Vince Staples is impossible to categorize. A Southern Cali MC who prides himself on his Long Beach bona fides while eschewing the prototypical gangsta rap tag with which he’s often mislabeled, he’s a natural at bucking the status quo. Yet he also sees clear divisions between art and commerce that lead him to question how institutions choose to define — or fail to distinguish — the two.
So when Staples found himself the subject of a recent Grammy campaign — initiated by Uproxx hip-hop editor Aaron Williams, who likened the EDM sonics of Staples’ 2017 LP Big Fish Theory to “a post-apocalyptic pinball machine” — he was less interested in discussing whether or not his album is Grammy-worthy than he was in questioning the very construct upon which the Recording Academy recognizes and rewards genre-bending artists of color.
Despite garnering critical acclaim for his Big Fish Theory, he’s poised to become the latest in a long lineage of black artists, either overlooked or underrated, who defy the academy’s ham-fisted attempts at categorization. Of course, he has to get nominated first. And considering how slept-on his 2015 debut opus Summertime ’06 was, no one’s counting on that, least of all Staples.
Rap’s relationship with the Grammy Awards has always been fraught. It began with a boycott in 1989. Last year marked 20 years since the creation of the Best Rap Album category. Yet the Grammy’s credibility continues to take hits, especially when it comes to getting the genre right. When New York Times critic Jon Caramanica wrote his pre-Grammys’ column in January, he devoted it to the academy’s chronic fumbling of hip-hop and R&B. But the 2017 award show still encapsulated that disappointing history — from Adele’s questionable Album of the Year win over Beyoncé to Drake’s complaints about “Hotline Bling” being mis-categorized as rap, simply because he’s deemed a black rapper. (Drake decided this year to forego submitting material from his 2017 album, More Life, altogether.)