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.
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,
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
What's surprising is that there's been almost no complaint from Kanye himself, who seems
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.
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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.
The other—and far more important—reason he should be pissed is that the Grammys' longstanding and stubborn ignorance of hip-hop is a lot worse than disgraceful. The first time the Academy gave Album of the Year to a rap record was in 1999—a mere 20 years after "Rapper's Delight"—for Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Miseducation is an undeniably great record, but it's also an undeniably great record for people who don't actually like hip-hop, or, more honestly and less politely, don't like the kind of people who tend to make hip-hop. Lauryn was a Columbia-educated, movie-star beauty who also sang; Miseducation wasn't even entered in the "Best Rap Album" category, winning "Best R&B Album" instead. The next time a hip-hop artist won was in 2004, when Album of the Year went to Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, a double album that also benefited from a "rap-but-not-really" vibe thanks to the massive success of "Hey Ya!," which won a Grammy in the category of "Best Urban/Alternative Performance" (a.k.a. "Best Euphemism Coined By A Confused Elderly White Person").
Aside from those two examples, the Academy has never awarded Album of the Year to a hip-hop album, and it won't this year either. One could argue that "Best Rap Album" is its own category, but that's a pretty noxious bit of separate-but-unequal logic. Even if Kanye's right and Watch The Throne and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy did split the vote, it's a depressing thought that you could find a room full of people in 2012 who actually think that a boredom-factory like Bruno Mars made a record that comes close to either of them.
The Grammys are about prestige and cultural acceptance. Granted, it's packaged prestige and cultural acceptance of the dullest sort, but prestige and acceptance nonetheless, and those are real things that make people pay attention who otherwise might not. Hip-hop is an art form invented by a politically and economically ravaged underclass (which, by the way, remains pretty goddamned ravaged) that's risen to become the most globally significant cultural movement of the post-Cold War era. It is the living definition of what music, on its very best of days, is able to do, and if that's not deserving of prestige, we might loudly ask: What the hell is?
On late Sunday night the Academy will most likely answer with Adele's 21, a very good record with just the right cozy aroma of Starbucks to make hearts and pacemakers flutter. And come Monday morning, 21 will join the ranks of Celine Dion's Falling Into You, Toto's Toto IV, and Billy Joel's 52nd St. among Album of the Year winners, while My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will join an essentially infinite list of records better than the three I just named. But Kanye West should still be a little outraged. For that matter, we should be too.