Kanye West Actually Should Throw a Fit at the Grammys This Year

The rapper's nominations for Sunday's ceremony show how screwed up the Recording Academy's priorities are—and how screwed up its attitude towards hip-hop is.

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Kanye West sends a message at his post-Grammy party in Los Angeles after winning three Grammys on Feb. 8, 2006. (AP)

Kanye West does a lot of things quite well—music, Twitter, extemporaneous political commentary—but etiquette's never been his strong suit, particularly when it comes to awards. Ideally, this would make him more appealing, since rewarding musicians with trophies is about as stupid as rewarding dogs with trophies. But Kanye's gripes are rarely about the stupidity of the trophies themselves and rather about the stupidity of himself not winning enough of them. When Kanye flips out over awards it's both unseemly in its arrogance and amusing in that it flaunts the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise. My personal favorite came in 2005, when he publicly warned the Recording Academy that he (and, implicitly, they) would "really have a problem" if he didn't win the Grammy for Album of the Year, before the nominees were even announced. He didn't win.

The list of past Album of the Year winners reads like a catalog of albums you hide when your friends come over.

He won't win Sunday, either, the one night a year that Americans remember that the Recording Academy exists and that The Amazing Race will not be appearing on their televisions that week. Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released in November 2010 (which, according to the Grammys' occult calendrical practices, means it was released in 2011), failed to even be nominated for Album of the Year. That snub is pretty remarkable even by the Academy's standards, especially considering that West received more total nominations in lesser categories this year than any other artist. Fantasy was a critical triumph, its notices so rapturous as to inspire notices about the notices. The album's impressive commercial success gave it that elusive air of extreme consensus that's preciously rare in any art form, the surest indicator of something that actually matters. Its omission is the surest indicator that the Academy is something that doesn't, but that omission has still produced a litany of justified complaints from various quarters.

What's surprising is that there's been almost no complaint from Kanye himself, who seems willing to swallow the rationale that the album suffered due to its splitting the vote with Watch the Throne, West's well-hyped (and generally well-received) collaboration with Jay-Z that dropped this past August and which also failed to be nominated.

Maybe Kanye's matured, or maybe he's just embraced the fact that being ignored by the Academy is an infinitely more reliable sign of greatness than attracting its attentions. After all, the history of the Album of the Year reads in large part like a Homeric catalog of albums you hide when your friends come over. In 1969, the award went to Glenn Campbell's By the Time I Get to Phoenix (don't all rush to Spotify at once!), which was chosen over, among other things and in alphabetical order: Beggars Banquet, Electric Ladyland, Lady Soul, Music from Big Pink, and The White Album, none of which were even nominated. Christopher Cross's eponymous yard-sale mainstay triumphed in 1981 over the Clash's London Calling and Prince's Dirty Mind, neither of which, again, were nominated. Billy Joel has been up for the award three more times than Bob Dylan, four more times than the Rolling Stones, and five more times than Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye combined, none of whom—you guessed it—were ever nominated.

All that said, Kanye should be pissed, publicly, a lot more so than he is, and for a couple of reasons. First, recent history shows that he really has been screwed, repeatedly. His first album, The College Dropout, was one of the best debuts of the past decade. Nominated in 2005, it lost to Ray Charles's Genius Loves Company, a guest-spackled posthumous record that the Academy probably chose because—wait for it—Ray Charles never won Album of the Year, either. The following year, West released Late Registration, a creative tour de force that lost to a U2 album so forgettable Bono probably doesn't even remember it. In 2008, West's Graduation lost to Herbie Hancock's The Joni Letters, the pianist's tribute to Joni Mitchell (who's also never... oh, why bother). The Joni Letters is a fine record but it's unlikely that most folks who voted for it had ever listened to Graduation; in fact, I'm not sure most folks who voted for The Joni Letters had ever listened to The Joni Letters. The point is that the Album of the Year award Kanye West should (but won't) be collecting Sunday night shouldn't even be his first.

Presented by

Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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