The 56th Grammy Awards are this Sunday, which means we all get another chance to be annoyed by Taylor Swift’s enthusiasm (or its 2014 counterpoint, Lorde’s apathy ), nitpick every outfit and complain about each performance. Hey, that’s why we watch, isn’t it?
Of course, this year, there’s actually another reason to tune in: We’ll probably witness history. For the first time ever, a hip-hop track — however you choose to define the term — will more than likely win Song of the Year. I’m talking about Macklemore & Ryan Lewis‘ equality anthem “Same Love,” though given its popularity and message (not to mention this year’s scattershot Song category,) that’s not exactly a bold prediction.
And that’s historic. Not because it’s been a decade since a hip-hop album — OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below — won the night’s biggest prize, or that, by winning, the 26-year-old Lamar will have accomplished something that Kanye West, Eminem and Lil Wayne haven’t (to say nothing of Jay Z, who’s never even been nominated for Album of the Year). No, a win for good kid is significant because it represents the Grammy’s redemption.
It’s not exactly a stretch to say that the award has had a rather complicated history with hip-hop, beginning with the fact that they didn’t recognize it until 1989, when the Best Rap Performance category was unveiled … though not televised. That lead to boycotts by artists — Jay famously refused to attend the ceremony for years, though he’s apparently showing up on Sunday — and scathing criticisms from the likes of West, who has called Grammy voters out of touch and petty (though, to be fair, he’s sort of turned complaining about the show into an annual occurrence .)
That said, when you consider that Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature once beat Eminem’s classic Marshall Mathers LP for Album of the Year (or that Kanye has lost to cover albums by Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock), those critiques seem valid. The same can be said about Steve Stoute’s “Open Letter” to the National Recording Academy — penned after Em was upset by Arcade Fire for AOTY — in which he called the Grammys “a series of hypocrisies and contradictions.”
The point they were making was this: for nearly two decades now, hip-hop has not only been the most popular genre of music, but a genuine cultural force (you could make the argument it’s been this country’s leading export). Its stars are household names, the faces of multi-million dollar franchises and global ad campaigns. Producers of the Grammy telecast know this, too, which is why you see Eminem’s music showing up in ads for this year’s show, despite his album not being eligible. Yet those same artists have been shut out of the major categories time and time again, which sure makes it seem like they’re being used to drive ratings … and nothing else.
This is why I say an Album of the Year win for Kendrick would be historic. It would be the first time Grammy voters recognized a hip-hop album not because it was massively successful (Speakerboxxx is still the best-selling hip-hop album of all time ) or was made by a superstar, but rather, because of its artistic merit. Good kid is widely recognized as a new classic, an album that celebrates lyricism and storytelling above all else, yet it does not contain a smash on par with “Hey Ya!” and never came close to crossing over. It is a rap album in the truest sense of the word, one embraced and championed by Kendrick’s community and his peers above all else. And when it wins on Sunday night, it will be because of those things, and those things only.
Finally, the Grammys will respond to two decades of criticism, and actually recognize the artistry of rap.
I get the feeling there’s been a groundswell of support amongst voters to do just that … it started back in December, when Grammy nominations were announced and good kid slipped in to the Album of the Year field ahead of supposed sure things like Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience and Bruno Mars’ Unorthodox Jukebox. And I think that momentum will carry over to Sunday’s show. In a sense, good kid will capitalize on a perfect storm of sentiment … to say nothing of the fact that it’s also the best album in this year’s field.
Of course, maybe I’m giving Grammy voters too much credit. Most seem to think that The Heist will win Album of the Year, which would give some in the hip-hop community even more reason to dislike the Recording Academy. Or perhaps Taylor Swift’s huge-selling Red will come out on top. Either of those outcomes seems fitting, given the history of the Grammys, though I choose to believe that for once, the stars will align, and voters will get it right. Kendrick Lamar will win Album of the year.
The time is right and the honor is well deserved. At this point, hip-hop does not need validation, but it will get it on Sunday. Finally.