When the Grammy Award nominations were announced on Wednesday morning, the biggest story was 2019 breakout star Lizzo leading the way with eight nods. The Minneapolis-proud artist received recognition in all four major general categories, including Album Of The Year (Cuz I Love You) Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year (“Truth Hurts”) and Best New Artist. For good measure, Lizzo also received nominations in genre-specific categories: Best Pop Solo Performance (“Truth Hurts”), Best R&B Performance (“Exactly How I Feel”), Best Traditional R&B Performance (“Jerome”), and Best Urban Contemporary Album (Cuz I Love You).
Lizzo was understandably excited, sharing a series of tweets that expressed gratitude: “THANK YOU … THIS HAS BEEN AN INCREDIBLE YEAR FOR MUSIC AND IM JUST SO THANKFUL TO EVEN BE PART OF IT… WE ARE ALL WINNERS.” Her Instagram Story was equally Grammys-effusive: “Love ya’ll. Just landed into so much love.” Lizzo’s narrative is an ideal Grammy heartwarming story: She’s an artist who does it all — sing, dance, rap, write songs, play flute — who’s been honing her craft for years and finally broke through into the mainstream, with some well-timed pop culture placement, great songs, and dynamic shows. Anyone convinced Lizzo is a lock to sweep the awards next year may want to temper this excitement, however, as a deep dive into recent Grammys history tells an intriguing (and disheartening) story.
THIS HAS BEEN AN INCREDIBLE YEAR FOR MUSIC AND IM JUST SO THANKFUL TO EVEN BE PART OF IT https://t.co/5YT4Axx221
— Feelin Good As Hell (@lizzo) November 20, 2019
From a statistics standpoint, Lizzo’s eight nominations put her in rarefied air. Since the 41st Annual Grammy Awards in 1999, when Ms. Lauryn Hill was up for 10 awards, only six other women have also earned eight (or more) nominations in a single year: Beyoncé (twice), Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, and Alicia Keys. (TLC overall was attached to eight Grammy nominations the year after Hill dominated, although one of those awards, Best R&B Song, was for the songwriters of “No Scrubs,” which didn’t include group members.)
In contrast, during that same time period, 10 men or all-male bands have earned or exceeded eight nominations: Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Drake, Eminem, Lil Wayne, U2, Santana, Usher, and John Legend. When you factor in artists who have reached this threshold in more than one year — Kanye has done it an impressive four times, while Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z have twice — male artists have reached the eight-nomination milestone more than twice as many times as female artists.
While this lack of gender parity is infuriating (and unsurprising), being nominated for the most Grammy Awards in a given year surprisingly doesn’t mean an artist is a shoo-in to take home one of the four major awards. Going by the numbers, since the year Hill won five awards, including Album Of The Year for The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, musicians are far less likely to take home one of these big general awards if they also lead the nominee pack.
Three of those instances involved acts winning Best New Artist: John Legend (2006), fun. (2013) and Sam Smith (2015). (For good measure, fun.’s “We Are Young” also took home Song Of The Year in 2013 as well.) At the 2009 Grammys, Beyoncé nabbed Song Of The Year for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” while OutKast took home Album Of The Year in 2004 for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Two years before that, U2 won Record Of The Year for “Walk On,” and then the 2000 Grammys featured a Santana clean sweep of the big three, thanks to his album Supernatural and the indomitable “Smooth.” That’s it — in all other cases, the big awards went to artists that weren’t the nominee leader.
Over the last two decades, this has led to some rather embarrassing snubs. For example, Jay-Z won exactly zero Grammy Awards in 2017 despite being nominated for nine, including in the top three categories, and neither Kendrick Lamar nor Drake nor Kanye West have ever won a major general award. This points to another uncomfortable truth the Grammys need to acknowledge: Since 1999, there’s a consistent and sustained pattern of Black artists garnering the most overall nominations year after year — but not winning the major general categories in which they’re competing.
In fact, in many cases, these leading-nominated Black artists are losing the big three categories to white artists with fewer nominations. This isn’t necessarily a new revelation — after all, the controversy that erupted after Adele’s 25 beat Beyoncé’s Lemonade is well-documented — but digging into the nuts and bolts of wins over time is telling. Beck only had four nominations the year Morning Phase won Album Of The Year over the six-times nominated Beyoncé; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss had five nominations the year Raising Sand beat eight-times-nominated Lil Wayne and Tha Carter III for Album Of The Year. Mary J. Blige lost Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year to Dixie Chicks (and their five nominations) the year she had eight nominations. In 2006, U2 and Green Day won the big three awards — besting multiple eight-time nominees, including John Legend and Kanye West.
Even when Black artists do take home big general awards, they’re not necessarily winning across the board. Beyoncé won Song Of The Year for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” in 2009 — and six awards overall that year out of 10 nominations — but still lost other big categories to white artists: Album Of The Year (Taylor Swift’s Fearless) and Record Of The Year (Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody”). In 2016, 11-time nominee Kendrick Lamar won five Grammys, the most of any artist — but he lost Album Of The Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Song Of The Year to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud.” In contrast, Adele, Dixie Chicks, U2, and Plant and Krauss have all had years where they’ve won every Grammy in which they’re nominated.
Going back a little further, this pattern has some precedent. In 1984, when Michael Jackson was up for a still-record 12 Grammys thanks to Thriller‘s runaway success, he won eight awards, including Album Of The Year and Record Of The Year (“Beat It”). However, he still lost Song Of The Year to The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” — despite being nominated twice in the category, for not just “Beat It” but also “Billie Jean.”
Of course, a major reason for this trend is due to the Grammy Awards’ well-known aversion to honoring hip-hop in the general categories. To this day, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below are the only two hip-hop albums to win Album Of The Year. The year Eminem was nominated for a ceremony-high 10 awards, he won zero major categories. And the Grammy Awards’ track record on honoring hip-hop singles in the last 20 years is also dismal: In 2004, contemporary news stories even expressed surprise when Coldplay’s “Clocks” won Record Of The Year over Bey’s “Crazy In Love” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya!”
While rap and hip-hop artists are shut out of the major categories, they’re dominating the genre-specific and technical ones: Overall, Jay-Z’s won 22 trophies, Kanye West has taken home 21, and Kendrick Lamar has 13 Grammys. But this sustained lack of winning presence in the general categories gives off the incorrect and outdated impression that rap and hip-hop are niche genres, when nothing could be further from the truth.
There are encouraging signs that things are changing, of course — starting with Childish Gambino deservedly winning Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year for “This Is America” at last year’s ceremony. But what it all adds up to for Lizzo is that historic precedent is not on her side. She absolutely, certainly deserves to win at least one of the major general categories, and if she does, it’ll be revolutionary. But if Vampire Weekend wins Album Of The Year or Billie Eilish takes home Best New Artist (or possibly all four majors), it won’t be a surprise — it’ll be simply falling in line with how things have always been.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.