It's hardly a contrarian take: the Grammys suck.
Chances are you've heard someone say it, or you've said it yourself, or you've read a headline that shared a similar sentiment. Over the last ten years, the music industry's foremost awards show has doubled-down on tone deaf dogma and artistic rigidity, refusing to recognise the progression of popular music. Whilst they're a much degraded institution of popular culture, the awards nonetheless inspire outrage and disappointment each year.
Nominally honouring "artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position," The Grammys are often seen as an overly-formal congratulations for powerful artists and the labels that back them. Whilst there's a semblance of truth in this, it's a bit too simple an explanation.
The most obvious of The Grammys sins is its treatment of hip hop. An increasing popular genre for the last 25 years, hip hop records have won just two Best Album Grammys. They're often nominated yet never victorious, a fact that's prompted claims of tokenism. Having recently ascended to the United State's foremost musical genre, will hip hop finally get the credit it deserves? In order to find out, we're looking into some of the most notable hip hop snubs since 1989.
We want to believe in the Grammys, and no accolade-related injustice can extinguish this hope. Now in their sixth decade, can the antiquated awards ceremony modernise its approach to musical appreciation, or will it continue to hold steady as a vanguard of Anglo-centric tradition?
A Bad (W)rap
It's worth recalling that the first hip hop album to be nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Album was MC Hammer's 1991 debut, Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em. Whilst only one song on the record was Hammer's seminal "Can't Touch This," it apparently warranted cultural recognition from the Academy, who had previously overlooked such seminal and significant titles as NWA's Straight Outta Compton, Slick Rick's The Great Adventures of Slick Rick and Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Whilst it might seem idealistic to imagine that these titles would be acknowledged by the Grammys, it's worth noting that all three were RIAA-certified Platinum records by 1990, indicative of their critical and commercial success.
Worse still, it wouldn't be until 1997 that another hip hop record was nominated for the flagship award. The critical and commercial successes enjoyed by hip hop throughout the 1990s - often considered to be the "golden age of rap" - was lost on the Academy, who failed to nominate classics such as N.W.A.'s Niggaz4Life, Nas' Illmatic, The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Tupac's All Eyez On Me, Wu-Tang Clan's Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and JAY-Z's Reasonable Doubt.
The next nominated rap album, The Fugees' The Score, ultimately lost to Celine Dion's Falling Into You. Fugees singer Lauryn Hill would go on to make history with her 1999 debut, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, becoming the first hip hop artist to be honoured with the Academy's most prestigious award. Southern-rap legends Outkast would repeat the feat in 2004, becoming the second hip hop act to secure the accolade. As of 2018, they are the last to do so.
Why is it that, as hip hop becomes the dominant force in American culture, the Grammys continually refuse to acknowledge the artistic worth of the genre?
Out Of Touch?
A brief look at the history of the Grammys shows an institution less concerned with artist progression and more concerned with traditional values. At the 9th Annual Grammy Awards, the Academy bestowed the Grammy for Best Album upon a double-disc Frank Sinatra retrospective, maligning the Beatles' pivotal and inspired Revolver. It wouldn't be the only instance of seemingly bizarre choices: Blood, Sweat and Tears' self-titled sophomore album bested The Beatles' Abbey Road, whilst Steely Dan's admittedly excellent 2000 album Two Against Nature beat Radiohead's Kid A for the accolade.
There are undoubtedly arguments to be made for these snubs: Revolver, had it won, would have been the first rock album to receive the award. That honour went to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club, nominated the following year. Likewise, Kid A polarised both fans and critics on release, only to eventually become a nigh-unanimous classic praised for its ambition and innovation. Neither of these decisions, as bizarre as they were, are as egregious as the continued refusal to recognise an entire genre of popular music.
The critical exclusion of an entire genre is both unreasonable and problematic. Hip hop, a historically African-American art form, seems to curry little favour with the Academy's membership. Some of the most socio-politically significant and artistically acclaimed records of the last 30 years have been hip hop releases, a fact that seems lost on the body tasked with commemorating such works of art. In the past decade, hip hop has become one of America's most dominant cultural forces, earning both commercial primacy and critical adoration. Why, then, wasn't this ascendence reflected by music's premier awards show?
The Post-Outkast Years
In recent years, there have been a number of controversial and out-of-touch decisions made by The Recording Academy. The first concerns one of the finest records of the yet-young century, a fusion of hip hop excess, prog-rock ambition and 21st century maximalism.
I'm referring to Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a record so exceptional that it rehabilitated popular culture's most derided villain overnight. Like Prince's Purple Rain, MBDTF stands tall amongst an otherwise critically lauded discography, a record so unanimously significant and ambitious that it eclipses West's other revered achievements. Despite the prowess of the record, praised both on release and in glowing retrospectives, West failed to net a nomination for Best Album. Though he netted three genre awards - Best Rap Album, as well as Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for "All Of The Lights" - many critics felt the album overshadowed the Album of the Year nominees.
Take Bruno Mars' Doo-Wops and Hooligans, the pedestrian soul-pop record that preceded any of his more substantial and deserving work. Similarly, Rihanna's Loud - a great pop record with an enduring legacy of hits - pales in comparison to MBDTF. Whilst these albums were buoyed by hits and elevated by sales, their status as exceptional albums is contentious. A terrific album is far more than the sum of its parts, as exemplified by single-laden releases such as Katy Perry's Teenage Dream or Taylor Swift's 1989.
Journalist and author Touré said it best in Time Magazine: "between ’05 and ’08 the only hip hop act nominated for Album of the Year was Kanye, three times. But now that he’s released his most mature work, he’s being ignored." It's not hard to imagine reasons why West might have been sidelined by the Academy - whilst always an outspoken figure, West lived in self-imposed exile following his infamous 2009 VMA interruption. In recent years, he called the incident "the beginning of the end of [his] life." It's definitely possible - even probable - that West's ill-advised move against America's sweetheart derailed his future award successes, as his musical achievements became overshadowed by his new role as a pop culture villain.
Though Kanye has gone through his career without ever netting a Grammy for Best Album, he's collected many rap-related gramophones in the years since his 2004 debut. Not all top-tier hip hop artists have been so fortunate.
Perhaps the most outright offensive awards snub of the century came in 2014, when Seattle rapper Macklemore won Best Rap Album at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards. Whilst he also won Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance for "Thrift Shop," it was the album nod that incurred the wrath of disgruntled critics and fans: nominated against Kendrick Lamar's much-lauded sophomore album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, Macklemore's effort seemed an entertaining-yet-forgettable afterthought.
The outrage was so unanimous that Macklemore took it upon himself to apologise to Kendrick for besting him: "you got robbed," wrote the four-time Grammy winner, "I wanted you to win." Indeed, Lamar's victory seemed all but assured: GKMC was named the best album of 2012 by Pitchfork, Complex and BBC. Vibe Magazine would go on to call it one of the best albums since '93, whilst critical aggregate site Acclaimed Music confidently declared it the best album of the year. How, then, was it bested by another album from the same genre?
The Grammy Criterion
These bizarre choices lead us to a key question: what does the Academy look for in a piece of art? In order to understand the unwritten criterion, we must look at the makeup of music's most influential body. As noted in this fantastic piece by Vox, Academy membership is extended to those who've met one of four conditions:
- Have been credited with 12 physical or digital tracks released online only and currently available for purchase, with at least one track in the past five years.
- Have six credits on commercially released tracks currently available for sale and distributed through physical distribution outlets (such as record stores), with at least one track in the past five years.
- Have won a Grammy before.
- Get an endorsement from a current voting member.
Academy dues are a mere $100, payable annually. Once an individual has cleared these hurdles, they're entitled to vote for the Grammys. Their votes may not be reflected in the big-ticket categories, however, following a lowkey Academy amendment.
A private committee, formed in response to Lionel Richie's victory over both Springsteen's Born to Run and Prince's Purple Rain, was assembled in the mid-1990s. It effectively proofs the member's votes in "the top four categories, plus the Country, R&B, Latin, Gospel, Jazz, Classical, and Music Video categories." A secretive assemblage of unknown industry titans can manipulate nominees, gaming categories and making for more entertaining live telecasts. Though the committee was formed in response to a nigh-unjustifiable upset, it's hard not to view it as insidious: it operates with no transparency, and only one anonymous member has spoken out in a 1999 LA Times piece. Bolstering this insidious view is the fact that the controversies outlined through this article - the snub of hip hop as a genre, including West's MBDTF and Kendrick's GKMC - have all occurred under the watch of this committee.
Despite the existence of this veto-enabled committee, it's remarkably easy to join The Recording Academy. It's so easy, in fact, that you needn't require a strong background in the music industry. Those with the power to vote are no more musically inclined than many recreational music fans - sure, they've got credits on a handful of tracks, but their knowledge of disparate genres and nominated albums would likely align with that of the slightly-in-tune consumer. What's more, unlike film's Academy Awards, Grammy voters are invited to vote in multiple categories regardless of their musical familiarity.
It quickly becomes clear that the Grammys aren't about critical acclaim or commercial performance - they're about name recognition amongst the Academy's voting base. As Academy member Rob Kenner notes, it's been an issue right from the beginning: 1989's inaugural Best Rap Performance went to The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff for "Parents Just Don't Understand." Significant acts, such as Big Daddy Kane and Boogie Down Productions, weren't even nominated.
It explains West's failure to net a Best Album nomination: burdened by an incident that cast him as a pop culture villain, his musical achievements were overlooked by a fickle, uninformed and vengeful voting base. Likewise, Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city - which boasted a handful of successful singles as well as general critical and commercial success - couldn't size up against "Thrift Shop," which boasted one of the most viewed music videos of 2011. Unsurprisingly, asking unfamiliar voters to help select the best hip hop releases unintentionally rewards palatability and pop-infusion over the hallmarks that make the genre such a distinct artform. The same is true for all specialised genres, including country, electronic and blues.
The Present, The Future
The 2018 Grammys reiterated the Academy's commitment to maligning hip hop.
Though a consummate entertainer, Bruno Mars' victory in the Best Album category stunned many who believed the award was destined for either Kendrick Lamar or JAY-Z. Indeed, whilst Mars had a compelling claim to his Song of the Year statuette, his album received the least critical acclaim of the five nominees. It seemed like yet-another instance of name recognition trumping artistic achievement: the first three singles from Mars' 24K Magic have accrued, in order of release, 973m, 1.22b and 140m views at the time of writing. Despite their critical and commercial successes, Kendrick and JAY can't compare: "HUMBLE." has a respectable 474m hits, whilst "The Story Of OJ" sits at a modest 64m. Whilst all three of these nominees may be considered 'top-tier artists,' Bruno's profile is such that he dominates - much of JAY's legend comes from albums released over a decade ago, and Kendrick exists as a popular leader in his genre with a few crossover successes.
Put simply: only one of these men was on "Uptown Funk." Buoyed by a nigh-universally known name and a couple of the decades biggest hits, Grammy voters both informed and ignorant cast ballots. It's the latter selection that skew the vote, prompting an outrage arguably more predictable than the Grammys themselves.
If there's anything to be learned from all this, it's that you can strong-arm yourself into winning a golden gramophone. All it takes is a little genre work, some pop-crossover appeal, a big-budget music video that captures the zeitgeist, and perhaps an aversion to insulting Taylor Swift. Now, there's a dependable way to win over the Academy's 13,000 members.
It also helps to be white: the music industry boasts a well-documented race problem, one we can reasonably assume bleeds into the Academy's voting base. This lack of representation goes two ways: not only are voters largely racially homogenous, but curatorial tastemakers and radio DJs are limited by CEOs, sponsors and their own audience. We can't expect voters to explore genres they're unfamiliar with prior to voting, nor can we expect them to recuse themselves from casting votes.
With no changes in sight, and Neil Portnow doubling down on his tone-deaf dogma, it seems that whilst hip hop may finally make a dent in nominations, it remains to be seen whether the genre will see real success in music's highest honour.