Hold onto your butts: the 2018 Grammy Awards nominations have been announced, and the organization which historically doesn’t understand rap music at all gave JAY-Z mad respect this year. Things have changed around the ol’ Grammys, it would seem, since this year’s major honorees include Hov, and Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, Childish Gambino, Khalid, SZA, and No I.D. nominated for eight, seven, six, five, five, and five awards each.
But not so fast. While this round of nominees does reflect our year when the mainstream media slapped its forehead and realized rap was bigger than rock in America, it also an overcompensates to show the Grammys totally *get it* even though they seemingly didn’t *know what rap was* as recently as last year. It’s a little too convenient how these nominees double down on the rap, and provide good PR for redirecting perception that the Grammys are out of touch, stemming from their consistent celebration of tradition-minded white acts.
In 2014, the Grammy for Best Rap Album went to Macklemore’s The Heist over Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.Ad. city. Why? Because the Grammys reflect the industry mindset, which is racist and rockist, and Macklemore was white and had a horn section like a “real musician.” Drake, on the other hand, is a “rapper.” Everybody knows that! So naturally he makes “rap songs.” Last year the Grammys gave Best Rap Song to Drake’s “Hotline Bling”—which was not only not a rap song, but contained zero rapping whatsoever. Drake famously didn’t want his Grammy if it was given by such clueless people, and this year Drake and Frank Ocean both declined to submit their music for consideration—meaning no More Life, no Blonde, two of the year’s best projects.
What kind of major awards show is this, when so much super strong music which should have won tons of awards is completely off the table? Even though problems clearly persist, you can see why the Grammys would be amped to let you know: Things are different now!
It’s not just the artificially shrunken landscape and proven unfamiliarity with rap which undercuts these nominations, but white guilt as well. Consider the fact that Harry Styles is not nominated at all and Ed Sheeran is nominated only twice.
That’s the Grammys trying not to Macklemore itself again. Ed Sheeran fucking sucks, but “Shape Of You” was the song of the summer, the most popular song ever on Spotify, more omnipresent than “Bodak Yellow” by Cardi B, which, thankfully, is up for Best Rap Song. Kandi Burruss wrote the shit out of “Shape Of You,” and deserves some kind of award for tricking me into liking it for ten seconds, every ten minutes, all summer. But since she’s tied to this white pariah, she gets limited shine.
As a TV show, the Grammy Awards provide entertainment if you want it. But as a mechanism intended to convey meaningful critiques of music, the awards are highly sus. In a totally opaque process, an uknown number of music industry insiders nominate from a mysterious selection of songs. Nominations can be unilaterally overruled by a national voting committee. Which nominations will it overrule? Until the mechanics are made more public, it’s open season for theories about any agenda.
In a struggling industry, money is on everyone’s mind. And that’s ultimately what winning a Grammy award is about: it boosts artists and engineers’ rates and propels winners’ careers. But the Grammy Awards show needs to make money too. It needs big storylines, relevant artists, provocative inclusions and glaring omissions. It needs to project competence and draw a big audience on TV. This past February around 25 million tuned in to the Grammys telecast, down slightly from last year.
When the goal is to be “the biggest night in music,” it’s not good to be seen as mildly racist and unaware about the biggest genre in America. So these honors are undercut several ways. And we’re questioning whether a new leaf was really turned over. It seems like the Grammys’s Victrola is still broken, not just in need of a slight re-crank. Because a forced hand doesn’t reveal anything about what’s going on inside. And like JAY-Z says, “you can’t heal what you never reveal.”