The Recording Academy had Kendrick Lamar right where it wanted him: He opened the 60th Grammy Awards show with a passionate, moving performance, and also swept all four awards in the rap categories and another in the music video field.
And then, in the final 40 minutes of the marathon show, came the crucial Record of the Year and Album of the Year categories. That meant it was time for Lamar to start losing again.
Throughout Lamar’s short but landmark career, Grammy voters have loved to award him in the rap categories but have always stopped short of giving him prizes in the more prestigious general categories. He lost Album of the Year to Daft Punk in 2014 and Taylor Swift in 2016, lost Best New Artist to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis in 2014, lost Song of the Year to Ed Sheeran in 2016…
And, sure enough, this time around his song “HUMBLE.” lost Record of the Year, an award that has yet to go to a true hip-hop record, to Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic.” And then his album “DAMN.” lost Album of the Year to Mars as well. That had to sting a little more than usual, since it was handed out by U2’s Bono and the Edge, who three-and-a-half hours earlier had accompanied Lamar on that show-opening number.
In a year in which Grammy voters embraced hip-hop music more than ever before in their nominations, finally recognizing the extent to which the music has dominated the pop landscape in recent years, they simply couldn’t go all the way and give any of the top awards to a rapper.
So Mars, an electric performer who makes state-of-the-art R&B dance music and has long been a Grammy favorite, swept the Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year categories. And while the Grammy nominations had been bolder than ever, the winners were completely in the voters’ usual comfort zone — which is to say, music that might recognize the influence of hip-hop, but keeps it at an arm’s length while it traffics in more familiar (and to the voters, more palatable) musical territory.
Maybe this one didn’t feel as cringe-inducing as Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” losing to Taylor Swift’s “1989,” or last year’s award going to Adele over Beyonce (for which Adele felt compelled to apologize onstage). But make no mistake, it was more of the same from the Recording Academy.
Of course, the telecast was far more about performances than wins, as it is every year: This is a show where it doesn’t even come as a surprise when you realize that there’s 45 minutes left in the telecast and there are only two awards left to be handed out.
So you’ll have to look it up to see that Tony Bennett beat Bob Dylan for traditional pop vocal performance or Leonard Cohen won Best Rock (!) Performance over the Foo Fighters and Chris Cornell, but it’ll be easy to go to YouTube and relive the performances from Lamar or Mars and Cardi B or Kesha (who kind of stole the show with her #TimesUp anthem), or see Hillary Clinton reading from “Fire and Fury.”
Those were only some of the many things that happened on Sunday at the Grammys, a show that is always impossible to encapsulate. Spread across nearly 100 categories, almost all of which were handed out before the telecast began, you can find an array of varied and worthy winners: Jason Isbell, Aimee Mann, John Williams, Randy Newman, Kraftwerk, the Weeknd, Chris Stapleton, John McLaughlin, Alabama Shakes, Daniil Trifonov, Barbara Hannigan, Dave Chappelle …
You can find Ed Sheeran, who was surprisingly left out of all the top categories, but then won the only two awards for which he was nominated — though he didn’t show up to collect those awards, maybe with reason.
And you can find the Rolling Stones, who won the Best Traditional Blues Album for “Blue and Lonesome.” And hey, it might not be the best blues album of the year, but it’s the one from the most famous band — and rather ridiculously, only the third competitive Grammy that band has ever won. (The first two were for the 1994 album “Voodoo Lounge,” which was perhaps not the Stones’ finest moment, either.)
So what can you do? It’s the Grammys, which throws some great winners and some questionable winners into the mix with one big performance after another.
That’s the way it’s always been — and for those who saw this year’s nominations and recognized the politicized environment in which the show would take place, it was tempting to think that the voters could have sent an extra message with their choices.
To quote the man of the night, except for that final 40 minutes: “DAMN.”