Amid U.S. race tensions, Grammys could honour rap opus

At a time that the Oscars are under fire for not representing minorities, the star of the Grammys is rapper Kendrick Lamar, who has emerged as a cultural icon for his deeply personal reflections on race.

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Lamar is in contention Monday for 11 Grammys on the music industry's biggest night, the most nominations in a single year for any artist except Michael Jackson following the release of "Thriller."

Lamar has won lavish praise for "To Pimp a Butterfly," with some critics calling it the long-sought Great American Rap Album.

The album -- his third -- veers widely from commercial formulas, running for nearly 80 minutes with lengthy spoken-word interludes and jazz arrangements by rising saxophonist Kamasi Washington.

One track, "Alright," has been dubbed by admirers as the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Written with Pharrell Williams, the disconcertingly mellow song speaks of police brutality with the repeated reassurance, "Nigga, we gon' be alright."

Another track, "How Much a Dollar Cost," relates Lamar's emotional journey on a visit to South Africa as he is startled by a panhandler but eventually finds in him an element of the divine.

The song, featuring a vocal cameo by R&B legend Ronald Isley, was described by President Barack Obama as his favorite song of 2015.

Lamar's trip to South Africa had initially inspired the artist -- born in Compton, the rough Los Angeles-area city that gave birth to gangsta rap -- to write an introspective album about coming to terms with fame.

But the theme gradually merged with that of the Black Lives Matter movement, which picked up steam in 2014 amid outrage over a series of shooting deaths of African Americans at the hands of police.

"It was real uncomfortable because I was dealing with my own issues," Lamar said of making the album as police brutality emerged as a top national issue.

"When you're onstage rapping and all these people are cheering for you, you actually feel like you're saving lives," he said in an interview released by the Grammys.

"But you aren't saving lives back home. It made me question if I am in the right place spreading my voice."

Rare rap recognition at Grammys

Adam Diehl, a lecturer at Augusta University in Georgia who has taught Lamar's work, said "To Pimp a Butterfly" was striking as a developed concept album with little classic rap style.

"I think part of the reason for all the accolades he has received is his uncompromising vision to tell basically the whole story of black America in 2015," he said.

If Lamar's previous album, "good kid, m.A.A.d city," engendered compassion for the African American experience, "To Pimp a Butterfly" was more about self-assertion, Diehl said.

"This is the first time he has been able to pull back from Compton and articulate something that I think everyone in the African American community can listen to and say -- this makes me proud to be where I'm from," he said.

The top Grammy has only gone three times previously to albums that were partially or mostly hip-hop -- works by Quincy Jones, Lauryn Hill and OutKast.

Yet despite the near record haul of nominations, the 28-year-old Lamar is far from a shoo-in.

"To Pimp a Butterfly" is up for Album of the Year against "1989" by Taylor Swift, the pop superstar who is one of the biggest money-makers for the long-beleaguered music industry -- and who featured Lamar on the remix to her album's single "Bad Blood."

Other artists up for Album of the Year are Canadian R&B newcomer The Weeknd, country late bloomer Chris Stapleton and bluesy indie rockers Alabama Shakes.

Cultural moment in music

But the nominations alone mark a contrast with the Oscars, the film industry's award gala taking place on February 28, which is facing a boycott campaign over the lack of recognition for African Americans.

The gap in part reflects the different cultures of the award academies.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, while pledging changes after the recent furor, has generally prided itself on being impervious to outside pressures, while the Recording Academy frequently recognizes artists who are top-sellers or who were seen as slighted in previous years.

Lamar himself was the focus of controversy two years ago when he was up for seven Grammys and did not win any of them, with white rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis winning the award for best rap album.

Yet the music world has been quick to adapt to the cultural moment of Black Lives Matter.

Beyonce last week made waves with her new song and video "Formation," the most politically charged of her career with denunciations of police brutality.

And Macklemore and Ryan Lewis recently released a passionate paean to Black Lives Matter entitled "White Privilege II."

The duo will likely be rooting for Lamar on Monday. When they won over him two years ago, Macklemore apologized and said Lamar deserved the award.


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