The Grammys: The Urban Contemporary Category

Tyler the Creator

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Tyler the Creator

The Grammys began in 1958 and are presented by The Recording Academy. According to the Recording Academy website, they “represent the voices of performers, songwriters, producers, engineers, and all music professionals.” The Grammys are, for many in the music industry, by far one of the most prestigious awards that one could receive as an artist.

The Grammys are arguably one of the biggest accomplishments for artists and people who have a profound respect for music. However, the Grammys have not always been inclusive of all music. It seems that it has been favoring a white audience since its inception.

On Jan. 26th, the day of the 62nd Grammys award ceremony, American rapper Tyler the Creator won the best rap album award. Tyler won despite his competition being the likes of Dreamville, 21 Savage, YBN Cordae, and Meek Mill. The night of his win, Tyler the Creator said it best:

“I’m half and half on it,” he told the press. “On one side, I’m very grateful that what I make can be acknowledged in a world like this, but also it sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that’s genre-bending, they always put it in a rap or urban category. I don’t like that ‘urban’ word — that’s a politically correct way of using the n-word to me. So when I hear that, I’m just like — Why can’t we just be in pop?”

The win felt like a backhanded compliment. The album of Tyler’s that was nominated, titled “IGOR”, is indeed a genre-bending album that infuses rap with pop, funk, and neo-soul. It is hardly a rap album if you compare it to other albums in Tyler’s discography. The Grammys, however, has had a reputation for snubbing artists, and even created a category for black artists.

In 2013, at the 55th Grammy award ceremony, a new category was created. This category was called “The Grammy Award for Best Urban Contemporary Album.” But what is an “urban” album anyway? According to The Recording Academy, it is “albums containing at least 51 percent playing time of newly recorded contemporary vocal tracks derivative of R&B. This category is intended for artists whose music includes the more contemporary elements of R&B and may incorporate production elements found in urban pop, urban Euro-pop, urban rock, and urban alternative.” But we still ask — What is “urban”, anyway?

Well according to Tyler, it is just a synonym with the n-word. One could argue that it is a category intended to celebrate black artists separately from white artists. The artists who have won awards have included Frank Ocean, Rihanna, Pharrell Williams, The Weeknd, Beyonce, The Carters, and, more recently, Lizzo for her universally acclaimed pop album “Cuz I Love You.” There has been much debate over what genres Lizzo has fallen under. It seems like race has always played a factor in determining the genre of a given artist’s music.

One of the biggest concerns is that most of these evaluations on music could be very subjective. The award created in 2002 titled “Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Performance” is classified as an award that is presented to a “collaborative performance by artists who do not normally perform together.” And once again we see that despite the “pop” category, these songs could be regarded as belonging to genres that have always been a part of the traditional Grammy model. Most of these winners have been black singers collaborating with black rappers, except Eve featuring Gwen Stefani, and Linkin Park featuring Jay-Z.

One could argue that because hip-hop is a fairly new genre of music, many changes have been made to the way we give awards to musical artists due to presence of the resulting subgenres. However, is hip-hop not “popular music”? Has it not been demanded and requested on the radio, including stations that predominately play pop music? Have we not made crossovers from rap to pop? These are the questions one must ask.