For masochists wishing they could live 2016 all over again, Tuesday morning was a fine place to start. That’s when the Recording Academy unfurled its bloated list of nominees for the 2017 annual Grammy Awards, which pit an innovative, politically minded black artist against a conventional, commercially dominant white artist for the evening’s most coveted trophy, album of the year.
It’s “Groundhog Day” without the laughs. At this past February’s Grammys, the virtuoso agitprop of Kendrick Lamar lost the night’s biggest prize to the innocuous Target-pop of Taylor Swift. This time around, it’s Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” vs. Adele’s “25.” One album evokes life in a broken America. The other evokes life in an expensive cashmere sweater. Once again, Grammy voters have an opportunity to choose between what matters and what sells. We have no reason to feel optimistic about how they’ll cast their ballots.
Frank Ocean understands how it works. The reclusive R&B singer’s splashy new album, “Blonde,” wasn’t nominated for anything on Tuesday morning. How come? Because the 29-year-old (who won two Grammys in 2013) didn’t submit his new music for consideration. In an interview with the New York Times, Ocean explained his problem with the Grammy system with casual clarity: “It just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for the people who come from where I come from.” So instead of playing the game, Ocean is sitting this one out. Bravo.
Chance the Rapper, meantime, is playing to win. In October, the ebullient young Chicago rapper purchased a full-page ad in Billboard magazine aimed at Grammy voters that asked, “HEY, WHY NOT ME?” Ta-dah. Chance was nominated for seven Grammys on Tuesday, including best new artist. But let’s not forget how Lamar launched a similar — albeit less cutesy — Grammy campaign last year, stressing the importance of recognizing hip-hop as the dominant pop idiom of our era. It may have helped Lamar win five trophies at last year’s ceremony, but he still didn’t take home the one that mattered most.
Will the Grammys ever get it right when it comes to rap music? If we can hold our breath for another decade, maybe. The only hip-hop contender currently up for album of the year is Drake’s “Views,” a sales and streaming juggernaut that simply couldn’t be ignored at an industry soiree like the Grammys.
But there is one long-time-coming change to be felt on this year’s list of nominees: the absence of legacy artists in the top three award categories — album of the year, song of the year and record of the year. After years of doling out retroactive prestige, this new Grammy slate appears to be celebrating the present.
So maybe Chance’s optimism isn’t misguided. That said, the tastes of the greater Grammy electorate have absolutely no bearing on the excellence of his music. The only thing the Recording Academy is ever voting for is its own relevance.
The Grammys will air Feb. 12 on CBS.