Hip-Hop Won the Grammys

Even when it didn’t win the awards.

Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Mark Ronson might have won the night’s biggest awards, but it’s performances like Kendrick Lamar’s that we’ll remember.
Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Mark Ronson might have won the night’s biggest awards, but it’s performances like Kendrick Lamar’s that we’ll remember.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

It’s one thing to see pop culture as a lively contest for collective pleasures and emerging social values and meanings. It’s quite another to mistake the annual industry-insider proms that are awards shows for flash points of representation. Even after the success of the #OscarSoWhite push this year in getting the film academy to undertake membership and voting reforms, movie fans are less prone than music devotees to that error. Bloated Oscar-bait movies routinely defeat the ones that in the long run will go down in history, and filmgoers mostly shrug it off to talk frocks and flubs. The Oscar campaign got the focus right: home in on the nomination fight because, to the degree anyone can take these exercises seriously, that’s what cracks doors and puts names in play.

The Grammys, which went through their 58th annual convolutions Monday night, are hardly different, but music often feels more personal than the oversize mechanisms of a Hollywood movie. So I was irked two years ago when Macklemore shut out Kendrick Lamar from Rap Album of the Year (exacerbated by the white Seattle rapper’s after-show, self-promoting genuflections) and last year when Beck’s latest boho musings defeated Beyoncé’s funky feminist disruptions for Album of the Year.

Still, I can’t rile myself up the same way about Lamar’s incredible To Pimp a Butterfly losing the album prize to Taylor Swift’s merely delightful 1989. Anyone watching this year’s ceremony knew that Lamar, who had the most nominations of any artist, seized the bullhorn of cultural meaning, with a literally fiery, chain-breaking, and politically potent (though controversially censored) performance. It was perhaps the most powerful we’ve seen on any kind of awards show in the 21st century. And it was capped by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton cast rendition of the stage-smash, history/hip-hop mashup’s lead number, as well as the composer-librettist’s ecstatically rapped acceptance speech for best musical (when was the last time that award got televised?), which in turn may have been the acceptance speech of the decade. In 20 minutes, from two very different directions (Compton vs. Broadway), they affirmed that rap generates the most vital music of our time.

Even in her own Album of the Year acceptance speech, Swift felt compelled to talk back to (or at least subtweet) a hip-hop figure, her longtime awards-show nemesis Kanye West, for what he said about her on his new album The Life of Pablo. The press were excited over “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex,” but her acceptance speech made it clear that what pissed her off was West’s claim that he “made that bitch famous.” Which is what I’d assumed: Swift is the new-millennium Madonna (she’s a business, woman) and, as 1989 shows, she has more of a sense of humor about sex than those detractors who still think she’s a kid might guess. But it’s no laughing matter to Swift who gets credit for her decadelong success. She wouldn’t let her own family get away with that.

Smartly, she tried to pre-empt any backlash by pointing out that she is the first woman ever to win this award twice and framed West’s affront as a lesson in the undermining tendencies of men toward women in any field. Arguably, aside from Lamar (and Stevie Wonder, with his quick ad-lib of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” into his Maurice White/Earth, Wind, and Fire tribute with the a cappella group Pentatonix), she was the only one last night to make a centerpiece out of the dynamics in this election year.

Still, the Grammys’ nature as an industry popularity contest also made its presence felt, and that game is always rigged in favor of the old white men who maintain a plurality even if their last hand in a hit might have come in the 1970s. As two decades of awards have proved, they still don’t get hip-hop. But Swift’s victory wasn’t a snub to Lamar the way Macklemore’s was, or the way Beck’s was to Beyoncé. And not only because earlier in the night Swift and Lamar had won an award together for the music-video version of “Bad Blood.” No, it was a byproduct of the Grammys’ slow-rolling calendar, which desperately needs to be updated to the current real-time, surprise-album-drop pace of pop music.

Weeks before the awards, I’d been assured by industry insiders that 1989 was too much last year’s news to take the prize—after Swift’s (granted) overly self-aggrandizing, #squad-boasting summer tour this year, they figured everyone was tired of her. I was surprised by that, but as a result I predicted that, if there were an anti–hip-hop upset, it would go to the retro soul-rock of the Alabama Shakes. They play vintage instruments the way the old timers like to see, and are fronted by black southern woman Brittany Howard, in case the geezers were vulnerable to feeling called out. (Howard gave such a blazing, if brief, performance at the ceremony that people might have been hard pressed to begrudge the band.)

Yet by more elemental music-biz logic it was 1989 that should have beaten Beck last year, except that its September 2014 release made it tardy for the 2015 Grammys’ deadlines. A year ago 1989 was being hailed as the savior of the industry, setting sales records left and right. (It’s also an extraordinarily fun, emotional, and crafty album, in case you forget.) Think of the way the Oscar contenders tend to cluster in December—the Grammys are not even that savvy about building excitement; 1989 and To Pimp a Butterfly should never have been up against each other.

On the other hand, if the rules had been revised, it would have been the new industry rescuer, even more of a juggernaut than 1989, Adele’s 25, that steam-rolled Lamar. Realists about the contemporary level of financial panic in the music business, and its genuflection to any huge success, should have seen this coming. This ain’t no art show.

The worst parts of this year’s Grammys, then, weren’t really the results, but when it failed even to be an artful show. The much-repeated (and trademarked) quest for “Grammy moments” led to so much wasteful stress and strain, and the past year of brutal losses of industry legends so much necromancy, that the entire exercise dragged. Among the worst:

  • Lady Gaga’s David Bowie tribute, alongside former Bowie collaborator and disco-and-beyond music legend Nile Rodgers, should have been a highlight. But instead of selecting one or two songs and doing them justice, the flamboyant and queer-friendly belter was subjected to a medley that gave us a few bars of each of Bowie’s greatest hits and came off like an agency pitch for a jukebox musical. Imagine if the two had done part of “Modern Love” (from the Rodgers–co-produced Let’s Dance, Bowie’s commercial pinnacle) and then Gaga had hunky-doried down at the piano to dig into “Life on Mars” with all her theater-kid chops. Glam makeup would have been melting around the globe.
  • A cloddish microphone placement too close to the piano strings made it sound like someone was hacking at a guitar that was horribly out of tune through half of Adele’s “All I Ask,” resulting in her shouting the melody flatly to try to overpower it, and never recovering. Still, she could console herself with her In-N-Out Burger, her millions in profits, and no doubt her triumphant return in 2017.
  • Then there were all the ways the producers tried to squelch any moments of genuine pop buoyancy, as by turning Little Big Town’s saucy homoerotic country hit “Girl Crush” into a ponderous string-quartet number, and transforming Justin Bieber’s electro-bauble “Where Are U Now” into a gross rock bastardization.
  • And finally, after Swift’s woman-power speech, the awards closed with Pitbull (whom I usually consider a global-music-party guilty pleasure) surrounded by scantily clad showgirls and joined by the willfully forgotten, skeezy Robin Thicke to wet-wipe any trace of significance away.

Meanwhile, for the second year running, the usually climactic album award was demoted, to be replaced as the evening’s topper by the Record (meaning single) of the Year. It predictably went to “Uptown Funk,” and U.K. producer Mark Ronson made the most of his time to pay tribute to style forerunners from James Brown and George Clinton to Prince and Jam and Lewis—which in the current legal climate, can only be considered prudent, for a musical pastiche such as Ronson’s and Bruno Mars’ chart-dominator. The reshuffle signaled how much more tracks matter than full-length works in 2016—one can only wonder how long it will be before the ceremonies end on Tweet of the Year or Instagram Account of the Year.

As an old friend and colleague tweeted, “How something can be radical and reactionary at the same time #GRAMMYs.” To which I can only answer, Forget it, Gabe, it’s the Hollywood Vampires. Though I have to admit Alice Cooper sounded pretty crunchin’ on “Ace of Spades.”