by Jeff Fiedler
In the days ahead, you’re likely to hear a lot of complaining or bewildered comments from critics over the fact that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was denied the Grammy for Album of the Year and that the award instead went to Taylor Swift’s 1989. Most prognosticators predicted Lamar would walk away with the trophy, especially in light of the firestorm that erupted after last year’s ceremony as a result of Kanye West’s headline-dominating post-ceremony rant over Beck’s Morning Phase triumphing over Beyonce’s self-titled album. But before you go crying foul play over Lamar’s loss, let’s take a moment to review why it wasn’t exactly smart to bet the farm on a Lamar win for the biggest award of the evening.
To begin with, when it comes to their top trophy of the night, the Grammys have historically never particularly embraced albums—of any genre, rap or otherwise—with content explicit enough to warrant parental advisory stickers. This isn’t to say they don’t regularly nominate albums that boast them, but only on extremely rare occasions do those albums actually win. In fact, not a single one of the last twelve winners in the Album of the Year category has sported one. In the history of the Grammies, only three albums with a parental advisory label have ever triumphed at the end of the night. Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill was, in fact, the first album with any profanity at all to ever win an Album of the Year trophy, and even that album used profanity very sparingly. Two bona fide R&B/hip-hop albums with parental advisory labels have won the top trophy (Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below), but both were cultural juggernauts in a way that Lamar’s album was not (more on this in a bit).
So it’s not exactly fair to accuse the Grammys of simply having an anti-rap bais when it comes to their top trophy: most pop/rock artists whose critically acclaimed, nominated albums also bore a parental advisory label have similarly been upset in a very big way for the top trophy of the night. Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, for instance, may have scooped up quite a few lesser trophies and was the favorite among critics to claim the top prize, but it lost for Album of the Year to Herbie Hancock’s full-length tribute to Joni Mitchell, while Green Day’s American Idiot lost to Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company. So I myself am not convinced that there’s necessarily an antipathy within the Grammy voting committee against hip-hop and rap.
If more rappers and hip-hop artists went out of their way to make and release albums that needn’t require parental advisory labels, I’m sure you would see rap albums win the top trophy at the Grammies with much more regularity. (This is not likely to ever happen, of course, because rap artists who do opt to go the family-friendly route unfortunately never get taken seriously by music critics or even other rappers, but it would certainly be interesting to see some artists within the rap community be bold and brave enough to actually at least try it and see what happens come awards season. They might be pleasantly surprised.)
Secondly, as mentioned above, only two rap albums have ever snagged the top trophy, and both of those albums had something going for them that Lamar’s album did not have: actual hits. Lamar’s album, as warmly embraced by critics as it was, was exactly that: a critic’s album. The album frankly just wasn’t commercial enough to hit at radio, and in fact, only one single (the simply-titled “i”) dented the Top 40 at all, and just barely, peaking at #39. Lauryn Hill’s Grammy-winning album, in contrast, spawned off a series of Top 40 hits, including a Number One hit (“Doo Wop (That Thing)”) that was virtually inescapable for much of 1998. OutKast were similarly a cultural juggernaut to be reckoned with in 2003, its double-disc effort from that year spawning not just one, but two, absolutely massive radio hits (the iconic “Hey Ya” and the more traditional-R&B-oriented “The Way You Move”).
Say what you will about To Pimp a Butterfly being more artistic than 1989—that may indeed be true—but a truly great album can’t simply be all about art. We wouldn’t still be talking about Thriller today as much as we do if it simply were a cool piece of art that didn’t make much impact on the charts. It was an iconic album because it managed to create inventive and interesting music in a way that didn’t ignore the average person’s desire to want to dance or sing along to records. While Lamar’s album was certainly an endlessly fascinating artistic statement, there just weren’t a whole lot of hooks there, and it’s easy to see why radio pretty much ignored the album. 1989, on the other hand, may not have been quite as inventive but it was still intriguing enough to catch the attention of an indie-rock icon like Ryan Adams and induce him into covering the entire disc, AND it was still commercial enough to resonate with the public in a big way and spawn off a steady stream of hits (“Shake It Off,” “Style,” “Blank Space,” “Bad Blood,” “Wildest Dreams”).
It’s actually arguably harder for a musician or writer or artist of any sort to find and achieve that perfect balance between art and commerce than it is to create a piece that’s all art and no hooks, so just because Lamar’s album made the most grandiose statement of any of the nominated albums doesn’t necessarily make it the best album in the lot. This isn’t to say that 1989 necessarily was, either; I’m merely suggesting that the sociopolitical content of Butterfly really caused the album to be overhyped, while the other nominated albums were unfairly written off in the weeks leading up to the ceremony simply because they didn’t try to make a big statement about race like Lamar’s album did. But that’s inherently a stupid reason to base an Album of the Year decision around, as are any other political motives.
Let’s be honest here—the Dixie Chicks’ sweep back in 2007 had everything to do with politics and very little to do with the actual music, which was perfectly fine but nothing terribly award-worthy. Taking the Long Way isn’t even the most memorable Dixie Chicks album, never mind one of the greatest albums of all-time. “Not Ready to Make Nice” had far too brief a life on radio airwaves to legitimately be considered one of the Grammys’ more rational Song of the Year choices. (Seriously, when was the last time you can remember hearing “Not Ready to Make Nice”? Now when was the last time you heard Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”? Case closed.) That the decision was entirely politically charged was obvious to pretty much everybody, and the Grammys did take a credibility hit for that reason and have been very careful ever since then to not make their decisions seem quite so political, which was yet another reason why betting on Butterfly to win was probably not the way to go.