Kanye West performing during the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in early November.
Last night's Grammy nominations brought the usual mix of joy, disdain and gobsmacked forehead slapping. Twitter erupted as expected, with cries of protest and shouts of triumph. Adele got her due, but other pop queens from Nicki Minaj to Taylor Swift to Beyonce to Lady Gaga, though acknowledged, came up surprisingly short. The indie world fared well. Wisconsin auteur project Bon Iver's four nominations was taken by many as a sign that last year's Record of the Year win by the Arcade Fire was not just a fluke, but a real step away from a decades-old major-label lockdown. And Mumford & Sons showed serious staying power, claiming two prime spots for a song from an album that came out in 2009.
One exclusion, however, provided the subject for the most common cries of, "________ was robbed!" Kanye West earned more nominations than any other artist: seven, divided among his two attention grabbing recent efforts, the solo My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the Jay-Z collaboration Watch The Throne. Yet neither of those massively acclaimed long players earned an Album of the Year spot.
This, and especially the sore-thumb snub of MBDTF, has raised the ire of many hip-hop fans. West's sprawling, complex, musically dazzling fifth album topped nearly every critic's list last year, winning the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll by a wide margin. For many it's a high point in hip-hop's current phase of high artistic ambition, replete with albums by superstars, from 'Ye and Jay to Drake and Lil Wayne, that push boundaries both sonically and in terms of the stories they tell. It's worth wondering what Bon Iver's Justin Vernon thinks of the MBDTF exclusion, since his work with West on that album elevated him to a new level of fame and possibly helped make him one of this year's Grammy darlings. And in a genre historically defined by singles and currently reliant on mixtapes, MBDTF is an "album" album, meant to be digested as a rich, multiple-course meal.
Was Kanye actually robbed, and if so, why? A few possible reasons come to mind.
He robbed himself. This scenario casts the most benign light on the music-biz pros who determine the nominees. West just offered them too much to choose from, and, divided between MBDTF and the equally deserving Watch the Throne, they ended up ruling out both. Sad, but possible.
MBTDF wasn't a commercial monster. Though it topped the Billboard charts and has sold over a million copies, MBDTF didn't produce the kind of genre-smashing breakthrough single that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Grammy-sponsoring organization, most loves. Previous Album of the Year nominees in hip-hop, from last year's Eminem entry, Recovery, to Outkast's 2004 winner, Speakerboxx/The Love Below, had big, emotionally accessible hits. West went for idiosyncrasy with songs like "Power" and "Monster." Even his current Record of the Year nominee, "All of the Lights," was more noir than blockbuster.
Grammy voters still see hip-hop as a singles-oriented genre. Last night's nominations program included a star-studded centerpiece performance of "The Message," by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, which turns 30 this coming year and stands as a still-relevant protest anthem. Honoring this Bronx-born original document was a great idea, but the choice also reinforced the notion that great songs, not albums, define hip-hop. West and Jay still love to rule the charts, but both MBDTF and WTT suggest that other agendas now preoccupy them: making history and cementing a place in the canon where The Beatles and the West-sampled Led Zeppelin live matter more, perhaps, than crafting radio hooks. This may be hard for the convention-bound Grammy nominators to grasp.
West acts up. This possible reason is both the most obvious and the most controversial. Known for courting controversy both deliberately and by accident, West has alienated a fair amount of listeners over the years. The biggest gaffe of his career took place on an awards show, when he verbally usurped Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. MBDTF was, in some ways, his response to that incident — but instead of an act of contrition like Eminem's Recovery, West produced a far more provocative, contradictory, at times offensive portrait of his psyche and the social forces that have produced it. And he's continued to go deeper and darker, making videos full of creepy, violent imagery, aligning himself with the youthful mayhem of the Odd Future crew, and turning his issues with women and hard-to-track blend of braggadocio and rage into rhymes that both critique America's power structures and wallow in excess. Many people, at this point, think he's a genius but don't like him much.
Seven Grammy nominations acknowledge West's achievement this year — but leaving him bereft of the one he likely wants the most keeps him in a certain place. Fourteen Grammys into his career, he's never won in a major category. That's hard to believe. Or is it just par for the Grammy course?