Before the award ceremony had even started, Kendrick Lamar won three Grammys of the seven that he was nominated for on music's biggest night. "HUMBLE." won Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance, and Best Music Video. The rapper was nominated for seven awards on Sunday night for his album, DAMN., which came out in 2017 — the other four being Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best Rap Album, and Best Rap/Sung Performance — and early predictions suggested he had a high chance of doing so. However, despite Kendrick's fans' high hopes, the 2018 Grammys results included HUMBLE." losing Record of the Year and Album of the Year to Bruno Mars' "24K Magic." In addition, Ed Sheeran's club banger "Shape of You" won over Kesha's triumphant comeback "Praying," and Bruno Mars' "That's What I Like" won over suicide awareness song "1-800-273-8255" and JAY-Z's culturally relevant "4:44" — all of which, as fans quickly took to Twitter to point out, were "safe" and even generic choices for the winners.
Because mixed in with catchy songs about wealth and women like "24K Magic" and "Shape Of You" were songs and albums that touched on real issues that faced people, and especially people of color, in America today. And considering the whopping seven nominations that DAMN. received, it seemed that, for once, the Recording Academy was listening to what fans actually cared about in these tumultuous political times. Now, no one is saying that Bruno Mars' music does not have merit creatively or as a form of entertainment. However, the joyful, loving, and celebratory message inherent in "24K Magic" does not contain the impactful, powerful, and serious examination of cultural and societal issues inherent in Kendrick's DAMN. — and fans were quick to point that out.
24K Magic was a dance bop of an album. It was entertaining, it was fun, and it was designed to make people celebrate life — and all of that is perfectly fine, because music has many uses. But stacked up against a politically relevant album like Kendrick's DAMN., it felt mediocre to many people because it didn't speak to any of the serious issues that audiences are facing today. It's an album for distraction, not for activism, an album that, as Rolling Stone pointed out in their three-star review, was meant to "recreate the nostalgic wonder of the school dances [Mars] attended in the '90s." But despite what all the remakes might lead you to believe, this isn't the '90s. The future is uncertain, the issues are at the forefront of all of our minds, and fans gave their love, respect, and accolades to an album that spoke to that. That's why DAMN. was subject to high praise from numerous music critics, on top of being named the second best album of 2017 by The Guardian and the best album of 2017 by Rolling Stone.
As Entertainment Weekly's Eric Renner Brown pointed out in his review of the album, the world changed a lot in the years between 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly and 2017's DAMN. — and that change is shown in the content of the albums. "'The world is endin’, I’m done pretendin’, and f*ck you if you get offended,' Kendrick Lamar proclaims on 'FEEL.,' ... a surprising change in tone for the 29-year-old Compton, California, rapper who, just two years ago, reassured listeners 'we gon’ be alright'," wrote Brown, narrowing in one one of the most powerful themes of Kendrick's Grammy-sweeping offering. DAMN. is at times somber, at times angry, at times religious, at times political, at times reflective, and, above all, unapologetically black in the issues it examines and the perspective from which Kendrick examines them.
Much of the album ruminates on the state of America, past, present, and future. On "DNA.," Kendrick raps, "I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA," alongside a sample of Fox News pundit Geraldo Rivera criticizing his 2015 BET Awards performance of "Alright," a performance he did from atop a cop car. ("This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years," Rivera said at the time and defended again after DAMN. was released.) On "XXX," Kendrick raps, "The great American flag is wrapped in drag with explosives... is America honest, or do we bask in sin?" And, in the outro to "FEAR.," Kendrick's cousin Carl Duckworth says in a sampled voicemail, "Until we come back to these laws, statutes, and commandments, and do what the Lord said, these curses are gonna be upon us. We're gonna be at a lower state in this life that we live here in today, in the United States of America."
But these are not generic messages. The state of America is a particularly perilous one for black people, and Kendrick dives into that fully with DAMN. as he did with To Pimp a Butterfly — and nowhere was that more evident than in his medley performance that opened the 2018 Grammys. Opening with "America, God bless you if it's good to you. America, please take my hand," he began his performance surrounded by military soldiers who danced as he rapped the ending of the first verse of "XXX" before transitioning into "DNA." after a cameo from Bono and The Edge. Then the scene cut to Kendrick with a black woman, who was playing a taiko drum and dancing before being (symbolically) shot as he rapped "King's Dead," from the Black Panther soundtrack. Finally, he was seen with a crowd of men in red hoodies with their faces obscured who were shot one by one as he rapped the ending lines of "King's Dead."
Divorcing Kendrick's artistry from politics is not only impossible, but does that artistry a disservice. DAMN. did not shy away from the subjects of police brutality and violence against black people in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and neither did Kendrick's performance with its nods at Trayvon Martin's 2012 shooting with the hoodies. Kendrick's performances never shy away from those thorny subjects, and that's why the fact that he wasn't recognized for it in the major categories of Record of the Year or Album of the Year is so painful. In a world where Donald Trump has been elected president despite his racist and xenophobic rhetoric, in a world where powerful Hollywood men are being accused of sexual assault that goes back decades, in a world where police officers who shoot unarmed black people are usually acquitted, for this album, this rapper, and this message to make a sweep of the Grammys would have felt like we were on the precipice of change.
Instead, as fans pointed out, Album of the Year and Record of the Year went to Bruno Mars for an album that, while amazingly fun, masterfully creative, and entertainingly catchy, was nowhere near as powerful as Kendrick's. Instead, the Recording Academy ignored the intersection of politics and artistry in favor of more mainstream fun. Instead, the Grammys' long history of excluding people of color and their art was averted with Mars' triumphant win, but at the cost of losing an important message and the opportunity to boost a point of view that fans feel that we need right now. And that's a DAMN. shame.