I don’t pretend to understand the Grammys. I have never been able to discern a consistent logic around who gets nominated or who gets statues. I comprehend the particular logic of the Oscars, but not the big awards for music. My normal state of confusion around what drives Grammy decisions was exponentialized this week when, to the shock of many, Kanye’s masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was not nominated for a Grammy for Album of the Year. MBDTF was nominated for Rap Album of the Year and one of its singles, “All of the Lights,” was nominated for Song of the Year, but these are unwelcome booby prizes that remove the excuse many thought of first: that the album was forgotten by Grammy voters because it came out relatively long ago, by which I mean at the very beginning of the eligibility period. But if that were the case then where’s Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, which came out a few months ago? So then why was MBDTF snubbed by Grammy?
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MBDTF does nothing less than articulate a new sound. Sasha Frere Jones in the New Yorker referred to Kanye as occupying a genre all to himself which feels apropos because on the album he’s stretching beyond even the wide boundaries of hip hop by combining all sorts of sounds and samples and structures. And he’s excavating and exploring the depths of his soul where he’s still grieving the loss of his mother and angry at the world for its reaction to him following Taylor Swift-gate and hurt about being dissed by his live action video dancer girlfriend and struggling to figure out how to embrace being who he is as a massive icon, even if being himself means being an “a__hole.” MBDTF shows off an impressive sense of musicality and a towering sonic ambition. The album is not simply a display of personality as much of hip hop is but a true exploration of sound. These are not simply my personal kudos; MBDTF is by far the best reviewed album in many years: the critical community flipped out over it like nothing since Radiohead’s zenith. And it sold well, over 1.2 million so far. So what happened? How is it Grammy overlooked Kanye’s magnum opus and gave noms to four sonic widgets and Adele’s 21? The latter is an extraordinarily sensitive vision of classic American soul that has been a cure for heartbreak and romantic ennui as well as a sales monster. It is not nearly as complex as Kanye’s album but will surely win the Grammy — assuming logic prevails, which it so often does not.
Could it be that voters were split between MBDTF and Watch the Throne and thus neither got on the ballot? Possible but, I think, unlikely that neither could get enough votes. Could it be that Grammy dislikes Kanye’s occasional bratty and petulant public displays and wouldn’t risk having him lose to Adele and saying or doing something to tarnish the whole affair? That may be part of it; there may be a swath of voters who immensely dislike Kanye as a person and thus dismiss his music, but can that truly be the answer? I can’t help but notice the Album of the Year category this year is filled with people the music community would consider good citizens and all around likable people. But music has more than few tempestuous and irascible rapscallions who would also be penalized by their personality or lack thereof, so can this really be the main reason?
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Kanye got seven nominations — more than anyone else — so clearly they’re not afraid to nominate him for the lesser awards including Song of the Year. (Strangely, Kanye’s seven nominations breaks down to three for MBDTF and four for Watch the Throne. His song “All of the Lights” is up for an award focused on vocal performance, rather than Record of the Year, an award for production achievement which seems a more fitting place for it.) Ultimately it’s inconceivable that Grammy thinks MBDTF is not one of the five best albums of the year when in actuality it’s one of the best albums of the past five years.
What I think may be going on is a lack of respect for hip hop and it’s complexity from people who care about music but don’t know much about hip hop. For them, perhaps, hip hop is a lesser sound and rhyming a less important and less valuable skill than singing. A look at the past hip hop nominees for Album of Year does not neatly support this theory. Predictably, Grammy tends toward pop-friendly hip hop that’s easily understood by those who don’t understand hip hop. Pop in this regard is not meant as an insult, it’s merely music palatable to non-aficionados of the genre. In the past, Album of the Year nominations have gone to Eminem for Recovery (2011), the Black Eyed Peas (2010) and Lil Wayne (2009). Though Em and Wayne have massive fanbases within hip hop, all three of those acts have established massive fanbases outside of hip hop because their music is palatable to non-hip-hop fans. But so has Kanye. Indeed, between ’05 and ’08 the only hip hop act nominated for Album of the Year was Kanye, three times. But now that he’s released his most mature work, he’s being ignored. (Curiously I notice that Album of the Year almost always has one and only one hip hop nominee except for this year, but let’s not call the tokenism police, they have bigger fish to fry. Also strange: the Roots, who would seem like the sort of hip hop act that someone who dislikes hip hop would like, have never been nominated for Album of the Year.)
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Comparing Kanye to other hip hop is a bit beside the point because he’s moved far away from making traditional hip hop. But maybe that’s something that hip hop fans have noticed while those who don’t care for hip hop or for him put the genre and him into a box long ago and never bothered to reconsider. So no matter how much he grows some will never care. I thought that the battle to establish hip hop’s seriousness and sonic import within the larger music community had been won long ago (two serious and thoughtful hip hop albums have won Album of the Year, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.) But I can say it has not. I see it in my role as a member of the nominating committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Acts become eligible 25 years after their initial release, so we’re working our way through the early days of hip hop. Run-DMC got in with no trouble but LL Cool J has not, a baffling omission to many. This year Eric B and Rakim are nominated along with the Beastie Boys. We’ll see who’s elected.
So where does that leave us? With no clear answer. Illogical bodies don’t act illogically in logical ways. I suspect Kremlinology is easier than Grammyology.