind of innovative and resonant rap we should be celebrating at the Grammys.