The Grammys rarely get it right.
I was done with them when I discovered that neither the Notorious B.I.G. nor Tupac won one for their work while alive or after their deaths. And it is not lost on me that when given a choice between the two, the Recording Academy loves to reward music that sounds black without rewarding actual black people.
In fact, since 2008, only one black person has won best album at this award show, and I would argue that Herbie Hancock won because he was paying homage to a beloved, soulful white woman. In the past 10 years, more often than not, black artists were shafted by the academy and forced to watch someone with an inferior, less important album take the award that was rightfully theirs. Let’s look back at the Grammys’ 10-year record of undervaluing (mostly black) talent.
Won: Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters
Best album that year: Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black
This is the one album by a white artist that I could not deny. This was a powerhouse performance from start to finish. Not a single track is a misstep, and it is all the more powerful knowing how little work we would get from this once-in-a-generation talent. I still mourn the work we did not get from Winehouse while celebrating the art she left behind.
Won: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand
Best album that year: Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III
Tha Carter III was the album on which Wayne lived up good to his claim of being the best rapper alive. While none of his studio albums have the transcendental feel of his best mixtapes, this is the one that came the closest.
Won: Taylor Swift’s Fearless
Best album that year: Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak
Ye redefined what was possible for a hip-hop artist with 808s & Heartbreak. Gone were his witty lyrics and catchy, soulful beats. Instead, he used the medium of Auto-Tune to express his pain while using the androidlike sound to hide emotions a black man, much less a rapper, was not allowed to feel. It is hip-hop’s best brown-liquor album.
Won: Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs
Best album that year: Drake’s Thank Me Later
Drake’s first studio album features what we have come to expect from the man who is rarely in but always repping Toronto: slick production, clever lyrics and aloof masculinity masked as emotional vulnerability. For better or worse, this set the tone for much of the music that was to come for the next five years.
Won: Adele’s 21
Best album that year: Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Yes, Adele’s album was dope, but in 2012, Kanye released one of the best albums of all time. “Runaway” is one of the most ambitious songs ever attempted, hip-hop or otherwise, and “Lost in the World” is a track that transcends categorization. MBDTF, even with its flaws, is a masterpiece and the strongest argument for why Kanye is one of the most important artists in the last 25 years.
Won: Mumford & Sons’ Babel
Best album that year: Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange
I like an album full of philosophical folk songs as much as the next guy, but Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange was monumental. It is an almost perfect album that rewards tarrying with Ocean’s vulnerable lyrical and sonic atmosphere.
Won: Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories
Best album that year: Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
Daft Punk’s second-best album beat Lamar’s best record to date for best album that year. In 2012, Kung Fu Kenny introduced himself to most of the world with this ambitious, literary concept album that bangs while it challenges the listener. This joint didn’t even win best rap album that year. Proof, if you ever needed it, that you should not put too much stock in white validation of black art.
Won: Beck’s Morning Phase
Best album that year: Beyoncé’s Beyoncé
Do you remember the way Beyoncé broke the internet with this album? How America collectively lost sleep one night on Dec. 13, 2013, streaming it, in shock that we’d been blessed with an early Christmas gift? It was not the first “surprise album,” but it was the one that set industry standards about how to release in the streaming era. Why this lost to Beck is beyond me. I liked Morning Phase, but nothing on it made the cultural impact of Bey’s surfboard.
Won: Taylor Swift’s 1989
Best album that year: D’Angelo’s Black Messiah
This could have gone to Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but for me, Black Messiah should have won the award that year. His sound was both rustic and virtuosic, while the lyrics were urgent without being inaccessible. This was the soul protest album we didn’t know we needed, the rare album that lives up to the multiyear hype.
Won: Adele’s 25
Best album that year: Beyoncé’s Lemonade
This point was made by virtually everyone last year. Even Adele voiced her confusion on the stage (she took that award home, though). At this point, all I can do is shake my head.
Won: Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic
Best album this year: Kendrick Lamar’s Damn.
The psychological depth and cultural impact of Damn. is still being felt and examined. 24K Magic is fun, but Damn. is important. Further, to quote Mark Anthony “Tha OG” Neal, “I don’t hate “Finesse”; it’s catchy, but Teddy Riley and Bobby Brown want their music back.” Mars may have acknowledged the pioneers of his sound, but I can’t help feeling some kind of way about how he profits off black visionaries who never got their due.