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Kendrick Lamar and the Grammys’ hip-hop problem — twice as good still isn’t enough

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Ken Ehrlich, producer of the Grammy Awards, has been putting on the show since 1980, and he’s seen the face of the show change dramatically. In an interview in Variety this week, he’s quick to acknowledge the influence of black music, but insinuated the Grammys don’t have the same issues with diversity as the Oscars do. "All forms of our contemporary music are rooted in African American culture; they’re rooted in black music, they’re rooted in the blues, they’re rooted in reggae," Ehrlich said to Variety. "This has such a profound affect on this country musically that I don’t think we face the same set of criticisms that other artistic disciplines do."

Ehrlich is partially right; the Grammys will necessarily involve black artists in every aspect of the award show, from the performances to the nominations, because without black music there would be no Grammys. But since the first rap category was introduced in 1989 and the popularity of rap music grew past the widely loved R&B and soul sounds of the '70s and '80s, the Grammys have largely adopted the "stay in your lane" mentality with a wider road. You can perform and win your rap awards, and maybe take home a music video award, but once it’s time for the main categories — Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist — don’t expect a trophy.

Without black music there would be no Grammys

This kind of prejudice tends to show up when a hip-hop artist does something that is considered stepping out of line, like building an entire album around the poor treatment of blacks in America and garnering unanimous critical acclaim for it. A savvy producer knows to give a platform to a performance whose politics he doesn’t support, at least, when it’s sure to bring in more viewers and in turn more money. He knows that excluding a genre of music made up largely of black people is a bad look, so he brings them into the fold, gives them a stage, offers them a set of rap-specific trophies to share among themselves, and watches the ratings rise. But when it comes time to reward their work as compared to the biggest pop and rock acts of the day, well, there’s always next time.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is the most culturally important album in the last decade, a peerless expression of the trials and tribulations of the modern black experience in today’s music. Taylor Swift’s 1989 is a good album. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is an intense amalgamation of funk, jazz, and poetry; a concept album whose concept was black excellence. Taylor Swift's 1989 is a happy album. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is an appraisal of White America’s fraught relationship with Black America. Taylor Swift’s 1989 is a comfortable album.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly has sold 788,000 copies in the US.

Taylor Swift’s 1989 has sold 5,750,000 copies in the US.

1989 picked up Album of the Year at the 2016 Grammys.

Lamar may have delivered the performance that kept the world talking long after Taylor took home her trophies, but the awards themselves were not a reflection of that. And that’s a familiar pattern by now: the Recording Academy is all too happy to engage in the most polite form of plunder against hip-hop to boost the ratings of its telecast, while it rarely bestows its top award upon the genre. No hip-hop song has ever won Song of the Year. No hip-hop song has ever won Record of the Year. The only hip-hop acts to win Best New Artist are Lauryn Hill and Macklemore... over Kendrick Lamar.

No hip-hop song has won Record or Song of the Year at the Grammys

Only two hip-hop albums have won Album of the Year — the most prestigious award in the music industry — and the most popular and influential genre of music today has never won the Grammy without having a major crossover pop hit (Outkast) or being largely rooted in R&B and soul (Lauryn Hill). The Grammys hasn’t been able to bring itself to accept hip-hop without a caveat, and more specifically hip-hop that speaks directly to the black experience.

But this year was supposed to be different. Despite hip-hop being overlooked so many times, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was supposed to be different. Lamar’s groundbreaking 2015 album topped nearly every year-end music chart. It was high-concept, crafted in a way that would seemingly appeal to the average Grammy voter; filled with jazz and soul samples that bridge the gap between the The Isley Brothers and Tupac Shakur. It infiltrated the modern civil rights movement and stood above an already strong group of nominees including The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind The Madness and Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color.

It’s not simply troubling that a hip-hop album didn’t win, it’s that this album was denied. It was that black music of this magnitude could be tossed aside so easily.

Kendrick Lamar performing at The Grammys 2016
(Kevin Winter/WireImage)

The Grammys used to acknowledge Black Music prominently in its major categories: Stevie Wonder won Album of the Year twice. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie won it back to back, as did Quincy Jones and Natalie Cole. But that trend has all but ended as hip-hop has become the dominant art form in Black Music.

The Grammys don’t hate rap — they just don’t feel like it’s worthy of their highest honor. It’s the musical equivalent to a white mother or father saying "you can be friends with my son, but you can’t date my daughter." Sure you could make the argument that a lack of major awards from the Grammys is also true for country or alternative music, but they haven’t reached the levels of popularity and haven’t had the cultural impact that hip-hop has.

The Recording Academy just can’t seem to find it in themselves to hand an award to a rap artist when they’re up against white artists in genre-spanning categories. Black Music and popular music have been intertwined for the last 30 years, but when it comes to indisputable hip-hop classics like Nas’ Illmatic, Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, Jay Z’s The Blueprint, and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the nominations turn a blind eye. Since 1999, the Grammys have nominated 90 records for Album of the Year with only 11 going to black hip-hop artists. An organization that once recognized the achievements of black artists has taken a dramatic step back as black music evolved into something they weren’t comfortable with. (From 1975–1985, four Album of the Year awards were given to black artists; from 2005–2015, only one was.)

The Grammys don’t hate rap — they just don’t feel like it’s worthy of their highest honor

Members of the Recording Academy have called the voting system problematic, but changes have not come about. Popularity and comfort are the dominant decision makers when it comes to the four big awards, and with a voting base that skews older than the demographic for hip-hop, the likelihood of a rap album taking home Album of the Year won’t get any better until changes are made.

There’s an old saying black parents have told their children for decades; in order to succeed you must be "twice as good" as everyone else. Lamar heeded that lesson, but it still wasn’t good enough. We may need to amend this adage, but not in the direction one would hope in 2016.