Let’s Be Real: The Grammys Have Always Relegated Beyoncé to the R&B Category

If you’re searching for proof of the Beygency’s hold over pop culture, look no further than the outrage that emerged Friday over Beyoncé’s six Grammy nominations this year. She was nominated for Album of the Year, Best R&B Performance, Best Urban Contemporary Album, Best R&B Song, Best Music Film and, um, Best Surround Sound Album, ending up tied with Sam Smith and Pharrell for the most nominations. It wasn’t enough. Maybe people have short attention spans, or perhaps it’s that Bey has reached new levels of cultural dominance in this last year, but the conversation surrounding Beyoncé’s perceived lack nominations hinted at a racial bias on the part of the Academy.

Really, what happened is that she was nominated across historically black categories — R&B and Urban Contemporary — more than the Grammys’ “Big Four” all-genre categories (Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist, the last of which she obviously wouldn’t be up for.) This should not be surprising. We’ve already established that the Grammys aren’t the most progressive bunch — racially or otherwise — as a collective voice of the music industry. This is an organization that gave Macklemore a rap award over Kendrick Lamar earlier this year. As those who even peripherally pay attention to the Grammys know, oftentimes these awards are not about what they should be, or even seem to be.

Beyoncé is the most nominated woman in Grammy history, and the sixth most nominated artist overall. But in all her 53 nominations, only eight have been in the Big Four (nine if you count her appearance on Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, nominated for AOTY in 2011, which is sort of a slap in the face when you consider the fact that Bey’s own excellent received zero album-specific nominations in any categories the following year). Out of these nominations in Big Four categories (which includes two with Destiny’s Child), Bey has won only once, for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” in 2011.

Few would argue that “Single Ladies” isn’t the most overtly pop song Beyoncé has ever released, but the truth is, she’s led the pack for more than a decade in changing the modern Top 40, which is influenced by hip-hop and R&B more than ever. And yet, how many pop category nominations has Bey received in her 15 years on the Grammys? A mere four, one of which was for her Lady Gaga duet “Telephone.” Two of these nominations were in the same category (Best Female Pop Vocal Performance) for the same song (“Halo”) in back-to-back years (2010 and 2011), the only difference being that Knowles won the first year and the second year’s nomination was for a live version of the Sasha Fierce hit. “Halo” is a great song, but if this isn’t proof that the Grammys confuse even themselves, I’m not sure what is.

Further adding to the confusion is the introduction of the Urban Contemporary Album category just two years ago, where Bey is nominated for her self-titled 2013 album and will most likely win against Pharrell, Jhene Aiko, and others. So far, Frank Ocean and Rihanna have won this award, though it only had three nominees total — Ocean, Chris Brown, and Miguel — in its inaugural year. Even the formal description recognizes how R&B and hip-hop are often intertwined, even in the less-than-imaginative world of Urban radio, as evidenced by the fact that the format is still called “Urban.” The Urban Contemporary category is for “albums containing at least 51 percent playing time of newly recorded contemporary vocal tracks derivative of R&B. This category is intended for artists whose music includes the more contemporary elements of R&B and may incorporate production elements found in urban pop, urban Euro-pop, urban rock, and urban alternative.” Read between the lines.

It’s funny that Bey’s most traditionally R&B album, 2011’s 4, wasn’t nominated for the R&B album category, but it’s also a little illuminating. With the bulk of her career spent nominated in the R&B and Rap/Sung Collaboration categories — even as Destiny’s Child was at the top of the pop charts — the Grammys have come to see regular ole pop star Beyoncé as R&B’s mainstream standard-bearer. Part of me thinks this is because Beyoncé can really sing, whereas Katy Perry… well, even if she did make a full-on R&B album, it would be difficult to imagine her weak pipes being applauded by a genre that historically values strong vocals. Pop songs are one thing; even whatever it is that Meghan Trainor calls a vocal range on “All About That Bass” can get nominated for both Song and Record of the Year, based on message, hooks, and production.

Of course, it’s not fair that Beyoncé has long be relegated to the R&B categories, even during the period (1999-2004) when two black artists — Lauryn Hill and Outkast — won Album of the Year Grammys. This discrepancy speaks to the fact that R&B continues to be determined along race lines. Adele and Sam Smith, two of the Grammys’ most obvious favorites in recent years, perform music that could easily be considered R&B, but because both these white British artists are constantly referred to as “blue-eyed soul,” they easily snag pop noms.

Despite all this, Beyoncé has won 17 Grammys. This year, she’s up for the Grammys’ crowning jewel category, Album of the Year, for a second time, following I Am… Sasha Fierce‘s 2010 nomination. Her 2013 self-titled album was a work of art that she demanded be considered as a “visual album,” rather than a collection of singles. She set the tone, and the Academy was fine with following her lead. Sure, they don’t have a great track record of nominating Beyoncé for the Big Four, but this time around, it’s hard to imagine a song with the line “your breasteses my breakfast” winning the Grammys’ glowing praise. I believe she’ll win for an album where a line like that, or a song about raunchy sex in the back of a limo, fit in perfectly. And that’s probably how the artiste who so preciously offered up last year’s Beyoncé would prefer it.