“I can’t possibly accept this award,” Adele said as she accepted Album of the Year, the most coveted Grammy of the night, flanked by what seemed like dozens of white men in tuxedos Sunday. “My artist of my life is Beyoncé. And this album, for me, the Lemonade album, is just so monumental. … And the way that you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering.” The camera then cut away to Beyoncé — a woman so rarely seen doing anything spontaneously — an unscripted tear falling down her right cheek.
At this point, it’s a familiar narrative: Every time Beyoncé loses a major honor at an awards show, someone onstage qualifies it as an injustice. That person is usually Kanye West — as it was at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, when he jumped onstage to protest Taylor Swift’s win, or at the 2015 Grammys, when he did the same to speak out against Beck’s Morning Phase winning over Beyoncé’s self-titled album — but he was one of several notable artists to sit out this year’s Grammys, for various reasons. Drake and Justin Bieber, who were both nominated for Album of the Year, were no-shows; the former because of his European tour, and the latter, according to a TMZ report, because he did not believe the Grammys were “relevant or representative, especially when it comes to young singers.” It was noted that Kanye, though he’s won an impressive 21 Grammys, has only won in the rap and R&B categories. But it was Frank Ocean who took perhaps the strongest and most articulate stand against the show. He purposefully did not even submit his album Blonde for consideration this year, and the day before the ceremony, he elaborated on this decision via his Tumblr page. “Believe the people,” he wrote in a post directed at two of the Grammys’ producers. “Believe the ones who’d rather watch select performances from your program on YouTube the day after because your show puts them to sleep. Use the old gramophone to actually listen bro, I’m one of the best alive. And if you’re up for a discussion about the cultural bias and general nerve damage the show you produce suffers from then I’m all for it.”
Frank could have written the script for how the night shook out: Adele won all of the five awards she was nominated for (including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year), while Beyoncé won two awards in relatively less prominent categories, Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Music Video. Solange, who won her first Grammy on Sunday for Best R&B Performance, showed solidarity with Ocean’s Tumblr post. Moments after her sister lost Album of the Year, she tweeted a link to it with the caption, “wuddup frank.”
It was a more triumphant night for Chance the Rapper, the exuberant Chicago evangelist who took home Best New Artist, Best Rap Performance, and Best Rap Album — the latter a category whose eligibility had been altered in part so that his streaming-only album Coloring Book could be considered. His attitude was the starkest possible contrast to Ocean’s: In October, Chance had taken out a full-page ad in Billboard asking the Grammy voters, “Hey, why not me?”
It was hard not to feel overjoyed when Chance took the stage — for either of his two televised wins, or for his jubilant performance of “How Great” and “All We Got” — but by the end of the night his success felt like the exception, particularly when you consider that, aside from Beyoncé’s win for Best Urban Contemporary Album, he was the only artist of color to win a televised award (and two, at that). This was a marked contrast, though, from the artists who gave the night’s most memorable performances: a very pregnant Beyoncé stunned the room to silence with her poetic rendering of Lemonade’s “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles”; Bruno Mars was accompanied by the Time for a faithful and fun Prince homage; A Tribe Called Quest — featuring a poignantly vacant microphone stand in homage to the late Phife Dawg — stole the show so completely with an impassioned medley that Busta Rhymes’s quote, “President Agent Orange,” trended on Twitter throughout the rest of the show. Adele was right to point it out; by the end of the night it was clear the difference in color between the artists who’d be making the show’s morning-after headlines and the ones who’d taken home the increasingly inconsequential awards.
And then there was Adele’s tribute to George Michael. In a moment that unfortunately recalled her flat, sound-issue-plagued performance of “All I Ask” at last year’s Grammys, Adele’s rendition of Michael’s “Fastlove” got off to such a rocky start that she silenced her band well into the first verse and asked to start over. It was — for people who already love Adele, at least — an endearing example of her humanity; in spite of the supernatural force of her voice, a big part of her appeal is that she does not let us forget that she is a mere mortal. And yet, since the narrative of the night was always going to be a head-to-head showdown between Adele and Beyoncé, there was something unsettling about the perceived imbalance. The polish and immaculate choreography of Beyoncé’s performance, not to mention the beautiful but flawlessly rehearsed speech she read off a gilded piece of paper while accepting her only televised award of the night, subtly pointed toward an uncomfortable truth. A white artist, at least in an institution like the Grammys, can fumble the landing and still be awarded a 10. A black artist needs to score an 11 to even be considered.
Again, it was a familiar narrative: In 2014, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis beat Kendrick Lamar for Best Rap Album; two years later, Taylor Swift beat Lamar for Album of the Year. Neither of these artists, though, could strike the appropriate tone when accepting their awards: Macklemore indulged in a kind of performative white guilt when he Instagrammed the text message he’d sent Lamar saying that he believed that Kendrick was “robbed” of the award; Swift, a beautiful white woman who is almost always flanked by her beautiful white supermodel friends, used her speech, puzzlingly, to continue to claim the position of the underdog. Adele’s 25 is not as good an album as Lemonade, but the night’s small consolation prize was that she gave the least embarrassing Grammy speech in recent history to broach the topic of white privilege. It felt small, genuine, and lived-in — a rare prime-time attempt to be a non-terrible white ally.
Even if you showed up and put on a pretty dress (or two) to receive it, there’s something admirable about calling into question the very award that you’re holding in your hand, and the power structures that allow you to do less than your best and still emerge as the night’s darling. When you look at it that way, Chance’s wins don’t feel triumphant so much as they feel preordained; he’s one of the last of his generation to earnestly believe in these awards. The performances at this year’s Grammys were largely electrifying and memorable, but — amid the widespread and justifiable questioning around who takes home the big awards and why — it’s hard to imagine the trophies themselves having quite the same allure in the future.