Let’s get this out of the way first: the Grammys, as a system to determine what the best music in a given year might have been, are a joke. Like, at the 29th Annual Grammy Awards in 1987, the Chicago Bears—the football team—nearly stole the award for “Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals” from Prince, who released “Kiss” that same year. Awards shows like the Oscars and the Emmys are generally inadequate when it comes to honoring different kinds of art, and the sheer amount of music recorded in any year, plus the wide diversity in genre, tone, expectations, styles, and tastes, makes true apples-to-apples comparisons impossible.
With all that said, however, it’s tough to swallow the fact that Beck’s Morning Phase pulled off the stunning upset of taking “Album of the Year” honors in a category that featured Beyoncé, whose self-titled album stunned the world when it was secretly released overnight in December 2013.
That’s an opinion shared by at least one famous artist, of course: Kanye West, who famously interrupted Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009 to insist that Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” should have won the top award that year. This year, as soon as Beck’s name was called, he made a play like he was going to grab the mic again:
After the show, West explained his stance on the award more fully:
“If they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us,” the rapper said. “Flawless Beyoncé video, and Beck needs to respect artistry, and he should have given his award to Beyoncé.”
Kanye West can be, as the president of the United States said after the Taylor Swift incident, a “jackass” sometimes. Check out the reaction from Beyoncé and husband Jay-Z when Kanye approached the stage:
Regardless of whether you consider West’s joke—and subsequent statement—to be inappropriate, however, it’s hard to argue with his point. Beck’s Morning Phase is a fine album, a solid contribution to the artist’s expansive catalog, but it’s also far from monumental. If one were to compile “Beck album power rankings,” it’d be hard to put it above Mutations, Odelay, Midnite Vultures, Sea Change, or Mellow Gold. Morning Phase is, essentially, Beck’s sixth-best album, which speaks in part to the substance of his career (every artist should have a sixth-best album that strong!), but also to the fact that the Grammys aren’t really clear what they’re honoring.
Because Beyoncé’s album is monumental in a way that few albums are. Indeed, Beyoncé’s album is monumental in ways that very few albums may ever be again. Released in the middle of the night with no advance warning or fanfare, with a fourteen-track musical component and a whopping seventeen full music videos, Beyoncé’s self-titled “visual album” is not just a flawless piece of cohesive work, it’s also an advancement that argues for the continued relevance of the album as an art form in an era in which there’s less and less reason for it to exist.
Albums have never really made sense, except economically for the music industry: as a consumer, if you love “Twist & Shout” or “Call Me Maybe” or whatever, the idea that you should have to pay for a dozen other songs that aren’t the one that you want in order to have it is bizarre. But the rent on a record store is the same whether you’re selling singles for $1 or albums for $15, and a single or a full album take up the same amount of space in the bins, require the same number of employees to sell, et cera, et cera. The album, as a format, made sense in an era of record stores and physical media.
It makes much less sense in an era of digital downloads, when, for the most part, every song is available for $1.29 from iTunes and albums are merely the province of the superfan.
But when Beyoncé released Beyoncé, the math shifted a bit: the price of the album was the price of a cultural moment, a surprise album by one of the biggest stars in the world, featuring a massive production team and number of guest artists (Jay-Z, Drake, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, and more). Plus there was the value-added proposition of the seventeen videos that make the album something much more than just a collection of songs. And the fact that it was Beyoncé at the height of her powers, with a statement record that challenged preconceptions of what a woman like Beyoncé had to say, made it much more than a gimmick. When the history of digital music is written, Beyoncé will be a chapter with color plates.
Morning Phase, meanwhile, is more likely to be a footnote. A fine record, released by a fine artist, but just one of many fine albums that came out in 2014. There have been albums like Morning Phase before, and there’ll be albums like Morning Phase again.
Because there’s no objective way to compare music, the Grammys always tend to look at things like sales and cultural relevance in determining who gets the awards (that’s why the Chicago Bears somehow found themselves nominated alongside Prince and Sade in 1987, and why Sam Smith’s Tom Petty-aping “Stay With Me” won a songwriting award). And the fact that the context of Beyoncé’s album was ignored is, presumably, what Kanye West was frustrated about. Those things matter when it’s time to honor a novelty hit like Meagan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” but when Beyoncé is on the stage, the industry is comfortable giving the award to a guy like Beck.
And what “a guy like Beck” refers to is a point that can’t really be ignored when discussing the other context of the award: itmakers in the music industry come from all races and ethnicities, but “Album of the Year” award winners, for the most part, are white. The winners since 2008? Beck, Daft Punk, Mumford & Sons, Adele, Arcade Fire, Taylor Swift, and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. The last black artist to win “Album of the Year” who was born after 1941 was Outkast, in 2004, and in the 57 years of Grammy Awards, only 12 “Album of the Year” winners have been black artists (3 of them have been Stevie Wonder). Only two hip-hop albums, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below by Outkast, have been so honored. Awards like “Record of the Year” are even more egregious—the last black artist who wasn’t recording a duet with a white star to win the award was Seal, whose “Kiss From a Rose” won in 1996.
That context is important when considering that an objectively significant Beyoncé album lost the “Album of the Year” award to the sixth-best Beck album, and when considering the headline-grabbing reaction from Kanye West. If West sees Beck’s sixth-best album take the award over Beyoncé, in the same year that a movie like Selma and performances like those from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chadwick Boseman, and David Oyelowo were all overlooked by the Oscars, and if he sees a mainstream entertainment industry that’s happy to take in the money that black artists generate, but unwilling—whether you’re talking about Beyoncé or Ava DuVernay—to honor their achievements, it’s hard to argue with him.
(Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)