In this, the year of our Beyoncé 2019, there can only be one true winner on Grammys night: the one who sparks a torrent of timeline-clogging memes. And so, the unambiguous winner of this year’s Grammy Awards is none other than Will Smith, whose head-scratching appearance as the blue, shirtless, bejeweled, ponytailed genie in Aladdin melted our minds (our hearts, not so much).
I’m kidding (sort of), but it is ironic that Smith of all people garnered the most notices online. Thirty years ago, the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff famously boycotted the 1989 Grammys, refusing to accept their “best rap performance” award upon discovering that the new category would not be aired. It marked one of the first of many, many slights against rap music by those behind “music’s biggest night,” with only two “rap” albums receiving the coveted Album of the Year trophy since: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999 and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004, both eclectic efforts containing mainstream pop hits.
As our Stereo Williams wrote, “It indicates that hip-hop has to be tempered with something that voters and audiences find more ‘respectable’ before it can be put on an elevated tier.”
And, due to the Grammys’ historically racist aversion to rap music—from awarding U2’s atrocious How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb over Kanye West’s Late Registration to its repeated snubbing of Kendrick Lamar—several A-list rappers turned down the opportunity to perform at this year’s ceremony, including Lamar, Drake and Childish Gambino.
“The fact of the matter is, we continue to have a problem in the hip-hop world,” Grammys’ producer Ken Ehrlich told The New York Times. “When they don’t take home the big prize, the regard of the academy, and what the Grammys represent, continues to be less meaningful to the hip-hop community, which is sad.”
It is sad, and entirely the Grammys’ fault. Over the last decade, in fact, no black artists have won Album of the Year, with the Recording Academy instead opting for questionable recipients like, say, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in lieu of Outkast’s Stankonia, or Mumford & Sons’ Babel instead of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. When Adele took home Album of the Year for the second time in 2017, besting Beyoncé’s masterpiece Lemonade, she acknowledged how outrageous it was that Queen Bey hadn’t yet taken home the hardware. “What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?” Adele remarked. “That’s how I feel.” Yes, the Grammys has a big race problem, and all the Michelle Obama cameos in the world can’t fix it.
Now to the night itself. The fiercely feminist tone was set early on, as host Alicia Keys was joined by Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jennifer Lopez, and—yes—Michelle Obama onstage to deliver a medley of empowerment messages. “From the Motown records I wore out on the South Side, to the ‘who run the world’ songs that fueled me through this last decade, music has always helped me tell my story. And I know that's true for everybody here,” Obama said. “Whether we like country, or rap or rock, music helps us share ourselves—our dignity and sorrows, our hopes and joys. It allows us to hear one another, to invite each other in. Music shows us that all of it matters, every story within every voice, every note within every song—is that right ladies?” The audience lost it.
The rest of the incredibly long evening (almost four hours) couldn’t match that early high, though there were a number of awe-inspiring moments, including Diana Ross belting out her own tribute in a gorgeous red gown (a boss move if there ever was one); Brandi Carlile hitting all the right notes; Janelle Monae, St. Vincent and Dua Lipa giving future-goddess energy; Fantasia destroying that Aretha tribute; Dolly goddamn Parton; and the joy of witnessing Cardi B’s pure elation when her name was announced for Best Rap Album. Oh, not to mention Alicia Keys’ dueling pianos!
Low points abounded as well. The decision to cut off Drake, the most famous winner of the evening, during his acceptance speech because it was mildly critical of the Grammys was petty as hell, as was the show’s mélange of sloppy transitions and lackluster reaction shots (why did we see the fifth Backstreet Boy six hundred times?). The worst moment came courtesy of Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, who not only aired a montage of artists complimenting him on his work, but then had the audacity to deliver a pledge promising to address “issues of diversity” at the Grammys—like the aforementioned fact that no black artist has won Album of the Year since Herbie Hancock in 2008.
That disturbing trend continued Sunday night, as Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour triumphed over albums from Drake, Janelle Monae, Cardi B, and others. When will it end?