Adele’s post-Grammy press session was notable for one reason: The British soul singer, who racked up five awards including Album, Record, and Song of the Year on Sunday night, was talking about how she didn’t deserve at least one of those accolades. “I felt like it was her time to win,” the disarmingly honest belter said backstage. “What the f— does she have to do to win Album of the Year?”
The “she” Adele was referring to was Beyoncé, who for the second time played the bridesmaid role in the Big Four category despite releasing a critically acclaimed album that showcased her artistic breadth and all-encompassing vision. Beyoncé is hardly the only artist whose of-the-moment artistic achievements have been under-heralded by the Academy. Take the case of David Bowie, who finally won a Grammy for his musical output last night for Blackstar. That it took the boundary-pushing, shape-shifting Bowie so many years—and, more notably, his death in January 2016—to finally be given his due also speaks to one strand of the conservatism that has plagued the Grammys for decades.
But there are other factors that make the Lemonade snub troubling. Lemonade, which came out last April via HBO special, Tidal stream, and iTunes Store download, topped multiple critics’ best-of lists, sold a boatload of copies in an increasingly stream-reliant moment for the music industry, incorporated music and literature and film references from across the pop spectrum, and spoke about black womanhood in a way that reframed the mainstream. It had the ambition of the most grandiose albums without its songs collapsing under the weight of its intentions; it had ballads and rockers and down-home country songs about growing up. It seemed like a shoo-in for Album of the Year, particularly after the outcry following her last album, 2013’s Beyoncé, losing out on that trophy to Beck’s perfectly fine
Yet Adele triumphed, for reasons that probably make sense to individual Grammy voters but paint a depressing picture in the aggregate. 25, which came out in November 2015, has been a blockbuster since the moment its first single, the Song and Record of the Year winner “Hello,” was released. It’s an able showcase of Adele’s formidable voice, with a slew of top-flight songwriters (Greg Kurstin, Max Martin, Ryan Tedder) and producers (Kurstin, Martin, Danger Mouse, The Smeezingtons) aiding its trip to the top. It topped the year-end Billboard 200 (Lemonade came in at No. 4, behind Drake’s hyper-serious Views and Justin Bieber’s post-teen-idol apologia Purpose) achieved the Recording Industry Association of America’s Diamond certification, which marks 10 million copies shipped in the U.S.—the second record to do so since 2004, with the only other album to match that feat being Adele’s 21. It was held back from streaming services until seven months after its release, giving a shot in the arm to sellers of physical product and breaking the iTunes Store’s first-day sales record that had been set by Beyoncé’s self-titled album two years prior.
But the Grammys rarely value pure sales over craft—just look at Beyoncé’s loss two years ago. Lemonade‘s loss speaks to a more troubling trend that has plagued the awards show since its beginning. It consistently undervalues artists operating in R&B and, more recently, hip-hop—particularly if those artists are black. In the past five years, Beyoncé has lost the Album of the Year trophy to Adele and Beck; the pyrotechnic MC Kendrick Lamar has been passed over in favor of Taylor Swift’s pop makeover and Daft Punk’s salute to session men; and R&B polymath Frank Ocean fell to roots revivalists Mumford & Sons. The only black women to win Album of the Year were Natalie Cole (Unforgettable… With Love, 1992), Whitney Houston (the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, 1994) and Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, 1998). The last black artist to win was Herbie Hancock, whose Joni Mitchell tribute River: The Joni Letters won in 2008.
What’s especially puzzling is that this year’s slate of R&B and hip-hop categories spoke to the strong years the genres enjoyed overall—the captivating Rihanna’s late-night rumination Anti (which was arguably overlooked in the Album of the Year category), the R&B trio KING’s love letter to vintage synths We Are KING, the boisterous MC/singer D.R.A.M.’s ebullient “Broccoli” and the hip-hop upstart Chance the Rapper’s gospel-tinged Coloring Book were only a few of the nominees in those categories, which evinced bite and quality that their genre-category counterparts lacked. The way the Grammy voting body for the cross-genre Big Four categories, in which voting is open to all members of the Recording Academy in good standing, has consistently slighted the achievements of current hip-hop and R&B artists is troubling. To echo Adele, What does Beyoncé—or Kendrick, or Chance, or Frank—have to do?
Artists beyond Adele have long noticed these consistent oversights as well. “You know what’s really not ‘great TV,’ guys?” Ocean wrote in a pre-Grammys Tumblr post rebuking Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich’s assertion that his 2013 performance of “Forrest Gump” wasn’t worthy of that honor. “1989 getting Album of the Year over To Pimp A Butterfly. Hands down one of the most ‘faulty’ TV moments I’ve seen… If you’re up for a discussion about the cultural bias and general nerve damage the show you produce suffers from, then I’m all for it.”
Perhaps decades from now, the Grammys will finally catch up with Beyoncé the way they finally did with Bowie last night. This is extreme enough that it might actually spur the Academy to make some changes: More nominees? Revamping the voting procedures or voting body? Whatever it takes, something should be done to make them seem relevant to all listeners, or at least less open to such obvious questions from all sides—even those in the winners’ circle.