The Grammys, Good…Bad…and Why Frank Ocean Will Win Best Album of the Year

I have been sitting on this idea for a while, maybe two months or so.  Initially I was planning on providing a scathing portrayal of the Grammys as one of the biggest farces in the farcical world of awards/awards shows, but doing a minute bit of last-minute research I have come to the conclusion that I will try to resist being too critical, as the Grammys really do feel similar in many ways to the Academy Awards, and though I watch the Academy Awards and avoid watching the Grammys, I can admit that they are both nearly equal in their vanity, their gross miscalculations, their presentations.

The Academy Awards, however, do not recreate scenes from the biggest action/big budget blockbusters of they year in between presenting awards in a desperate attempt to add viewers (though perhaps they should – wouldn’t that be interesting to watch).

In an effort to keep this brief and readable, and avoid becoming an essay from an unqualified critic on such matters that no one can support, I will keep my criticisms limited to Best Album of the Year, and Best New Artist.

Looking from the outside in, the Grammys have had the appearance of an organization desperately seeking respect or affirmation for many years.  This, I know, is a dangerous manner in which do judge something (gauging from a distance, with little perspective), and with most things I resist the temptation to do so, but with the Grammys it can be fairly simple to notice immediately the problems inherent.

Briefly, to get the small stuff out of the way:  KENDRICK LAMAR WAS NOT NOMINATED FOR A GRAMMY.  The Grammys have a tendency (which I find to be one of its most damaging characteristics) to completely fail its process of nominations.  I don’t know exactly what the process was, but to put it simply:  Kendrick Lamar’s debut album was not only one of, if not the best rap albums of the year, it was one of the best albums of the year period.  Not only was he not nominated as one of the best album nominees (Fun. was better?  Jack White?  Even The Black Keys, whom I like, were not better), but he was not nominated for best Rap Album (replaced by the great 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, and Lup-eh Fiasco, whom I also like, but was not impressed with his new album).  Nor was he nominated for Best Song. Or best Rap Song.

Kendrick Lamar wasn’t even nominated for Best New Artist (replaced – again, here – by Fun.).  I would like to point out right here two things.  First:  I like Fun.  My girlfriend was a fan of their lead singer, far more, when he was a member of The Format.  I like them, but again, to place them as an Album of the Year candidate over someone far more deserving, seemingly only because they have a far more popular album (they are also nominated for Song of the Year, along with “Call Me Maybe,” but that’s a different can of worms I’m trying to avoid) is one of the great mistakes the Grammys seem to make every year.

Also, putting a band like Fun. in the category of Best New Artist exposes a level of ineptitude in the Grammys that has disturbed me for years.  Fun. has been a band for at least five years, since The Format broke up.  They had released an album, previously, in 2009.  Now, with Some Nights as their “breakout success,” how is it possible for them to be declared a ‘New Artist’?  To make two analogies, it would be like nominating Adele as Best New Artist for “21” (she won Best New Artist when she released “19,” which makes sense).  Or, it would be like an athlete having a breakout year in their fifth season in professional sports, and being nominated as “Rookie of the Year” award for doing so.  I can come up with many examples for that, but I’ve gone on too long already.

Really, the grave injustice of avoiding Kendrick Lamar completely, especially in a category the Grammys tries so exclusively to maintain their self-respect in (Esperanza Spalding) is reason alone to write a scathing article about the Grammys.  Yet, as I said at the beginning of this, this is not why I wanted to write this post necessarily.

It may seem like all I’ve done is attack the ineptitude of the Grammys as a failed institution for recognition in all fields of music, but really what I wanted to say is that all their failings have made it possible, at least for this year, to make the correct decision for Album of the Year, and it seems inevitable they will do so.

These past few months have been a boon for me musically.  No longer am I looking for music that merely sounds good, or something that can help me pass the time.  In recent years I have been looking for music that has a value greater for me than that, something that alters my life in a positive way.  I am thankful I am surrounded by people who know far more about music itself than I do, people that introduce me to music I would have never listened to on my own, though I try as much as I can.

Months and months ago my one friend kept telling me about Kendrick Lamar, and how great he is.  He showed me this video:

I was greatly impressed.  Still am by this.  When his album came out, I knew what to expect, and I was not disappointed.

My other friend, just a few months ago, introduced me to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange.  I had heard of Frank Ocean vaguely for a few months before that, but never thought about him or his music much beyond that.  All I had heard was how great his album was, but it never provoked me enough to seek it out.  Honestly, I confused him constantly with Billy Ocean, only because I didn’t think too deeply about it, and I thought it was funny they had the same last name.

I respect my friend’s taste in music greatly, so on our way to band practice one night he began to play me some of Channel Orange.  After only hearing a few minutes of a couple songs, I demanded a copy (I’m sorry I haven’t bought your album yet Mr. Ocean, but I will definitely come to your show if you come to Cleveland).  I had a feeling at that time about this album that I hadn’t had for a long, long time about any other album.  I immediately heard this line pass through my head repeatedly, ‘This album has to be a part of my life.’

It sounds silly to say it that way, but from the musical selection, the manner of each song, its deliberate care seemingly placed in each moment of every song, the amazing vocal lines over the fantastic chord progressions, the intimacy and emotion in the inflection of his voice…this album is a wonder to listen to.  There is not a weak moment at any point in this album.

To avoid making this any ANY longer, I won’t do something silly like an album review.  All I will say now is why this album, as soon as I listened to it in that car that night, became a virtual guarantee to me to be the Album of the Year at the Grammys, before the nominations (and the…sigh…Nominations show/concert) were announced.

The first, and most prevalent point about Channel Orange, is its relative obscurity/popularity.  Though it sold rather impressively in its first week (131,000 copies, but outsold by the Zac Brown Band), it was not one of the top selling albums of the year.  It maintained almost a ‘sweet spot’ if you will of popularity and obscurity, where many may have heard it, but not all were buying it.  It’s almost like, to put it in a crass and hopefully humorous manner, a “hipster quotient” (quality and recognition of album on a scale of 1-10 divided by popularity of album on a scale of 1-10; the higher the number the greater value the album has) that would provide credibility on all fronts, positively, to any person or organization who recognized its merits (think Arcade Fire in 2011).

The quality of the album is important, but unfortunately not as important as the credibility provided to the Grammys by nominating an album like this one due to the “hipster quotient.” Nor is the quality of the album as valuable as the social importance of nominating someone who did what Frank Ocean did in 2012, publicly disclosing his sexual preferences.

As anyone who would read this knows already, admittance of sexual preference should not be a hindrance today, nor should it be a celebration.  It should honestly, at this point, merely be something that is accepted without any further consideration.  Unfortunately that is not the world we live in yet.  By simply telling the world who he is, Frank Ocean became a small champion of social and personal rights, probably through no intention of his own other than being true to himself.  It is unfortunate, but I believe this will be seen as an opportunity for an organization like the Grammys to improve their image, as it seems to be the case in many organizations looking to be pioneers for personal and social rights.  It is another opportunity for the Grammys to champion themselves as leaders in promoting social change and social acceptance, and I assume it will not be a chance they will pass up.

I believed, as soon as I heard it, that Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange would be Album of the Year at the Grammys, and essentially everyone I have spoken to agrees with me.  It is not merely because it was the best album of 2012.  It is unfortunately, mainly, because the motivations of the Grammys are their credibility.  They have proven in their past that they seek two things:  Popular and Cultural credibility, as those are the things that have seemed to have waned greatly for them for many years.

In the past few years alone it has seemed to be the goal of the Grammys to attain a greater level of respect by selecting winners of their awards through criteria that have very little to do with a musicians, or the merits of the albums themselves.  Frank Ocean appears to be the perfect storm for the Grammys yet again:  his obscurity/popularity, his direct/indirect social significance, and the quality of his album comprise a very convincing combination that, I feel, the Grammys will not pass up.

And it is greatly unfortunate that Channel Orange might become a casualty of this scenario, because it is truly the best album of 2012, and I believe Frank Ocean is one of the Best New Artists to come along in a long time.

Him and Kendrick Lamar.  It’s a shame they couldn’t have been nominated for Best New Artist.  That would have been a truly great competition.

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