The 'To Pimp a Butterfly' vs. '1989' Grammy Showdown: Will Kendrick Lamar or Taylor Swift Win Album of the Year?

Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift
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Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift

Kendrick Lamar leads the 2016 Grammy nominations with 11 total nods, more than any artist except Michael Jackson (he had 12 in 1984 for Thriller). But he has another chance to make history on Grammy night: 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly could become the third hip-hop album to win the evening’s top prize, album of the year. “This would be probably the most straightforward hip-hop record ever to win,” says veteran label exec Livia Tortella, who’s been a Grammy voter for over 10 years. “Yet, there's nothing straightforward about it.”

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The album, and the approach Lamar’s team has taken to marketing it, has been dominating the media conversation since before its release (the rapper was even on the cover of Billboard just two months before it dropped). “The general public, sometimes they don't perceive rap music as having high production value in the traditional sense,” says producer (and Grammy voter) Harvey Mason, Jr. With TPAB, though, “you can tell it was a passionate project,” he tells Billboard. “It was something people really cared about. Everyone from the A&R people to the engineers to Kendrick himself, they put their hearts and souls into that record.” Tortella adds that the campaign for the album sets Kendrick apart from his album of the year competition, who are mostly singles-driven artists. “From the moment he put it out,” she says, “it was about his record -- his record as a whole and him as an artist.”

Kendrick Lamar 'To Pimp a Butterfly'

The consensus among the voters Billboard spoke to was that Lamar’s insistence on taking his own was admirable -- if maybe, commercially speaking, a little inadvisable. “I don't think he made a record to be rotated on hit radio -- that’s even more tribute to it,” says Daniel Glass, founder of Glassnote Records and longtime Grammy voter. “I like everything about the campaign he's on right now,” Tortella continues. “He's using this platform to really talk about art, and to redefine what an ‘urban artist’ is today.”

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TPAB’s irreverence and complexity could prove a double-edged sword -- while Grammy voters might reward its sophistication, they might just as easily be alienated by its defiant tone. “There's jazz in there to me, and that's why I respect it,” Glass says. “But are there hit songs on the radio right now?” Tortella adds, “You could have a lot of people saying, I don't get this at all.” Mason also points out that between Kendrick and the buzz around N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, “a lot of urban music has been showcased on a grand scale this year, which definitely helps.”

“It's a very, very strong album, but you have to also listen to Taylor Swift's album,” says Glass. “That is an incredible body of work.” Swift’s status as both seemingly infallible hitmaker and industry juggernaut makes her Lamar’s toughest competition for album of the year -- ironic, considering that her endorsement (and subsequent collaboration) introduced the rapper to a whole new audience. “She's been great for our business,” Mason says of Swift’s tough stance on streaming and loyalty to independent label Big Machine. “That helps her gain more fans.”

The former country artist’s 1989 was specifically designed, in her words, to win the album of the year Grammy she sought for 2012’s Red -- and if money talks (in the U.S. alone, the album is platinum five times over), she could get it. “There's a whole group out there who are judging Grammys by success and traditional metrics,” adds Tortella. “That's the music business.”

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To the voters Billboard spoke with, though, Kendrick is still the frontrunner, especially because his last major Grammy outing could also weigh on voters’ minds -- 7 nominations, no wins, and a particularly stinging loss to pop-rapper Macklemore. “I think it helps him this year, being the underdog that didn't get the credit,” says Glass.

No matter where the gold gramophones end up, the consensus was that both album and artist stand apart from the crowd. “Great care went into making this record,” says Mason. “You can tell there's not just a bunch of four bar loops thrown together.” As Tortella concluded, “He's won already in my book.”

An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of Billboard.

2016 Grammys