Remember back in the days when Motown branded its unmistakable style of rhythm-and-blues music "The Sound of Young America"?
These days, the sound of young America is rap. This might be the year when the Grammy Awards finally understand that.
The Grammy Awards ceremony, which returns this year to New York City, begins today at 4:30 p.m. PST. Three of the five nominees for the night's big award, album of the year, are hip-hop albums. Three of the five nominees for record of the year are rap tracks.
Bob Santelli has been watching the Grammy Awards for years and worked as the executive director of the Grammy Museum from 2008 to 2016. Before that, the music journalist was the CEO of the Experience Music Project in Seattle and a vice president at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. He currently is the director of popular music and performing arts in the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University. I caught up with him briefly this week and asked him what his reaction was to the dominance of rap in this year's nominations.
He was succinct: "It's about time," he said. "For a number of years, hip-hop or rap has been American pop music."
He means no disrespect to rock 'n' roll, which he loves, but the numbers speak for themselves, he said: "The fact of the matter is more people listen to and consume more hip-hop than rock these days."
Of course, that's been the case for years. But the Grammys have been slow to take note of the trend. Santelli, who still maintains close ties to the Grammys and The Recording Academy, the organization that sponsors the awards (formerly known as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), understands why.
Although the organization has taken steps to diversify its membership, it has 13,000 or so voting members from all different genres — classical, jazz, roots, rock, pop, hip-hop, even spoken-word recordings. (The Grammys also include a category for best liner notes, and I still hold out hope that one day I will be able to join our own Cory Frye as a nominee in this category.)
"Popular music in this day and age moves very fast," Santelli said, and he suggested (in the most diplomatic way possible) that not all of its members are on top of every musical trend.
"Some voters are more patient than others," he said, "and want to make sure that a trend is an important movement in music."
Well, OK. But it seems fair to say that hip-hop, which dates back to the 1970s, isn't just a musical flash in the pan. (The first Grammy for best rap album was awarded in 1996.) And the Grammys' slow embrace of urban music has been among the sorest of sore spots for the awards over the years. The trend came to a head of sorts last year, when Adele's well-made but comfortable "25" won the album of the year over Beyoncé's groundbreaking "Lemonade." That result drew criticism from, among others, Adele herself: "I can't possibly accept this award," she said. "My artist of my life is Beyoncé." Adele then broke that award in two, presumably to give the other half to Beyoncé, although it's unclear if the handoff ever took place.
One of the major nominees this year is Kendrick Lamar, for his album "DAMN." The last time he was up for the album of the year award, for his masterpiece "To Pimp a Butterfly," he lost to Taylor Swift's "1989." In one of the more notorious botched calls in Grammy history, Lamar lost the best rap album award in 2014 to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "The Heist," a decision that prompted Macklemore to actually apologize to Lamar.
Maybe this will be the year Grammy voters make up for those slights and give Lamar that album of the year award. But an equally likely outcome, especially with two other strong rap albums from Jay-Z and Childish Gambino in the hunt, is that the rap vote is split and the award goes to Bruno Mars' "24K Magic," with its retro funk feel. (The fifth nominee, Lorde's excellent "Melodrama," likely will get lost in the shuffle.)
For his part, Santelli is too smart to make Grammy predictions, at least on the record. But he does note that the first performance in this year's televised ceremony — a slot reserved for a top artist — is being set aside for a rap performer. (He declined to identify on the record which performer will open the show.) "No matter how you look at it, it's going to be the year of hip-hop," he said.
That's a sign of progress. We'll see if this year's awards follow that lead. (mm)