Midway through the Sunday night broadcast of the 60th annual Grammy Awards, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations took to Twitter to voice her displeasure over a skit that involved Cher, Snoop Dogg, Hillary Clinton and others reading passages from Michael Wolff’s tell-all Trump book Fire and Fury.

“Don’t ruin great music with trash,” Trump appointee Nikki Haley raged. “Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.”

If the ambassador loves her music without politics, perhaps she’s also in favour of getting caught in the rain, the taste of champagne and other benign sentiments found in something like Escape (The Piña Colada Song), a Tinder-friendly Rupert Holmes hit from 1979. What she probably isn’t a fan of is hip hop – and maybe Grammy isn’t either.

Because for all of the praise the Recording Academy received for recognizing diversity in general and hip hop in particular with its nominations this year – after unreasonably giving the best-album trophy to Adele over Beyoncé last year – Kendrick Lamar, among the most compelling artists in a generation, was robbed on Sunday, the victim of a Bruno Mars sweep in the event’s three glamour categories.

In a broadcast loaded with political and social commentary – Haley must have been clutching her pearls all night – Grammy voters made the ceremony a love-in for the hustling and charismatic but apolitical pop-and-R&B machine Mars, who cashed in on all six of his nominations. His That’s What I Like beat Logic’s socially conscious, radio-friendly rap hit 1-800-273-8255 for best song, a songwriter’s category. In a baffling injustice, Mars’s album 24K defeated LPs by hip hop icon Jay-Z (4:44) and Lamar (Damn.).

Most egregiously, the title track to 24K was recognized as record of the year over Despacito, the Spanish-sung song of the summer by Luis Fonsi and rapper Daddy Yankee.

In a year heavy with urban music nominations, the Canadian superstar Drake was nowhere to be seen. Reportedly he didn’t submit his mixtape More Life for 2018 Grammy consideration. Justin Bieber, whose vocals are featured on the nominated mega-hit Despacito, was also a no-show.

Among Canadians soon to be declaring a Grammy trophy to customs officials include sound engineer Charles Moniz (for his work with big-winner Mars), The Weeknd (for Starboy, urban contemporary album), soprano Barbara Hannigan (for Crazy Girl Crazy, classical solo vocal LP) and the late Leonard Cohen (for his song You Want It Darker, best rock performance).

The most conspicuous Canadian was Alessia Cara, the singer-songwriter from Brampton, Ont., who was chosen as the year’s best new artist. (It was a strange nomination for an artist who released her debut album in 2015.)

Cara performed alongside singer Khalid and rapper Logic on the latter’s 1-800-273-8255, which takes its name from a suicide-prevention hotline. Logic closed the performance with a speech against misogyny and racism that referenced Donald Trump’s recent vulgarity in regard to immigrants from Africa.

Despite the night’s hip hop snubbing, Lamar had his moments, winning five of the seven awards for which he was nominated. More strikingly, a year after artists including Frank Ocean, Kanye West and Drake boycotted the 2017 awards for the lack of racial diversity among nominees, the potent Los Angeles rap artist opened this year’s affair in stunning fashion.

Backed by images of the American flag and sharing the stage with black marchers in camouflage and ski masks, Lamar rapped an outraged and confrontational medley that began with a line about a baby-killing coward and ended with gun sounds and fallen hoodie-wearing dancers. In between, U2’s Bono and the Edge intruded onto the stage for a brief cameo that was as unwelcome and audacious as their infamous iTunes invasion of 2014.

More appreciated was the mid-performance narration of Dave Chappelle. “Is this okay with CBS?” asked the comedian, who would later win a Grammy for his album The Age of Spin & Deep in the Heart of Texas. “It looks like he’s singing and dancing, but this brother’s taking enormous chances. Rumble, young man, rumble!”

Chappelle’s commentary invoked the brash poetry of a youthful Muhammad Ali; Lamar’s satire was conceptual and adamant. When it was over, on came host James Corden, whose British accent and affable manner was completely out of step with what had just occurred. Likewise, power ballads performed by Lady Gaga and Sam Smith felt uninspired and overly precious compared to something like Childish Gambino’s strong presentation of his song Terrified.

A tribute to the concert-goers killed last year in Manchester and Las Vegas was paid with a morose version of Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. The song, perhaps too obvious a choice, was poorly handled by a country-music quartet featuring Eric Church and others.

For the first time in 15 years, the Grammys took place in New York, at Madison Square Garden. While the location spawned a terrific two-song salute to Broadway (by Ben Platt and Patti LuPone), it also caused millionaire foreigners to awkwardly weigh in on the current immigration debate in America. Sting sang about his “legal alien” status on 1987’s Englishman in New York, while U2, subtle as a sledgehammer or a xenophobic Trump decree, took to a barge in front of the Statue of Liberty to sing Get Out of Your Own Way.

The Irish band’s pre-recorded performance was prefaced with a reading from Emma Lazarus’s famous poem and ended with Bono using a red, white and blue megaphone. Give us your tired, give us your poor, and give us a break from U2, in a year in which the group was un-nominated.

Instead, give us the #MeToo moment of Kesha’s soaring star-studded rendition of her ballad Praying. The singer, embroiled in a long-running legal battle with producer Dr. Luke, is currently on the comeback trail. Her performance was preceded by a powerful Time’s Up statement from psychedelic soulster Janelle Monae, who began a rallying speech with an uncompromising message to a male-dominated music industry: “We come in peace, but we mean business.”

If women came to the 2018 Grammys in peace, they left empty-handed in the largest categories. A recent study published by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that more than 90 per cent of Grammy nominees in the past six years have been male. On a night when many attendees and performers wore white roses as a symbol of female hope and empowerment, 13 of the 15 contenders for the three biggest awards were tied up by male artists. Politics, then, as usual.

Arts Reporter
The Globe and Mail, January 29, 2018