Dear National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences,
Do it, you stodgy old bastards. You button-down corporate types, you slick-talking A&R men and women, you pony-tailed recording engineers with your headphones and your analog tape and your Rush T-shirts. Whoever you are. I dare you.
I dare you to give Kendrick Lamar his due. To award “To Pimp a Butterfly” that little gold gramophone for Album of the Year. Let him join the hallowed ranks of past winners like Frank Sinatra, Phil Collins, the Beatles, Christopher Cross, Toto, Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan (in 2001!).
I dare you, in a season of racial strife, a year of #AllLivesMatter and #BoycottBeyoncé, to recognize an album that spoke uncomfortable truths to the pop charts. An album grounded in the realities and contradictions, both personal and political, of being a black man in a country that needs constant reminders that your life matters. An album whose words — “We gonna be alright” — became a rallying cry, heard in the streets of Ferguson, Chicago and Charleston.
While you’re at it, NARAS, you could give that particular track Song of the Year, too.
I dare you to overlook Chris Stapleton, though his record, “Traveler,” brought true grit and grime and soul back to a mainstream country landscape long since scrubbed clean. To forget how Taylor Swift’s “1989” was such an expertly crafted pop confection that even the hip, sad, bearded-types turned and said, “Hey, this is pretty good stuff, when Ryan Adams sings it.” To pass over “Sound and Color,” in which Alabama Shakes finally gave us a set of songs that did justice the earth-shaking, bone-rattling power of Brittany Howard’s bellowing pipes (if you’re the betting type, I say this is where the smart money lies.)
I know you have a history of ignoring hip-hop for music featuring “real” musicians with guitars, basses and drums that don’t come from a machine. But, the thing is, this album has JAZZ. It’s in more than just the band backing up Kendrick, skilled as it may be with the six-string bass wizardry of Thundercat and the wild free soloing of saxophonist Kamasi Washington and pianist Robert Glasper. Kendrick, with his wildly erratic phrasing and the rhythmic contortionism of his flow, is the jazz drummer of emcees. Rakim meets Buddy Rich, Q Tip meets Jack DeJohnette, Snoop Dogg meets Elvin Jones. Hip-hop doubters will hate to hear it, but this is the most musical album nominated in years, at least since Herbie Hancock took the award in 2008 (for an album of pop songs that featured Christina Aguilera.)
Here’s the facts, NARAS. You and your Grammys, in many ways, are the death knell of a quickly fading business model. It’s 2016, music is either free or just ten bucks a month, and the album format itself is a holdover from an era of physical releases that many of the kids you’re hawking your wares to can’t even remember. And yet, once again, you will gather for your annual gala, celebrating a dying industry with glitz and glamour and expert choreography.
But here’s a chance to go out with a bang, not a whimper. To have a say in a conversation about something other than your own slow decline into obsolescence and irrelevance.
Make a statement, and give your silly bargain-bin Oscar to an album that took risks, that reached astounding highs and, where it failed, failed spectacularly. An album that is fierce, political and so of its moment that it may serve future listeners as a cipher for the complexities of its era, like “The Times They Are A-Changing,” “What’s Going On” or “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” before it.
I dare you.