“What the (expletive) does (Beyoncé) have to do to win album of the year?”
That’s a very good question, one posed by Adele backstage at the Grammys Sunday night, minutes after 25 beat Beyoncé’s Lemonade for album of the year.
The answer? Short of going more pop, or magically becoming a white artist, it’s unclear. Beyoncé’s loss is emblematic of the Grammys’ most glaring problems, confirming that “music’s biggest night” is just as out-of-touch and racially fraught as critics claim.
Here’s why Beyoncé didn’t win, and why she should have.
WHY SHE LOST
The Grammys love Adele — and her sales numbers
While Beyoncé’s loss dismayed many fans, it wasn’t a surprise to some Grammys-watchers. Adele is a perennial favorite at the awards, sweeping the 2012 Grammys with six trophies for 21. Thanks to its earlier release date, her album 25 dwarfed Lemonade in sales. While the two albums posted similar numbers in 2016 (2.4 million and 2.2 million total units, respectively), Adele had already also sold 8.01 million units in 2015 before Lemonade arrived in April 2016.
Black artists have struggled to win album of the year
The Grammys’ album of the year preferences extend beyond just stats. Last year, Frank Ocean told the New York Times that he was skipping the Grammys because of the voters’ weak track record in recognizing black artists, particularly when it comes to album of the year. “1989 getting album of the year over To Pimp A Butterfly. Hands down one of the most ‘faulty’ TV moments I’ve seen,” Ocean wrote in a subsequent Tumblr post, pointing out how Taylor Swift’s album beat out the Kendrick Lamar favorite last year.
And as one viral tweet illustrated, the Grammys’ track record of awarding album of the year to a pop album, rather than a rap or R&B favorite, just extended into its fifth straight year.
The Grammys have an ‘urban contemporary’ problem
In one of the modern Grammys’ most worrisome trends, critically-favored rap and R&B artists are rewarded in their respective genre categories, while rarely taking home the night’s biggest award. It’s a struggle that Beyoncé, Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar all know well. Bey’s Lemonade took home best urban contemporary album last night, the category that Ocean’s Channel Orange won in 2013, while Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was awarded best rap album in 2016.
None of the three artists have won album of the year, with Beyoncé nominated in the category three times. Yet, Bey fans hoped that the 2017 awards would be different, with her visually-sumptuous and critically-acclaimed Lemonade a big enough achievement to overcome the Grammys’ questionable history of racial inequity.
WHY BEYONCE SHOULD HAVE WON
The album was culturally significant and unparalleled in its impact
Adele’s album of the year win wasn’t exactly as an upset; the record-breaking sales and positive reviews of the worldwide-beloved album speak for itself. But as Adele alluded to backstage, Beyoncé winning an album of the year for Lemonade would’ve recognized not just her music, but the vital cultural role the singer occupied in 2016, a pop mega-star whose work still spoke powerfully to members of her race and gender. “I felt like it was her time to win,” Adele said.
She was right. 25 and Lemonade both explored the struggles of being a wife and/or mother, and while Adele’s album was just as swooping and cinematic as her fans hoped, it didn’t take the same risks with genre, or attempt an evocative narrative arc, like Lemonade did. Add on the fiery political edits of Formation, and the album’s accompanying short film, and you get a work that’s so much more substantial than the tidy adult-contemporary collection that took home album of the year.
Beyoncé will get more chances at the top prizes, even if she has to record an album of jazz standards or pop covers to finally claim album of the year. And yet, Lemonade will never have another chance to win, and another contemporary masterpiece from a black artist is overlooked.
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