CULTURE

We Need to Talk About John Mayer

The legacy of misogyny and racism was alive and well at the Grammys, and his name was John Mayer

John Mayer at the Grammys 2021. Gross.

This year's Grammy Awards felt like a desperate attempt to modernize in the face of criticism and the fear of irrelevance.

While most of those attempts felt placating and performative rather than substantive, somehow this year's show was its best in years.

Summer 2020 saw the Grammys finally change the names of their "Urban" categories, which have long garnered criticism for Black artists for feeling segregated and secondary to the bigger (read: whiter), categories. However, the nominations revealed the same patterns and biases; and major artists like The Weeknd announced plans to boycott the ceremony and no longer submit their songs for consideration — joining artists like Frank Ocean, who have long voiced their disdain for the show.

Amidst the controversy surrounding the ceremony and other award shows struggling to keep viewers' attention this season, the Grammys' main bet this year was on its live performances and their ability to distract from the drama, keep its reputation, and entice fans to actually tune in.

And it kind of worked.

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Music Features

Was Freddie Gibbs Snubbed At the Grammys?

Did King's Disease truly deserve the "Best Rap Album" Grammy? The answer is murky.

Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist

After Freddie Gibbs's coveted 2020 album, Alfredo, lost out to Nas's King's Disease for Best Rap Album at last night's Grammy Awards, Gibbs's fanbase collectively aired their frustrations online.

"Nas finally wins at the Grammys, but Freddie Gibbs loses," captioned one fan on Twitter. "Idk (sic) how to feel...I'm both happy and sad." Other fans were less forgiving. "F**k that," wrote another Gibbs fan. "I congratulate Nas, but lowks Freddie had it man."

Gibbs was indeed seen by many as a near shoo-in for Best Rap Album. Alfredo's mafioso sheen and muted jazzy backdrops are as timeless and sophisticated as vintage denim, and Gibbs's verses are so potent that they were scribed across cardboard signs this past summer during the BLM protests.

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Before he was a Trump-supporting, Bible-thumping, Drake-hating member of the Kardashian family, Kanye West was a Hip-Hop renaissance man.

The Chicago native worked his way up from being one of Jay-Z's producers to a pop culture icon. Kanye was a breath of fresh air in rap when he released his first single, "Through The Wire," in 2003. Unlike his peers who were perpetuating the usual Hip-Hop stereotypes, Kanye's overconfident yet heartfelt lyrics spoke to a portion of rap fans who were regular people chasing a dream.

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Music Features

Why the "Progressive R&B" Grammy Category Is Still Regressive

Major changes need to be made in the music industry.

Frank Ocean accepts his Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album.

Getty Images

At the 2013 Grammys ceremony, Frank Ocean took home the inaugural award for Best Urban Contemporary Album.

Earning the singer-songwriter this newfangled prize was his lauded debut effort, Channel Orange, a record recognized as both alternative R&B and of a genre-defying class of its own, with the latter description somewhat explaining why it occupied such a vague space during that year's Grammy roundup. The album's unconventional sound incorporated a variety of musical subgenres, from electro-funk to ambient. And at the time, the industry players behind the creation of the "Urban Contemporary" category claimed its primary purpose was inclusion.

"When you look at the whole picture, it shows how diverse the musical tastes really are amongst our generation—and this category exemplifies that," producer and Recording Academy's Board of Trustees member Ivan Barias told The Fader in 2017. "It's indicative of a certain musical energy that encompasses all of the diverse genres of urban music…[This category is meant to] celebrate all of these other artists who tend to pull from different genres."

Recording Academy Board of Trustees Recording Academy Board of Trustees

In the context of Barias' statement, "other artists" denoted those who explored sounds outside of R&B's typical stylistic origins, while "different genres" referred to anything that wasn't R&B itself. However, it's this very ambiguity that has left Black artists, industry professionals, and music fans steadily skeptical of the "Urban Contemporary."

Recently, in response to seven years of criticism mostly stemming from the Black community, the Recording Academy announced its quick fix: rename the category to "Progressive R&B." In a new statement, the organization said this change was spurred by the current state of the music industry, and the rebirthed category will "highlight albums that include the more progressive elements of R&B, and may include samples and elements of hip-hop, rap, dance, and electronic music" as well as "production elements found in pop, euro-pop, country, rock, folk, and alternative."

But the Academy's decision to drop the "Urban Contemporary" tag is about as effective as slapping a Band-Aid on a broken limb—and to assume that the worst thing about the category was its euphemistic title is far too self-confident of the illustrious organization that has been repeatedly admonished for its own systemic racism.

Throw the whole word "urban" away, already

This is not to say the phrase "urban contemporary" wasn't problematic, because it absolutely was. In fact, Tyler, The Creator said, "I don't like that 'urban' word—that's just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me" earlier this year after winning Best Rap Album for IGOR; he was preaching to the choir. Black folks have been rubbed the wrong way about the adjective "urban" and the way it seems to be non-Black people's favorite term to describe various cool things invented by Black people: hip-hop, soul and R&B is "urban" music; streetwear is "urban" fashion; graffiti is "urban" art; and b-boying is "urban" dancing.

But in a failed effort to be politically correct, institutions shaping Western pop culture still effectively perpetuate incorrect stereotypes and generalizations about Black people—for instance, that all black people live in cities, or that our music originated from the ghettos of said cities rather than our roots in Africa, the Caribbean, and the deep south. Likewise, the phrase "urban music" blatantly defies its own etymology, as other genres founded in cities, like punk or EDM, are never lumped under the "urban music" umbrella. In 2018, Virgin EMI's Rob Pascoe shared a sentiment similar to Tyler's, asking the industry, "At what point can we get you to give up and just describe Drake's 'God's Plan' as a massive pop record rather than 'urban'?"

Tyler, The Creator Shares How "Urban" Category Feels Racist & Like Backhanded Compliment at GRAMMYs www.youtube.com

It is Pascoe's succinct comment that points to the remaining, underlying issue—while the Academy's decision to call a wrap on the "Urban Contemporary" phrase seems progressive, the award category's entire presence stands far too tall as a barrier of segregation between Black and white artists, regardless of its updated, fanciful title. Let's not forget that a myriad of popular music's biggest successes at the moment, both commercially and critically—Rihanna, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, and of course, Drake—are Black, and yet, the last Black person to win the most prestigious Grammy Award, Album of the Year, was Herbie Hancock in 2008. This discriminatory pattern was even suspicious enough to prompt Ocean (whose Channel Orange lost to a Mumford & Sons' LP for the 2013 Album of the Year) to pass on submitting his sophomore record, Blonde, for Grammy consideration altogether.

"That institution certainly has nostalgic importance," Frank Ocean said in a 2016 interview with The New York Times. "It just doesn't seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down." However, in stark contrast with the overwhelming whiteness of the "Album of the Year" category winners is the blackness of the Grammys' R&B genre, under which the novel "Best Progressive R&B Album" category will be housed (alongside, but distinct from, the ceremony's long-standing "Best R&B Album" classification), effective immediately.

And though it's natural for Black musicians to dominate a genre-field of Black music, it's questionable that very few of these artists—from the aforementioned luminaries to copious other stars, like Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, The Weeknd, Pharrell Williams and Janelle Monae—have been able to break through the ceilings of the Rap and R&B fields and triumph in the esteemed "Big Four" categories. In this sense, the "Progressive R&B" classification is especially awkward, posturing as another way for the Academy to tell Black musicians, "We see you!" without really seeing anyone. Further proving the illegitimacy of the "Urban Contemporary" category is its frequent exclusion from the ceremony's main telecast. Thus, under the guise of inclusivity, both the new and old category titles are equal in true purpose: to appease the Black community and its musical artists who have been demanding impartial recognition for decades.

Separate is not equal—and today's R&B is anything but stationary

However, micro-aggressive racism in American culture is regularly veiled as "progressive thinking," and the Academy's diversity initiative isn't fooling anyone who's Black. Indeed, what is separate is not equal, despite the segregation the Grammys have immortalized—and notable is the trend in which most artists lumped into the "Urban Contemporary" category are making music that would arguably fit just fine in other, more widely-recognized categories, like Best Pop Vocal Album or Best R&B Album. For instance, knockout LPs such as Miguel's last three full-lengths and SZA's Ctrl have all been nominated for the Best Urban Contemporary Album award, although anyone with a pulse on Black music would consider these records to be exceptional and deliberate 21st-century R&B—not the "urban-like" products of amalgamated genres, nor "R&B lite." In that same vein, Black radio stars like Rihanna, Lizzo, and Khalid craft outstanding pop records adequate for competition in the Best Pop Vocal Album category, yet, the fruits of their labor are swept under the dismissive rug of "Urban Contemporary."

SZA Ctrl SZA

And while this categorical segregation is entirely unnecessary, it's also insulting to R&B as both an evolving genre and community of Black artists. As much as the new term "Progressive R&B" insinuates that rhythm and blues, along with soul, is regressive or stagnant if not actively pulling sonic inspirations from other genres like dance, rock or pop, it moreover restricts what it means to be a Black artist in contemporary R&B. Black music is subject to transformation just as much as any "non-black" genre, thus, its creators should be able to embrace alternative sounds without being othered—so if Bruce Springsteen's heartland rock Wrecking Ball and Coldplay's synthpop opera Mylo Xyloto can both earn nominations for Best "Rock" Album at the 2013 Grammys, what about Frank Ocean's Channel Orange is not R&B, or Tyler, The Creator's IGOR pop?

On January 21 next year, the Best Progressive R&B Album category will have its big, shiny debut at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards—and under that imaginative title will be an assemblage of gifted Black artists, many of whose work will also be nominated for, but likely not win, the exalted Album of the Year award. Although it's unknown how many Black musicians and industry professionals were consulted before the Recording Academy decided to toss around some new verbiage and call it a day, one thing is certain: As with most other enduring American institutions established during an era of overt anti-blackness, the Grammys aren't going to eradicate its own racism via piecemeal reformation.

Break out pop star and five time Grammy-award-winner Billie Eilish is sick of your body shaming.

The 18-year-old just dropped a powerful new short film in which she slowly removes her clothes as we hear her voice hypnotically decry the media's obsession with her body. She says, "Some people hate what I wear. Some people praise it. Some people use it to shame others. Some people use it to shame me. But I feel you watching, always, and nothing I do goes unseen. So, whether I feel your stares, your disapproval, or your sigh of relief—if I lived by them, I'd never be able to move. Would you like me to be smaller? Weaker? Softer? Taller? Would you like me to be quiet? Do my shoulders provoke you? Does my chest? Am I my stomach, my hips?" Meanwhile, she strips to a black bikini in slow motion, eventually sinking into a pool of black viscous liquid and declaring your opinion "not my responsibility."

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New Releases

Frank Ocean's New Singles Are Gifts: Read the Lyrics Here

Hear "Dear April" and "Cayendo" in their final forms.

Hypebeast
Frank Ocean has finally released two songs, "Dear April" and "Cayendo."

After teasing the songs for months, performing them at his much-maligned nightclub event and releasing them on vinyl, the singles are finally on streaming platforms.

"Dear April" is a stormy, dreamy ballad from Frank to someone in he knows in the crowd. It feels like an anthem, and it's perfectly devastating, totally appropriate for quarantine. The acoustic version is mostly his voice layered over electric guitar, and lyrically, it seems to be about rebirth.

Dear April (Side A - Acoustic)

Dear April, the only face in the crowd that I know
Dear April, are you watchin' him?
Are you watchin' him dance?
Dear April, we were safe for a while
We were safe as the years flew by
If you could take two strangers
Lead them left and right
At a certain place and time
Like you took these strangers
And our two strange lives
And made us new
And took us through
And woke us up
I believe that no matter what it makes us do
Take us through it
And wake us up again
And what we had won't be the same now (Now, now)
But you will make something new
And it'll take you through this
You can take two strangers
Lead them left and right
At a certain place and time
Like you took these strangers
And our two strange lives
And made us new
And took us through it
And woke us up
I believe no matter what
Take us through it
And wake us up again
And what we had can't be the same now, now
But you will make something
That'll take you through
It'll wake you up again
Just like you made me new (You made me new)
Just like you took me through (Took me through)
Just like you woke me up (Woke me up, yeah)
You made me new
You took me through
You woke me up (Woke me up)

[Outro]


Dear April, are you watchin' him dance?


Dear April, are you watchin' him dance?

"Cayendo" is a Spanish verb that means "to fall" or "to fall down." The song, which is a mix of Spanish and English lyrics, is about unrequited love and longing.

Cayendo (Side A - Acoustic)

CAYENDO:

No hablará de mí, ni hablará de esto
Lo que él quiere de ti, yo no se lo negaría
Si esto no me ha partío', ya no me partiré nunca
Si puedo soportar lo que siento, ¿por qué me 'toy cayendo?

[Verse]
You stood me up, you lay me down
You know too much, I can't be proud
I still really, really love you, yes, I do
When I still really, really love you, like I do

If you won't, then I will
If you can't, then I will
Is it love to keep it from you?

[Chorus]
No hablará de mí, ni hablará de esto
Lo que él quiere de ti, yo no se lo negaría
Si esto no me ha partío', ya no me partiré nunca
Si puedo soportar lo que siento, ¿por qué me 'toy cayendo?
¿Acaso voy cayendo?


[Outro]
You stood me up, you lay me down
You know too much (Too much), I can't be proud
I still really, really love you, yes, I do


Ocean has said that his forthcoming new album is inspired by "Detroit, Chicago, techno, house, French electronic" and that it would be a "full motion picture fantasy." But if you think that these new, spare songs indicate that Ocean is finally peeling back the layers of mystery that surround him, you're wrong.

"The expectation for artists to be vulnerable and truthful is a lot, you know," Ocean said in a Rolling Stone interview last year. "When it's no longer a choice. Like, in order for me to satisfy expectations, there needs to be an outpouring of my heart or my experiences in a very truthful, vulnerable way. I'm more interested in lies than that."

The singles are Ocean's first since 2019's pair of singles, "In My Room" and "DHL." Ocean's last full-length project was 2016's critically acclaimed Blonde, though in between he released a few gems including a cover of "Moon River" and launched his Beats Radio 1 show.

Ocean was born Christopher Edwin Cooksey in Long Beach, California, and he grew up in New Orleans. He enrolled at the University of New Orleans to study English, but after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home, he transferred to the University of Louisiana and Lafayette and soon dropped out to move to Los Angeles to pursue songwriting. After collaborating with Tyler the Creator's Odd Future collective and writing extensively for other artists, Ocean launched his solo career with "Thinkin Bout You."