The Grammys' 'Urban Contemporary' Is Now 'Progressive R&B' - Rolling Stone
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The Grammys’ ‘Urban Contemporary’ Category Is Now ‘Progressive R&B’

Recording Academy chair and interim CEO Harvey Mason Jr. says the show must “reflect the current state of the music industry”

Lizzo62nd Annual Grammy Awards, Show, Los Angeles, USA - 26 Jan 2020

Lizzo at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

Rob Latour/Shutterstock

The Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammy Awards, announced Wednesday amid a number of rule changes that it 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.”

“We’re constantly evaluating our Awards process and evolving it to ensure the Grammy Awards are inclusive and reflect the current state of the music industry,” Harvey Mason Jr., Chair & Interim President/CEO of the Recording Academy, said in remarks accompanying the rule changes. “Each year, we receive a number of rule change proposals from artists, producers and songwriters asking us to reevaluate our process,” Chief Awards Officer Bill Freimuth added, pointing out that they pay close attention to occurrences within the past 12 months.

The rechristening of the “Urban Contemporary” category seems to reflect recent conversations that have arisen within the music industry, as a result of Black Lives Matter-related initiatives Blackout Tuesday and #TheShowMustBePaused. In the last week, several black executives have noted that the word — which appears in marketing as well as employee and department titles as a synonym for “black music” — is antiquated, overarching, and inappropriate, especially at a time when hip-hop and R&B are some of the most dominant genres of music. Previous winners in the “Urban Contemporary” category include Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You in 2019, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Everything Is Love in 2018, The Weeknd’s Starboy in 2017, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade in 2016.

But the word is not being completely removed from Music’s Biggest Night. The Grammys still feature the word “Urban” in other categories — such as in the newly named, Latin-field category “Best Latin Pop Or Urban Album.” (That category, somewhat confusingly, was known as “Latin Rock, Urban Or Alternative” in the previous awards show; Latin Pop was also a separate category last year.) “At the time that this category amendment proposal was put forth earlier in the year, use of the word ‘urban’ when classifying certain genres in Latin music was widely accepted,” Mason tells Rolling Stone. “However, we understand that in the current climate, sentiment might be changing. We are continuing to follow the conversation and are committed to making necessary adjustments.”

Other changes in Wednesday’s announcement include the renaming and redefinition of the “Best Rap/Sung Performance” award, which will now be called “Best Melodic Rap Performance.”

As for the highly sought-after “Best New Artist” title, eligibility is no longer capped by a specified maximum number of releases. Up until this point, artists who had released more than 30 singles/tracks (or three albums) were not eligible for recognition here. That rule sparked controversy amongst industry members last year, particularly due to Lizzo’s nomination, which the Recording Academy allowed despite her having more than the maximum amount of tracks.

The new Grammy rulebook states that, going forward, “screening committees will determine whether the artist had attained a breakthrough or prominence prior to the eligibility year.” Given that the industry is now heavily streaming-based and singles-driven, artists’ release strategies often require them to constantly drop new content. (It’s also worth noting that lengthy mixtapes have become increasingly popular in the hip-hop world.) So it makes sense that having 30 tracks out — assuming they were released rather expeditiously — no longer means an artist isn’t new.

The Academy also announced changes within its Nominations Review Committees — the groups of people who are responsible for taking the most-popular Grammy submissions, which are first picked by the Academy’s voting members, and deciding upon the final nominees. Members may now only serve on committees for three years on/one year off — as opposed to five years on/one year off — while chairpersons may only serve three years on and two years off — as opposed to five years on/two years off. And the maximum of combined years anyone can serve is decreasing from eight to five.

Furthermore, the Academy said it will examine conflict of interest within these committees with more scrutiny. The new rulebook states that “people with actual or perceived conflicts of interest regarding recordings under consideration may not participate on the committees.” Before, committee members were asked to disclose any possible conflict of interest, then leave the room and not participate in voting for the related categories. The President/CEO and the Chair of the Board are also no longer mandated to co-chair the committee.

These developments come on the heels of accusations made by former CEO Deborah Dugan, who said the process was “ripe with corruption” before being removed from her post in advance of the 2020 telecast earlier this year. Following Dugan’s accusations — which included the claim that committee members were able to influence voting in favor of artists they personally worked with — several artists and leaders in the industry demanded more transparency into the Grammy voting process.

“Board members, including those who represent or have relationships with nominated artists, sit on these secret committees,” Dugan said in her EEOC complaint. “It is not unusual for artists who have relationships with board members and who ranked at the bottom of the initial 20-artist list to end up receiving nominations,” she added. She also noted that the board was permitted to add names that didn’t even make the initial 20-artist list, claiming that 30 artists — who were not selected by the membership — were added to the possible nomination list for 2020. (A Recording Academy representative strongly denied claims of an unfair voting process at the time.)

The 63rd Grammy Awards have a release eligibility period of September 1st 2019 to August 31st 2020. The show is set to take place on January 31st 2021.

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