The Grammy nominations were announced this morning, and as usual, there were few surprises. Over the years the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences' awards show has pretty much become a popularity contest, at least in the major categories, which once again are dominated by the year's top-selling artists: Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Ed Sheeran, Kendrick Lamar. (Adele's 25 was released past the deadline for the 2016 awards, and so won't be eligible until next year.)
Among the non-surprises is the apparent coronation of Lamar, who far surpasses all nominees with 11 nods. Although it was not one of the year's best-selling albums, the Compton rapper's To Pimp a Butterfly received near-universal critical acclaim, earning a remarkable 96 score on Metacritic and topping many critics' year-end best lists. It is this year's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. So it should be a lock to win Album of the Year, the Grammys' most prestigious award … right?
Well, no. Because here's the thing about the Grammys: While they're never shy about showering African-American artists with nominations, they have an unfortunate track record of freezing them out of wins in the major categories.
Since 2006, in the Grammys' top four categories (Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best New Artist), black artists have accounted for roughly one-third of the nominations but only four of the 40 wins. (The Grammys also freeze out Latinos, Asians and pretty much anyone who isn't white European, but that's a whole larger discussion.) Herbie Hancock won Album of the Year in 2008; Beyoncé won Song of the Year in 2010; and John Legend and Esperanza Spalding won Best New Artist in 2006 and 2011, respectively. That's it. Technically Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams won Record of the Year in 2014 for their contributions to Daft Punk's “Get Lucky,” so let's be generous and say five major wins over the past 10 years have gone to black artists. That's still an abysmally low figure.
You'll also note that none of the aforementioned winning artists, with the possible exception of Pharrell, is a hip-hop artist. When it comes to honoring hip-hop as a genre, the Grammys' track record is even worse. Only two hip-hop albums have ever won Album of the Year: Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999 and OutKast's Speakboxxx/The Love Below in 2004.
Yep, it's been more than a decade since the Grammys honored a rap album with the top prize. The other dominant rapper of the past several years, Drake, has never even been nominated in the category. Kanye West hasn't gotten an Album of the Year nomination since Graduation. 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus were all shut out.
It's been over a decade since the Grammys honored a rap album with their top prize.
The Grammys finally did get around to creating a Best Rap Album category in 1996, but even there, the Recording Academy has missed some obvious slam-dunks — most notably in 2014, when it snubbed Kendrick's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City in favor of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' The Heist. Even Macklemore himself had to call out the Grammys for getting that one wrong.
This year, the Grammys have a golden opportunity to finally get it right. To Pimp a Butterfly is the kind of rap album even non-rap fans can embrace. It features lush, jazzy instrumentation, thought-provoking lyrics and dazzling performances by its star, whose ability to rap in different voices and cadences is among the best in the game. It's not quite the perfect album it's been made out to be — as some have pointed out, its raw ambition to Make a Serious Statement, especially when compared with the more intimate and emotionally devastating Good Kid, can occasionally make Butterfly feel like an intellectual exercise. But it's still innovative, remarkably well-crafted and likely to stand the test of time.
This year, two African-American artists, Kendrick and The Weeknd, are up for Album of the Year, and a third act in the category, Alabama Shakes, are fronted by one of the best black rock singers to emerge in a generation, Brittany Howard. They're all worthy nominees, but Kendrick should win. Not just because the Grammys need to honor more hip-hop, and more artists of color — but because, by nearly any measure, his album is the best one of those nominated.
Taylor Swift is also nominated for Album of the Year, for 1989, a perfectly decent pop record that has sold approximately a zillion copies. But even Taylor is probably hoping like hell that her favorite rapper takes home that particular trophy this year. The last thing T-Swift wants to do is send K-Dot another “You got robbed” message.