On Sunday night, at the 60th Grammy Awards celebration, held in New York City, Solana Rowe, better known to the world as SZA, was robbed. SZA, the Top Dawg Entertainment-signed singer whose debut album, Ctrl, was released June 9, 2017, was nominated for five Grammy Awards and walked away with none. I found myself caring more about this than I otherwise thought I would because, like most of black America when it comes to music, I don’t care about the Grammys. Right? Right?
Many moons ago, when the Black Weblog Awards were a thing, VSB had a few years in which we were nominated (and won) several awards. But do you know what I remember? The few losses.
And it’s not because I particularly care about winning or losing awards or anything, but when you lose, you want to understand why you lost. Sometimes it’s clear—the competition was just better. But sometimes you’re as confused as the next person with regard to the outcome.
While the Grammy nods weren’t mine, I, too, had some confusions about SZA’s loss, especially for the best new artist award, which she lost to a very talented singer and definitely not new artist, Alessia Cara.
She was also up for, and lost, best R&B song for “Supermodel,” best rap/sung collaboration for “Love Galore,” featuring Travis Scott, best urban contemporary album and best R&B performance for “The Weekend,” everybody’s favorite side-chick anthem du jour.
Two of those awards (R&B song and R&B performance) she lost to Bruno Mars, which is as much about bad timing as anything. She lost to the cat who swept the big awards. That’s an L you just take.
She lost best contemporary R&B album to the Weeknd, which is debatable, though I know some people really love the Weeknd’s Starboy project. She lost best rap/sung collaboration to TDE-labelmate and current gawd MC, Kendrick Lamar, and new-thick Rihanna for “Loyalty.”
While I think SZA should arguably have won for best contemporary R&B album, none of those losses, unfortunate as they may have been, raised much of an eyebrow. Best new artist, though? My brows are still raised.
Let’s go back to the beginnings.
While SZA is not a “new artist” to many—she’s had three EPs: See.SZA.Run, S, and Z, all released between 2012 and 2014—2017’s Ctrl was her first official, label “full-length” album, though you might be able to make an argument about Z and whether or not it was an EP, seeing as it had 10 records on it, was as long as Illmatic, and charted on both the Billboard pop and R&B charts. (One thing I will say about TDE, they really like to stretch definitions at times: Kendrick Lamar’s first project for the label was titled, The Kendrick Lamar EP, released at the very tail end of 2009, had 14 numbers and clocked in at over an hour.) But SZA’s debut release for mainstream consumption was 2017’s Ctrl.
I liked this album from jump, even though I had to acknowledge I was about 15 years too old to completely relate to it. But it has easily been among the top two albums I’ve listened to most in the past six months since its release (the other being Frank Ocean’s blonde).
While my personal leanings don’t necessarily mean anything for Grammy votes, here’s how it shakes out for the public: Ctrl was very critically acclaimed, landing on various publications’ lists as the best album of 2017, with others placing it in the second and third slots. But, regardless, for almost all publications that do these sorts of things, it was on their lists of best albums of 2017, including those of Rolling Stone, Time, Complex, The Guardian, Billboard, Pitchfork, Spin, etc.
Khalid, also up for the award, was included on several of those lists (and was even ranked higher on Rolling Stone’s list). Also up for the award was Lil Uzi Vert (who probably had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning), Julia Michaels and the actual winner, Alessia Cara.
Cara’s inclusion here is interesting because it lends confusion as to what the hell constitutes a new artist. Julia Michaels released her debut project (in the same vein as the “debut” for SZA), Nervous System, which gave us the hit song “Issues.” I actually thought if SZA would lose to anybody, it would be to her, since, well, “Issues” was a fairly significant song, selling more and charting higher, except on the R&B charts, where SZA’s “The Weekend” hit No. 1. I wouldn’t have liked it, but Michaels is a burgeoning pop star.
Which brings us to Alessia Cara and the confusion. The struggle with these types of discussions pitting artists against one another is that it ends up looking as if one of the artists is undeserving of accolades or is disliked, which is not true. I like Cara, and love the song “Here,” especially when it dropped and charted on Billboard ... in 2015.
Cara’s debut album, Know-It-All, was released in November 2015. It hit the Billboard charts in 2015, and singles “Here” and “Scars to the Beautiful” were both top 10 singles in 2016. Cara has been nominated for and won beaucoup awards for the album and singles since 2015. In 2017 she had a monster song with electric-house producer Zedd, “Stay,” which hit the top 10.
The point of all this information is that Cara is no slouch as an artist, but she’s also not a new artist. At all.
Even by the most liberal definition of “new artist,” she doesn’t fit the bill. How does an artist who has had Billboard top 10s over two years ago manage to get nominated for a best new artist nod in 2018? Let’s even say 2017 because these awards celebrated 2017. Still, her debut CHARTING album was released more than two years ago, and she won acclaim for it dating to almost three years ago. HOW exactly is that a new artist? Why is she even in contention here?
I felt like her nomination was some sort of NBA-esque makeup call for a bad foul call or something because she wasn’t nominated before. I read her name on the nominee list and said, “That’s cute,” and moved on to thinking Julia Michaels might get the win for existing. But, somehow, SZA lost an award for best new artist to a non-new artist whose album wasn’t better.
That’s how you get robbed.
Alessia Cara deserved a best new artist nod—a few years ago. In 2017-2018, she absolutely did not even belong in the category, much less to win, over artists like SZA or even Michaels, who impacted this year on their own merits with projects that moved the needle. Keep in mind, Cara was winning best new artist and breakthrough artist awards back in 2015. She won a best new artist nod from Billboard in 2017, but even THAT seemed like a stretch.
Cara doesn’t even have a project in 2017. Sure, she had the song with Zedd, which is basically like Calvin Harris releasing a song, and she had a song on the Moana soundtrack. She was also featured on Logic’s song “1-800-273-8255,” which he performed at the same Grammys.
All very good songs, but how is any of that on the “new artist” plane?
Did SZA deserve the best new artist Grammy? Yes. She did. She impacted in 2017 with a full body of work that was both critically acclaimed and commercially viable without relying on any pop mechanisms to get her to the top. And she lost to the best new artist of 2016 in a win that makes no sense whatsoever.
Losing Grammys that she should win puts SZA in the company of many of R&B’s best artists, and if anything, maybe getting blanked will be motivation for her to level up for this or next year. But like I said earlier, the losses you don’t understand are the ones that stick with you. And this is one of those losses.
SZA got robbed.