Behind Hip-Hop's Grammy Losses: Did the Nominees Split the Vote?

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for NARAS
Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during the 60th Annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 28, 2018 in New York City.  

Is it possible the genre was represented too well in the top categories to come out on top?

For Grammy watchers who want to see hip-hop receive the awards recognition its commercial dominance seems to merit, the nominations announced by the Recording Academy in November certainly seemed promising. Hip-hop artists dominated the major categories, representing two of the five nominations for the three major awards that go to established creators: album of the year, record of the year and song of the year. There wasn't a single rock or country artist among them.

And that could be exactly why hip-hop artists didn't go home with any of those awards.

The Grammys have never exactly been quick to honor talent: Leonard Cohen won just his second award Sunday night (after a lifetime achievement award in 2010), while the Rolling Stones picked up only their third (after a lifetime award and one for a video). That's partly because the Recording Academy just isn't really set up to recognize enduring artistry: That's Bob Christgau's job. Rather, the Recording Academy is set up to put on a TV show that provides lightweight entertainment, valuable exposure for artists who win or perform and, starting a few years ago, material for hundreds of "hot takes" about how out of touch it is. (The New York Times has essentially run the same piece for the past three years.)

So why did Bruno Mars do so well at the expense of hip-hop artists? Partly because Grammy voters, who are generally known for good but not especially adventurous taste, voted for him. Partly because the nature of the voting process all but ensures a middle-of-the-road result. And partly because within the current process nominating more hip-hop and hip-hop-leaning R&B artists for the big awards actually reduces the odds that one will win.

Look at the album of the year nominees: Mars, Lorde, Kendrick Lamar, JAY-Z and Childish Gambino. These seem like smart choices that recognize the commercial dominance of hip-hop. But Grammy voters who want to see hip-hop get its due have two choices, which are both fairly popular. Fans of adventurous pop have one, while fans of R&B have two -- one of which is far more mainstream than the other. Even if more Grammy voters want a hip-hop artist to win, one won't win unless a lot of them agree. Record of the year had the same dynamic: The nominees were Mars ("24K Magic"), Lamar ("Humble"), JAY-Z ("The Story of O.J."), Childish Gambino ("Redbone") and Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee's Justin Bieber-featuring runaway hit "Despacito." And while Lamar and JAY-Z are fairly evenly matched -- the former arguably made the year's best album, while the latter is the kind of act Grammy voters love to recognize later than they should have -- Mars is far better known to a general audience than Childish Gambino, the stage name of the multifaceted and immensely creative Donald Glover

Some of the awards coverage has suggested that Grammy voters still don't see hip-hop as "real music," or even that they're racist. This could certainly be true, but the results in those two categories don't necessarily show it. Even if more than half of voters chose a hip-hop artist or song, another nominee could still win. The temptation, as the Grammys seem more out of touch with pop music, is to make the nominations better reflect the pop charts. But nominating four adventurous young artists without changing the voting system makes it even more likely that the fifth will win.

In the wake of Neil Portnow's ill-considered remarks about how women in the music business need to "step up" and his subsequent apology for being inarticulate, these mathematical realities have been overshadowed by politics. And the Academy should address politics, perhaps by creating a way to honor cultural impact in a less specific way. That would clarify the other categories for Grammy voters who want to live in a country where "Despacito" can win record of the year -- and cast their ballots accordingly -- even if they don't actually like the song that much.

What the Academy really needs to do, though, is change its voting process to better measure the enthusiasm for nominees for major awards. There are several ways to do this other than just counting the most popular votes, as it seemingly does now: create a run-off of between the top two or three vote-getters; allow voters to list their choices in order and assign different point values to each; or establish instant-runoff-voting that ranks voters' choices in order of preference, eliminating losing nominees and redistributing those votes until one nominee is the top choice of the majority. It's hard to know whether any of these changes would lead to more relevant results, since relevance is a tricky thing to measure: The main reason Mars won is because people really like his music. But it would certainly reduce the effect of the vote-splitting that favors the nominee that's least like the others.

It's impossible to say whether these alternatives would "fix" the Grammys, partly because the people who criticize them don't always agree on what's wrong. Any voting process tends to lead to a consensus result and a TV show may not be the best way to recognize enduring artistry, anyway. But if the Recording Academy wants to create a better TV show, making these changes would be a good start. Then we can talk about Sting.

2018 Grammy Awards