Every year I say I’m going to stop watching this show. Last year I thought it was the last straw when Lemonade didn’t win album of the year. It’s surprising I even gave the show another chance after BEYONCÉ lost to a forgettable Beck album. (He’s a great artist, but come on, which album has actually helped shape our culture? And the visuals, goddammit, the visuals!)
But when the Recording Academy announced the nominees, I was pleasantly surprised. This year had the most diverse Album of the Year category in history, with not a single white male in the group. I was also perplexed by a few snubs and confusing decisions, like Lorde being nominated for AOTY but not a single other category. Melodrama was an emotional concept album, stunning from start to finish, and deserving of every accolade it qualified for. Cardi B wasn’t nominated for Best New Artist; A Tribe Called Quest’s poignant We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service was missed for Best Rap Album (which Dave Chappelle pointed out during the show) or even Album of the Year.
And honestly, I considered whether I was happy about Jay-Z having the most nominations or whether I would be PISSED if 4:44, his album about cheating on Beyoncé, won when Lemonade (told from the other perspective) did not.
Well, turns out I didn’t have to worry about that. Because despite 4:44 being an absolutely beautiful album discussing the meaning of masculinity, his relationship and family life, and the need for Black Americans to attain financial freedom, Jay-Z did not win a single award. Kendrick’s masterful DAMN. won five but none in the top categories. The last hip-hop album to win Album of the Year was Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004, despite many major contenders (Kanye, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean) being nominated in the years since.
In fact, as we should come to expect time and time again, the safe choice won. Whether it was because the academy was split among all of the rap/R&B options (there were four out of five), or whether they simply made the most mainstream, fun choice, Bruno Mars walked away with all of the top prizes. Don’t get me wrong, Mars is an incredibly talented performer, singer, dancer and songwriter. But his album at its core, as he said in his speech, is party music. Baby-making music. Which of course has a time and a place and we all love it. But to award an album that truly has something to say, like Kendrick’s or Jay’s, simply would have meant more. Kendrick deserved this same award for To Pimp a Butterfly in 2016, but he lost to Taylor Swift, who has won the award twice. Even worse, his second album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City lost the Best Rap Album award to Macklemore in 2014. MACKLEMORE.
Surprisingly, Jay-Z had never even been nominated for AOTY before this, despite having 21 awards and 74 overall nominations. Yet again, as Kanye would point out, the black artists’ wins were relegated to the genre prizes.
Much the same could be said about the other categories. Bruno swept the top three with a Best Song win for “That’s What I Like” and a Best Record win for “24K Magic”. Again, they’re fun songs. I sing them in my car, I know most of the words. But never did I consider them to be the tracks of the year. “That’s What I Like” is a catchy, well-made song about materialism and impressing a lady. Meanwhile, Logic’s 1-800-273-8255 is the actual number for America’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which noticed a 50% increase in calls after the song was performed on MTV’s VMAs. I’ll say it again: a song about a “condo in Manhattan” and “a beach house in Miami” won over a song that has SAVED LIVES.
I also would have been pleased to see “Despacito”, which we all know was at the very least the most popular song of the year, win, as it would have been the first song in Spanish to win either Song or Record of the Year. But I had to settle for a vibrant and lively performance of the original Bieber-less track that sounded exactly like the recording, but was unfortunately not enough to move the audience to get up and dance (WTH?!)
In terms of the performances and speeches, with the exception of Kendrick, the most memorable moments were led by women.
The best minutes of the night were back to back with Janelle Monáe introducing Kesha while calling attention to the Time’s Up movement: “We come in peace, but we mean business. And to those who would dare silence us, we offer you two words: Time’s Up.”
Standing side by side with Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, Julia Michaels, Bebe Rexha, Andra Day and the Resistance Revival Chorus, Kesha delivered a beautiful performance of her raw song “Praying” staring directly into the camera and singing the powerful lyrics to her abuser. Immediately following, Cabello introduced U2, but not before highlighting the similarities between her own story and the Dreamers, who are still fighting to pass the Clean Dream Act, in a powerful speech.
Other moments of pure joy were brought to the stage by Rihanna, who looked like she was having a blast singing and dancing to “Wild Thoughts.” Sza sounded perfect singing “Broken Clocks” from her album CTRL. Despite being the most nominated woman of the evening, she also went home empty handed. Cardi B brought the party with Mars in a performance of their hit “Finesse.” Alessia Cara (the Best New Artist winner) joined Khalid and Logic for a performance of 1-800-273-8255 and a moving speech by Logic. Notably, Lorde was the only Album of the Year nominee who didn’t perform, as called out by her mother on Twitter. In the past six years only 9% of Grammy nominees have been women and the #MeToo conversation has been largely left out of the music industry in comparison to film and television.
Despite having, yes, one of the most diverse years in history and a night full of performances by artists of colour and women, it appears the Grammys, much like every other industry and institution, have a lot of work to do.
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