Genre and Race at the Grammys

Isaac Castella McDonald 5 February 2020
Image Credit: Badger Herald

This year, amidst a controversial Grammys, Tyler the Creator’s genre bending concept-album IGOR took home the Best Rap Album award. When asked afterwards about his thoughts on the controversies surrounding an alleged ‘racist’, ‘boys’ club’ nomination process, he said, ‘On one side I’m very grateful that what I make can be acknowledged in a world like this’. He then went on to say, awkwardly and earnestly, with none of the ‘vulgar internet cowboy’ persona that he first became famous with in the early 2010s: ‘it sucks that whenever guys like me, and when I say guys like me I mean guys who look like me, do anything that’s genre-bending, or that’s anything, they always put it in the rap or urban category.’ Then asking the question this article seeks to address: ‘Why can’t we just be in pop?’

It is odd that IGOR won the Best Rap Album award. On the project Tyler raps less than ever before. Often his voice is used instrumentally, rather than to convey any specific information, being heavily distorted or buried in a dreamscape of synths. On the back cover of the album Tyler asked the listener to forget his previous musical output, saying ‘Don’t go into this expecting a rap album. Don’t go into this expecting any album.’

Given the album’s substance it is easy to understand why Tyler felt like it was his ethnicity and the expectations formed by his former career and aesthetic, not his art, which produced his genre allocation: it seemed much like a younger cousin being given the unplugged controller so he could feel like he was playing along with the big boys.

In the face of this issue, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the body responsible for running the Grammys, have two options. They could admit the increasing artificiality of the distinction between mainstream Rap and mainstream Pop, and confront the prejudices that cause the allocation of artists into either genre. Alternatively they could reassess their biased genre hierarchy altogether, putting Rap, now the most popular music genre in the US, alongside Pop. I contend that the first option is preferable.

Conventionally, we may define ‘Rap’ music as music accompanied by the spoken word to a rhythm, but much of the contemporary music called ‘Rap’ lies far beyond the boundary of this definition. In the last couple of years mainstream ‘Rap’ has taken on a much broader range of delivery styles, ranging from Juice WLRD’s very nearly exclusive ‘singing’, to Playboi Carti’s unintelligible ‘baby voice’.

Now that the boundaries between mainstream Rap and Pop music are being crossed, one of the primary ways in which artists are categorised and evaluated is through their appearance, their aesthetic, their brand, their personality, their background even. Why is Post Malone a ‘rapper’? Because of his face-tats and grills. Billie Eilish, who won 5 Grammys this year, talks provocatively over her award-winning track ‘Bad Guy’ following the beat change. Why is this not called rap?

A culture that looks at and evaluates art through the aesthetic of the artist is one that is always going to be biased. Dean Van Nguyen’s review of IGOR, published last year, displays this tendency. Ngyuen laments the lack of rapping, saying ‘He was never the smoothest rapper but his gruff, powerful flow was the instrument of a young man with his heart on his hoodie sleeve’, and that ‘downplaying his performance strips the music of much of that sentiment.’ This makes me uneasy. The word ‘hoodie’ implies a class demographic and the rebellious cowboy aesthetic Tyler was known for in his earlier work. The lack of ‘sentiment’ is perhaps a reflection of what Nguyen thinks he wants from this figure, whose former music was always laced with his manic Odd Future ego. Its almost as if now that Tyler’s produced a concept album only tangentially about himself there is no longer the opportunity to fetishise his personality. Nguyen hasn’t listened to Tyler’s instructions, and has gone into his evaluation of IGOR through his expectations.

This tendency can provide one answer to Tyler’s question: the reason ‘people like [him]’ can not be in placed in the Pop category is because in the current musical landscape the evaluation of an artist’s work is often not based on music, but on persona.

With mainstream Pop and Rap music becoming more and more similar, it is time for the industry to admit the frequent artificiality of the distinction between the two. The truth is that the human voice is an incredibly versatile instrument, and words used to describe its output are always a simplification. Singing, rapping, chanting, talking, screaming, mouthing, are gridlines across a terrain that is four dimensional, and categorising music according to this is pointlessly limiting. Restricting certain artists to certain genres is much worse than just pointless, it positively limits the artists affected due to the hierarchical system the Grammys propagate. It is unfortunate that Tyler was unable to escape the box he built for himself in his previous albums, and one of the more proverbial messages from IGOR was sadly proved true: ‘whatever you run from, that’s what you end up chasing.’