So. The Grammys just ended and I have thoughts. Specifically, thoughts about the Album of the Year award.
Since I’ve been making a point to listen to more albums this year, I made a point of listening to all eight albums that were up for this award. Okay, technically I only listened to like half of the Post Malone one before the ceremony, but I caught up before publishing this blog. Those nominees were:
- Beerbongs & Bentleys by Post Malone
- Black Panther: The Album by Kendrick Lamar and various artists
- By the Way, I Forgive You by Brandi Carlile
- Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe
- Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves
- H.E.R. by H.E.R.
- Invasion of Privacy by Cardi B
- Scorpion by Drake
As you’ve probably heard, the winner was Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves, which frustrated me. I’m not going to call Golden Hour a bad album because it’s not. However, I will call it a safe album. Most people could probably listen to it and think “sure, sounds alright enough” but there’s no element of risk. Golden Hour doesn’t challenge the status quo or gives us anything we haven’t heard before. I doubt anyone would remember it ten years from now had it not been given the Grammy for Album of the Year.
There’s no denying that there’s larger implications of the Recording Academy passing up five black nominees to give the grand prize to a good looking white woman who made a decent-but-safe album. Maybe this was a case of blatant, deliberate racism. “Sure, we’ll nominate all the popular black artists so that their fans tune in, but at the end of the day we’re giving the award to the white girl.”
I’d like to believe it’s nothing that sinister, but ultimately we’ll never know. For what it’s worth, Childish Gambino’s “This is America” did win both Song of the Year and Record of the Year, so I guess that’s something. Perhaps some people who can tolerate an experimental track can’t tolerate a full album of such tracks. Regardless, 2019 is another year where Album of the Year went to an album that played it safe when there were more original nominees in the running.
Sure, Golden Hour is technically a country album, and country music can be fairly polarizing too. However, it’s also the type of country album where you don’t really have to be into country music to tolerate it. The vocals aren’t particularly nasally. Specific-to-country instruments like banjo are present, but often subdued in favor of more crowd pleasing acoustic guitar. One song, “Oh, What a World” even features somewhat of a robotic vocal that isn’t necessarily bad but certainly nothing you would associate with Hank Williams or Willie Nelson or even more recent-ish acts like the Dixie Chicks. Some songs such as “High Horse” definitely feel more like pop with a subtle country influence rather than true country.
This is in stark contrast to the rap albums by black artists in this category. Invasion of Privacy, Scorpion, and Black Panther: The Album don’t really try to pander to fans of other genres. (Beerbongs & Bentleys is the only one that sort of ventures into that pop-rap middle ground.) Musically speaking, Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer doesn’t really qualify as a true rap or hip hop album, but it certainly pulls from the same cultural influences.
Like any genre, hip hop is more than just a style of music, it’s a culture. In this case, that culture is inherently political. Hip hop artists don’t shy away from controversial topics. They don’t just rap/sing about who they have a crush on this week or how sad they are about an ex leaving. Whether you actually enjoy hip hop or not, there’s something unapologetically unsafe about it. There’s nothing about hip hop that is polite or demure the way that Kacey Musgraves is. Even an album such as Beerbongs & Bentleys that pulls some, but not all of its influence from this culture can end up with that reputation.
Taking all that into account, Golden Hour and By the Way, I Forgive You are really the only nominees that were both lyrically and musically “safe.” And let’s say you’re a Grammy voter who typically goes for rock or pop music. There’s no obvious choice among the nominated albums that aligns with your tastes. Odds are you’re going to pick something like Golden Hour over the more polarizing genres of rap or hip hop.
Now, maybe it was the very fact that there were 3 and a half rap nominees that doomed all of them. The rap community split their vote whereas the country community didn’t. However, I do think it’s worth pointing out that Cardi B, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Post Malone each had a track from their nominated album up for Record of the Year as well. Ultimately, they lost to another rap track, the aforementioned “This Is America.” So it seems like it should be theoretically possible for several rap/hip hop albums to be up for Album of the Year without completely killing their chances to triumph.
Not every album necessarily has to be a brave new venture into the world of music that expands our minds and blows us away with originality. Ultimately, Musgraves and her team are simply people who made music that they’re passionate about, and there’s no shame in that. Please let me be clear, none of these thoughts are meant to be an attack on Musgraves or her album. It just seems to me that maybe… just MAYBE those groundbreaking, memorable albums should be the kinds of albums that win the Album of the Year Grammy. It would be nice to feel like industry professionals who voted for the Grammys valued risk-taking more then they do.
Instead, they choose Golden Hour over Dirty Computer.
Instead, they choose 1989 over To Pimp A Butterfly.
Instead, they choose 25 over Lemonade.
It seems that to the Recording Academy, an Album of the Year is just supposed to be “an album most people wouldn’t hate.” The cards seem to always be stacked against albums that push boundaries, take risks, and inevitably alienate people in the process. The album that is amazing to some people and terrible to others will always lose out to the album that’s just okay to everybody. Albums that challenge us will always lose to albums that don’t.
Maybe we just need to admit that the whole concept of an Album of the Year is dumb because country albums, rap albums, pop albums, rock albums, and R&B albums shouldn’t be judged by the same standards anyway. Whenever we try to have a competition among them, it’s always going to come down to personal genre preferences rather than any objective measure of quality. And oftentimes, genres that value risk-taking will be shortchanged while genres that recycle tried-and-true formulas are celebrated.