The Grammys Are Still Afraid of Hip Hop
Within the first 10 minutes of the 60th Annual Grammy Awards, host James Corden declared this year’s ceremony had “the most diverse group of nominees in Grammy history”. Diversity has been the Recording Academy’s calling card this year. It’s the first year since 1999 that a white male artist wasn’t nominated for Album of the Year, and at that, 3 of the 5 nominees were rappers. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee booked prime stage time to run through “Despacito”. Cardi B and SZA, the runaway success stories of music in 2017, were up for numerous awards. From a diversity perspective, as in checking the box and adding up the numbers, the Recording Academy seemed a bit more in tune with the greater culture. But it didn’t take long for the disappointments to stack up.
SZA, the most nominated female artist of the night with 5 nods, went home emptyhanded. Bafflingly, she lost the Best Urban Contemporary category to The Weeknd, whose Starboy album was commercially successful but critically disappointing.
JAY-Z, who was the most nominated artist of the night at 8 nods, was completely shut out. This is one year after LEMONADE, his wife Beyoncé’s magnum opus, was denied Album of the Year in favor of Adele’s bland 25.
The Best New Artist Grammy went to Alessia Cara, whose strong voice and earnest lyrics are most certainly welcome, but who impacted culture nowhere near as much as SZA, Khalid, or Lil Uzi Vert. Also, sadly, Cara was the only woman who made a trip onstage to accept an award last night.
In a bloated 3.5 hour-telecast, in which only 9 awards were handed out live, the only bright spots were the performances. Kendrick Lamar, with Dave Chappelle and U2 in tow, opened the night on a high note, with a politically charged rendition of “XXX” from his album, DAMN. Childish Gambino killed “Terrified”, with a perfectly tailored white suit and equally fine-tuned falsetto. Bruno Mars and Cardi B did a live reenactment of the “Finesse (Remix)” video. Rihanna looked like she was having the time of her life during the “Wild Thoughts” performance. And Kesha brought me to tears as Cyndi Lauper, Bebe Rexha, Camila Cabello, Julia Michaels, and Andra Day stood with her in solidarity during “Praying”. Ben Platt and Patti Lupone proved the best voices in music are on Broadway. And SZA shook off her losing streak for a killer version of “Broken Clocks”. There were highlights.
But none of those highlights could overshadow the lowest moment of the night.
Album of the Year was a contest between Bruno Mars, Kendrick Lamar, JAY-Z, Lorde, and Childish Gambino. Throughout the night, it quickly became clear that it was a contest between Bruno and Kendrick, who’d picked up 5 awards each, up to that point. When Bruno took the stage to collect his 6th Grammy, I wasn’t surprised. I was disappointed.
Bruno Mars is a talented guy. He’s hard working, an incredible dancer, an impeccable vocalist. He’s reliably good. But he’s also the artist of the bunch that your mom knows. He’s popular; that damn “24K Magic” song was EVERYWHERE last year.
But Kendrick Lamar, who has lost this category twice before to the safe choice, produced a record that wasn’t only his career best but the most politically charged, impactful, and meaningful record of the group. When I think of the difference between the two artists, Mars is squeaky clean. His lyrics rarely move beyond generic platitudes. He’s fun, lovable, his songs are catchy, and his music is made for mass consumption. Lamar, on the other hand, is focused on encouraging a deeper conversation and moving artistry to a new level. He took risks, and they paid off.
But the Recording Academy sent a message, as they have since the beginning of time, that hip hop isn’t good enough to be the gold standard. Year after year, the Brunos, the Adeles, the Taylors, the Becks, keep winning over the artists who command the zeitgeist with culture-defining albums. To the Academy, which is clearly not in tune with the bulk of listeners, there’s one definition of what “good music” is. It’s safe, it’s present on Top 40 radio, it’s sold in kiosks at Target, and it steers clear of controversy.
The narrative this year concerned how many hip hop artists were nominated in major categories. This was finally the year the Recording Academy gave a vote of confidence to rappers. But still, the only glory rappers are allowed is within the rap categories, something that’s upsetting but apparently expected.
Drake refused to submit More Life for consideration. JAY-Z declined to perform, even though he was the most nominated artist of the night. Dave Chappelle, while announcing the award for Best Rap Album, threw some elegant shade at the Academy for failing to nominate A Tribe Called Quest for their final album.
Tossing some nominations at rappers isn’t the way to make them feel included and recognized. A rapper made the best album of 2017, and a rapper should have won Album of the Year last night. The Recording Academy is archaic in its definition of artistry, and the longer it holds onto its antiquated ways, the more its relevance will be up for reconsideration.
I remember looking up to everyone who won Grammys as a kid. When I dreamed of being a singer/songwriter, the Grammys were the ultimate goal. The North Star. But now, it seems that the Recording Academy is unable to recognize rappers, and really black artists, for their contributions. Could this really be the gold standard if it’s not inclusive?
I hope that, as the Recording Academy continues to invest more energy into understanding and appreciating hip hop, that this narrative changes. But whether or not I’ll tune in next year is up for discussion. I’m not sure I can continue to support a regime that doesn’t support us.