Did anyone know Jay-Z was receiving a special award at the Grammys tonight? As soon as host Trevor Noah made the first mention of it, my timeline lit up with reactions that seemed confused that the Greatest Rapper of All Time was going to be honored during the ceremony, which seems like the type of event that should be hyped up days and weeks leading up to the broadcast. Either way, it was a welcome surprise, and ended up being the most electric moment of the night.
Jay took the stage to accept the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award—first given out last year to, you guessed it, Dr. Dre— alongside his eldest daughter Blue Ivy, a callback to the time 10 years ago when he won his first Grammy since her birth and announced that he was bringing back a “sippy cup” for her. (Now, of course, some of the Carter family Grammy hardware belongs to Blue herself). We should’ve known how real Jay was going to keep it when the walk-up music was his grimy classic “Where I’m From” (as in, “Marcy, son”) instead something pat and audience-friendly like “Empire State of Mind” or “Holy Grail.” And from there Jay kept it as real as he did back in 1997—or rather ‘99, when he achieved peak mainstream success and still vowed that he’d never “take the durag off.”
In a three-minute speech, Jay wasted no time talking about the Grammys’ complicated relationship with hip-hop and his own family, referencing Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff’s boycott back in 1989 and then his own, which followed the late great DMX’s snub in 1998. It felt especially potent on a night when none of the major rap categories (in which Killer Mike went three for three) were televised on the main broadcast.
Despite being the most awarded rapper in Grammy history (he’s tied with Kanye, although it’s unclear if this achievement award puts him ahead), Jay himself was spurred to tell the Grammys to “fuck off” just a few years ago when his acclaimed 4:44 album went zero for eight. But it’s deeper than rap, of course—Jay is married to the woman with at least three of the most egregious Album of the Year snubs of recent years, despite having the most wins of any artist, a fact about which he essentially asked the Grammys, Make it make sense.
Jay’s plea to the Recording Academy (“We want you to get it right”) was a perfect encapsulation of Black culture’s frustrating push and pull with this institution, and his broadly shady comments that some artists will be robbed—and some shouldn’t even be in the category—was deliciously spicy. It was a more levelheaded and genuine, less petty version of the same sentiment Drake expressed on his Instagram shortly before the awards began (but after he had already lost a couple rap awards he was up for.)
GOAT notwithstanding, Jay is not big on public speaking, which he addressed (expect “I tell the truth when I get nervous” to enter the social-media caption pantheon) but he delivered, spitting off the top as he’s always done with his verses. His long-but-not-rambling speech was wryly funny at times and hilariously blunt at others (“Y’all dont gotta clap at everything”), and it ended with a reminder of one of Jay’s best qualities: his ability to self-mythologize and relate at the same time. “Keep showing up,” he said, “until they give you the accolades you feel you deserve. Until they call you chairman, a genius, until they call you the greatest of all time. Feel me?”
Now where’s that new album?