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Kendrick Lamar's Grammy Wins Are a Win for the Academy, Too

The academy's recognition of Lamar was both a departure from its historically vanilla taste and yet another affirmation of it.

by Brian Josephs
Feb 16 2016, 5:45pm

Kendrick Lamar onstage at the 58th Grammy Awards on February, 16, 2016, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for NARAS

Kendrick Lamar swept the Grammys in rap last night and also provided the most incendiary moment of the event, stealing the show with a prison chain-gang medley of "The Blacker the Berry" and "Alright" dedicated to Trayvon Martin. But the critically exalted To Pimp a Butterfly didn't take the biggest golden gramophone of the night, losing out to Taylor Swift's 1989 for album of the year. We're now in for a week's worth of think pieces and hot takes telling us why this shouldn't have happened and unpacking what it really means—for the Grammys, for the music industry, and for American culture as a whole.

Ultimately, the Recording Academy's recognition of Lamar's album—despite the fact that it lost out to Swift's—was both a departure from its historically vanilla style of artist selection and yet another affirmation of it. Much like Crash at the 2006 Oscars, To Pimp a Butterfly's inclusion in the Grammys provided a convenient way for a notoriously conservative organization to project an image of progressiveness by celebrating a work of art that addresses race issues while also maintaining the status quo.

This isn't to say To Pimp a Butterfly and Crash are artistically on the same plateau. The former—far and away 2015's most lauded album—is an examination of the African-American experience as told by someone who's lived it. The latter, the millennium's most hated best picture winner thus far, is proselytizing disguised as a movie. Characters and plot exist only in service of its ham-fisted message: Every problem can be solved by admitting racism is bad. It's about "love and about tolerance and about truth," according to producer Cathy Schulman's acceptance speech. The movie's message is a comforting solution for the privileged who have only a cursory understanding of racism. It's naiveté for everyone else.

Crash was the worst best picture nominee in that 2006 class—literally any of the competing four ( Brokeback Mountain; Capote; Good Night, and Good Luck ; and Munich) would've been more convincing choices. To Pimp a Butterfly, on the other hand, would've won album of the year if we were judging strictly by critical acclaim; it holds a 96 on Metacritic, which is 11 points higher than Chris Stapleton's Traveller (not to mention it is Metacritic's highest rated hip-hop album ever). You can also objectively say that Lamar's sophomore album is the most ambitious of its class. It's the rare major-label record that blatantly stretches through centuries of black culture to make a radical statement. You might even say it's deserving.

But what do we talk about when we talk about "deserving" at an award ceremony? For Lamar, deserve didn't refer only to TPAB, but also to 2014, the year the Grammys trolled hip-hop. Juicy J's first Grammy performance was a throwaway guest verse for Katy Perry; some malfeasance forced Lamar to perform "m.A.A.d city" with the bland Imagine Dragons; and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's The Heist beat good kid, m.A.A.d. city for best rap album. With a nominee class that included Yeezus, Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail, and Drake's Nothing Was the Same, The Heist was the weakest possible choice. Lamar made a compelling, Compton-bred bildungsroman only to lose to a bad rap album, which chief source of acclaim came from its perceived social awareness. There's nothing revelatory about the opening lines, "When I was in the third grade / I thought that I was gay," in " Same Love." But it was a song addressing homosexuality in a traditionally homophobic genre—so the Grammy's made a show out of it.

This year's 11 nominations and five victories validate Lamar, who's undeniably evolved as an artist and is now at the top of his game. The victories also validate the Recording Academy, which remains Eurocentric (there have been only three black album of the year winners in the past 15 years). Even though the Grammys have acknowledged Lamar's work, its values remain unchanged. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below are the only two hip-hop albums to win album of the year. Neither quite centers itself on hip-hop: Miseducation is at least halfway informed by soul, and Andre 3000 was way more interested in psychedelia for The Love Below.

An album of the year win would've been huge for Lamar—and, by extension, hip-hop. But the Recording Academy still remains a conservative institution, idolizing a rigid aesthetic as its cultural cachet rests largely on its status as a legacy brand. To Pimp a Butterfly is superior to Crash, but both are linked in how they tiptoe the Academy and Recording Academy's classicism (for the Oscars, predominantly white, self-serious dramas) while allowing the organizations to exist under a progressive guise.

The difference, of course, is that Crash won best picture. To Pimp a Butterfly lost to 1989, the most vanilla of the album of the year nominees. The organizers let Lamar make his pro-black statement in his live performance. But their own statement was clear when Swift took the stage to receive her award.

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