Mainstream award show snubs provocative hip-hop album

By on February 24, 2016

By Aaron Hartley–

Last week at this year’s Grammy Awards, after a night of performances, homages and scripted jokes, Taylor Swift’s pop-fueled hit “1989” ended up taking home album of the year. While this may have been obvious for some since the album sold over eight million copies last year worldwide, the response has been divided as to whether Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop record “To Pimp a Butterfly” was more deserving of the accolade, and whether or not Swift’s victory shows the current state of the Grammys view on hip-hop as a genre.

While it’s true “To Pimp a Butterfly” didn’t sell nearly as many copies as “1989,” it was still met with massive critical acclaim. The album holds a 96 out of 100 on Metacritic, and it is the best-reviewed hip-hop album in the site’s history. In the album, Lamar merges several genres, like funk and jazz, and comments on racism, depression and materialism. The album topped multiple “Best of 2015” lists, including those by Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Billboard and Pitchfork.

So what happened? It can easily be inferred “To Pimp a Butterfly” is one of the best received albums in years and touted as one of the most important hip-hop records in the last decade. The answer is simple: the Grammys wanted to pick the safest and least provocative choice. While Lamar’s album touches on hot-button issues and experiments with its genre, “1989” is a safe, inoffensive pop album, appropriate for mass consumption. With the Grammys ratings continuously floundering, it’s natural they would go with the most financially successful candidate and widely popular choice.

It’s important to note that the Grammys didn’t ignore Lamar altogether — the album still won 4 awards — or that hip-hop has always been shunned from the top honor, considering that Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” won in 1999, while Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” won in 2004. Both were still massive pop hits and have slips into more easily accessible genres besides hip-hop. Hill is very soul-oriented, and Outkast has the advantage of a handful of mega dance hits like “Hey Ya!” Neither artist was a provocative or risky decision for the Grammys, nor do either fit fully in the distinction of traditional hip-hop.

Award shows like the Grammys don’t matter, as they only stick with safe and easy music. It’s irritating to have one of the most popular music genres snubbed from top honors.

“After almost 40 years, hip-hop still sometimes struggles with being accepted by mainstream America as a legitimate art form,” said U of L professor Max Maxwell, who teaches about hip-hop. “When you don’t have a seat at the table, it’s difficult to have your voice heard.”

While “To Pimp a Butterfly” has already made its mark in music, it’s unclear whether another record like it will come forward anytime soon. It’s also unclear if another record as controversial and thought-provoking will reach as wide an audience as it deserves due to matters like its recent snub at the Grammys, and whether or not hip-hop as a whole will receive widespread recognition for its mark on mainstream culture. I can only hope things change for the better.


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