Chance the Rapper, Chicago hip-hop wunderkind and label warrior, just won Best New Artist at the 2017 Grammys. To win, he had to beat out West Coast up-and-comer Anderson .Paak (who had the best 2016 in music out of anyone, don’t @ me), pop-country rookies Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris, and pop music industry leviathans The Chainsmokers. By all accounts, this should have substantial ramifications for the music industry, or at least how the industry rewards its artists.
First and foremost, it’s important to note that the Grammys, like any awards show, is nothing more than an opportunity to pat itself on the back and engage in a massive, celebratory circle-jerk of all the money they made last year. Members of The Recording Academy vote, and those votes decide who wins. Grammy awards and nominations are not important, and they do not impart any artist, album, or song with more importance or quality than they were recorded with.
That being said, Chance the Rapper winning an award like Best New Artist is a seismic event in the music industry. The Chicago-based rapper is an independent artist, rebuffing major label advances even as his profile has exploded since he self-released his Acid Rap mixtape in 2013. Following the release of Surf as a member of Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment in 2015, Chance put out his third mixtape, Coloring Book, one of the very best albums of 2016. Some of the biggest names in music came out for that record, including Kanye West (who featured Chance on his most recent record, The Life of Pablo), Justin Bieber, Future, and a long-dormant Jay Electronica, and it landed on multiple year-end lists. Coloring Book heralded Chance’s ascension to music’s elite, positioning him as a cultural phenomenon as much as a musical one. Recognizing his success and impact with an award like Best New Music is well deserved, even if it is a little late (but, if Bon Iver’s win in 2012 is any indication, better late than never).
But the award is about more than recognizing Chance’s self-directed rise to stardom. The Grammys are comprised of historically stodgy traditionalists rooted in old-school quantifiers of success (physical album sales, tour success, etc.). But they didn’t know what to do about Chance, an artist who was quickly dominating the cultural lexicon and the charts while touring the country behind an innovative stage show. He had no label infrastructure supporting him, no physical album sales with which to measure his music’s success. They weren’t even going to nominate him until Chance mounted a campaign on social media lobbying for the Grammys to change their nomination criteria.
Per an official press release from June 2016: “the updates allow previously ineligible streaming-only works into the process”. This may seem like nothing more than a semantic change, but make no mistake: this signals a massive change in the way the Grammys, and therefore the music industry as a whole, quantifies, and therefore qualifies, success in music. They see the writing on the wall, and are starting to understand that the traditional metrics of success are quickly becoming outdated in the face of increasingly dominant streaming services
And more than pure numbers, it signals that the panel is beginning to understand that the cultural implications of music and artists matter. Rewarding the Chainsmokers for their lukewarm, focus grouped take on EDM could’ve easily been taken as a rebuke against the importance of culture and creativity, particularly black culture and creativity. Giving an award to an electro-pop duo that recorded the #1 song for frat bros to rip shots to (just speculation) over a kid from Chicago’s South Side who literally built his own success and made God cool again only reinforces the barriers that so many innovative musicians face in achieving artistic success. And by rewarding Chance the Rapper for all the work he’s put into his own musical career, they’re implicitly rewarding Chance the Human Being for all his community activism and championing of his city, his people, and his culture.
The Recording Academy, fortunately, made the right choice. I would’ve been happy if Anderson .Paak had won, but Chance’s victory means that the The Academy might finally be ready to recognize new metrics of music success, and a new crop of artists might have an avenue to achieving it. This is a victory in itself.
If we needed any more of a signal that Chance has arrived, the dude just won Best Rap Album for Coloring Book. He’s here, he’s huge, and he’s forcing decades-old industry institutions to change the way they operate. If that isn’t success, then I don’t know what is.