"I didn't think they gave the rightful respect to hip-hop." That was Jay-Z's position back in 2002 when someone asked him why he'd boycotted the Grammys since 1999.
Leap ahead 16 years to Sunday's 60th Grammy Awards in New York — where Jay-Z led the nominees with eight nods — and that respect was still nowhere to be seen. For the first time ever, three of the artists nominated for album of the year were rappers: Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, the nom de rap of actor-director Donald Glover. But all three artists lost to "24K Magic," a collection of overly hygienic funk ditties by Bruno Mars. Jay-Z went home empty-handed.
And he'd already been having a rough day. On Sunday morning, after CNN had aired an interview during which Jay-Z critiqued President Trump's poor word choices, Trump lobbed a tweet in the rapper's direction: "Somebody please inform Jay-Z that because of my policies, Black Unemployment has just been reported to be at the LOWEST RATE EVER RECORDED!"
But in a strange and unfortunate way, Trump's outburst illuminated something big: that American rappers are among the most influential voices in our democracy, and that their music is more significant than most.
So when will the Grammys finally figure out that rap music is the dominant pop idiom of our era? It's been 14 long years since OutKast won album of the year for "Speakerboxx/The Love Below" way back in 2004, and there hasn't been a rapper to take the industry's top honor before or since. That's inexplicable and inexcusable — most recently in regard to Kendrick Lamar, the Los Angeles virtuoso who became a three-time album of the year loser Sunday night.
To the Recording Academy, it seems that Lamar is good for boosting television ratings but not good enough to receive the night's top honors. The rapper opened Sunday's starry telecast with a riveting medley, cramming his verses with complicated rhymes about race, faith and mortality. He was also joined, for a moment, by U2's Bono and the Edge, as well as by comedian Dave Chappelle, who made an interstitial announcement: "I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man being honest in America is being an honest black man in America." Somehow, it all held together. Ten minutes into the party, Lamar already looked to be the hero of the night.
At least until Mars swooped in and began hoarding hardware. In addition to winning best R&B performance, best R&B song and best R&B album, Mars eventually swept the top three categories, winning song of the year for "That's What I Like," record of the year for "24K Magic" and album of the year. "I've been knowing these guys for over a decade," Mars said from the dais, surrounded by his collaborators as he accepted the Grammy for song of the year. "All the music businesses horror stories you've seen in the movies, we've been through all of them."
There were other trophies to go around. In an especially competitive slate of nominees, poised pop singer Alessia Cara topped Khalid, Lil Uzi Vert, Julia Michaels and SZA for best new artist. Nashville sensation Chris Stapleton won best country album for his handsome "From a Room: Vol. 1."
And it was a bittersweet night for ascending Washington-area artists. Rappers GoldLink and Shy Glizzy, along with singer Brent Faiyaz, earned a nomination for best rap/sung performance for their spectacular sleeper hit "Crew," but that trophy was snapped up by Lamar and his duet partner, Rihanna, for "Loyalty." And "1-800-273-8255," a chart-scaling single about suicide prevention from Montgomery County native Logic, lost song of the year, of course, to Mars.
But that didn't stop Logic from presenting himself as one of the evening's standouts. After performing "1-800-273-8255" with Cara and Khalid, Logic clutched his microphone and spoke out about the tensions coursing through this American moment. "Black is beautiful, hate is ugly. Women are as precious as they are stronger than any man I have ever met," he declared, encouraging listeners to stand up for the rights of others. "On behalf of those who fight for equality in a world that is not equal, not just and not ready for the change we are here to bring, I say unto you: Bring us your tired, your poor and any immigrant who seeks refuge, for together, we can build not just a better country, but a world that is destined to be united."
Logic was one of many artists who came to this year's Grammys — hosted in New York after 15 years in Los Angeles — to make a statement. And while some expressed their solidarity with the burgeoning #MeToo movement Sunday night by attaching white roses to their formalwear, Kesha did it with a performance of "Praying," a surging power ballad about recovering from the alleged abuses the pop singer has suffered in the music industry. With backup by Michaels, Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Andra Day and others, the song ended with some big notes, and then a big group hug.
This was a commanding moment, no doubt — but is the music industry truly committed to equal representation for women? According to a recent report in the New York Times, "of the 899 individuals who have been nominated for the last six Grammy ceremonies, 90.7 percent were men and 9.3 percent were women."
There were other messages and memorials. Country singers Eric Church, Maren Morris and the Brothers Osborne offered a solemn rendition of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" as a tribute to those killed in October's mass shooting in Las Vegas, as well as the victims of last summer's Manchester Arena bombing. Later, Cabello spoke about the importance of protecting young immigrants before introducing a U2 performance in the vicinity of the Statue of Liberty, piped in via satellite. The comedian James Corden, hosting for the second consecutive year, largely stayed out of the way.
One important voice we didn't get to hear a sound from: Lorde. The 21-year-old New Zealand pop phenom was this year's lone female nominee for album of the year, but according to a report from Variety, she declined to perform Sunday night after Grammy producers asked her to appear in a tribute to the late Tom Petty rather than sing a tune of her own. Other album of the year nominees — Childish Gambino, Lamar and Mars — were given their own slots in the show.
Had Lorde decided to bail on the whole thing outright, she would have joined a growing cast of AWOL A-listers, including Justin Bieber, whose cameo verse on Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" earned him nominations for record and song of the year, as well as Drake, who didn't even bother to submit music from his 2017 bestseller "More Life" for Grammy consideration.
As ever at the Grammys, the respect — and lack thereof — flows both ways.