I keep seeing the same article over and over, that Kendrick Lamar had the award show of a lifetime and how the 2016 Grammys were his year to shine. It would make sense to adopt that narrative too. He won numerous awards for his goliath of an album To Pimp A Butterfly, and had one of the most memorable (for the right reasons) performances of the night. One could argue it was his night, and that he had finally been recognized for his hard work, creativity, and general genius that has been on display for quite some time now. 2015 was the year of Kendrick was the narrative on display.
It is true that his performance and collection of awards were both impressive, and a great display of everything he has accomplished so far. I can not deny that for a minute, but what I can not accept is that it was his night. The narrative on display the entire was “….and his night”, a collection of token silver medals when it has been disturbingly obvious he should have been finishing gold.
First, the awards. Nominations are great and all, but no one remembers the also-rans. They remember the podium finishes, the person on the cover of the Wheaties box. Taylor Swift took Album of The Year for her milquetoast release 1989, a non-offense grocery store friendly release that does a good job of appeasing many through its general safety and non-daring nature, but that rant is for a different story. This is in contrast to Kendrick’s cultural shake-up, a deep introspective look at the way African-American’s fit into the larger cultural narrative. The music is daring, and jarring, featuring a wild mixture of artists that ensures that each song is dynamic and provocative. I can already imagine the freak-out that would have ensued if Kendrick would have beaten Taylor. Can you hear it? The cries that our world is too PC and that white people can’t win awards anymore, and Taylor worked REAL hard on her album.
Just prior, Ed Sheeran and Amy Wadge bested Kendrick in song of the year as well for some song that we will likely not remember in 2 years while Alright will be a staple for the rest of modern history, a song that has been described as a cultural anthem and the soundtrack to the #blacklivesmatter movement. The two ‘biggest’ awards of the night were not his, for little logical reason. Which makes the rest of them far less remarkable.
We can’t discount that To Pimp won Best Rap Album, the song Alright won Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song, and These Walls won Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. We also can’t ignore that the single i won two awards last year as well. Yes, that is pretty remarkable and when viewed in isolation looks like he had an outstanding evening full of recognition and accolade. I call foul on this because, to me, it has this essence of rap music being second tier, or less good, or that his album was less marketable compared to commercial juggernauts like Taylor and Ed.
Taking a brief glance at the list of previous winners of Album of the Year I’m left noting that the only album that resembles a hip-hop album on the list is Outkast‘s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below which is a mind boggling statistic on many levels. I’ll leave you to figure out why. When looking at Song of the Year you will find nothing. It is an award that has never honored a rap song. I can think of plenty in the past ten to twenty years that would be fantastic nominations. I assume Bombs Over Baghdad wasn’t a phrase that anyone wanted to utter on live television.
Hip-Hop feels token in The Grammy’s, often invited, but rarely taken seriously, asked to stand just left of center. In 2011 Kanye West‘s undisputed masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy wasn’t even nominated (yes, Eminem was nominated, but Recovery was a rather safe record) and as you go through the past 20-25 years of events you will see many iconic rap albums be snubbed along the way in favor of the nth U2 album or something else that is completely forgettable. So you can praise Kendrick for winning, but there is no denying he was snubbed from winning the main event when he had the undeniably better album. I am unsure if it is because To Pimp was significantly longer, musically daring, and socially provocative creation and not a collection of 12 catchy pop tracks about love, New York, and partying all presented in 4/4 time or if because there is some phobia of giving a rap album the title of album of the year. The narrative, in my eyes, is pretty clear: rap is second tier, and we dare not upset anyone over 40. Also, as I have discussed before: record sales is more important than musical integrity. It’s like winning the championship for Arena Football, yes it is impressive, but the masses don’t give a shit unless it’s the Superbowl.
Then we get to his performance. Again, I keep reading how impressive it was, stark and contrasting, full of imagery and intensity. I don’t disagree. I watched it and it was truly remarkable, a collection of powerful imagery and ferocity that is rarely seen during The Grammys. What I did notice, was how embarrassingly neutered they had to make his songs so he could even perform them. During Alright it felt like every 5th word was missing, creating weird gaps in the natural flow and pace of this masterpiece. Then, even worse, was the complete exclusion of verses such as
And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga
Because, of course, if that line were to be included the shit-fit landslide would be insurmountable, a call from various talking heads for Kendrick to apologize for speaking about his perspective of the world before every cop is murdered in retaliation or some obnoxious nonsense like that. How dare he do that? This has been stuck in my head for a while now, and I’m left relatively confused, and completely disheartened.
Kendrick’s night was great in a “bless your heart” kind of way, in the “you tried so hard here is a participation ribbon” manner. An album that was universally accepted by nearly all publications as the year’s best, miles ahead of Swift’s 1989 ,was left to with the silver medal and a few mid-card victories. His performance was neutered so as to not challenge anyone’s perception of the world of poverty and race relations around them, to spin some cutesy #alllivesmatter narrative that wouldn’t dare rock any boats. What I am arguing is that his perception of a great night gives me a weird vibe, sort of a pitying, or amazement that he came ‘this far’ and ‘did very well considering’. In the same sense Justin Bieber had a great night because he didn’t overdose on stage; his bar was set pretty damn low though.
Kendrick lost control of his personal narrative on Monday February 15th, forced to accommodate to the demands of an audience refusing to be challenged, and the refusal of a judge panel to acknowledge progressive art, both musically and socially, in favor of safe and non-provocation. Look, I get it, this awards show isn’t for me, and it never will be. It will always be a pleasant package for mass consumption composed of Billboard top 10 hits, Clear Channel favorites, and the jazz categories that get completely disregarded. I just wish, once in a while, there was some attempt to push their audience. I just wish, once in a while, we as an audience would be push back too.