Since the Recording Academy introduced the best rap album Grammy category in 1996, male stars — especially six-time winner Eminem — have dominated the rap race. Cardi B made history this past February as the first female solo artist to cross the finish line to the grand prize, for her 2018 debut “Invasion of Privacy.” (Lauryn Hill previously won as a member of Fugees, whose “The Score” scored in 1997.) Next year’s best rap album might be history in the making once again.
Tyler, the Creator’s “Igor” feels like a shoo-in for a nomination in the category and a major threat to win. “Igor” ticks many of the same boxes as previous best rap album Grammy winners, and then some: It was a critically lauded release that also enjoyed considerable commercial success, becoming Tyler’s first No. 1 album. Like the majority of best rap album Grammy winners from the last decade or so (Lil Wayne, Eminem, Kanye West, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper and Cardi B), he’s a major hip-hop crossover star who nonetheless oozes street cred. His ongoing feud with category darling Eminem certainly has done more for his profile than it has for Slim Shady’s.
“Igor” also has the distinction of being an important album in a genre oversaturated with bang-and-bling rhymes. Therein lies its history-making potential: With “Igor,” Tyler doesn’t just revisit tried-and-true, socially and politically conscious rap staples like racism, economics, police brutality and disenfranchisement. Here the subject is love, but not any ordinary love. Sporting a pink cover, “Igor” is a song cycle about a love triangle: It’s all about what happens when a man loves another man who is gravitating back toward his ex , a woman.
It’s a you-me-and-she scenario that one might expect to hear on a Cardi B track. That Tyler raps from the point of view of a man watching the man he loves slip away flagrantly defies all that is sacred to a rap community that usually celebrates machismo and in the past has looked the other way from, or even reveled in, homophobic tropes. The album’s success and acceptance there is revolutionary enough — possibly a sign that hip-hop at last might be evolving when it comes to sexual orientation. Awarding “Igor” with the ultimate hip-hop honor would be a powerful statement of changing times and changing minds.
Ironically, the one thing standing between Tyler and the best rap album Grammy might be Tyler’s own versatility. He’s not just a rapper on “Igor.” He sings and incorporates a variety of offbeat sounds that one doesn’t normally hear on conventional hip-hop records. When best rap album Grammy voters snubbed Drake’s titanic “Scorpion” last year, some assumed it might have been for being too pop. It’s possible that voters also will deem “Igor” not rap enough.
That actually would be a first for Tyler. He highlighted performing styles outside of rap on his 2017 opus “Flower Boy” and still scored a best rap album nomination. Will the important and unconventional subject matter of “Igor” counterbalance any hesitation about it being as much an alternative R&B album as it is a rap one?
If anyone can inspire listening without prejudice, it’s got to be Tyler. He’s been teasing fans with references to his sexual orientation since a 2017 interview with XXL magazine in which he talked about a boyfriend he had as a teenager and a lyric that same year in his song “I Ain’t Got Time” (“I been kissing white boys since 2004”). Is he or isn’t he? Tyler hasn’t confirmed either way, though Jaden Smith, Will and Jada’s 21-year-old son, has jokingly (or not) publicly tagged him as his “boyfriend.”
Despite playing both sides, Tyler has somehow managed to maintain his standing in the hetero-centric hip-hop community. Eminem may poke fun at him in anger (“Tyler create nothing / I can see why you call yourself a f—ot, bitch,” Eminem rapped on his 2018 single “Fall” after Tyler criticized his Beyoncé collaboration “Walk on Water” on Twitter), but Tyler is no punchline or punching bag. And unlike Lil Nas X, the 20-year-old rapper who came out just as his Grammy-contender single “Old Town Road” was topping charts around the world, there’s no dismissing him as a novelty act.
That might be the best thing “Igor” has going for it heading into Grammy season. The album is a groundbreaking work of art, one that might even be noticed in the all-genre album of the year category. Not that it won’t face some tough competition in the rap field: Four-time best rap album nominee Missy Elliott’s comeback EP, “Iconology,” could score a nod (and it wouldn’t be the first EP to compete as an LP, as Lady Gaga’s album of the year nominee and best pop vocal album winner “The Fame Monster” did in 2011), putting her in a position to be the second consecutive female best rap album champ.
Tyler and Elliot would have to fend off “The Wizrd” by Future, who won the best rap performance Grammy in February for “King’s Dead,” his 2018 collaboration with Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar and James Blake. A number of other big-name acts, including Chance the Rapper, DJ Khaled, Nas, Rick Ross, Young Thug and 2 Chainz, dropped high-charting rap albums during the 11-month eligibility period that ended Aug. 31. Most of them lack the momentum to go all the way, but with Lizzo’s “Cuz I Love You” competing for best urban contemporary album, newcomer Megan Thee Stallion could conceivably leapfrog over Elliott to become the distaff best rap album successor to Cardi B for her critically acclaimed 2019 mixtape “Fever.” It also would be the second mixtape winner, following Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” in 2017.
Megan may have more dues to pay before voters hand her a best rap album Grammy, but few would begrudge 20-year-plus veteran Elliott a first-time coronation. If this year’s crown ends up going to Tyler, though, it wouldn’t be just a win for him. It would be a win for acceptance in hip-hop, with the spoils being seen as going not only to the victor, but to all.