The Grammys’ R&B and Rap Problem

Frank Ocean performs at the Grammys, February 2013. Photo: Getty Images

Amid the frenzy of predictions and odds that surrounds the Grammys every year around this time, there’s been one common topic: the performance of R&B artists like Frank Ocean and Miguel, who’ve been the subject of untold speculation (here included) about the State of R&B (As Revealed By These Two Guys) and who picked up six and five nominations respectively. Basically, there are two scenarios: The trendpiece scenario is that Frank Ocean will sweep all categories, except the ones Miguel sweeps, and R&B will earn the final plaudit in its crown of pundit-awarded plaudits. The likely scenario is that they’ll both be shut out.

“The R&B and hip-hop awards process is, in short, a complete and historical mess.”

Most oddsmakers have Ocean and Miguel dead last in every category but Best New Artist, and critical plaudits aside, it’s not hard to see why. The album winner is all but pre-awarded to Mumford and Sons, who’d be the favorites even if the Grammys hadn’t primed the victory in 2011, pairing the boys with Bob Dylan in a performance with more than a whiff of kingmaking (and sales-making). The songs categories don’t fare much better. “Thinkin About You,” Ocean’s Record of the Year nomination, would seem to have it all: The sort of craft traditionalism voters tend to value, a narrative providing that extra boost from single to event, and (let’s be honest) a weird competition. But the category’s got two titans: one pop-leaning, fun.’s “We Are Young,” and one alternative-leaning, Gotye and Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” both of which were omnipresent in a way Ocean never really was. Song of the Year, more closely tied to songwriting, would seem to favor Miguel’s painstakingly retro “Adorn” — certainly over filler like Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” — but it’s also the category with No. 1 titans “Call Me Maybe” and “We Are Young” again, and the dark-horse slot’s already filled by Ed Sheeran, who’s supplanted Jessie J as the British import both countries are most feverishly trying to make happen. The only top-four category where Ocean’s got a real shot is Best New Artist, but even that has a history of skewing older and rockier. Fun. could easily sweep that too, and if voters decide to go the full-fedora, “Ho Hey” folkies the Lumineers are also in there.

Miguel. Photo: Christie Goodwin/Redferns

You’d think Ocean and Miguel would fare better in their genre-specific categories — but therein lies a great deal of the explanation. The R&B and hip-hop awards process is, in short, a complete and historical mess. The latter, at least, is somewhat easy to understand. The Grammy voter base and hip hop’s fanbase don’t intersect much, and certainly nowhere near enough to keep up with ever-quickening and splintering regional scenes. (Although it’s hardly a recent development; this is the ceremony that gave Will Smith’s movie tie-in “Men in Black” over “Hypnotize” and “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”.) In the main categories, the genre all but shut out besides Speakerboxx/The Love Below and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and the hip-hop categories are a mostly-uninterrupted chain of OutKast, Eminem, Jay-Z and Kanye West wins. (The latter two aren’t up for Rap Album of the Year on a technicality — Watch the Throne was in last year’s nominations — but Rap Song will almost certainly go to Kanye, solo or otherwise.) It hasn’t gone unnoted — most recently, by nominee Nas (who has yet to win) — but this almost certainly isn’t the year it will change.

T.I. Kanye West Jay-Z

T.I., Kanye West and Jay-Z perform at the Grammys in 2009. Photo: John Shearer/WireImage

R&B’s Grammy history isn’t much better. Ocean and Miguel aren’t up for Best R&B Album at all; they’re instead relegated to the new, already-lambasted Best Urban Contemporary Album category, whose sole purpose seems to be preventing Chris Brown from winning another Grammy. It’s technically a reintroduction of Best Contemporary R&B Album, which ran from 2003 to 2011 before being cut in that year’s paring-down of categories – and which is a far better indicator of the state of R&B, commercially and otherwise. But it’s telling that the 2013 version’s only got three nominees, leaving out Usher, Elle Varner, Brandy and countless other artists with critical and commercial appeal. There are explanations if you want to look at them — Usher’s album, like Nicki Minaj’s also-snubbed Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, was too genre-indecisive (though “Climax”’s snub is inexplicable); Brandy was too overlooked and Varner too obscure — but none are too convincing. As for the main R&B category, R. Kelly’s the only guy on there even close to relevant, with a record so earnestly retro it’s almost camp. (Populate!) Miguel’s got a shot at Best R&B Song, but only because of weak competition. (Anthony Hamilton, a Grammy stalwart in history and sound, was expected enough; if anything, the Grammy nominations have surfaced quite the surprise groundswell of Tamia fans.) And the big four just aren’t even in the picture; when R&B’s showed up there at all in the past few decades, it’s been for artists with massive visibility, monoculture and then some, like Lauryn Hill circa Miseducation or Whitney Houston circa The Bodyguard or Michael Jackson at any point.

That’s the sticking point, really. As critic Chris Molanphy pointed out last year when Adele was the favorite, critics (as determined by the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop poll) and Grammy voters have only agreed on an album four times: I 1976 for Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, in 1982 for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, 1986 for Paul Simon’s Graceland, in 1997 for Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind, and in 2003 for Speakerboxx/The Love Below. They’re stylistically different, but all have “a magical combination of Grammy-viable mass appeal and critic-charming quality,” Molanphy wrote. Ocean and Miguel, blizzard of verbiage aside, just aren’t even close. Channel Orange may have the zeitgeist, and Ocean the industry cosigns, but the album itself, with its druggy meanderings, iPhone interpolations and extended Egyptian time-travel conceits, may just have been a little too hard to parse as mainstream (none of the other “alt-R&B” names made it, either), while Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream, despite ruling urban radio and being self-consciously “big” in an award-baity way, was never really seen as mainstream in the first place. (Billboard’s recent R&B chart changes probably bear some blame for that.) The Urban Contemporary category’s a lock for one or the other, and “Adorn” will almost certainly pick up a win or two, but if there’s an R&B Grammy breakthrough on the horizon (entirely possible), it’ll be a year or two off when the voters catch up to the critics — or maybe just when all the breakthrough talk settles again.

For more Grammy coverage, check out MTV’s Grammys 2013 hub here.

RELATED POSTS