The last contemporary black artist to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year was OutKast for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. That was in 2004. For the past three years, excellent albums released by black musicians have been trumped by white artists for the biggest award at the Grammys. Beyoncé lost out to Beck in 2015, Kendrick Lamar to Taylor Swift in 2016, and now Beyoncé again to Adele in 2017. There’s a lot to be said about who deserved what when, but there’s something going on here, and it’s not comfortable to witness.
When Beyoncé lost to Beck in 2015, Kanye West mounted the stage (again) to voice his opinions—but thought better of it. He eventually put out a statement about the tantalizing promise of award shows and how every time, the rug is snatched out from under black artists.
The thing is, he’s not wrong. He wasn’t wrong when he stole the stage from Taylor Swift at the VMAs in 2009. The “Single Ladies” music video will be in the cultural canon probably forever. Can the same be said of Swift’s “You Belong With Me”? If the Recording Academy wants to recognize the musician that puts out the most widely successful album of the year, shouldn’t Beyoncé have won against Beck in 2015? Morning Phase moved 300,000 copies in the U.S. Beyoncé’s self-titled? 2.3 million.
Fast-forward to 2016. Taylor Swift’s 1989, a perfectly good pop album, wins Album of the Year over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. 1989 is fun and has its moments, but it doesn’t move the needle much in the pop world. It’s a singular tribute to the ‘80s—we’ve seen this before. To Pimp a Butterfly, on the other hand, melds countless genres and histories and styles together. It defies the traditions of hip-hop and rap, point-blank. Lamar draws parallels between black musical styles through the ages—funk, jazz, R&B, rap, new wave—like it’s easy. In terms of subject matter, both albums have autobiographical features: Swift shares the life of a repeatedly heartbroken and somewhat-struggling 20-something, Lamar shines a light on life as a black man in America, specifically Los Angeles. In this way, 1989 has a widespread appeal, while To Pimp a Butterfly is more niche. It isn’t a universal message—but it was never meant to be. When it comes to sales, it’s what you’d expect. Butterfly hit a cozy million; 1989 hit 6 million.
This year, Beyoncé and Adele were both up for Album of the Year—but only Beyoncé deserved to win, something even Adele acknowledged. Lemonade, like To Pimp a Butterfly, is a masterpiece. It tells a complicated story of motherhood, of feminism, of being black in America. Music aside, the visual album is a stunning, visceral work. Adele’s 25 has power—but again, it’s the perfectly palatable, just fine, widespread-appeal power of 1989. 25speaks to a mostly white, mostly female audience across generations, and as talented as Adele is, it’s not artistically groundbreaking. Lemonade is harder to grasp, because, like To Pimp A Butterfly, it wasn’t meant for everyone. The album sales perhaps reflect that: 25 moved 9.2 million copies; Lemonade, 1.6 million.
Then again, if we’re evaluating albums based on commercial popularity, Beyoncé’s self-titled should have been the clear Album of the Year frontrunner in 2015—it sold remarkably more copies than Beck’s Morning Phase. So what’s going on here? Black artists keep winning consolation prizes: Beyoncé got Best Urban Contemporary Album this year and Best R&B Performance in 2015. Lamar won Best Rap Album in 2016. Black artists are getting accolades for their work within “their own” genres, but aren’t recognized for their contributions to mainstream culture. It’s arguable that Lauryn Hill (who won Album of the Year for Miseducation in 1999) and Outkast made black music that’s accessible to mainstream white audiences—whereas Butterfly and Lemonade are total threats. They accurately reflect the state of American psychology, and that scares listeners. In a sense, it’s easy to see how risky it is to give the award to albums that so blatantly call out problems in America. It’s understandable that a majority stakeholder in the music industry would be squeamish about supporting such stances.
But that’s the point. Music is never “just music,” and the purpose of award shows should be to recognize art that critically captures something about the state we’re in and spurs us to move forward. To Pimp a Butterfly or Lemonade winning best album would signal a change in the music industry. We could start talking about what matters, start fixing what is broken and open up non-majority viewpoints to the mainstream—something that audiences increasingly want, anyway. Remember that both Lamar and Beyoncé stole the show with their performances at the Grammys. Kanye wasn’t wrong. His frustration with award shows, the one he decided to express offstage two years ago, remains. For too long, black artists have been teased with the allure of one of the highest awards in music, only to be topped by a more “popular” white artist. Instead of letting top-sellers swipe the highest award, let Kendrick bleed onstage, let Beyoncé sound a war cry, let the next great black performer take the stage and tell their story. Lord knows it’s about time.
Katie Antonsson is a writer living in Chicago. An earlier version of this article originally appeared on Frankly Info.