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In major awards, rap gets no love

The snub caps a weak year for a genre that had become a force.

December 08, 2006|Geoff Boucher and Chris Lee | Times Staff Writers

In the three decades since rap music grabbed the microphone and swaggered toward pop culture's center stage, it's been hotly debated whether it's the essential sound of youth and urban culture or just ugly noise masquerading as music. But nobody could argue that it was yesterday's news.

That changes today.

Nominations were announced Thursday for the 49th annual Grammy Awards and, for the first time in six years, no rap stars made it into any of the marquee categories such as album of the year or best new artist. Instead, the glory went to soulful singer Mary J. Blige (who led with eight nominations), the scarred rock survivors of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, British newcomer James Blunt and the Dixie Chicks, the latter nominated for album, record and song of the year.

The Grammy snub caps a fairly miserable year for the rap scene.

A look at the best-selling CDs of 2006 shows that only one rap album, T.I.'s "King," cracked the Top 20, a jolting development considering the genre has been a commercial powerhouse since the early 1990s.

The doldrums go beyond the ledger.

This year there was no critics' darling to follow up the platinum-selling achievements of OutKast, Kanye West, Eminem and 50 Cent, all of whom racked-up major Grammy nominations in recent years.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 12, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
Grammy Awards: An article in Friday's Section A about rap music and this year's Grammy nominations said OutKast won a Grammy Award for best album of 2004. The hip-hop duo's award was presented in 2004 for the best album of 2003. An article in Friday's Calendar about this year's nominees said the Dixie Chicks had won five Grammys. The group has collected eight. The same article said the awards were announced in Santa Monica. The Grammy news conference was in Hollywood.

The drought of 2006 has been felt at XXL, the leading national magazine for hip-hop journalism, where music editor Anslem Samuel has scraped for material.

"Our problem now is finding enough albums that are worthy of being reviewed, honestly," Samuel said this week. "It's been a down year, no doubt."

Death of rap?

There's been hand-wringing about whether all of that adds up to a music scene running low on fresh ideas or limping through a few sluggish seasons.

Recording studio guru Rick Rubin, one of the most acclaimed names in contemporary music and a nominee Thursday for producer of the year, has helped shape rap since its early days.

He said cycles of decline and rejuvenation are nothing new. A case in point: the arrival in the '80s of the incendiary L.A. rap group N.W.A.

"Hip-hop was dead for me for a while and then N.W.A came along and knocked down the doors and completely changed what it could be and how far it could go," he said. Rubin said the salvation of rap is someone whose name isn't even known yet. "They're coming."

Some rap insiders are tired of waiting. "Hip Hop Is Dead" is the title of one of the year's most anticipated rap releases, the new CD from Nas, one of hip-hop's respected elder statesmen. He said Thursday's lack of rap respect confirmed his dour view.

"Look at the Grammy nominations, and then look at the title of my album," Nas said. "Pretty appropriate, don't you think? A Grammy is a great honor, but we're just not making those records right now."

That vacuum has also been cited by superstar rapper and executive Jay-Z.

He came out of his self-proclaimed retirement two weeks ago with the release of "Kingdom Come," his first CD since 2003. One reason he returned, he told the Sunday Mail of London, was to raise rap's game: "The problem with hip-hop is it gets to a certain point, and it has to go down."

Some complain that hard-core rap's favored themes -- the thug life, cash and alpha-male posturing -- are passe, and album sales may reflect that.

Debating the health of any music scene is a familiar pastime in pop-culture punditry (the last rites have been administered to rock music, for instance, every other year since 1975) and plenty of music industry stalwarts scoff at the notion that rap is in decline. They say if 2006 is a downbeat year, it's only because Eminem, 50 Cent and other bankable acts were on the sidelines while others, such as Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and the Game came late to the party with end-of-the-year releases.

In three of the last five years, a rapper finished No. 1 in the Nielsen SoundScan tally of the year's bestsellers. This year they didn't even come close. Three country stars, a Disney television soundtrack and a greatest-hits compilation called "Now That's What I Call Music Vol. 21" finished in front of the strongest-selling rapper. In rap circles, there's been little to get excited about since Three 6 Mafia's shocking Oscar win in February.

Saved by the ringtone

Some say the malaise of 2006 is due to shifting economic realities.

"Hip-hop and urban music is just as strong as it has been, it's just that now its success is coming in new places and in new ways," said Jay Frank, the chief of programming for Yahoo Music. "There's a lot of digital downloads and ringtones being sold, and in some cases this is music that is being very successful in ways other than selling CDs."

Sixteen-year-old rapper Jibbs is an example. His debut album has sold a humble 126,000 copies since its release in October. But one sing-song track on the CD, "Chain Hang Low," an ode to diamond necklaces, has sold 1.4 million ringtones. Those sound clips, used to personalize cellphones, usually cost about $2 each.

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