Of all the narratives that can be spun out of the list of Grammy nominations, announced late Friday, came one head-scratching truth: The Recording Academy still doesn't quite know what to do with alternative R&B.
When the academy announced it had added an urban contemporary album award back to the R&B field ahead of last year’s nominations — an award for urban/alternative performance was discontinued after 2011 — the change bookended a game-changing year for the genre.
By definition the urban contemporary category is “intended for artists whose music may include samples and elements of hip-hop, rap, dance and electronic music” and can incorporate “production elements found in urban pop, urban Euro-pop, urban rock and urban alternative.”
In other words, this is the place where experimental takes on the genre should flourish.
Last year, a crop of fresh faces such as Frank Ocean, Miguel and the Weeknd shifted listeners away from conventional boundaries of R&B. Ocean's eccentric, confessional breakthrough, "Channel Orange," took the prize over Miguel’s shimmering, psychedelic trip, “Kaleidoscope Dream” and Chris Brown’s largely electropop leaning, “Fortune.”
But this year’s list of nominees wildly missed the mark.
The Weeknd’s trippy, experimental “Kiss Land” was completely shut out, as was Janelle Monae’s funky, genre-stretching "The Electric Lady."And the sultry, electro-dipped soul of Jessie Ware’s stunning debut, “Devotion” is nowhere to be found, despite the splash she made this year.
Also overlooked? The graceful, quiet storm minimalism of Rhye’s “Woman” and the lush grooves of “Avalanche” from electro-soul duo Quadron. (Producer Robin Hannibal is responsible for both albums.)
Instead, the urban contemporary category is led by Rihanna’s “Unapologetic,” which dipped into dubstep, dancehall, electro, hip-hop and minimalist pop grooves, along with Tamar Braxton’s “Love and War,” and Fantasia’s “Side Effects of You,” both largely contemporary R&B works (as evidenced by their other nods).
Producer Salaam Remi’s “One: In the Chamber,” an attempt to tap into the jazz/hip-hop/soul fusion that Robert Glasper perfected on his slick “Black Radio” albums, and Mack Wild’s New Jack Swing inspired “New York: A Love Story” round out the race.
And while it should be noted that British singer and electronic music producer James Blake landed a seat in the highly coveted new-artist race, his Mercury Prize-winning effort, “Overgrown” didn't get singled out.
The urban contemporary album should be celebrating acts that spent the year painting with broader genre strokes that aren't always quite easy to define. Instead, just a year after the category's creation, it feels grossly by the numbers.
Maybe it's time for the Grammys to go back to the drawing board -- again.