The Grammys Swap ‘Urban Contemporary’ for ‘Progressive R&B’ – But Is This A Good Thing?

If there’s been one consistent theme in 2020, it’s been that of change.

Some change for the better, some … not so much. Most of us still are wearing Mortal Kombat face masks to get groceries to ward off deadly disease.

Well, you SHOULD be wearing one if you aren’t.

In the world of music, one area where change has LONG been overdue is in the realm of the Grammys. If you’re a music fan who frequents Twitter, you know the score:

  • Nominations drop around the first of every year, causing fans to go into an uproar about snubs, favoritism, who should and shouldn’t be performing, etc.
  • A month later, the awards drop, Twitter gets pissed because their faves were overlooked in favor of the previous year’s hot act – with sometimes even the WINNERS being like, “um, I think y’all messed this one up.”

Poor Macklemore knew full well his career was over when he won that little trophy over the rising Kendrick Lamar.

In the past decade, no category has seemed to be as hard-hit as the R&B awards, a genre that has struggled with growing pains, an identity crisis and a fall from mainstream grace all over the course of one dire decade.

The 2010s were ROUGH.

Well, Recording Academy chair and interim CEO Harvey Mason Jr. hopes to change that.

Rolling Stone has reported that, among a number of rule changes that aim to bring relevance and fairness back to the voting process, the The Recording Academy is renaming the “Best Urban Contemporary Album” category:

The category — which was added into the Grammys in 2012 and whose name has been the subject of increasing criticism — will now be called “Best Progressive R&B Album.” The Academy said in a statement that the category should “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.”

First, shout out to Harvey Mason Jr. I’m a fan and was supportive of his move to the CEO position, news we broke on SoulBack Podcast last year. And I’m glad we’re finally moved away from the empty “Urban Contemporary” label, which sounds like a store in a 2002 strip mall where you cop Vokal jerseys and Apple Bottom jeans.

But I’m protective of R&B and this news does raise a few red flags.

Here’s what worries me: the 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.”

On the surface, I get it. This is the space where we honor artists like Lizzo, last year’s Urban Contemporary winner, whose music isn’t strictly R&B but is clearly laden with R&B elements. While a lot of snooty R&B critics threw rocks her way last year, I’ll defend her music as noteworthy – obviously, since I named it one of the best albums of 2019.

But here’s where I worry.

You can easily exchange the word “progressive” for “mainstream” here, since most of the artists who will fall in this category have strong pop leanings that already give them wide exposure. It makes me concerned about the window closing even tighter for the criminally overlooked voices among us – the Jazmine Sullivans, Tamias, Kevin Rosses and more who embrace a more traditional sound but constantly get pushed aside in today’s marketplace.

And yes, as far as I know, the ‘Best R&B’ category will still exist as a lane for those artists. But is still seems like we’re narrowing the playing field and boxing great artists into a smaller space in favor of mainstream stars who probably would have gotten love in other categories anyway.

But we’re not through.

The “Best Rap/Sung Performance” category is now “Best Melodic Rap Performance.” While I thought the original name was pretty clunky, it was still a good category – basically R&B songs with rap features. And lord knows we’ve seen a ton of them in the past 30 years.

BUTTTT this rewrite makes it feel like another lane for today’s shower-singing rappers (like Future, the Mumble Rap Posse, or even your boy J. Cole on his worst days) will take the shine. Again, seems like an extra lane for more mainstream artists to grab headlines and gobble up awards, squeezing out R&B voices.

Might as well call it the Annual Aubrey Drake Graham Award cuz he’s all over this one.

Don’t let my doom and gloom fool you. I’m in Harvey Mason Jr.’s corner. Having someone with his rich R&B history on board feels like a needed plus for the genre. However, these changes seem merely cosmetic at best (meaning we’ll be stuck with the same ol’ controversies) or pandering to mainstream faves at worse (so get those “why’d you snub Snoh Aalegra” tweets ready, R&B Twitter).

This is one of those times I’m praying that y’all prove me wrong.


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