Friday December 01, 2017

The Grammys are trying to be relevant again — and it just might be working

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After years of side-lining contemporary music's two biggest genres, hip hop and R&B, the nominations for the 60th Grammy Awards are beginning to reflect changing attitudes.

Hip-hop stars Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino are nominated for album of the year and record of the year, along with the popular reggaeton song "Despacito" which is on the list for record for the year and song of the year.

That's a stark contrast to 2015 when Beck took album of the year over Beyoncé's self-titled record, earning a look of dismay from Questlove and nearly provoking a full-blown Kanye moment. In the end, it was just a minor Kanye moment. 

The odd choices didn't end in 2015. Earlier this year, Adele won three critical awards, beating Beyoncé's Lemonade each time.

"It seems all but impossible that finally this will be the start of the coronation for hip hop and R&B at the Grammys this year," Andrew Unterberger, a writer and editor for Billboard.com, tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Part of what's led to the shift is that the Grammys have re-engineered how they deliberate over the prestigious prizes. Unterberger identifies a renewed emphasis on the nomination committees that has pushed the Grammys in a new direction.

Awaken, My Love!

Awaken, My Love! by Childish Gambino aka Donald Glover. (Glassnote)

"They're supposed to debate the nominees and make sure that it's not just going to the biggest names. That it's going to the albums and the artists that really deserve it the most and that put out the most meaningful work that year," says Unterberger.
 

A changing tide

Meanwhile, there's been fears of bias against the genres in the Grammy voter base. Rock and pop Grammy winners tend to be white while hip hop's and R&B's biggest stars are much more diverse. There hasn't been a black winner for album of the year prize since Herbie Hancock's album of Joni Mitchell jazz covers won in 2008.

"You're seeing a sort of a more modern approach to the Grammys and to the nominations and you can sort of see them looking at those results," - Andrew Unterberger, a writer and editor for Billboard.com

"The Grammys' consistent celebration of tradition-minded white acts feels like single-party rule in an evenly divided nation, while the royalty from the other side — Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna — looks on politely from the front rows," wrote New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica following the 59th Grammy Awards.

Vox's pop culture critic Todd VanDerWerff attributed the win to vote splitting, that, "the power structures of the music industry [...] are full of aging white baby boomers, who might be outnumbered in aggregate by younger, more diverse people, but who also tend to vote as a bloc."

Unterberger says they've opened up the process to online voting in hopes of making it more appealing to younger voters.

Jay-Z and singer Beyonce

Hip Hop artist Jay-Z and singer Beyonce during The 59th GRAMMY Awards on February 12, 2017 in Los Angeles. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)

"You're seeing a sort of a more modern approach to the Grammys and to the nominations and you can sort of see them looking at those results," says Unterberger.

With Kendrick Lamar's DAMN, Jay-Z's 4:44 or Childish Gambino's Awaken, My Love rising to the top, it appears to be a moment where hip hop's star is ascendent over more traditional rock winners.

Jay-Z's 4:44

Jay-Z's latest album is a popular and critical success. (Roc Nation / UMG)

Unterberger argues that the shift is part of a broader trend away from those genres in contemporary music, with a few exceptions, and that's being reflected in Grammy's prizes.
 

Drake's choice

One rapper who may have accidentally missed out on the change in fortune is Toronto's own Drake.

Drake didn't submit his recent collection of music, More Life, to be considered, which many industry veterans took as a rebuke against the Grammy Awards' choices in previous years.

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Drake performs at the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival in Indio, California. (Polk/Getty Images for Coachella)

Hip-hop artists have protested against the Grammys as far back as 1989, when it was announced that the ceremony would give its first award for rap music, but would not televise it. More recently Frank Ocean, Justin Bieber, Kanye West and Jay-Z have also complained about the Grammys Awards' past preferences.

Unterberger believes, however, that if Drake, a three-time Grammy winner already, was confident in More Life, he'd have submitted it.

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Kendrick Lamar performs onstage at Rihanna's 3rd Annual Diamond Ball Benefitting The Clara Lionel Foundation at Cipriani Wall Street. His album DAMN has been nominated for best album of the year at the 2017 Grammys. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Clara Lionel Foundation)

"If he had a chance of really competing with Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z he would have been in the game," says Unterberger.

He also says Drake has a convenient excuse because, technically, More Life is a playlist, not an album. And there's no Grammy category for that.

Not yet at least, but with the Grammys, you never know.   

Here is a Spotify playlist featuring music from this segment as well as some of our favourite Grammy nominees. 


To hear the full interview with Andrew Unterberger, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.