Last year after winning the most coveted award at the Grammys, Adele asked what everyone was thinking: “What the fuck does [Beyoncé] have to do to win Album of the Year?” Watching Lemonade lose to 25 was tough. Not only was Lemonade a feature film, but it was a cultural marker and Beyoncé’s most political album exploring the intersections of black feminism. Just earlier, Beyoncé delivered a gravity-defying performance while pregnant with twins, as Adele stopped her through her tribute to George Michael mid-way, cursing and beginning again, a luxury performers of color may not be granted. That night, Beyoncé was the “twice as good” speech personified; the speech black parents give their children preparing them for a lifetime of working twice as hard to get half as much as their white counterparts. And if Beyoncé didn’t stand a chance after a spotless 20-year career, and two albums that undoubtedly challenged album distribution as we know it, would the academy ever fully recognize black women? This year, the Grammys attempted to stray away from becoming a hashtag by diversifying their nominees, but the end result fell flat. With seven nominations between 2017’s breakthrough stars, SZA and Cardi B, their presence at this year’s award show felt like a do-over, and a “We see you” to black women. Last night, that wasn’t the case.
Leading up to the show, I was optimistic about SZA, and even Cardi’s fate, for Grammy night. At a glance, the absence of Ed Sheeran in the night’s biggest categories: Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year, seemed like the academy was trying to right their wrongs. For the first time since Lauryn Hill won in 1999, there were no white men up for the show’s biggest award. Despite the Grammys history of traditionally getting it wrong, with SZA being the highest nominated woman, the expectation was that she’d take home at least one. Ctrl was my default album—and the default album for my generation. I put it on to fill the silences of everyday life, hoping to draw from her ability to say the things I wish I could. Cardi B made me want the world to witness my glow up, and most importantly to say “OKURRR” while doing so. Their commitment to transparency is what caused the world to fall in love with them. The candor they possess, though on opposite sides of the spectrum, was proof that you’re allowed to be the rough draft version of yourself. “20 Something,” Ctrl’s final track, was the dissertation on exactly what it feels like to be a young person in 2018: anxiety.
There’s something to be said in the type of black women that establishments like the Grammys deem worthy of recognition. Just last year, Beyoncé and Rihanna were major contenders with Lemonade leading with nine noms, and ANTI at eight. Bey took home Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Music Video, while Rihanna took home nothing but visible shots from a personal flask. Both were substantial albums and a clear evolution of each artist. And yet, these are both women who are the prototype of what culture expects a black woman to be. Both Beyoncé and Rihanna feel like my own Barbie collectibles, wrapped in pristine packaging and distant from what day-to-day life feels like. Each has the unwavering ability to bend not break, bouncing back from domestic violence and infidelity without missing a beat. Lauryn Hill is another collectible, conjuring that same feeling after making history as hip-hop’s first album to win Album of the Year for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Even Lauryn had an incredible way of navigating through life’s problems, discerning through the answers with an unmatched confidence. Do I see myself in the grace of Beyoncé, the edge of Rihanna, or awareness of Lauryn? Maybe after a few drinks on the weekend. But that balance is slightly warped and unrealistic, putting an incredible amount of pressure on black women to feel the need to do it all in their respective industries. Sometimes, the allure of not having it all figured out is most attractive.
The lyrics in Ctrl were about a journey of self-discovery through bouts of insecurity in a way I hadn’t seen my faves subject themselves to in a long time, if ever. Whether it was SZA just wishing she could stand to be alone with herself in “Supermodel,” or her laundry list of apologies ranging from not shaving her legs to or being ladylike in “Drew Barrymore,” it felt like she was okay just working through the answers—even if that meant she wasn’t revealed as SZA 2.0 at the end of the record. She was naked on this project, and her search for gaining control meant that she had to lose control first.
Within the first hour of last night’s show, all seven of their nominations had been announced and both SZA and Cardi B would be going home empty-handed. What seemed like the academy finally finding the pulse on what music fans actually like was its usual dosage of exploitation. The Grammys have a habit of nominating black artists, snubbing them, and leveraging their performances for ratings. It happened to Kendrick Lamar in 2014, when he lost in all categories, including Best Rap Song to Macklemore. That same year, Beyoncé and Jay-Z opened the show with “Drunk in Love,” only for Bey to lose the night’s top award for Beyoncé, the album that set the precedent of surprise rollouts the following year. She performed “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” moments before being snubbed of her self-titled effort. This year was no different, with anticipated performances by Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B and Bruno Mars for “Finesse,” and SZA’s “Broken Clocks.” While the performers don’t always match the winner, the Grammys have some explaining to do. With ratings at an all-time low, is the public just tired of an antiquated system?
As a black woman, thinking of what it entails for our work to not only be recognized but celebrated on a mainstream scale is exhausting, to say the least. “Twice as hard” gets you in the room, and double that gets you a seat at the table. My quest for the victory of the “regular, degular” girls I saw in SZA and Cardi were thwarted, and I’m right back to Adele’s initial question: “What the fuck does she have to do?” My hope is that black artists and more specifically, black women, continue to create fearlessly and peel back the layers they possess. Most importantly, go where you’re celebrated and if that isn’t the Grammy stage, don’t be afraid to walk away.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.