As the Grammys raged last night in New York, Kanye West was in Berlin, largely disconnected and — as many on Twitter gleefully noted — quite possibly dining alone.
“Kanye being Kanye” jokes aside, he wasn’t the only superstar skipping Grammy weekend — and after leaving hip-hop out of the general award wins again, “music’s biggest night” has to face the possibility of an even more pronounced talent exodus.
It’s been two years since Kanye tweet-stormed at Neil Portnow, imploring Future and Young Thug to perform at the Grammys instead of “just me and Jay in a suit.” What’s changed? An evening-wear’d JAY-Z was at MSG last night, but all eight nominations got him was a front-row seat to host James Corden’s cornball jabs at “Empire State of Mind.” All that grinning and bearing with zero wins to show could be enough for Hov to throw in the towel permanently (he’s somehow still never won a general category Grammy) and join ‘Ye, Drake, Justin Bieber and Frank Ocean among the culture-defining luminaries who’ve found better things to do on recent Grammy nights.
Bieber hasn’t attended since 2016, despite being up for four awards last year and multiple nods for his remix of “Despacito” this year. Frank Ocean’s Blonde was one of 2016’s most acclaimed albums, though its creator declined to even submit it for last year’s show, opting for what he called his “Colin Kaepernick moment” over a Grammy selection process he maligned as “dated.” And despite eight nominations, Drake sat out last year and passed on even submitting More Life this year. Lyrics from his most recent project, however, suggest Champagne Papi still enjoys racking up awards show trophies.
So why not the Grammys? Cold shoulders from Drake, Frank and Kanye come from the collective belief that the Grammys are failing to meaningfully recognize the largely black music that defines American youth culture, particularly hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar’s incendiary, socio-political opus lost to Bruno Mars’ radio-pleasing nostalgia joyride. There was 2017, when Adele’s 25 defeated a galvanizing Beyoncé album that’d spent a year pushing black feminism into America’s mainstream consciousness. Before that, there was Taylor Swift over Kendrick. And Beck over Beyoncé. Daft Punk over Kendrick. Mumford & Sons over Frank. Tradition overtaking innovation. We’re talking six consecutive years of the same sort of letdown in the Grammys’ biggest category.
At this point, what does it take for a generational talent like Kendrick Lamar, a champion both critical and commercial, to be recognized outside of the hip-hop categories? If Kendrick and JAY-Z shrug their shoulders and decide the Grammys aren’t worth the trouble anymore, can you really blame them?
It’s easier to bail once you realize success isn’t hinging on an obligatory red carpet walk and a televised performance of your latest single. For Drake, “God’s Plan” just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 after receiving little more than an Instagram plug and choice placement on all major streaming services. Its B-side, “Diplomatic Immunity,” is right there with it in the top 10. Did Sunday night’s telecast do anything to convince streaming’s surest bet to play ball with the Grammys again? And if Drake doesn’t submit any of his 2018 output to next year’s ceremony, who really loses?
It’s not just as simple as fixing a hip-hop problem. Immediately following the show, focus on social media shifted to the Grammys’ decision to crown only one female winner on-air, among allegations that Lorde, the only woman up for album of the year, was not offered the opportunity to perform her own music (Sting, meanwhile, was given not one, but two opportunities to plug his new collaborative album with Shaggy). This might, just might, have to do with why she just tweeted an open challenge to come see her headlining tour, while Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, a recent Grammy darling himself, was somewhat less guarded. It’s difficult to picture Lorde tweet-storming Neil Portnow, but not so tough to picture her keeping Kanye company at that restaurant in Berlin next year.
That’s not to say the 2019 Grammys are in for a all-out boycott. Regardless of what happens over the next 12 months, many successful artists will continue to attend the Grammys just like they always do, partake in the year-round Academy pageantry just like they always do. The Grammys’ cultural significance assures this. But if the amount of can’t-miss artists skipping out increases beyond handful proportions, the Grammys’ public perception — and ultimately, how they’re remembered — will suffer. A year where the artists behind the public’s favorite albums are not only not winners, but largely not in attendance, is a looming possibility.
So where do the Grammys go from here? The Academy responded to last year’s Adele/Beyoncé fallout with promises of sweeping changes to the voting process and additional “nomination review” to rap music. The major nominees were indeed far more diverse, but in the end, the winners reflected a sense of traditionalism. Do they vet the voting process even further? Profoundly change what sort of person gets to cast a ballot? Move the whole thing to Atlanta? If the Grammys strive to represent greatness in recorded music, they cannot afford to do so while so many of the greatest sit on the sidelines.