One of the strangest droughts in Grammys history is likely to come to an end Monday night.
Everybody from critics to bookmakers expects Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” which leads the field with 11 nominations, to clean up at this year’s awards show. And if Lamar’s sprawling, ambitious effort wins Best Rap Album, it would mark the first time in Grammys history that an artist from California has won that award.
Despite the fact that it has produced some of the most successful and influential rap artists and producers in hip hop history, the home of Dr. Dre, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., E-40, DJ Quik and countless others has received fewer Grammy nominations than Illinois (thanks the academy's fascination with all things Kanye West and Common), and it has received just one more nomination than the state of Pennsylvania, home to the Roots and Wiz Khalifa.
On some level, this strange streak is the product of bad timing. The Grammys gave out its first Best Rap Album award 20 years ago, in 1996, many years after West Coast classics like Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” (1992), Too Short’s “Born to Mack” (1987) or Ice-T’s “Power” (1987) had come and gone. But rap was also nearly 20 years removed from its birth in the Bronx by then, and thanks to mixtapes and the mainstream media’s reluctant participation, it had become a fully American music, with regional styles thriving from Brooklyn to Houston to Compton.
But the ultimate recognition of those regional scenes took a while. The Grammys’ first four best rap album awards went to East Coast veterans like Jay Z, Sean Combs (who, at the time, was going by the name Puff Daddy) and the Fugees, and in the next decade, the category was dominated by three artists: from 2000 to 2010, Eminem won the award four times, Kanye West won it three times, and Outkast won it twice.
That pattern of a select few artists dominating a category is not unusual for the Grammys. Members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the voting body that chooses Grammy winners, get to vote on any category they want, a situation that often leads to established figures getting a disproportionate number of awards.
“There’s a ton of categories people vote on that they’re not experts on,” said Errol Kolosine, an associate professor of music business at NYU’s Clive Davis School of Music. “Sometimes people will vote for that which is most familiar to them.”
That leads to situations like Sir Georg Solti, a conductor, winning 31 Grammys, or Henry Mancini being nominated for 72 of them. But if Lamar wins Monday, belatedly claiming an award everybody, including the person who actually won it, expected him to take home last year, the question may be: Could this change Lamar or the way he thinks about what he's been doing?
My text to Kendrick after the show. He deserved best rap album... I'm honored and completely blown away to win anything much less 4 Grammys. But in that category, he should have won IMO. And that's taking nothing away from The Heist. Just giving GKMC it's proper respect.. With that being said, thank you to the fans. You're the reason we were on that stage tonight. And to play Same Love on that platform was a career highlight. The greatest honor of all. That's what this is about. Progress and art. Thank you. #grammys
“I wonder what 11 nominations does for the next project,” said Mark Anthony Neal, the founding director of Duke University’s Center for the Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship. “For some of these artists that have been grinding on the margins, these awards convey a certain kind of validation, and they have to think about what to do when they receive it.”
Of course, before Lamar has to think about meeting expectations, he has to win first. And there’s no guarantee that he will. “It’s a crapshoot,” Neal said.