The 60th Annual Grammy Awards opened with an explosive, powerful and politically charged performance from Kendrick Lamar. Three hours later, the ceremony ended with a whimper.
After years on the sidelines, this was the year hip-hop was finally going to get its due. In the Grammys’ 60-year history, only two hip-hop records have won the coveted album of the year award. Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill did it in 1999, and Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below won in 2004. But both albums were heavily influenced by pop music, which helped them become major crossover successes.
With Jay-Z entering as the night’s most-nominated artist for his deeply personal opus 4:44, and Lamar’s virtuosic battle cry Damn scoring nods in all the major categories, this could have been the first time a pure rap album captured the esteemed price. But by the time Bruno Mars took the stage to accept the night’s top honor, hip-hop fans were left to survey the wreckage: Lamar was shut out in all the major categories, and Jay-Z was shut out altogether. Hip-hop began the night as the status quo, and ended it without the status.
Don’t get us wrong. Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic is a perfectly fine and completely unremarkable party record, and a non-white artist of Puerto Rican, Jewish and Filipino heritage winning the top award is no small feat. But if you were among those who were disappointed that the other, more deserving nominees lost out to Mars, that’s allowed, too. Then again, if you were surprised by Mars’ win, well, then you clearly haven’t been paying attention.
When was the last time the Grammys gave the album of the year to, you know, the year’s best album? Remember when Beyoncé lost to Beck? Or when Taylor Swift beat Kendrick? Or when Beyoncé lost to Adele? Or when Kendrick lost to—well, you get the idea.
On the other hand, if you were somehow duped into thinking this year might be different, you probably weren’t alone. This marked the first time in Grammys history that no white men were up for the top award. It’s why going into Sunday’s show, the race was more closely watched than ever. That it happened in a year when Grammy poster boy Ed Sheeran had arguably the year’s biggest song and album makes it all the more remarkable.
But the diverse group of nominees were just a way to paper over the undeniable truth that the Grammys are—and always have been—uniquely out of touch with the culture. Hip-hop is by far the most popular genre in the country, and apart from a handful of pop-music juggernauts, it’s the only one that sells, singlehandedly carrying the entire music industry on its shoulders.
Just take a look at this year’s charts, which were dominated by rap luminaries like Cardi B, Rae Sremmurd and Migos. Aside from Cardi’s cameo during Bruno Mars’ performance, none were visible during Sunday’s proceedings. So despite its place atop the cultural totem pole, the recording academy continues to treat hip-hop’s torchbearers like second-class citizens.
It’s no wonder the genre’s most prominent figures have given the Grammys the cold shoulder in recent years. Drake didn’t even bother to submit his mixtape, More Life, for consideration this year, after feeling slighted when his hit ”Hotline Bling” failed to crack the pop categories last year. Kanye West—who’s lost album of the year three times—continues to have a fraught relationship with the awards show, calling the stodgy voting body “way off and completely out of touch” in 2016.
That same year, Frank Ocean decided to snub the Grammys altogether by withholding his prolific musical output from consideration as well. “That institution certainly has nostalgic importance. It just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down,” he told the New York Times. Even Jay-Z—who sat front and center on Sunday—declined an offer to perform, almost as though he anticipated leaving the show empty-handed. And with Lamar now 0-for-3 in the top category, it’s easy to foresee him reassessing his relationship with the Grammys moving forward.
Despite missing out on the night’s top hardware, Lamar did sweep the hip-hop categories, and rightfully so. DAMN. was a sprawling and complicated work of political activism and was released in a year when art and politics have never been more intertwined. When he took the stage to accept the award for best rap album, he had this to say: “Hip-hop, man … It showed me what it was to be a true artist. It’s really about expressing yourself for the world to evolve.” Hip-hop’s emergence as music’s defining genre is proof that the world is evolving. It’s the Grammys that have fallen behind.