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John Legend Says 'It’s Almost Impossible for a Black Artist to Win Album of the Year' at the Grammys: Is He Right?

"Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be," Diddy said in January. Legend concurs.

John Legend made a provocative comment in the July issue of Entertainment Weekly. Asked about Diddy’s blunt comments in January about how Black music doesn’t get its due at the annual Grammy Awards, Legend replied: “It’s almost impossible for a Black artist to win Album of the Year. How many years do we have to see Beyoncé snubbed? Kanye [West] has never won. It’s kind of insane…We’ve got to do something, because that’s a terrible record, and Diddy is right to complain about it.”

Legend’s comments carry some weight because he is an 11-time Grammy winner (and an EGOT, to boot). Moreover, he was elected this year to the Recording Academy’s 40-member board of trustees.

But is he right in his assertions? Is it “almost impossible for a Black artist to win album of the year”? Let’s look at the facts.

Of the 62 albums that have won album of the year, 12 – nearly 20% — are by Black artists (as the lead artist).

The most recent Black artist to win the album of the year, Herbie Hancock, won 12 years ago. Even if a Black artist wins when the 63rd annual Grammy Awards are presented on Jan. 31—and The Weeknd and Lil Baby both appear to be strong candidates – that would be a 13-year gap between wins by Black artists – the longest such gap since Black artists starting win this award in the mid-‘70s.

Here’s a recap of every Black artist to win album of the year (as a lead artist). I look at that year’s field of nominees, analyze how the album managed to win, and tell you about all the records these artists set in winning.

Stevie Wonder: Wonder won with three consecutive studio albums, Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) and Songs in the Key of Life (1976). Wonder is, to this day, the only artist in Grammy history to win with three consecutive studio albums. Wonder was just 23 when he won for Innervisions. He is, to this day, the youngest male artist to win album of the year. Wonder was also the first artist to win album of the year for an album on which he was the sole producer. (And he did it three times.)

Wonder faced strong competition all three years. His strongest competition for the 1973 award was probably Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon; for ’74, Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark and Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run; for ’76, George Benson’s Breezin’ and Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees.

How did the albums win? Wonder in those years was the most respected, even revered, artist in the music business. When Simon won the 1975 award for Still Crazy After All These Years, he famously concluded his acceptance speech by noting, “Most of all, I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn’t make an album this year.” The line got a huge laugh, because it was funny, self-deprecating and true.

Michael Jackson: Jackson won for Thriller (1983), the best-selling studio album of all time. He was 25 at the time.

How did it win? Jackson’s rivals were The Police’s Synchronicity (which turned out to be the trio’s final studio album), Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and the Flashdance soundtrack, but really, there was no contest that year. Jackson was as every bit as hot in 1983-‘84 as Elvis Presley and The Beatles had been at their peaks—and that in itself was historic.

Lionel Richie: Richie, then 35, won for his second solo album, Can’t Slow Down (1984).

How did it win? Two rock blockbusters (Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain) split the votes of progressive, rock-leaning voters. Those other albums are considered more classic today –they are in the Grammy Hall of Fame, while Richie’s album is not– but there were only so many rock-leaning voters in the academy in 1985. When their votes split right down the middle, a path opened up for Richie, who was the clear favorite of pop- and R&B-leaning voters. The other nominees in this very strong field were Tina Turner’s Private Dancer and Cyndi Lauper’s debut album, She’s So Unusual.

Quincy Jones: Seven years after he won in this category as the co-producer of Thriller, Jones won as an artist for Back on the Block (1990). Jones was 57 at the time. This was Jones’ second nomination in this category as an artist. The Dude was nominated for the 1981 award, but lost to John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy.

How did it win? Jones was and is highly respected. His nomination that year for producer of the year, non-classical was his eighth—more than any other producer to that point. The album was marketed as a career capstone, with an inspired marketing tagline: “the history of Black music from be-bop to hip-hop.”

Back on the Block beat M.C. Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, the first hip-hop album to receive an album of the year nomination, Phil Collins’ …But Seriously, follow-up to a Grammy album of the year winner, and smash debut albums by Mariah Carey and Wilson Phillips.  This would not be the last time that Grammy voters honored an old favorite at the expense of young, current chart toppers.

Natalie Cole: Cole won for Unforgettable With Love, her tribute to her late father, Nat King Cole. The elder Cole never won album of the year, despite nominations for Wild Is Love (1960) and The Nat King Cole Story (1961). Natalie Cole, then 42, was the first Black female artist to win album of the year as a lead artist.

How did it win? Grammy voters admired both father and daughter. Natalie Cole, the 1975 winner for best new artist, had, crucially, established her own identity, distinct from her father’s super-smooth style. That gave her credibility so she wasn’t seen as just trading on the family name when she decided to make this album.

The competition included two follow-ups to Grammy album of the year winners—Bonnie Raitt’s Luck of the Draw and Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints, as well as R.E.M.’s Out of Time, the band’s first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, and Amy Grant’s Heart in Motion.

Whitney Houston: Houston, then 30, won for The Bodyguard soundtrack (1993). It was her third nomination in this category. Her first two studio albums had lost to Collins’ No Jacket Required (1985) and U2’s The Joshua Tree (1987), respectively. (Some Grammy voters might like to have a do-over on that first one.)

How did it win? The Bodyguard made Houston a movie star. According to boxofficemojo.com, The Bodyguard grossed $122 million in the U.S. and an even more impressive $411 million worldwide. Grammy voters have always loved film music. This was the second of three film soundtracks to win, following Saturday Night Fever (1978) and preceding O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2001).

Houston’s rivals were Joel’s River of Dreams (which turned out to be his final pop-rock studio album), Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales, R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People and a decided long-shot, Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad.

Lauryn Hill: Hill won for her solo debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998). Hill was just 23 at the time. She is, to this day, the youngest Black artist to win album of the year. (She was 19 days younger than Wonder had been when he first won.)  She is also, to this day, the only female artist to win album of the year for an album on which she was the sole producer. As a member of Fugees, Hill had been nominated in this category two years previously with The Score, which lost to Celine Dion’s Falling Into You.

How did it win? This was the first hip-hop album to win album of the year. The music had been in the mainstream for 18 years at that point. A win was overdue.  The album’s lead single, “Doo Wop (That Thing),” had entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1 in November 1998, just as Grammy season was getting underway. The unprecedentedly female-dominated competition consisted of Madonna’s Ray of Light, Shania Twain’s Come on Over, Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions and Garbage’s Version 2.0.

OutKast: The duo won for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003). The duo is, to this day, the only Black duo or group to win album of the year as a lead artist. OutKast had been nominated for its previous album, Stankonia, but lost to O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Speakerboxxx was just the second double-disk album by a Black artist to win, following Songs in the Key of Life.

How did it win? “Hey Ya!” (a record of the year nominee) and “The Way You Move” were No. 1 on the Hot 100 for 10 consecutive weeks (between them) throughout the voting period.

The competition included another rap album, Missy Elliott’s Under Construction. This marked the only time a rap album has won when there were two rap albums in contention. Also nominated: Justin Timberlake’s first solo album, Justified, Evanescence’s debut, Fallen, and the White Stripes’ Elephant.

Ray Charles: Charles won posthumously for Genius Loves Company (2004) Charles had never previously won album of the year, despite two nominations. Genius + Soul = Jazz lost the 1961 award to Judy Garland’s Judy at Carnegie Hall. The following year, in one of the Grammys’ worst decisions ever, the rule-breaking Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music lost to Vaughn Meader’s Kennedy family spoof The First Family.

How did it win? This was the voters’ last opportunity to salute Charles, a legendary, genre-bridging artist. The biopic Ray was released in October 2004, as Grammy season approached. The film grossed $75 million domestically and $124 million worldwide. Two weeks after this won album of the year, Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for his portrayal of Charles.

Genius Loves Company beat three albums by young, current Black artists – Usher’s Confessions, the year’s best-selling album; West’s debut album, The College Dropout, and Alicia Keys’ sophomore album, The Diary of Alicia Keys. The fifth nominee in this strong field: Green Day’s American Idiot.

Herbie Hancock: Hancock, then 67, won for River: The Joni Letters, a tribute to Mitchell.

How did it win? Grammy voters have always loved jazz. Ella Fitzgerald was nominated for album of the year for 1958, the Grammys’ first year. Stan Getz and João Gilberto’s Getz/Gilberto won for 1964. And they have always appreciated it when artists come together across genre lines. That same dynamic was in the play on the following year’s winner, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand.

River: The Joni Letters beat Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough album, Back to Black, West’s third album, Graduation, Foo Fighters’ Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace and Vince Gill’s four-CD opus, These Days.

Diddy’s Blast: Diddy made his aforementioned comments on Jan. 25 when he accepted the Salute to Industry Icons Award at the Pre-Grammy Gala sponsored by Clive Davis and the Recording Academy. My colleague Gail Mitchell included a complete transcript of Diddy’s comments in her story that was published the following morning (see readmore above).

Here’s the key graph: “Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be. So right now in this current situation, it’s not a revelation. This thing’s been going on. It’s not just going on in music. It’s going on in film, going on in sports and going on around the world.  And for years we’ve allowed institutions that have never had our best interests at heart to judge us. And that stops right now.”

Diddy concluded his remarks by saying: “And I want to dedicate this award to Michael Jackson for Off the Wall, Prince for 1999, Beyoncé for Lemonade, Missy Elliott for The Real World, Snoop Dogg for Doggystyle, Kanye West for Graduation and Nas for Illmatic.”

So, how did all of those albums fare at the Grammys? Only two, Lemonade and Graduation, were nominated for album of the year. Lemonade lost to Adele’s 25. As noted above, Graduation lost to River: The Joni Letters.

Here’s one more relevant factoid: Ten artists have received three or more album of the year nominations (as lead artists) without ever (or at least, without yet) winning. Legend cited two of them in his comments to EW–Beyoncé and West. The other eight are Lady Gaga, Eminem, Radiohead, Carey, Sting (counting one with The Police), Don Henley (counting two with Eagles), Elton John and Kendrick Lamar. Three of these 10 artists are Black, Carey is mixed-race, six are white. It’s probably worth keeping in mind that major white artists have also been passed over repeatedly in this category.

What about featured artists?: Billy Preston was the first Black artist to win album of the year, but not as a lead artist. He won as one of the featured artists on George Harrison & Friends’ The Concert for Bangla Desh (1972).

Nine other Black artists have won Grammys for album of the year as featured artists.

Tavares, Kool & the Gang, The Trammps, Ralph MacDonald and the Philadelphia International house band MFSB won for their featured roles on the Bee Gees-led Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (1978).

Corinne Bailey Rae and Tina Turner won for their featured roles on River: The Joni Letters (2007).

Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams won for their featured roles on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (2013).

 

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