As is the case every year at the Grammys, there are five nominees for Album Of The Year. But, really, for the sake of conversation, you might as well set Jay Z’s 4:44, Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, and Childish Gambino’s “Awaken My Love” off to the side. In the minds of the public (and presumably the voters), it all comes down to two records: Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and Lorde’s Melodrama. Both albums ranked among the most critically acclaimed albums of 2017, and they reign as presumptive favorites in the most prestigious of Grammy categories. They also conform to a familiar “us vs. them” narrative that’s been embedded in media coverage of the record industry’s top award ceremony for at least the past five years.
The narrative goes like this: If Kendrick wins the top award, it will register as “an obvious, positive attempt by the music academy to make up for its history of overlooking work by black artists.” If Lorde wins, it will confirm that “the Academy seems to have a bias toward artists of a paler complexion.” (If Jay Z, Bruno Mars, or Childish Gambino somehow pull of the upset, Kendrick and Lorde might as well fire their publicists.)
For several years now, the Album Of The Year category has been a lightning rod for the Grammys. While the ceremony has a long history of dubious value judgements in all of the major categories — from designating Jethro Tull as a metal band to awarding Milli Vanilli Best New Artist to choosing Macklemore and Ryan Lewis over Lamar for Best Rap Album — the annual morning-after rancor in the 2010s has largely centered on the “wrong” person taking home the climactic trophy of the night. Inevitably, these “incorrect” choices are immediately freighted with cultural significance beyond the mere aesthetic preferences of a middlebrow industry organization. This “us vs. them” narrative has become so pronounced that it is barely subtext anymore. The performers themselves have referenced it from the stage — see Adele’s apologetic victory speech when she “wrongly” won Album Of The Year for 25 in 2017 over the “right” nominee, Beyonce’s Lemonade.
You might remember a similar scenario unfolding in 2013, when “wrong choice” Mumford & Sons took home Album Of The Year for Babel instead of “right choice” Frank Ocean for Channel Orange. Or 2014, when Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories won out over Kendrick Lamar’s commercial and critical smash good kid m.A.A.d city. It happened again, most egregiously, in 2015, when Beck’s middle-aged comeback album Morning Phase bested Beyonce’s beloved self-titled LP. And then again in 2016, when Taylor Swift’s 1989 got the nod over Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly.
In each instance, the Grammys were lambasted not just for a supposed lapse in taste, but also for a failure of proper representation — for black and LGBTQ artists, for hip-hop, for “progressive” music culture over the usual “safe” and “white” choices of old. No doubt this conversation has been emboldened by the rise of social media, which has also put the Academy Awards under the same microscope. But it’s also related to changes that have been made this decade to improve the Grammys’ historically stodgy reputation. Oddly, raising audience expectations for what the Grammys are capable of has in some ways actually hurt the Grammys’ PR.