“You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.”
That is an excerpt from text message Macklemore sent Kendrick Lamar after the night of the 56th Annual Grammy Awards in 2014. At that ceremony, in a controversial turn of events, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won 3 out of the 4 Rap categories and Best New Artist over the critical favorite, Kendrick Lamar. Obviously, Kendrick Lamar has gone on to become one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed artists of our time, but how did his instant classic major label debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, lose each of the six Grammys it was nominated for? In this piece, I’ll try to answer that question, but first let’s contextualize this Grammy showdown a bit.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis scored three of their wins directly against good kid, m.A.A.d.city and its tracks. Their fourth win, Best Rap Song for “Thrift Shop,” was also against Kendrick who was nominated for his songwriting contributions to A$AP Rocky’s “F***in’ Problems” on which he was featured. In many years, the key to predicting Grammy winners and comprehending head-scratching outcomes is a close analysis of the nominations. More often than not, the story of Grammy glory is written in the stars of the nominations announcement.
Heading into the ceremony, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis scored seven nominations: Best New Artist, Album of the Year and Best Rap Album for The Heist, Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song for “Thrift Shop,” Song of the Year for “Same Love,” and Best Music Video for “Can’t Hold Us.”
On the other hand, Kendrick received six nominations: Best New Artist, Album of the Year and Best Rap Album for good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Best Rap Performance for “Swimming Pools (Drank),” Best Rap Song for “F***in’ Problems,” and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for “Now Or Never.”
Remember, nominations indicate the amount of support a record or artist has from the voting members of the Academy. Notably, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ seven nominations were spread across three different fields (General, Rap, Music Video) and three different singles from The Heist, along with the parent album, were recognized. While both acts were nominated in Best New Artist and Album of the Year, that Song of the Year nomination easily put Macklemore ahead of the curve. He had enough support to get his latest radio single a General Field nomination when neither “Thrift Shop” or “Can’t Hold Us” were recognized in those categories. Conversely, outside of Best New Artist and Album of the Year, all of Kendrick’s nominations for were confined to the Rap categories. Kendrick’s winning prospects continue to dim when one takes into account that he missed a Best Rap Song nomination for one of the album’s tracks. That category should have been an easy nomination for Kendrick, especially considering he was able to get a nomination in Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for a lesser known deluxe track.
Although Macklemore pulled off wins in three out of his four Rap Field nominations, there was, and to some extent still is, debate over whether or not Macklemore’s music should be categorized as rap. Aside from Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis beat out such hip-hop giants as Jay-Z, Kanye West, Eminem, Drake, and J. Cole. Simply put, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Kendrick Lamar represent two disparate sects of rap music whose success is either hindered or exacerbated by not only the sound of their music, but also their race. In short, Macklemore’s pop-driven hook-reliant rap music gave him an instant pathway into Mainstream Top 40 radio in a way that Kendrick’s more traditional rap music, which is rooted in storytelling, dense lyricism, and samples, could not. Top 40 radio, the largest radio format in the country, granted Macklemore access to a greater audience, thus increasing his name recognition and star power. Simply put, in 2012, you would need to have a grasp on the state of hip-hop to know Kendrick Lamar, but you just had to simply exist to know who Macklemore was. It wasn’t just the sound of Macklemore’s music that gave him a leg up, his lyrics also broadened his appeal. The Heist was filled with fun self-empowerment songs that were uplifting in the grandiose way that pop anthems normally are. Kendrick’s album was essentially an audio-autobiography that covered his life experience with a kind of detail and specificity rarely seen in popular music. Kendrick was a Black rapper than made an album specifically about his very Black American experience through one of the only music genres that has maintained the visibility of its Black origins. Macklemore, for all of his enjoyable songs and grassroots success, was, in essence, a more palatable and whiter version of a music genre often deemed too aggressive and vulgar by the mainstream. His existence offered the Grammys a way to reward rap music without having to face their own history and discomfort and reward Black artists.
Best New Artist
The nominees: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Ed Sheeran, James Blake, Kendrick Lamar, Kacey Musgraves
The best way to decipher voting patterns at the Grammys is to think of each genre as a voting bloc. In theory, most of the voters in a given block would vote for the song/artist of the corresponding genre, especially if the nominee was recognized in the categories of their home genre. Remember: Voting members are allowed to vote in up to nine categories, including the four General Field categories, and they are supposed to stick to the genres that they know. There is no way to regulate this, or at least the Academy has yet to publicly showcase any measures of regulation. At the time of the ceremony, although Kendrick, Ed, and Kacey feel like massive stars, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis was indisputably the biggest commercial act out of the five nominees. They also had the most cross genre appeal: the duo could siphon votes from the rap and pop blocs as well as passionless voters that just checked off the first name on the ballot that they recognized. General Field winners can also be predicted by looking at the total amount of nominations a record or artist has received. At the 2014 ceremony, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Kendrick Lamar tied with Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams as the artists with second-most nominations of the night (7). Of the Best New Artist nominees, Macklemore and Kendrick’s 7 outpaced Kacey Musgraves (4), Ed Sheeran (2), and James Blake (1).
Clearly, James Blake had the least amount of support out of the five nominees. Ed Sheeran’s other nomination came from his turn as a featured artist on Taylor Swift’s Red which was nominated for Album of the Year. If anything, Ed would likely have split votes with James and Kacey given his sound and image at the time (scruffy British singer-songwriter). Kacey’s other three nominations were all in Country categories, so she likely had the majority of that bloc’s support but getting votes outside of country and Americana would have been an uphill battle. That, of course, leaves Kendrick and Macklemore. It is interesting to note that two rappers were likely the top two choices for Best New Artist given that as of 2014, only eight rappers had been nominated for the award. Lauryn Hill (1999) was the only one to win. As aforementioned, the variety and breadth of Macklemore’s nominations was indicative of his broader voter appeal, as was his easily digestible image and music thus lifting him to a win in this category.
Best Rap Album
The nominees: The Heist (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis), good kid, m.A.A.d. city (Kendrick Lamar), Magna Carta, Holy Grail (Jay-Z), Nothing Was the Same (Drake), Yeezus (Kanye West)
At this ceremony, Jay-Z held the honor of being the most-nominated artist of the night with 9 nods. Although the Grammys didn’t, and still do not, use ranked voting to determine winners, I’ve tried to estimate where each nominee ended up in the finally ranking.
Kanye’s Yeezus was likely last in the ranking given the controversial nature of the album and his image at the time, and his lack of overall nominations (2). Although Drake triumphed in this category the previous year for Take Care, his lack of nominations (just 2) for songs from Nothing Was the Same is likely an indicator of less passion for this album. And then there were three. Jay-Z’s nine nominations and rich history in this category (he was a 9-time nominee in this category by 2014, and he currently holds the all-time record), could have buoyed him to a win here. Forget the middling album reviews, the commercial success of “Holy Grail” and “Tom Ford” and the radiance of his star power would have garnered many votes from both the Rap bloc and passive voters just looking for categories to fill.
Regardless, here’s how Macklemore won. Out of all of the nominees for Best Rap Album, he had the most individual songs from an album nominated, the most nominations in the General Field, and (sans Jay-Z) he was the only act to score a nomination for Best Music Video. From the nominations alone, there was clearly a large amount of support for Macklemore across the voting body. Remember in 2014, The Recording Academy hadn’t made any significant steps to ensure a more diverse voting body yet. In that case, think of what, in the simplest of terms, old white men would choose for Best Rap Album. Kendrick likely had the support of younger voters, particularly Black voters and those in tune with the state of the culture at the time. The love that hip-hop had for Kendrick at this specific time simply cannot be understated. Nevertheless, what Kendrick lacked was the digestibility that Macklemore had. Arguably, the most offensive thing Macklemore ever did was rap in support of gay marriage, and even then, he went on to marry same-sex couples during his performance of “Same Love” at this very Grammy Awards ceremony. Kendrick’s explicit and unflinching look at Compton, gang violence, economic disenfranchisement, and his American Blackness simply could not compete with the bubbly effervescence of Macklemore’s pop anthems. Furthermore, Macklemore is white. His whiteness granted him access to Mainstream Top 40 radio that continues to evade Kendrick to this day unless he features on a pop star’s song. The Grammys have also made a habit of over-rewarding white rappers in this category. Eminem holds the most wins in this category; he triumphed six out of the seven times he was nominated. Conversely, you have a rap music legend like Jay-Z who has been nominated for this award 11 times and has lost every single time. This is the same issue that allowed Bruno Mars to sweep the 2018 Grammys with music that a Black artist would have been snubbed for making. The Grammys love to reward Black music, specifically Rap and R&B, from non-Black artists. There were many elements that converged and ultimately resulted in Macklemore’s win here, but they all tie back to race somehow. This is a prime of example of how race implicitly and explicitly impacts the Grammys. Even though Macklemore & Ryan Lewis had the worst, arguably fourth-best, album in the category, their whiteness was able to lift them to a win over four more deserving records from Black rappers. The Grammys have one job, to reward “artists and technical professionals for artistic or technical achievement, not sales or chart positions,” and they chose to reward the most commercially successful album over the one that enraptured critics and the culture alike.
But what did this all mean for the Grammys? For one, they spent the next few years showering Kendrick with awards. He has gone on to win 13 Grammys, although they were all in the Rap Field bar two wins for Best Music Video. Moreover, Macklemore’s win likely impacted the Iggy Azalea situation in the following year. The backlash to Macklemore’s Best Rap Album win was swift and harsh. Macklemore posted screenshots of his apology texts to Kendrick Lamar, which Drake called “wack as f**k.” Slate pulled out an article titled “Don’t Hate Macklemore Because He’s White. Hate Him Because His Music Is Terrible.” The backlash was so damning that the rap duo chose not to submit their last record, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, for Grammy consideration. Faced with that backlash, a conscious effort about not awarding the hot new white pop-rapper on the black would be unsurprising.
It is important to note, however, that Macklemore is very much aware of his white privilege and how it is has given him advantages in his life and career. He’s made two songs about it. This Grammy race, specifically Best Rap Album, is just another example in a long list of them that show that The Recording Academy is yet to truly reckon with how white privilege and implicit bias negatively impact their voting process and awards.
Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, K.B. Denis is a current student at Duke University and an alumnus of Collegiate School. K.B. has nurtured his passion for music and music journalism through New York University’s Future Music Moguls program and by managing his own music and entertainment website, Black Boy Bulletin. K.B. is also a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. Connect with him about music, politics, film, and culture on Twitter and LinkedIn.