Grammy Awards 2018: How the Recording Academy has evolved toward relevance

What a difference a decade makes.

Ten years ago, at the 50th Grammy Awards, Kanye West was the only hip-hop artist in the race for album of the year, pitted against English indie-rock chanteuse Amy Winehouse, perennially nominated rock band the Foo Fighters, country singer-songwriter Vince Gill and jazz veteran Herbie Hancock; Hancock won.

The 60th Grammy Awards will be a very different scene.

On Tuesday, the Recording Academy revealed nominations heavily skewed to rap, hip-hop and R&B; top categories were filled by Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee and Bruno Mars.

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After treading cautiously through the realm of hip-hop urban music for nearly four decades, the academy has embraced the genre wholeheartedly.

For the first time in that six-decade history, there was not a white male among the album-of-the-year nominees (Lorde is the sole female), while the record and song-of-the-year nominations included the first Spanish-language song — “Despacito” by Puerto Rican musicians Fonsi and Daddy Yankee — to be recognized in four marquee categories.

Jay-Z led this year’s nomination slate with eight for his “4:44” album, followed by Compton’s Lamar with seven and Mars with six. Gambino, the musical alter ego of actor Donald Glover (“Atlanta,” “Solo: A Star Wars Story”), R&B/pop singer-songwriter Khalid, Chicago producer-songwriter No I.D. and R&B artist SZA tied with five apiece.

There are no white men among the best new artist nominees either, where the women (Alessia Cara, SZA and Julia Michaels) outnumber the men (Khalid and Lil Uzi Vert).

This year’s increased number of artists of color and women may be a response to the current political climate in which many in those groups feel both threatened and moved to speak out. It most certainly reflects the academy’s attempt to address criticism that it is out of touch with notable artists and trends shaping pop music.

Most of the nominated works also signal the ongoing shift from music ownership to streaming. Virtually all the nominees in top categories regularly rack up massive numbers online; “Despacito,” for instance, has been streamed more than 4.4 billion times on YouTube.

“I think the nominations are a reflection of a very savvy current voting membership who really do have their fingers on the pulse of what is happening in music," academy President Neil Portnow said of the mix in this year’s nominations, adding that, “It does feel somewhat historic.”

Historic, but not accidental. In recent years, Portnow said, the academy pushed to ensure that its membership was dominated by active participants in the music business rather than “hobbyists.”

This year, to make voting more convenient for members whose schedules are pretty “upside-down” between recording, touring and promoting their music, voting was done online.

“To sit around and wait to get a physical ballot at a mailbox is inhibiting,” he said. “Now it’s fairly ubiquitous that you can vote from your phone. That typically improves participation and encourages participation, and it’s more appealing to do it.”

Add to that “the fact that hip-hop and urban [music] are pervasive in the mainstream, not only in music but in culture, and not just in America but worldwide,” Portnow said, “and it’s a formula for the kind of results we’re seeing today.”

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Change usually comes at a price; this year’s greater recognition of younger artists comes at the expense of veteran musicians who are still delivering acclaimed work.

Singer-songwriter Randy Newman’s critically acclaimed album, “Dark Matter,” received only one nomination, for best arrangement for instruments and vocals on the track “Putin.”

“Triplicate,” Bob Dylan’s three-volume continuation of his exploration of American pop standards, has received widespread praise but is nominated only in the pop vocal album category; not so long ago it might have landed an overall album-of-the-year nod.

Neither of those works, however, resonated significantly with listeners — or voters — under 40. Or even 50.

Perhaps the most visible example of this year’s pivot from the tried-and-true is the absence of any nominations for the Beatles, or Beatles-related recordings.

Even the highly touted and enthusiastically received 50th anniversary reissue of the group’s landmark 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” failed to score nods in the boxed or special limited edition package, historical album or album notes categories.

In recent years Grammy voters have often handed out key awards to heritage artists such as Hancock, Ray Charles, Santana, Steely Dan, Eric Clapton and Tony Bennett, a practice widely viewed as compensation for earlier oversights more than reward for a particular work.

It also often reflected the preferences of the academy’s older voters, who favored veterans over newcomers even if those artists had little connection to the current music scene.

This year virtually all the nominations single out artists who have largely come of age in the past decade. At 47, Jay-Z is the grand old man of the lot.

Today, the Recording Academy has close to 24,000 members, but only a little over half of them are eligible to vote. Where once members could just automatically renew their membership, now they must requalify by showing they have done the necessary work to meet the academy’s membership criteria.

“We’ve been putting a lot of effort into this,” Portnow said. “We continue to strive for a relevant voting membership.”

While other voting organizations, including the film academy, work toward racial and gender diversity, the music academy is also concerned about age and genre.

“Certainly diversity is a big piece of that,” he said. “Diversity means a lot of things, not only about race and ethnicity, but also about genre — we have 84 categories — also a lot about age and having a youthful component, about geography and being representative of music across the country, and gender as well.

“As we continue to have that as an agenda, I believe we’re seeing the fruits of that work in these kinds of nominations,” said Portnow. “You don’t get that kind of a slate from an organization that hasn’t done its homework.”

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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