Kendrick Lamar hadn’t been quiet about it. He walked into the 58th Grammy Awards determined to win big, big, big. Nominated 11 times in nine categories, the California rapper’s heavy presence at the annual awards show felt like a meaningful boost for rap itself, the genre that Grammy voters snub the hardest year after year.
But tradition prevailed. Lamar’s intensely politicized “To Pimp a Butterfly” lost the award for album of the year to Taylor Swift’s indomitable best-seller, “1989.”
Accepting the night’s most-coveted trophy, Swift skillfully addressed both her critics and the young women she hopes will follow in her footsteps: “There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame. But if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there.”
Lamar didn’t go home empty-handed. He won five prizes at Monday night’s ceremony in Los Angeles, including best rap album. But in denying one of hip-hop’s most virtuosic stars two of the evening’s biggest awards — album of the year and song of the year — this year’s Grammy voters missed a huge opportunity to change course after years of neglecting rap music.
“This [is] for hip-hop,” Lamar declared during an acceptance speech early in the program. Then he cited Snoop Dogg and Nas, two rap icons who have never won a Grammy, promising them: “We will live forever. Believe that.” If Lamar was suggesting that he didn’t need that little golden gramophone in his hand to validate his greatness, he was absolutely right.
He proved it during his performance later in the show. Taking the stage wearing iron shackles and a patina of sweat on his brow, Lamar launched into a visceral medley that included his two most potent songs, “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright.” It instantly felt like one of the most commanding performances in Grammy history. Notably, it was also the only rap performance of the night.
As for the night’s other top prizes, they were spread around generously. Record of the year went to “Uptown Funk,” the ubiquitous hit from Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars; song of the year, a songwriter’s prize, went to underdog British troubadour Ed Sheeran for “Thinking Out Loud”; and this year’s best new artist trophy went to Meghan Trainor, a young doo-wop revivalist who accepted her award with tears of surprise.
While this year’s prizes appeared to matter a little more than usual, they remained scarce. Only eight of the evening’s 83 awards were handed out on camera, allowing the show’s producers to fatten the telecast with starry live performances that they hyped with a new slogan: “Witness greatness.”
Only 25.3 million viewers tuned in for last year’s Grammys, the lowest number in six years, so some greatness was certainly welcome.
But greatness meant slowness, with the show’s producers clogging the bill with over-serious ballads and mid-tempo songs that felt slower than they should have. It felt sloggier than usual.
R&B singer the Weeknd failed to summon his mysterious energy during a muted version of “In the Night.” Little Big Town’s hit ballad “Girl Crush” lost its country charm in a swirl of classical strings. And when Justin Bieber — who had earlier won his first Grammy, for best dance recording — unveiled his crisp “Where Are U Now,” he and his co-writers, Skrillex and Diplo, played it in a perplexing mush-rock style.
Greatness also meant tributes — so much so, that the telecast often resembled a live-action “In Memoriam” segment.
Jackson Browne joined the Eagles in a no-nonsense homage to the band’s late co-founder Glenn Frey. Stevie Wonder and the a cappella group Pentatonix sang an Earth, Wind and Fire tune in honor of the late Maurice White. Best country album winner Chris Stapleton played a B.B. King song alongside Bonnie Raitt and Gary Clark Jr. And in the most embarrassing performance of the night, a supergroup called the Hollywood Vampires — which included Alice Cooper, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and actor Johnny Depp — paid high-decibel tribute to the late Motorhead leader, Lemmy Kilmister.
Expect to see more of these tributes in future Grammy telecasts, not only because rock stars will continue to die, but because Lady Gaga’s David Bowie set went over so well. Performing a rapid-fire medley of Bowie’s most recognizable hits, Gaga sang them with the poise of someone who is entirely comfortable pretending to be someone else.
Still, all of that greatness that we were asked to witness was almost exclusively the greatness of the past. The irrelevance of this year’s ceremony felt almost willful — as if the vitality of the right-now is just too much for the Grammys to comprehend, let alone celebrate.
There were glimpses of next year’s gathering, however.
The show’s unofficial headliner, 10-time Grammy winner Adele, graced the stage with a song, even though she wasn’t up for any hardware. (The November release of her multiplatinum third album, “25,” was shrewdly timed for long-tail dominance: It dropped early enough for the holiday shopping rush but late enough to remain eligible for next year’s Grammy nominations.)
Too bad then, that her performance of “All I Ask” was marred by technical difficulties that steered her voice out of tune. After the show, Adele took to Twitter to explain that a microphone had fallen into the piano, creating a strange rhythmic clanging.
Surely, she’ll have a better time next year.