The Grammys have misused their influence for three straight decades. Outside of flat earth society champions, no collective body has been so consistently incorrect.
The Recording Academy didn’t recognize hip-hop as a worthy album art form until 1996. Young MC, Arrested Development and Iggy Azalea own statuettes, but Nas, 2Pac, Biggie and Public Enemy don’t. In 2014, they chose Macklemore over Kanye and Kendrick, which is like anointing a mayonnaise sandwich the greatest sandwich of all time.
On Monday, they have a chance to repent. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is up for 11 Grammys — one less than Michael Jackson’s record 12 nods. Lamar is up for Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Rap Album, to name a few.
Whether you believe that his jazz-haunted exploration of self and society is a masterpiece, or often brilliant but overrated, doesn’t matter as much as what a win represents.
As Lamar told The New York Times: “It’s not only a statement for myself but it’s a statement for the culture. [The Grammys are] important, because of the foundation the forefathers laid before me. Nas didn’t get a chance to be in that position. Pac. So to be acknowledged and to actually win, it’s for all of them.”
If Lamar wins Album of the Year, it would be only the third time the Academy has bestowed it on a hip-hop album. The previous two, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below, are hip-hop at the core, but heavily R&B in practice.
The Academy can’t use that same cop-out with Kendrick. To Pimp a Butterfly might use ’70s soul and saxophones as sonic bedrock, but its chief method of delivery is rapping. Kendrick is an emcee’s emcee, who has used his pulpit not only to attack racial and economic inequities but also to rip rappers with ghostwriters — an affront to the traditional tenets of hip-hop.
Even though his royalty checks ultimately arrive via multinational conglomerate, Lamar has retained an underground approach. He’s signed to Interscope through TDE, the Carson independent run by entrepreneur Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, and has mostly rejected the overtly commercial gestures of his peers. He’s reaffirmed that you can make art with creative integrity and compete with those desperate to sell singles and stay trendy.
You can see the vision in the cast of collaborators. To Pimp a Butterfly features major contributions from Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington, three of the most innovative musicians of the last decade, all closely linked to L.A.’s Low End Theory. A win for TPAB validates their seismic impact.
Lamar would be the first to tell you that a win for him is also a win for Compton, the war-torn Hub City that has produced more great hip-hop than any city of comparable size. It’s a make-up call for N.W.A, DJ Quik, MC Eiht and King Tee. And it’s a victory for featured vocalist George Clinton, one of the greatest ever, who still has fewer Grammy wins than Milli Vanilli.
Maybe most important, a Kendrick victory honors those surviving amidst intractable poverty and gang strife — not to mention those who never made it out of Compton alive, whose memories are memorialized on the record.
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To Pimp a Butterfly is an important album made during an era when music has never felt more powerless to effect real change. It’s OK to feel conflicted about the work itself. It’s not without its flaws, and maybe that was partially the point. But the choice is clear to anyone with working ears: Among those nominated, no album mattered more.
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.