Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Beyoncé deserved that Album of the Year Grammy. She deserved it more than Adele (who knew it but accepted her award for 25), she deserved it more than Justin Bieber(?!), she deserved it more than Drake and she deserved it more than Sturgill Simpson (sorry, Sturgill). Even Adele seemed miffed, telling reporters backstage, “I felt like it was her time to win. What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?”
What, indeed? To date, she’s had three records nominated for the prestigious award, including 2008’s I Am… Sasha Fierce, her 2013 surprise-dropped self-titled and last year’s unmatched Lemonade. And yet she is continuously relegated to dominating more “urban” categories, not including her earlier wins for “Best Pop Vocal Performance” (“Halo,” 2009) and Song of the Year (“Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” 2010). To keep her sectioned off is a tremendous mistake. Because if Beyoncé has proven anything over the last two album cycles, it’s that she’s not just a bona fide album artist—she has continuously reworked the very idea of what a long player is.
This was most evident on the groundbreaking “visual album,” Beyoncé, which dropped on iTunes without warning in 2013 and came complete with a music video for each song. Ever since then, “Beyoncé” has shifted from a noun to a verb, with other musicians declaring the release date dead (well, that was just Kanye) and dropping albums with little to no warning (Drake’s 17-song mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, U2’s Songs of Innocence, among others). The record itself was a conceptual thesis statement on the virtues and occasional pitfalls of matrimony (one minute you can be “Drunk in Love,” the next, “Jealous”). Sonically, Beyoncé pushed the boundaries of the slick radio pop for which she’d become best known, loosening her once-controlled delivery to pant “You’re… no… angel… baby” against a wash of synths on “No Angel” and growling with abandon on “Drunk in Love.”
And if anyone thought Beyoncé had peaked on her self-titled, she proved naysayers (Beysayers?) wrong when she raised the bar again on last year’s Lemonade. Billed as “a conceptual project based on every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing,” Beyoncé’s sixth studio album premiered on HBO with, again, very little warning, and featured a stunning montage of Southern architecture and design, raging lyrics (“Who the fuck do you think I is? You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy!”) and complex choreography spotlighting black womanhood. Outlining a clear narrative around marital infidelity and all of the furor and vulnerability that surrounds it, Lemonade showed a purposefully mysterious mega-celebrity channeling her anger and grief at her husband through a series of spoken-word soliloquies, genre-surfing arrangements and ambitious musical collaborations.
And boy did the world respond: Lemonade topped year-end lists, earned rave reviews and set off wild speculation about the state of the Carters’ marriage. It seems fine now; if anything it’s flourishing due to Beyoncé’s recent pregnant-with-twins announcement. Which brings me to a new point: Lemonade may well have prepared its singer to make the goings-on in her life a constant theme in her work. When she took the Grammys stage to perform “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles,” she not only performed in spite of being heavily pregnant—she actually used her belly as a resource to explore the spectrum of feelings an expectant mother can feel: susceptibility, nervousness, heightened sensuality, pride. Dressed like a madonna-goddess in gold, she frequently touched her stomach and made audiences wring their wrists as she tipped far back in an elevated chair. It’s just another bullet point in the long, long list of ways Beyoncé has enhanced and developed her solo artistry since her TRL-topping Destiny’s Child days.
So why 25 over Lemonade? This is not to impugn Adele’s talent or the quality of 25. Probably the greatest thing 25 had going for it was its accessibility, which translated to old-school album sales, which translated to Recording Academy votes. What it may come down to is the fact that the Grammys are a symbol of an aging, decrepit idea of the music industry—one where progressivism, ideas and intellectualism are all fine and good in theory, i.e., if Q-Tip says “resist” onstage or if Katy Perry wears a “persist” armband, but true internal change takes much longer to achieve. The Grammys will happily accept a ratings boost from Beyoncé discussing racial identity and equality in an acceptance speech for Best Urban Contemporary Album, but they’ll play it safe when handing out trophies (see: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly losing to Taylor Swift’s 1989 last year).
This isn’t intended to roll out an elaborate Grammys conspiracy theory. But the fact remains that The Grammys are not and have never been reminiscent of what really makes the music industry tick, what really shakes it up and challenges audiences. Beyoncé may have lost the grand prize (again), but there’s no doubt that she won the night anyway.