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Grammys 2020 Recap – Though Billie Eilish Swept the Awards, the Grammys Couldn’t Outrun Controversy
Diddy said it best. “You have 365 days,” the rapper-cum-mogul intoned this weekend as he accepted the Industry Icon award at the Clive Davis pre-Grammy Gala. In a sprawling, 50-minute speech, he called out the alleged discriminatory voting practices of the Recording Academy, highlighting accusations made by recently-ousted chief executive Deb Dugan. Diddy dedicated his hardware to artists who, he says, should have won Album of the Year at the annual ceremony in years past: Michael Jackson for Off the Wall, Prince for 1999, Beyoncé for Lemonade, Missy Elliott for Da Real World, Kanye West for Graduation, Nas for Illmatic, and Snoop Dogg for Doggystyle. “For years, we’ve allowed institutions that have never had our best interests at heart to judge us, and that stops right now.”
For many in the hip-hop and R&B’s upper echelon, it stopped years ago. Frank Ocean refused to submit Blonde, one of the most lauded sets of 2016 for Grammy consideration at the following year’s event, writing on tumblr later, “Winning a TV award doesn’t christen me successful.” Bey, who was up for four awards Sunday, hasn’t been back to the broadcast since 2018; she hasn’t walked the fabled red carpet since her Lemonade lost to Adele’s 25 for Album of the Year. (Even Adele had the good sense to apologize.) Childish Gambino did not attend the 2019 ceremony, where his incendiary cut “This Is America” won both Song and Record of the Year. That same night, as Drake held the golden gramophone for Best Rap Song he ended his speech—which we’ve since learned had been intentionally cut short due to the rapper’s outspoken, anti-Grammy stance during his last several album cycles—with a curt reminder: “Awards don’t matter.”
With stats like these, who could blame them? Jay-Z is the first rapper ever inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but while he has been nominated for 77 Grammys during his tenure, he has not yet won an award in the major categories. Kanye West, another undeniable architect of rap music in America, has been nominated 69 times while collecting, yep, zero all-genre trophies. Kendrick Lamar, another artist the broadcast has relied on heavily in the last decade for ratings-gathering performances, has quite literally won a Pulitzer but yet has lost each of the three times he has been up for Album of the Year.
This evening, following a pulse-spiking performance, Tyler, the Creator earned his first Grammy, for Best Rap Album. Swerving between funk, punk, R&B, and even disco IGOR is a remarkable collection, but ask the man who made it and even he’ll agree that the Recording Academy just doesn’t get it. “I’m very grateful that what I made could be acknowledged in a world like this,” he explained following his win, “but also, it sucks that whenever we—and I mean guys that look like me—do anything that’s genre-bending or that’s anything, they always put it in a rap or urban category, which is—I don’t like that urban word. That’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.”
This is all exponentially more devastating when you consider something Issa Rae acknowledged on stage: “Hip-hop is a leading character in the story of our time,” she remarked before reading the nominees for Best Rap Album. She’s right. For much of the last decade, the genre has been, without question or contest, the most dominant sect of music in America. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at the Grammy history books. The Recording Academy doesn’t have a good record of recognizing women, either. And you have to wonder if tonight’s marathon broadcast offered too little, too late.
Lizzo opened the ceremony with a performance that nearly overwhelmed with all that she does so well: powerful singing, twerking, and fluting, which is absolutely a verb when you see her wielding the instrument. She returned to the stage soon after to accept the award for Best Pop Solo Performance where she was competing against two no-shows—Beyoncé and Taylor Swift—as well as Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish. There was also a Prince tribute as well as a performance in memory of Nipsey Hussle, plus DJ Khaled and John Legend were on hand to accept the award for Best Rap Song for their collaboration with the slain L.A. MC and activist. Lil Nas X delivered perhaps the only truly joyous moment of the night with a performance of “Old Town Road” that featured everyone the Grammys probably wouldn’t have invited had he not wanted them on stage alongside him: Billy Ray Cyrus, Mason Ramsey, BTS, Diplo, and Nas.
But what does it all mean? With all due respect to the winners, I can’t help but feel like the answer is, well, not a whole lot. The trophies, for the most part, went to deserving artists: Billie Eilish is the Best New Artist and her When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is rightfully Album of the Year. Plus, “bad guy,” which won for Record of the Year, absolutely slaps. Her brother, Finneas O’Connell, then, is fitting as Producer of the Year.
But there were also some massive missteps. In a move that is both an insult to her as well as Prince, a great champion of female talent, producer Ken Ehrlich failed to ask FKA twigs to actually sing during the tribute to the artist who died over three years ago now, instead having her simply dance alongside Usher and Sheila E. “Of course I wanted to sing at the [G]rammys,” she wrote on Twitter. “I wasn’t asked this time but hopefully in the future.” It feels dangerously in-line with a decision made last year when showrunners wouldn’t let Lorde, the lone female Album of the Year nominee, perform any of her own music, solo. (Grande canceled her own 2019 awards performance, tweeting that the Ehrlich & Co. were “stifling” her creativity.)
Ehrlich will retire this year after helming 40 ceremonies, and therefore treated himself to a Fame musical montage that featured Cyndi Lauper, Camilla Cabello, Common, Gary Clark Jr., and somewhere between five and 50 others. It arrived three hours and twenty-five minutes (!) into the broadcast and then lasted just as long. Aerosmith—a band that I love—came by to jump on rock’s grave during a messy montage, which included a guest appearance from Run-DMC for “Walk This Way.” And at some point, someone is going to have to explain to me why Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani performed or how Dan + Shay beat out even one of the other artists in their category for Best Country Duo/Group Performance.
“We got a lot to change. We got a lot to do,” Alicia Keys, a return host who was tasked with carrying the show through an onslaught of controversy as well as the unexpected death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant just hours before airtime, said as the clock edged uncomfortably closer to midnight in her closing remarks. If the Recording Academy wants to retain any shred of credibility, they’ll have to take that to heart. And while Diddy may be waiting, I’m losing hope.
Madison Vain is a writer and editor living in New York, covering music, books, TV, and movies; prior to Esquire, she worked at Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.