One writer predicts that James Cameron’s film, Titanic, possibly set the foundation for the Recording Academy’s voting process.
In mid-December 2017, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of James Cameron’s remarkable biographical feature film, Titanic. For an entire day, we were bombarded with listicles concerning the most memorable scenes, interviews with cast members and artists who contributed to the film’s glorious soundtrack, and think-pieces exploring Titanic’s timeless stamp on pop culture and beautiful, yet flawed narrative. We picked apart and dissected nearly every aspect of the movie to oblivion, but it seems we fell short on one idea. While the feature film deserves its own spotlight, its underlying theme of an economic hierarchy may have unknowingly offered us some insight on the Grammys voting process and its biggest category: Album of the Year.
Music’s biggest night, a concise summary of the 2017 successes across all genres of the industry, doesn’t come without its politics. Sure, we’d like to think that there is a formula solely focused on depth, composition and cultural impact, but it’s possible that the Grammys operates more like the Titanic in its final hours afloat than it does objectively. Just like on the gigantic ship, the newcomers or financially disinclined passengers get positioned at the bottom of the food chain, most likely told to wait their turn in line. And then there is the new money vs. old money logic. While both are regarded as the top of the totem pole, one is secretly celebrated more than its counterpart. Both have status and respect, but old money has lineage, a guarantee of consistency, and the likelihood of investment.
This year’s nominees for AOY are the perfect fusion of new versus old. On one side, we have Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!, and Lorde’s Melodrama; standing alone on the other side, JAY-Z’s 4:44. All projects were superb in their own right. There was depth, chart-topping cultural impact, and flawless composition. That being so, it’s possible that the Recording Academy will use its own version of the Titanic formula to seal the deal on its final pick. And if that’s the case, the only album left afloat on top of an elegantly carved wooden door among its pool of drowning applicants, will undoubtedly be Jay’s 13th studio album, 4:44.
A narrowed down prediction would put Kendrick’s fourth studio album, DAMN. against Hov in the final round. Both projects offer clear and cohesive slices of life, marking the artists’ growth through their own crafts as well as an entire generation or culture’s progression, socially and economically speaking. Arguably, K. Dot’s album, however, is the better project, chock-full of singles that performed on the charts (“HUMBLE.” peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts; “LOVE.” peaked at No. 11; “LOYALTY.” at No. 14; “ELEMENT.” peaked at No. 16), along with a particularly flavorful track list that plays with a medley of old-school rhythms, modern beats and punchy, next-level bars. It’s that combination that attracts a broad demographic, not just in a sense of age range, but also within genres. It’s no surprise that a variety of racial backgrounds are tapping into the rap category (seeing as though rap/hip-hop is reportedly the most popular genre in the country), but that pop and rock fans are switching their radio dials to listen to Kendrick’s latest project. It could be the carefully picked cameos from Rihanna and U2 that garnered outside support, or it may have something to do with the hidden and chopped up samples that serve as the foundation for many of our favorite songs. Most notably, “LOYALTY.” samples Bruno Mars’ 2016 funkadelic single, “24K Magic” (which is also nominated for a Grammy this year). “XXX.” also samples James Brown’s 1976 track, “Get Up Offa That Thing.”
Furthermore, the album’s engineering is effortlessly mastered, while the rapper’s flows demonstrate versatility. Its critical reception echoed these same sentiments. VIBE previously noted that “DAMN. is a clear picture of how it really feels to want everything in the world with only your dreams and visions as tools to accomplish the impossible.” Rolling Stone stated that the album demonstrated how “the most gifted rapper of a generation stomps into the Nineties and continues to blaze a trail forward.” Pitchfork wrote that DAMN. “is a widescreen masterpiece of rap, full of expensive beats, furious rhymes, and peerless storytelling about Kendrick’s destiny in America.” DJ Booth simply dubbed Kendrick “a king and the crown on his head is immovable.” Even so, Kendrick most likely won’t walk away with a golden statue, because, well, new money.
It may be important to note that new money isn’t solely about capturing generational wealth, but also the timeline in which that fortune or status was acquired. Kendrick’s relevancy only sprouted in 2012 with the release of his major label album, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Yes, Section.80 will always be cherished by true K. Dot fans, but that project only amassed an online following rather than true, commercial success. New money is fickle. It has the ability to swing either way, and often lives daringly. New money opts for the brand new Rolls-Royce, or musically speaking, boldly experiments with sound, constantly rebuilding the formula for a hit single. New money will always find success; it will nab the record deals and climb the charts. But we’re never too sure if we should invest in new money just yet.
JAY-Z, on the other hand, is full of investment. The Brooklyn rapper is a decorated veteran in the industry. His career dates back to the mid-90s and to this day, he’s recognized as one of the best-selling musicians of all time. Jay has paid his dues at the Grammys as well. He has won 21 awards out of nearly 45 nominations. Ten out of 13 albums have earned nods. Old money is practical, calculated. It has an aura of calmness and sureness. But to be clear, calmness doesn’t exclude audacity. JAY-Z made a bold move by addressing allegations of cheating on his wife and damn-near ruining his family on 4:44, but his audacity to overshare wasn’t reckless or carelessly thrown together. In an interview with the The New York Times, Hov revealed that his plot to expose all was in the works before Beyonce’s album, Lemonade, dropped in 2016. In fact, the two were planning to work on a joint album, but ultimately, Bey’s portion was more complete.
While old money may be calculated in its approach, it isn’t riddled with what will work or what won’t; who cares, right? You don’t have to worry about striking out (or gold) when you’re JAY-Z. 4:44 served, as Pitchfork stated in its review, “a historical artifact” for Jay’s life and also our current political and social climate. The rapper previously told The New York Times that his album was also therapy for himself in exploring the pain that occurred in his personal life. That being so, there were no singles on 4:44. Sure, Jay released tracks like “The Story of OJ,” “Family Feud,” “Bam,” and even “4:44,” along with thought-provoking visuals with countless award-winning actors, but with the possible exception of “Bam,” none of these were the classic radio, club hits (“The Story of OJ” peaked at No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the others didn’t even chart.) By contrast to Kendrick’s album, 4:44 arguably isolated a huge portion of his listeners due to the subject matter. We may have applauded the fact that Jay could extend his discography to 2017, but Lil Uzi Vert fans (median age somewhere around 16-20) weren’t marvelling at songs about good credit or family values. Still, the album went certified platinum within a week of its release, and at 48 years old and at least 20 years in the game, how could it not? Young fans may not be able to comprehend Jay’s album, but the Recording Academy sure can. Despite our own personal opinions and preferences, you can bet on old money every time, and that is what warrants investment.
This isn’t the first time Kendrick has been snubbed of the Album of the Year title on account of old money. Most memorably, in 2016, Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly fell short of the victory, losing to Taylor Swift’s 1989. By contrast to the overall success of JAY-Z’s 4:44 this year, Swift’s 9x certified platinum album had the chart-topping singles, lyrical depth, and cultural impact. Her single “Bad Blood” (the remix and video featured Kendrick), kick-started Swift’s “girl squad” before the feminist movement really gained momentum and involved some of the hottest names in the fashion, Hollywood, and music industry (Zendaya, Hayley Williams, Lena Dunham, etc.). In this case, Lamar and Swift’s album go toe-to-toe in the final rounds, however the Titanic logic can still be applied here. Taylor popped up on the pop scene in 2006. She was first nominated for Best New Artist in 2008, although she didn’t win. She has won 10 Grammys out of 30 nominations, whereas Kendrick has won seven. Three out of five of her albums have been nominated for Album of the Year, two of which actually nabbed the win. Not to mention, Swift has been considered an American Sweetheart for much of her career. In 2006, U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb won over Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi and Kanye West’s Late Registration. In Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company won over Alicia Keys’ The Diary of Alicia Keys, Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Usher’s Confessions, and Green Day’s American Idiot.
The Titanic formula isn’t perfect. Just like in the movie, there are opportunities (although slim) for old money to end up at the bottom of the Atlantic, while new money is safe in the life boats or floating on leftover debris. Likewise, there are chances this theory could be disrupted. Given the buzz surrounding Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic (namely with the drop of the “Finesse [Remix]” video featuring Cardi B), there is a possibility that he could swoop in and take the win. Also, Lorde, who seems to be the outlier of the nominations pool as the only alternative, could win as well.
It’s been a long time coming for rap to be recognized as a finite genre that deserves its place in the discussion of Album of the Year. This year, not only is rap present, but it occupies three out of five of the nominations. If Kendrick were to overthrow Jay and the rest of the applicants, this would be a significant change in the Grammys. JAY-Z’s 4:44 is a digestible project for the Recording Academy to consume. While it may very well be a part of the rap genre, it doesn’t disrupt the natural flow or order. Yeah, it’s rap but it’s nice rap. A win to Kendrick, would be a nod to a new generation—a young, hungry, and different one.