As the Grammys concluded last night with the bizarre spectacle of Robin Thicke yelping alongside Pitbull, many fans — myself included — were left with a sour feeling after seeing Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly lose out to Taylor Swift's 1989 for the coveted Album of the Year award. Though he had won earlier in the telecast for Best Rap Album, that award suddenly seemed like a poor consolation. To say To Pimp a Butterfly was merely the year's best rap album was like saying Stephen Curry was merely the NBA Western Conference's best point guard. Its fusion of jazz, funk, dazzling wordplay and fearless social commentary was clearly so much more than that. How could it lose out to a pop trifle like 1989?
The most obvious answer, of course, is also the ugliest one.
Are the Grammys racist? It's hard to look back at the awards' past decade and not say “yes.” Last night, Bruno Mars became just the sixth
black artist artist of color in 10 years to win a Grammy in one of the ceremony's four major categories (Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best New Artist) — and he did it not on his own but as the “featured” artist on Mark Ronson's “Uptown Funk.” To see Mars hovering politely in the background as the white Ronson — a brilliant producer and songwriter, to be fair — pointed out the Grammy-less George Clinton in the audience, shouting out him and other African-American funk forebears like James Brown, Prince and The Meters, was a poignant moment that said more about the current state of American popular music than a thousand Justin Bieber memes.
Racial issues aside, the Grammys' ongoing anti–hip-hop bias is even more stark. To Pimp a Butterfly would've been just the third hip-hop album in Grammy history, and the first since Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004, to win Album of the Year. Amazingly, Kendrick's Black Lives Matter anthem, “Alright,” which lost to Ed Sheeran's milquetoast “Thinking Out Loud,” would've been the first hip-hop song ever to win Song of the Year — and no hip-hop track has ever won Record of the Year, either. And while three hip-hop acts have won Best New Artist, the last to do so was Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, which tells you everything you need to know about the Recording Academy's taste in hip-hop.
With all the acclaim surrounding To Pimp a Butterfly, and Lamar's historic 11 nominations (one shy of Michael Jackson's record), all signs pointed to the 58th Grammys finally injecting some much-needed diversity into the major categories. Instead, we got treated to yet another installment in the Taylor Swift “OMG, I won!” chronicles, one that she shrewdly accompanied with a quasi-feminist acceptance speech that may or may not have been a Kanye West diss.
In the end, though, who delivered the acceptance speeches probably mattered less to the viewing audience than who delivered the best performances — and in that regard, there was no disputing Kendrick's dominance. His searing medley of “The Blacker the Berry,” “Alright” and a new rap that referenced Trayvon Martin and “modern slavery” was easily the evening's highlight — both the show's only hip-hop performance, and the only performance that felt as if it mattered outside the Grammys' self-congratulatory bubble.
[Note: An earlier version of this article referred to Bruno Mars as black, which was at worst inaccurate and at best an oversimplification of his mixed-race background. His is of Filipino, Puerto Rican and Jewish ancestry. We regret the error.]