To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, is argued to be one of the most influential and unapologetically black albums of this generation. This is why the majority of people thought there was no questioning it: To Pimp A Butterfly was going to win Album of the Year.
So when Taylor Swift’s album 1989 won the Grammy, it took a lot of people by surprise. But was it really any big surprise? In fact, the only hip hop albums to win Album of the Year have been Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1999) and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2004). Only 12 rap albums total have been nominated for Album of the Year since 1980, three of which were by white artists and another three by rapper Kanye West. So when Taylor Swift’s album won, in context there really was no big surprise: hip hop albums just do not win Album of the Year.
Maybe it’s because until 1996, the Grammys did not even have a category for rap albums.. Now that we have one, many white rappers reap the benefits and recognition of this traditionally black genre (hip hop having been born in the 1970s by African Americans living in the Bronx). Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won in 2014 and Eminem, who actually holds the record for most wins in the category (6 wins total, 30% of grammys awarded) won in 2015. This year Kendrick’s album won Rap Album of the Year.
So what is it that defines an album as Album of the Year? What characteristics transform an album from award winning in it’s respective category---to deserving of winning the whole damn thing?
For me, Album of the Year has a very allusive definition. For now, I’d like to define the qualifier as an album that has an innovative substance, a new sound, a new format, and an important message. Taylor Swift’s album just did not hit the mark for these categories as well as Kendrick’s did. 1989 was a great pop album, sure, but it’s sound was generic and was filled with playful lyrics about love and relationships.
So while Taylor produced a pop album with little substance (not to say pop doesn’t have substance for example in 2014, Beyonce’s visual album Beyonce), Kendrick produced an album described by The Rolling Stone as “a masterpiece of fiery outrage, deep jazz and ruthless self-critique” and that fused together artists such as Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Flying Lotus.
Recognition is important, especially for black artists. The majority of American music stems from black influence and origin, but often times there is no credit given to black Americans for their contribution to the industry. It is important for artists creating new and unique formats for music like Kendrick to receive the praise that was denied to them in the past, and to celebrate all artists: not just the ones with the right skin tone.