Why Beyoncé’s Renaissance should win Grammy for Album of the Year

Why Beyoncé’s Renaissance should win Grammy for Album of the Year

The Grammys have a Black woman problem — after four noms, will Beyoncé finally win Album of the Year?

  • Music

Let’s just start things off by saying Beyoncé should already have at least two Album of the Year Grammys: for her 2013 self-titled, surprise-released, industry-breaking LP that featured hits including “Drunk in Love,” “XO,” and “Partition;” and — perhaps most egregiously — for 2016’s peerless Lemonade. The fact that she doesn’t is simply a reflection of how frustrating the Grammys are and have been for years.

But with Renaissance, the most nominated artist in Grammy history with a staggering 88 total (a record she shares with husband Jay-Z), may finally win music’s top prize. Nay, she deserves to and should win Album of the Year, and not just because Renaissance is a masterwork on par with (and some might say, exceeding) Lemonade, but because the Grammys are skating on thin ice when it comes to credibility.

For more than two decades, the Recording Academy has, in essence, gone out of its way to not award a Black woman Album of the Year. The last time it happened was in 1999 for Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Critically revered and a commercial juggernaut, Miseducation was the quintessential Album of the Year, an undeniable hit that pushed music and the music industry forward. In the intervening 23 years, no Black woman, regardless of her album’s success or innovation, has repeated that feat. Not Mariah Carey’s blockbuster Emancipation of Mimi, the greatest comeback since Tina Turner asked what love had to do with it; not Janelle Monáe’s futuristic queer opus Dirty Computer; not any of the Oscar-winning H.E.R.’s three nominations in the category. Bey’s sis Solange wasn’t even nominated for the universally acclaimed A Seat at the Table.

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Until her recent nomination, Beyoncé was tied with H.E.R., Carey, and the late, great Whitney Houston for women of color with the most Album of the Year nominations — three each. Before Hill, only two Black women had won the honor: the also-late, also-great Natalie Cole for 1991’s Unforgettable… With Love, and Houston for The Bodyguard soundtrack (still, 30 years later, the best-selling album by a female artist).

Now, do awards matter? That depends who you ask. For young and/or independent artists, that recognition can open difficult doors and translate to a whole new level of success. For Beyoncé, it may just be another accolade to add to the ever-growing list. But if industry awards insist on being around, and promoting themselves as arbiters of culture and art, then they ought to be fair. And yes, Beyoncé has her share of hardware — with 28 trophies, she’s the most-awarded singer in the Grammys’ 63-year history. Which ain’t nothing. But her glaring lack of an “Album of the Year,” in a career rich with them, does send a message.

“Well, the bottom line is, it’s almost impossible for a Black artist to win Album of the Year,” John Legend told EW in 2020, before John Batiste broke a decade-plus streak. “It’s like, how many years do we have to see Beyoncé getting snubbed?”

How many years, indeed? Bey’s first AotY nomination came with 2008’s I Am… Sasha Fierce, an ambitious double album featuring the immortal anthem “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” just one of the album’s nine singles. She lost out that year to Fearless by 19-year-old Taylor Swift, at the time the youngest winner in the category until 18-year-old Billie Eilish claimed the trophy for 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. Still, Beyoncé walked away with a record six wins for Sasha, breaking Lauryn Hill’s previous record for most Grammys won by a female artist in a single year with five. (Swift, of course, would go on to win Album of the Year two more times, for 2014’s 1989 and 2020’s Folklore, tying Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon for the most wins in that category, the first woman to achieve that feat, which she, impressively, did at just 31 years old.)

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Beyoncé seemed like a lock for Album of the Year. Where were you on Dec. 13, 2013, when a whole-ass visual album suddenly appeared out of nowhere? 21st-century popular music can be easily divided into two eras: before Beyoncé, and after Beyoncé. That album changed the way artists release music and how audiences consume music, and it heavily influenced the following year, and, really years to come. So when Beck won for Morning Phase, it was a shock to everyone except, maybe, Beck fans.

With 2016’s Lemonade, Queen Bey earned her crown as the most important artist of her generation, topping herself once again by creating a cultural touchstone whose impact is still being felt today, across genres. By this point, having completely eschewed traditional means of releasing music, Beyoncé produced a one-hour film that premiered on HBO simultaneously with the album’s exclusive streaming debut on Tidal. While Album of the Year isn’t an award for “most albums sold,” it’s worth noting that Lemonade sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide in 2016, paling in comparison to Adele’s 25, which topped 17 million in 2015 (the biggest-selling album of the year…and the second best-selling album of the decade behind Adele’s 21). In that match-up, Adele certainly won. And then, in what many considered an upset — even to the winner herself — Adele took home Grammy’s top honor.

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During her acceptance speech, Adele dedicated her win to Beyoncé, calling Lemonade “monumental” and Beyoncé “the artist of my life.” While that’s probably very flattering, how many times has Beyoncé had to sit back, graciously smiling, while someone else tells her what she should have won? And most of those people are Kanye West.

None of this is to say that these artists were not deserving of their wins, but how can the Recording Academy consider itself an authoritative organization when it ritualistically denies Black artists recognition as whole, complete artists? To say, “This is the Album of the Year” is to show an artist that they are respected by their own industry, that they have created a body of work that largely defined and impacted popular culture. And to deny that honor to not just Beyoncé, but women of color in general, is to deny the importance of their influence, the rigor behind their talent, and the depth of their creativity.

So, to paraphrase Queen Bey, if you like it, you shoulda put an Album of the Year on it. Vive la Renaissance!

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