Grammys flashback: In 2004 OutKast were the first (and still only) artists to win Album of the Year for rap

The Grammys have a weird relationship with hip-hop. For decades, one of the biggest complaints about the Grammys has been that they constantly relegate hip-hop artists to wins in the rap field, despite them getting general field nominations and oftentimes being the most nominated artists of the year. But the Grammys don’t always snub hip-hop in the general categories. We’ve seen multiple rappers win Best New Artist, including recently Megan Thee Stallion in 2021. Furthermore, it was not too long ago when the first hip-hop song won Record and Song of the Year: Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” However, when it comes to Album of the Year, the genre only has one win: OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” 18 years ago.

OutKast’s road to the top Grammy honor was, in hindsight, much smoother than you might think given the usual anti-hip-hop bias at the academy. “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” a double album, was preceded by the single “Hey Ya!,” which quickly enough became a number-one smash on the Billboard Hot 100 and is still considered a classic pop/hip-hop tune, as well as “The Way You Move,” which eventually took the top spot as well. The album itself then debuted at number-one on the Billboard 200, spending seven non-consecutive weeks atop the chart. It would go on to be certified diamond by the RIAA.

But OutKast’s success was far from just a commercial phenomenon. “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” got raves from critics, hailing it as one of the definitive albums of the year and praising its sonic innovation. In his review of the album, Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian called it “a career-defining masterpiece of breathtaking ambition.” On a similar note, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing for All Music, said it was “among the best hip-hop and best pop music released this decade.” The album’s versatility, as well as the top notch production which earned OutKast a Producer of the Year nomination, were front-and-center in most reviews.

So OutKast had the reviews and the sales going for them, but a key aspect of their win was precisely that versatility that many critics noted. While critical acclaim and sales are important factors, directly or indirectly, in how Grammy members vote, many hip-hop albums with both of those things have lost the top honors. In 2017, Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN” was the number-one album of 2017 in the USA, as well as the most critically acclaimed album of that same year; the album ended up sweeping the rap field, but did not win a single general field award. “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” however, appealed to hip-hop, pop, and R&B audiences (among others) by combining sounds from multiple genres. Take for example “Hey Ya!,” which won in the eclectic Best Urban/Alternative Performance category due to how it blends soul, funk, pop, and hip-hop in a unique way. As such, OutKast managed to get the cross-genre appeal that characterizes many fellow Album of the Year winners.

Come Grammy night, the award felt like an easy win for the hip-hop duo. Pundits said OutKast would “easily” win the award, that it was “Outkast’s trophy to lose.” The general consensus was that they would win unless vote-splitting with fellow hip-hop artist Missy Elliot allowed The White Stripes to upset, which I agree was a risk. “Elephant,” The White Stripes’ album, won Best Alternative Album as well as Best Rock Song for the now-iconic “Seven Nation Army,” so we know the academy was on their side. However, The White Stripes themselves had to overcome vote-splitting with fellow rockers Evanescence, who took home Best New Artist and Best Hard Rock Performance (“Bring Me to Life”).

As for the other nominees, Justin Timberlake’s “Justified” was likely third to OutKast and The White Stripes, with Timberlake winning Best Male Pop Vocal Performance (“Cry Me a River”) and Best Pop Vocal Album. And last but certainly not least was Elliot’s “Under Construction,” which was likely fourth or fifth depending. While Elliot lost Best Rap Album to OutKast, she did win Best Female Rap Performance (“Work It”) that year, so I’m sure there were no hard feelings.

But after OutKast’s deservedly historic win, when will it happen again? It’s hard to say, but I do believe we’re on the right path. Childish Gambino scoring the top honors was a huge deal, and one of my personal all-time favorite Grammy nominations came when Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” received a Song of the Year nomination despite the academy usually only nominating inspirational or political rap songs in the category.

But without a committee to arrange the nominees however they saw fit this year, the only hip-hop nominees we got in the general field were Lil Nas X, Kanye West, and arguably Doja Cat, and of those West was the only one who submitted most of his music to rap instead of pop. So this may or may not be the year we see hip-hop get its due again. It’s certainly going to take some pop-appealing rapper like Nas or Doja to do so, though. But then again, as those very artists have demonstrated, what even is “genre” these days anyway?

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