Kendrick Lamar is set to have a big Grammy night.
His ambitious “To Pimp a Butterfly” (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope) album has 11 nominations, the most this year. He is expected to do well in the rap category, potentially sweeping all four awards.
But will Lamar land the award that has eluded Kanye West, Jay Z and so many other rappers? Will he win the album of the year Grammy?
It’s hard to say. In previous years, the answer would be a definitive no. Hip-hop albums have landed the night’s top honor only twice in Grammy history. West alone has gone into three separate Grammy contests with the most nominations for the year only to miss out on winning the top prize.
But as the presidential race has shown, 2016 is no normal year. And a Grammy vote for “To Pimp a Butterfly” may be much more than simply a vote for Lamar.
“It’s bigger than me,” the rapper from Compton recently told Billboard. “When we think about the Grammys, only Lauryn Hill and Outkast have won album of the year. This would be big for hip-hop culture at large.”
What makes the album of the year Grammy — along with the best new artist and record and song of the year awards — is that they are voted on by the entire Recording Academy, while all the other awards are picked by members involved in a specific genre. Some say that system gives the edge to older, more established artists, rather than popular ones.
However, Paul Porter, founder of RapRehab.com and a former BET exec, says that this year the system favors Lamar.
“He can win because of that system of voters,” says Porter, who is also a member of the Parents Television Council advisory board. “He’s cooler than cool, so they’ll all vote for him. They might not all know, but there’s enough great buzz about him that you’ll look bad voting for some of the other records. [The album] is that good.”
Hilary Hughes, music editor for the Village Voice, agrees, saying that “To Pimp a Butterfly” was “indisputably the top album of the year,” according to this year’s Pazz and Jop poll of more than 500 music critics that ran in The Voice last month. “Kendrick had far and away a historic win,” says Hughes. “It was a consensus. . . . This was the record 2015 needed, a product of the time in which it was made.”
These days, in an ever-splintering music industry filled with ever-shrinking niches, consensus is hard to come by. It seems even less likely to achieve when faced with Lamar’s unflinching look at life as a black rapper today. However, Hughes says Lamar’s skill won people over.
“It made people think a lot and was astounding to listen to, but it wasn’t essentially polarizing,” she says. “It was just great work lyrically and he brings something new to the table. . . . It’s just a triumph of a record across the board and that’s what voters want. They want something that’s a triumph.”
Even President Barack Obama proclaimed “To Pimp a Butterfly” the best album of the year in a recent YouTube interview. He told People magazine that “How Much a Dollar Cost,” a parable where God appears to Lamar as a homeless man asking for a dollar, was his favorite song of 2015.
However, before you start deleting those #GrammysSoWhite tweets, there are a few things to consider. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is up against Taylor Swift’s multiplatinum blockbuster “1989,” as well as The Weeknd’s breakthrough R&B album “Beauty Behind the Madness,” Chris Stapleton’s beloved country debut “Traveller” and Alabama Shakes’ rocking “Sound & Color.” And Swift has already taken home an album of the year Grammy in 2010 for “Fearless.”
Also, Lamar has lived through a potentially big Grammy night before, with controversial results. In 2014, his debut “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” landed seven Grammy nominations, including album of the year, and was completely shut out.
Lamar’s album even lost the best rap album Grammy to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ album “The Heist,” which touched off a social media frenzy so big Macklemore even apologized to Lamar for winning.
“You got robbed,” Macklemore texted Lamar. “I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you. I was gonna say that during the speech then the music started playing during my speech and I froze. Anyway, you know what it is. Congrats on this year and your music. Appreciate you as an artist and as a friend. Much love.”
Of course, the reason we know that Macklemore texted that is because he quickly posted it to his own Instagram, causing many to wonder how genuine the Seattle rapper’s sentiments were.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” is far more ambitious than Lamar’s debut, though, and that could give him the edge.
“He knows it’s not for everybody, but if you listen, he’s got you,” says Porter, adding that Lamar tackles topics similar to Bob Dylan. “He is what hip-hop is supposed to be.”