In a Post-‘Urban’ World, Why Is the Grammys’ 2021 Album of the Year Category Whiter Than Usual? 

Columnist Jeremy Helligar asks why, as the Grammys focus on things like the word "urban" being limiting, there's a seeming limit on Black nominees in the most prestigious category — outliers like Jhené Aiko aside.

Singer Jhené Aiko performs at Broccoli City Festival 2016 on Saturday, April 30, 2016, in Washington. (Photo by Donald Traill/Invision/AP)
Donald Traill/Invision/AP

Each year, the Grammy nominations inspire criticism and head-scratching — and the nominees for the 2021 ceremony on January 31 are no different. As usual, there are surprise nods (Coldplay for album of the year? Really?) and snubs that leave us asking “But what about…?” (poor The Chicks). This year, though, in a post-George Floyd world where Black Lives Matter has gone beyond zeitgeist status into the realm of religion, most of us probably didn’t expect to notice a dearth of Black talent in any of the major categories.

The Recording Academy went to great lengths this past year to not deserve the accusations of racist that Kanye West and Beyoncé fans have leveled at them in recent years. It even dropped the word “urban” from all of its category names, as music, they decided, shouldn’t be labeled with racial designations. It was a good call, but many of us wondered if it was all talk… so-called performative activism. Would they go further than renaming categories and actually start recognizing more Black talent where it matters most, in the major races (album, record and song of the year, and best new artist), rather than just continuing to dump the bulk of them into those renamed “urban” categories?

A look at the nominees for the 63rd annual Grammy Awards show that not much has actually changed. There’s a dearth of Black talent in album of the year, the biggest category, in which only two of the eight nominees feature Black voices. Alongside Coldplay, Taylor Swift, Post Malone, Dua Lipa, Haim and Jacob Collier, biracial singer Jhené Aiko was nominated for her third album, “Chilombo,” and the duo Black Pumas, which features Black vocalist Eric Burton, scored a nod for the deluxe edition of their self-titled debut album.

The latter was originally released during the previous Grammy eligibility period and earned Black Pumas a best new artist nomination last year. Speaking of last year, three of 2019’s eight album of the year nominees were recorded by Black talent. The previous year, the number was five. Why are they going even farther in the wrong direction? The last Black artist to win album of the year was Herbie Hancock for “River: The Joni Letters” in 2008. Both Adele and current album of the year nominee Taylor Swift (for “Folklore”) have won twice since then. The 2021 Grammys are unlikely to reverse the losing streak for Black musicians.

Is this really the best the Recording Academy can do? There are no other albums by Black artists that are as worthy of being rewarded as an expanded edition of an album that came out in the middle of 2019? What about The Weeknd, a previous Grammy favorite (10 nominations, three wins) whose “Blinding Lights” was one of the most inescapable singles of 2020? His fourth album, “After Hours,” was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, earning him two MTV Video Music Awards in August. This should have been his Grammy cycle.

Yet, the Weeknd walked away with zero nominations, as “After Hours” became his first album since his 2013 debut “Kiss Land” not to get any Grammy love. Other commercially and/or critically successful albums released by Black artists during the 2020 eligibility period and passed over for album of the year include Kehlani’s “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t,” Chloe x Halle’s “Ungodly Hour,” Brandy’s “B7” (a veteran release with a 78 Metacritic rating, five points higher than Coldplay’s “Everyday Life”), Jadakiss’s “Ignatius,” Stormzy’s “Heavy Is the Head,” and Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist’s best rap album nominee “Alfredo,” which has a whopping 88 Metacritic rating.

The 38-year-old rapper and 43-year-old DJ will compete for best rap album in a category where the average age of the six nominees is 42. That competition also includes Nas, 47, an iconic rapper who has 14 nominations (with no wins), 13 of them in rap categories. HIs 2020 release, “King’s Disease,” could have been his shot at finally sitting at the big-four table at the Grammys. Yet it only managed a nomination for best rap album, a category that may no longer qualify as ageist (at least not this year) but is once again overloaded with testosterone, which means there was no room for Megan Thee Stallion’s “Suga” EP.

None of the best rap album nominees are competing for album of the year, so regardless of who takes the gong, it will be the second time in a row that the winner of the biggest prize in the most popular music genre hasn’t been deemed worthy of competing for album of the year. Tyler the Creator, the incumbent winner for his 2019 album “Igor,” criticized the Recording Academy for not citing it in album of the year, and the ghetto-izing of Black music forms continues, despite the move to distance the Grammys from the racial implications of “urban.”

The problem, though, isn’t really with the word “urban.” It’s the padding of the Grammys with categories for “Black” performers, regardless of what names they go by. What does “best melodic rap performance” even mean? These categories are supposed to position the Recording Academy as being inclusive, but in the end, they merely give them places to dump music by Black artists so they can ignore them in the majors.

Grammy categorization by race actually works both ways. Justin Bieber received four nominations this year, three of them for his “Changes” album, and after the nominations were announced, he posted on Instagram that he found it “strange” that it “is not being acknowledged as an R&B album.” Bieber has a point. “Changes” certainly has a strong R&B flavor, and if it had been recorded by a Black artist, it’s hard to imagine it would have made it into any of the pop categories.

The Recording Academy did welcome Bieber to the country categories, via a best country duo/group performance nod for his Dan + Shay collaboration “10,000 Hours,” and he wasn’t the genre’s only Grammy surprise. With a best country vocal performance nod for her single “Black Like Me,” Mickey Guyton became the first Black woman to call herself a country nominee since the Pointer Sisters scored two country nods (and a win for “Fairytale”) in best country vocal performance by a duo or group in the mid ‘70s. Like Black Pumas’ record of the year nominee “Colors,” “Black Like Me” is a musical treatise on racial identity, and like “Colors,” it wasn’t recognized in the songwriting categories. Does this mean the Recording Academy wasn’t really listening?

In a race featuring tough competition from Eric Church, Vince Gill and Miranda Lambert, Guyton has next to no chance of being declared a winner. Her nomination will be her reward, and the Recording Academy’s too. They can be seen as, if not quite woke, at least woke-ing up. It’s too bad that in the biggest category of all, where they could be truly driving change in an industry that has historically failed to give Black performers their due, Grammy voters are still asleep at the wheel.