How Kendrick Lamar lost Album of the Year to Taylor Swift


Kendrick Lamar’s masterful, revolutionary album To Pimp a Butterfly was an easy pick to win one of the Grammys’ biggest awards: Album of the Year. Though the category was stacked with excellent work, Lamar’s album seemed too brilliant to fail.

For the second year in a row, a thoughtful album by a black artist lost to one that—though great—might not have had the same cultural impact. Last year Beck won over Beyoncé. This year, the Album of the Year award went to Taylor Swift instead of to Kendrick Lamar. Here’s why.

Unlike the other Grammy categories, every single member of the Recording Academy votes on the winner of Album of the Year. That group includes artists from every genre, engineers, producers, and other industry members.

Like any election, people vote for the album they like the best. Art is a subjective, so while I might say that To Pimp a Butterfly was the best album of the bunch, that’s an opinion, based on my own personal preferences.

The easiest way to predict then, that an album won’t win Album of the Year, is to look at their fellow nominees. (We predicted Lamar wouldn’t win back in December when the nominations came out)  If albums are too similar—or even in the same genre, that voter base will split and neither nominee will win.

Let’s look at this year’s nominees:

  • Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (R&B/hip-hop)
  • Taylor Swift’s 1989 (pop)
  • Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color (rock)
  • The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness (R&B/pop)
  • Chris Stapleton’s Traveler (country)

See that? If pop fans vote for pop acts, and R&B/hip-hop fans vote for R&B/hip-hop acts, the R&B/hip-hop vote gets split between The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar. Neither Alabama Shakes nor Chris Stapleton had the kind of fandoms or history to rack in enough Grammy votes for a win.

Taylor Swift’s win over Kendrick Lamar, then, isn’t all that surprising. 1989 was an immaculately produced pop album with an insane amount of sales and radio play. Grammy voters definitely heard the songs; the music is undeniably popular—though it could hardly be called revolutionary.

So in this case, the Grammys rewarded popularity. It’s inevitable, really: The Recording Academy, simply, has too many voters voting in too many categories to reward anything but popularity. Taylor Swift’s win isn’t a direct hit against Kendrick Lamar, it’s evidence of a decades old popularity bias the Academy hasn’t bothered to fix.

The twist to this whole thing? How the nominees are decided isn’t exactly a transparent and “fair” process.

Though the nominees are voted on by members of the Recording Academy, the finalists for Album of the Year are chosen by a secret committee. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. There really is a secret committee of people who approve nominees for the biggest awards.

The committee was formed in 1995 when—very strangely—Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged won Album of the Year over Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Zubin Mehta.

The entire process is mysterious. In 1985, for example, Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down won Album of the Year over Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Prince’s Purple Rain.

So even though Taylor Swift won the popular vote, there’s no guarantee that the artists who were nominated for Album of the Year this year (or any year since 1995) are the ones all the members of the Recording Academy would have voted into place.

But Taylor Swift was certainly the most popular artist this year, and that’s really what this award is all about.

Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.

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