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The Drake-Kanye Conundrum: What 2021’s Biggest Rap Albums Mean for the Grammys

The two rap figures who have the most volatile relationship with the academy also happen to be arguably the two biggest names in the genre, as well as the artists behind two of the biggest and most-buzzed-about albums of 2021: Kanye West and Drake. West’s longtime irascibility toward awards shows was inextricable from his rise to superstardom in the mid-2000s, and his furious reactions to losses and snubs routinely made headlines. “Everyone wanted to know what I’d do if I didn’t win,” he said at the 2005 Grammys during his sigh-of-relief acceptance speech for best rap album (for debut The College Dropout). “I guess we’ll never know.”

But while West won four best rap album trophies between 2005 and 2012, album of the year eluded him. At a 2014 concert, after being denied a nod in the category for Yeezus, West bemoaned he’d “never won a Grammy against a white artist.” Later protests would be even more public: In 2015, West nearly crashed the Grammy stage to protest Beck’s album of the year win over Beyoncé’s self-titled set, and in 2020, he shared a video on Twitter of him (apparently) urinating on a Grammy award in the toilet.

Drake’s Grammy beefing has been less spectacular but similarly acrimonious. In a 2017 podcast interview, he said he “didn’t even want” the two rap Grammys he won for his smash “Hotline Bling,” which he didn’t consider a rap song: “The only category that they can manage to fit me in is in a rap category, maybe because I’ve rapped in the past or because I’m Black.” The next year, he famously declined to submit More Life for Grammy consideration and did not attend the ceremony. Reconciliation seemed possible in 2019, when Drake accepted his award for best rap song (“God’s Plan”), but the controversial lack of nominations for his fellow Torontonian The Weeknd the following year appeared to squander any goodwill. “What once was the highest form of recognition may no longer matter to [contemporary] artists,” Drake wrote on Instagram.

Both artists’ longtime distaste for the Grammys could come to a head with the 2022 nominations, for which West’s Donda and Drake’s Certified Lover Boy are both eligible. The two albums, released over back-to-back weeks this summer, dominated discussion with their bombastic promotional campaigns and lengthy, guest-filled tracklists — not to mention Drake and West’s own long-simmering tensions, which have built up over five years of subliminal digs, warring allies and this-town-ain’t-big-enough-for-the-both-of-us ego. Between them, they posted the two best first-week numbers of 2021. If it’s a goal of the Grammys to reflect the works that most mattered to popular music over the prior year, it would be hard to imagine the albums being ignored.

The question of whether the two albums are among the year’s best is less straightforward. Both received mixed reviews from critics; the review-aggregating site Metacritic rates Donda a 53 out of 100 and Certified Lover Boy a 61, mediocre scores for album of the year contenders. That hasn’t necessarily hurt Drake before: He landed album of the year nods for both Views and Scorpion, despite both receiving similarly middling marks. But given both artists’ prickliness toward the Recording Academy, and the Grammys’ recent trending toward more acclaimed singer-songwriter albums — Kacey Musgraves, Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift are the three most recent album of the year winners — neither is a shoo-in.

And if neither lands a nomination, it might very well be the final straw, both for them and the hip-hop community. Distrust of the Grammys as an out-of-touch and predominantly white cultural institution has built up for over 30 years, and it could finally erupt into something more concentrated than just a few individual holdouts or public callouts. At the very least, it should be the one thing the two long-feuding rap titans can finally agree on.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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