By Kelly Dearmore
When it comes to honoring the most important music from a given year, the Grammy committee is usually hopelessly out of touch. Recognition for edgy, avant garde and innovative artists and albums is too often relegated to those lesser trophies given out before the primetime broadcast, if at all. Remember when Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature won the night’s top prize over Kid A and The Marshall Mathers LP in 2001?
Kendrick Lamar and To Pimp a Butterfly were up for a whopping 11 Grammys at the 2016 running (he won five). The LP was most notably a contender in the all-genre Album of the Year category, his second such nomination after good kid, m.A.A.d city earned a nod two years prior. He landed four more nominations than even Taylor Swift and trailed only Michael Jackson and his 12 nominations in 1984 for the single-year record.
This was a perfect moment for Grammy voters to appear “with it.” Only a couple of hip-hop records had ever won the big prize, and seminal albums by Kanye West, Outkast and the Fugees had lost when nominated. Lamar was a known commodity already, and the critical and commercial success of Butterfly met the unspoken requirements that any AOTY honoree must meet. If the field had only consisted of Alabama Shakes, Chris Stapleton and The Weeknd, K-Dot would’ve been the clear frontrunner.
But, Taylor Swift.
There are many things the Grammy overlords appreciate more than forward-thinking rap. Near the top of that lengthy list is mega-selling, mom-approved pop stars who make a minimal jump into the pre-approved borders of adult contemporary music. Swift’s blockbuster 1989 LP sent her soaring from the crown of the country world to the top of the pops. Loaded with a half-dozen ubiquitous hit singles, ironically including the Lamar-assisted “Bad Blood,” it too carried the coveted combo of critical praise and major sales.
In hindsight, it seems silly to think anyone would prevail over Swift that night. But there’s something else funny about hindsight. If hindsight is, as they say, 20/20, then the actual biggest winner for the 58th Grammy Awards wasn’t Taylor. K-Dot’s fiery appearance that night was unquestionably the “moment” of the television presentation, and years later, it’s safe to assume more of that year’s viewers remember Lamar’s commanding performance over whether or not he accepted an arbitrary award as the credits rolled.
Grammy host LL Cool J previewed Lamar’s performance of Butterfly’s “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” by promising it would be “very controversial.” Looking back on it in the summer of 2020, the sight of Lamar - chained at his wrists and ankles along with a row of others dressed in prison yard work clothes - feels eerily prescient. With a saxophone player locked in a cell next to him, Lamar spit the song with ferocious clarity.
When presented to the tuxedo-clad, upper-class faces of the in-house audience, “Blacker” was an especially bold choice. Rapping things like, “You hate me, don't you? / You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture,” Lamar wasn’t interested in being anyone’s mainstream darling or letting anyone in the room or global viewing audience off the hook. Once everyone on stage broke free of their chains, the lights went dark as bright neons illuminated their triumphant dancing.
Strolling to a set a few feet away, Kendrick began “Alright” before a raging bonfire as dancers - clad in native tribal dress - twirled around him. He then stepped under a sole spotlight to deliver an untitled freestyle referencing the 2012 killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. “Set us back another 400 years, this is modern day slavery,” he spit as a bright white map of Africa (with “Compton” written inside) lit up the arena.
The audience roared with the type of standing ovation typically reserved for lifetime achievement award winners, but K-Dot stood solemn and still. People watching at home immediately tweeted out their praise. None other than notorious British conservative pundit Piers Morgan tweeted that Lamar “stole the show,” while Rolling Stone proclaimed that his “intense piece of jailhouse rock” was easily the show’s highlight.
It was a classic case of losing the battle and winning the war. There’s little argument as to who truly won the 2016 Grammys.
Kelly Dearmore is a music writer based in Dallas. He has written for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Press and Lone Star Music.
Photo: Shutterstock / Siese / Flickr