NEW YORK (AFP) - Hip-hop is being recognised as never before as the Grammys get underway on Sunday (Jan 28) with Jay-Z, who once boycotted the industry awards as biased, leading the nominations.
The music industry's biggest night, taking place in New York after 15 years in Los Angeles, also looks set to rally behind the #MeToo movement to end sexual harassment with guests planning to wear white roses as symbols of solidarity.
Hip-hop has an uneven history with the Recording Academy, the body of 13,000 music professionals that determines the awards, with only two mostly rap works winning the most prestigious Grammy of Album of the Year.
But in a sign of shifting cultural trends, this year the majority of contenders are hip-hop including Jay-Z's 4:44, an introspective album in which he admits infidelity to his wife Beyonce and explores institutional racism, and Kendrick Lamar's DAMN., a return to a classic rap sound from a voice closely identified with the Black Lives Matter movement.
On the eve of the Grammys, music industry players feted Jay-Z who sounded contrite for boycotting the awards two decades ago.
The rapper who rose from a broken home in Brooklyn to become a multimillionaire businessman accepted a prize as an "industry icon" at a pre-award gala thrown by veteran music executive Clive Davis.
Jay-Z had refused to attend the Grammys in 1999 because the Recording Academy which administers the awards snubbed fellow rapper DMX.
He stayed away, upset at the lack of recognition for hip-hop, until coming in 2004 with wife-to-be Beyonce, who joined him at the Saturday night party.
"I realize like, man, art is super subjective and everybody is doing their best and the Academy, they are human like we are," Jay-Z told the packed ballroom Saturday in a Times Square hotel.
"We can pretend we don't care, but we really care," he said of Grammy recognition. "We care because we see the most incredible artists stand on that stage and we aspire to be there."
A who's who of top artists performed in his honor, with soul legend Gladys Knight singing her Midnight Train to Georgia and Alicia Keys weaving Jay-Z songs from Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) to their collaboration Empire State of Mind into a piano medley, interspersed with shouts of his nickname Hov.
Jay-Z is already one of the most accoladed artists in Grammy history with 21 awards. But until this year he had always been passed over for the main categories.
While Jay-Z is ahead Sunday with eight nominations, prognosticators see fewer clear-cut favorites compared with previous years.
West Coast rapper Kendrick Lamar closely trails Jay-Z with seven nods. His previous album, "To Pimp a Butterfly," became an unofficial soundtrack for the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality - but fell short for Album of the Year two years ago.
Album of the Year contenders also include two high-selling pop albums - 24K Magic by Bruno Mars, who has revived fun-loving retro funk, and Melodrama by Lorde, the 21-year-old pop prodigy from New Zealand.
A dark horse in the category is Awaken, My Love!', the psychedelic, R&B-infused album of Childish Gambino, the rap alter ego of actor and comedian Donald Glover.
Nods to 'Despacito'
After a year marked by President Donald Trump's attacks on immigrants and a devastating earthquake in Puerto Rico, Despacito, the viral dance hit that has broken the record for views on YouTube, is in the running for both Record of the Year, which recognises best tune, and Song of the Year, which awards songwriters.
Despacito, led by the Puerto Rican pop singer Luis Fonsi, would be the first non-instrumental song that is not mostly in English to win in either category since the very first Grammys in 1959.
Lorde is the only woman nominated for Album or Record of the Year - even amid the growing attention to gender discrimination in the entertainment industry following revelations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Along with the white roses, the Grammys will show support for the #MeToo movement on stage. Performers selected for the televised Grammy show include Kesha, who has taken on sexism in the industry after accusing her producer of raping her.
Despite this year's lack of representation, women - Adele and Taylor Swift - were the last two winners of Album of the Year.