Published at ReeceListens on March 8 2016
Written February 2nd.
By the time this goes to print, one of two things will have happened: Kendrick Lamar will have won the 2016 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, or he won’t have. Either way, the plight of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly at the Grammys will mark a significant chapter in the ongoing narrative surrounding the highest accolade in Western music and its relationship with hip-hop music. For if Kendrick wins the award, it marks only the second time in history a rap album has won Album of the Year, the first in thirteen years. Alternatively, if the critically acclaimed album were to fall short, it would stand as one of the biggest snubs of the modern era and beckon another wave of criticism upon the Grammy Awards.
In short, the Grammys have a chequered history as judges of hip-hop music, and have displayed reticience to take rap seriously as an artform on par with the rest of the field. For a period of time, this was to some degree excusable. The Grammys have often been reflections of the mainstream commercial opinion and for a while rap music operated only on the fringes. But over time, hip-hop entered the wider consciousness and became a mainstay on global radio and the international charts. Whilst commercial and critical tastes moved with time, the Grammy Awards have barely budged.
Despite growth in commercial acceptance, rap songs and rappers have had staggeringly little success at the Grammys. There isn’t any singular reason explaining the struggle, but it largely centres back to the conservatism of the voting committee. A selection of music industry figures including journalists and executives, the voting composition of the Grammys suffer from the same syndrome that beleaguers the Oscars – a mass largely comprised of older privileged white people. That doesn’t inherently mean their selections are without merit, but there are indisputably problematic patterns that point to issues with Grammy voting process.
Take for instance this worrying fact about the Grammy Award for Song of the Year: prior to 2016, Kanye West was the only African-American rapper to ever be nominated for Song of the Year, and he’d never taken home the award himself. This means that the Grammy Awards have found time to recognise the “artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence…without regard to album sales or chart position” of the Plain White T’s, the Dixie Chicks and Avril Lavigne (twice) amongst others but found no achievement, proficiency or excellence in any piece of hip-hop produced by an African-American not married to Kim Kardashian.
In wondering how this comes to be, two possible explanations present themselves; either members who nominate and vote for Song of the Year simply don’t respect hip-hop music, or they hold some form of racial prejudice. Either way, Kendrick Lamar would be a refreshing winner of the night’s top award and hopefully the start of a new norm.
To Pimp a Butterfly deviates from the norm not just because it’s a hip-hop album, but also because it’s a politically aggressive album. Taking aim at white privilege, institutional discrimination and showing nuanced depictions of minorities, To Pimp a Butterfly tackles politics and social criticism with a bluntness and fervour not really seen in a modern Grammy winner. The dead magistrate sprawled out on the lawn of the White House on the album cover is about as confrontational an introduction as you can make to the average Grammy voter, and Lamar managing to win could redefine what a Grammy Award winner can look like. It would raise the possibility that albums don’t need to be as apolitical as previous winners Beck, Daft Punk, Mumford & Sons and Adele, which would in itself be revelatory.
The Grammys have a prime, if not their last, opportunity to reverse over a decade of poor choices. Whether it’s the neglect of hip-hop or overwhelming tendency to celebrate safe albums at the expense of the bold, the Grammys have sullied their once impeachable prestige. Giving the deserving Kendrick Lamar the night’s top award could finally be the start of a positive change and snubbing him may be the death knell for the reputability of the Grammys.