“I want to win them all.”
That’s what Kendrick Lamar told a reporter from Billboard magazine the other day, confirming that, yes, his Grammy thirst is totally for real. Lamar is up for 11 trophies at the 58th annual Grammy Awards on Monday night, and since those nominations were announced back in December, the most cerebral rapper of his generation has been going door-to-door, pleading his case to the media.
Feels weird. Nominated for album of the year, Lamar’s 2015 opus “To Pimp a Butterfly” is undeniably ambitious, righteously politicized, virtuoso stuff — so much so, the listening public deemed it significant the moment it was released. It doesn’t need an industry prize to confirm its magnitude. So when a visionary goes around asking the custodians of the record biz for its blessing in the form of 11 golden doorstops, the prestige is flowing in the wrong direction. Lamar is validating the Grammys more than a Grammy could ever validate his music.
It’s an unprecedented reversal, but it has more to do with the enduring power of hip-hop and the cumulative clumsiness of the Grammys than it does with Lamar’s colossal ambition.
The out-of-touchness of the Grammys still fluctuates like crazy from year to year, thanks to a voting bloc that appears routinely bewildered by the ever-mutating field. Plus, there’s trophy-bloat, with a total of 83 prizes to be handed out at this year’s ceremony in Los Angeles.
Album of the year is still the most coveted Grammy in the bunch, and across the past decade, it has gone to best-selling populists (Adele, Taylor Swift) and veterans who were denied hardware in their youthful prime (Herbie Hancock, Robert Plant). As for the most vital artists of the moment, sometimes they’re not even on the premises.
So why keep watching? In a world that has never been less snobbish about pop music, the digital commentariat stands united in its disdain for the Grammys — an almost universal disdain that generates discussion, which imbues the festivities with something that smells like significance. Plus, there’s always potential for fluke justice, like when Daft Punk, an entirely relevant dance music duo, won album of the year in 2014. At the Grammys, the most sensible victories often feel like the biggest surprises.
This year’s slate of best-album nominees shows an industry concerned with genre diversity and youth. Joining Lamar on the ballot: NPR-approved rock band Alabama Shakes; Nashville-approved country beardie Chris Stapleton; Top-40-approved R&B singer the Weeknd; and the formidable Swift, whose “1989” album has sold more than five million copies to an American public that doesn’t buy music anymore.
Among this lot, Lamar has been the most outspoken about his determination to win, which makes sense. Hip-hop is an inherently competitive musical tradition, filled with gamesmanship and rivalries. When Lamar panders for these prizes, he’s just asserting his status (like rappers do), while pledging his loyalty to hip-hop itself (like rappers do).
“Ultimately, for the hip-hop community, I would love for us to win them all,” Lamar told the New York Times in December. “Because we deserve that. ... Because it’s not only a statement for myself, but it’s a statement for the culture. They’re all important, because of the foundation the forefathers laid before me. Nas didn’t get a chance to be in that position. Pac. So to be acknowledged and to actually win, it’s for all of them.”
Maybe Lamar is holding the Grammys accountable here. Still, no one would question the importance of Tupac Shakur or Nas upon learning that their respective mantels aren’t decorated with golden gramophones.
That’s because rap music is a self-consecrating music. The institutional neglect of the genre has meant that greatness has always been up for grabs. Rap fans debate and dissect this music with an unmatched intensity, constantly arguing over “classics” and conferring greatness from the inside.
In 2016, all of that passionate self-consecration has built hip-hop into America’s dominant pop idiom. Rap surpassed rock-and-roll years ago, and it happened with very little help from the Grammys. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences didn’t create a category for best rap album until 1995. Since then, two hip-hop albums have won the Grammy for album of the year: Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1999 and OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” in 2004.
And while the Grammys continue to neglect hip-hop, they simply get the other genres wrong. Among the culture-steering giants who have never won a Grammy for album of the year: the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Nirvana. Among those who have never won a Grammy period: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Queen, The Who, Diana Ross, Buddy Holly and way too many more. These historic whiffs illustrate how the Grammys routinely fail in a way that other culture awards do not. They fail to shape the canon.
We saw it happening again at last year’s Grammys when Beck’s modest “Morning Phase” bested Beyoncé’s sweeping, reinventive fifth album for the top prize of the night. It didn’t take long for Kanye West — who, like Beyoncé, has never won an album-of-the-year Grammy — to start making noise about it. He wanted to try to stop history from being written.
But it’s important to remember that the Grammys write a history book that gathers dust up on a high shelf. It’s a book that tells us Lionel Richie’s “Can’t Slow Down” was better than Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and that Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature” was better than Radiohead’s “Kid A.” It reminds us of the important difference between corporate history and American lore, and it confirms that the canon of popular music is established by the people who listen to it, not by the industry that sells it.
That doesn’t mean Lamar shouldn’t be out there making his argument. Excellent music ought to be cited and celebrated by the industry that profits from it.
But seeking recognition from a broken system requires great optimism in that system’s ability to change. Clearly, Lamar believes that things can, or at least should, change. One of the most potent themes coursing through “To Pimp a Butterfly” is how the American system continues to fail so many American people.
Can the Grammys make that kind of hairpin U-turn in a single night? Lamar winning a record-setting amount of statuary — at least nine of the 11 Grammys he’s up for— seems more likely.
I doubt we’ll see either. And “To Pimp a Butterfly” will still be as great as it ever was.