By any measurement, Cardi B’s ascent over the last year has been supersonic, the rare example of a raw young talent speeding unfettered into the pop consciousness, and thriving.
And yet, there was something bafflingly off about her appearance at the 60th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday.
She performed alongside Bruno Mars, the night’s big winner, for a lively version of the coolly tempered new jack swing revival number “Finesse,” but there was no sign of “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves),” her breakthrough single, which sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks last year, dethroning Taylor Swift on its way to becoming perhaps the most impactful and meaningful hip-hop hit of 2017.
It was as if the Grammys were trying to corral Cardi B, acknowledging and accommodating her without fully giving in to her charms. From afar, this is a typical Grammy trade-off, welcoming a potentially disruptive newcomer but on the turf, and terms, of a more established performer.
But the music industry is undergoing changes unlike any others in its history, and the Grammys, as an awards platform and also a telecast, have failed to keep up — it’s an unimaginative, risk-averse awards show masquerading as an unimaginative, risk-averse concert.
The most vital shifts to come to the pop charts in recent years are the result of the rise of streaming, and how digital distribution and consumption have advanced hip-hop’s representation. During the Grammys eligibility window, “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves),” Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane’s “Black Beatles,” and Migos and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Bad and Boujee” all topped the Hot 100 for multiple weeks. (Add in Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar” if you’re generous with the time frame.)
But you would not know that had you watched the Grammys. None of these songs were featured, and none of these artists, apart from Cardi B, were granted a performance slot. There are many root causes of this lack of representation: unsubtle racism and reverse ageism; a fundamental misreading of hip-hop’s power, reducing it to an accent piece when truly it is the main course; and presumably a fear that Grammy viewers would be more comfortable seeing Bono and Sting multiple times than any rapper apart from Kendrick Lamar, who delivered an imaginative and deeply invested show-opening performance.
This is a framework etched into the awards themselves: Voting patterns remain problematic, and even though the nominations in the main categories this year were more diverse than in previous years, those awards were still won by Mr. Mars, a crowd-pleasing showman, rather than Mr. Lamar or Jay-Z, who released albums rich with commentary on black social and political life. The soul singer SZA, who writes songs about the experiences of young black women, was nominated five times and also shut out.
Lorde, the youngest artist — and the only woman — nominated for album of the year, was reportedly not even offered a performance slot on the telecast. “I don’t know if it was a mistake,” the longtime Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich shrugged to Variety after the ceremony on Sunday night. “These shows are a matter of choices. We have a box and it gets full. She had a great album. There’s no way we can really deal with everybody.”
Well, sure, but there was ample time for a staid performance by Sting and Shaggy, and an absurd sketch featuring them as well. Bono recurred throughout the night, like a sitcom guest star with a three-episode arc.
These are appearances designed for casual Grammys viewers, the ones who need reassurance that they aren’t out of touch. They acknowledge the Grammys as a big tent, one that needs to accommodate the stars of yesterday and also today. (Seemingly gone, thankfully, are the ill-conceived genre-collision pairings of years past: somehow, DJ Khaled, Rihanna and Bryson Tiller got through their performance of “Wild Thoughts” without Santana himself — or worse, someone not associated with the song — emerging for an ostentatious lick.)
But that is a different problem than steadfastly denying the next generation of Bonos and Stings their due.
Black artists have smelled the disingenuousness for years, and lately, have been protesting. Frank Ocean declined to submit his most recent releases for consideration. Kanye West has long noted that he wins in genre categories, but not in all-genre categories (something Kendrick Lamar can certainly relate to given his Grammys history; on Sunday he swept the rap categories, but otherwise came up empty). Drake all but rejected his Grammy for best rap song last year because he contended that the track, “Hotline Bling,” wasn’t really a rap song.
Add to these dissenters the list of vital talent that didn’t show up this year: Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, the Weeknd, Ed Sheeran. It is clear that the Grammys are alienating an entire generation of talent with their conservatism. This has always been the case, of course, but the feedback mechanisms are far more efficient now. And overlooked artists have many more ways in which they can seek validation.
The Grammys are also on the cusp of a shift in genre relevance. Rock music has been the heritage sound on which the awards’ foundation is built, but in only a decade or so, hip-hop will become a heritage sound as well, if not the heritage sound, and the Grammys are poorly equipped for that sea change.
It was vexing to see Jay-Z shut out Sunday night, despite being the most nominated artist. He would appear to be the rapper most primed to help the Grammys weather this transition, but instead, he was seated in the front row — joined by his wife, Beyoncé, and daughter Blue Ivy — making for good television while receiving nothing in return.
But someday soon, Jay-Z will be the elder, and what will the Grammys do then? And someday soon after that, Kanye West will be the elder, and what will the Grammys do then? And someday soon after that, Frank Ocean will be the elder, and what will the Grammys do then?
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