Inside Grammy Awards’ Hip-Hop Takeover: Why Country and Rock Albums Got Snubbed

“The nominations are a reflection of where music is, where society and culture are and where things are moving,” Academy President Neil Portnow says

Jay-Z Kendrick Lamar
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The 2017-2018 Grammy nominations aren’t very balanced, and the Recording Academy is just fine with that.

In most recent years, the top categories have included a mixture of genres, usually including country and rock performers alongside the hip-hop, R&B and pop artists who dominate the culture and the music charts. Recent nominees in the marquee Album of the Year category, for example, include Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” and Beck’s “Morning Phase” among them.

But this year, contenders like Miranda Lambert’s “The Weight of These Wings” and Metallica’s “Hardwired … To Self Destruct” were bypassed in favor of albums by hip-hop artists Childish Gambino, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and hip-hop-tinged R&B singer Bruno Mars; only singer-songwriter Lorde kept it from being a clean sweep for urban music.

The Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist categories were equally heavy on hip-hop and urban artists; in fact, Lorde and new artist Julia Michaels were the only white artists nominated in the top four categories (though Justin Bieber is featured on the nominated song “Despacito”).

“The nominations are a reflection of where music is, where society and culture are and where things are moving,” Recording Academy President Neil Portnow told TheWrap.

“This is an honest reflection of the state and direction of music in 2017 and 2018 — and there are elements about these nominations that do feel historic, in the sense that they show how so much of hip-hop and urban music is proliferating through all kinds of music, not only in America but worldwide,” he added. “It is becoming, more than ever, a solid part of our culture, which you see reflected in these nominations.”

It would be wrong, said Portnow, to think that the Academy used to push an agenda of recognizing all types of music, or that it has now relaxed that push. “It’s not about genre balance, it’s about excellence,” he said. “There’s no agenda coming from our professional music makers who vote, nor is there one from the Academy.

“It’s nice when you see the nominations and you have contributions from a variety of different genres, but it’s not essential. There are some years when the reflection of music just isn’t going to be balanced, if it’s a true measure.”

For the first time, Grammy voters were able to cast their ballots online this year, which Portnow suspects increased the number of the Academy’s 13,000 voting members who participated. He doesn’t know for sure, because the Grammy accounting firm doesn’t tell him — but when their sister organization, the Latin Grammys, went to online voting, they reported an increase in the number of voters.

“We have a very astute, savvy and current voting membership, because you don’t get these kind of results without that,” he said. “And we’re now incorporating online voting, which gives our voters a tool which is efficient and easy and encourages people to participate. That combination made for a really stellar group of nominations.

“This looks different from last year, and it may look different next year. What’s important is that it reflects a level of excellence.”