NEW YORK -- Jay-Z, who once boycotted the Grammys as biased against hip-hop, was hailed Saturday by the music industry's power brokers ahead of the latest awards where he leads nominations.
The rapper who rose from a broken home to become a hip-hop multimillionaire was contrite over his previous attacks on the Grammys when he accepted a prize as an "industry icon" at a pre-award gala thrown by veteran music executive Clive Davis.
Jay-Z 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 on Saturday.
"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 in New York's Times Square.
"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 Jay-Z's honor, with soul legend Gladys Knight singing her classic "Midnight Train to Georgia" and Luis Fonsi dancing through his viral hit "Despacito."
Alicia Keys weaved Jay-Z's songs from "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" to their collaboration "Empire State of Mind" into a piano medley, in which she raised her hands and led a chant of the rapper's nickname Hov.
Breakthrough year for rap
Jay-Z is in the running for eight awards at Sunday's Grammys including Album of the Year for "4:44," a strikingly introspective work in which the rapper apologizes for infidelity to Beyonce and supports his mother as she comes out as lesbian.
The music industry's premier awards gala -- which has returned to New York after 15 years in Los Angeles -- is shaping up to be a big night for hip-hop, which for the first time makes up a majority of nominations in the top categories.
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.
Jay-Z grew up fatherless in Brooklyn and became a small-time drug dealer.
He is now worth an estimated $1 billion with Beyonce after amassing a business empire that includes fashion, entertainment and the Tidal streaming service.
In an interview aired Saturday on CNN for a new show of Van Jones, the community activist and former aide to president Barack Obama, Jay-Z urged African American entrepreneurship.
"Until we come to the table with our own... power base, nothing will change," he said.
Jay-Z is nominated for Record of the Year, which recognizes the top song, for "The Story of O.J.," which explores the persistence of racism with his own success as a backdrop.
While Jay-Z is ahead for Sunday, music industry prognosticators see fewer clear-cut favorites compared with previous years.
West Coast rapper Kendrick Lamar closely trails Jay-Z with seven nominations amid acclaim for his album "DAMN.," a return to a classic hip-hop sound by an artist known for his experimentation.
Lamar's previous album, "To Pimp a Butterfly," offered an unofficial musical soundtrack for the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality -- but, to the disappointment of many music industry watchers, was denied 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.
Lorde is the only woman nominated in one of the two top categories -- despite the growing attention to gender discrimination in the entertainment industry following revelations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
In a show of support for the #MeToo movement, performers selected for the televised Grammy show include Kesha, who has taken on sexism in the industry after accusing her producer of raping her.
A group set up by female entertainment executives plans to hand out white roses as a show of solidarity with women fighting abuse.
© Agence France-Presse