The Beyoncé Grammys Were Awkward

Two categories into last night’s Grammy Awards broadcast, Beyoncé found herself once again achieving an awkward status within the universe of the Recording Academy. For one, she was late to the ceremony—reportedly owing to traffic—and unable to collect a historic trophy. In winning Best R. & B. Song for “Cuff It,” a highlight from her 2022 album, “Renaissance,” she tied with the conductor Georg Solti for the highest number of Grammy wins. But it was a complicated achievement when considered against the backdrop of Beyoncé’s Grammys history, in which she has also been one of the Recording Academy’s most overlooked artists, racking up smaller genre-based wins yet mostly losing out in the awards’ headlining categories. When Adele won Album of the Year over Beyoncé, in 2017, there was such a sense of cosmic injustice that Adele herself could not bear the result. “I can’t possibly accept this award,” she told the crowd. “I’m very humbled . . . but my artist of my life is Beyoncé. The ‘Lemonade’ album was so monumental.”

This year, in the wake of “Renaissance,” Beyoncé’s long-awaited follow-up to “Lemonade,” the Grammys broadcast seemed intent on correcting the course, or at least distracting the viewer from it. Even if the Recording Academy voters have not always properly honored Beyoncé’s work, the show and its host, Trevor Noah, worked overtime this year to remind the audience of the Grammys’ respect for her towering greatness, and the historic nature of the evening. During his opening monologue, Noah quickly reminded the crowd of what the ceremony’s narrative would be: giving Beyoncé, who was nominated for nine awards but needed only four wins to break the record, her due. “I was so inspired by the lyrics of ‘Break My Soul’ that I actually quit my job,” he joked. When Beyoncé finally arrived at the arena, he found her at her table and personally handed her the trophy she hadn’t earlier been able to accept. “You know, when you equal a record, there’s no way you don’t get to hold your Grammy in your hand and celebrate that. The queen is officially in the building. Ladies and gentlemen, Beyoncé Knowles,” he said. She forced a grin, looking uncomfortable, while her husband, Jay-Z, chewed his food. It was almost a foregone conclusion that Beyoncé, with her nine nominations, would break Solti’s record. This was the overt story line of the evening, but the louder subtext was the question of whether the Recording Academy was finally prepared to give Beyoncé the major awards.

This was the question that loomed over the mostly milquetoast fare of the rest of the broadcast. Bad Bunny—who won in the Música Urbana Album category but was otherwise snubbed, despite his global dominance—kicked off the show with an electrifying tribute to historical Latin genres, offering up a maximalist version of his merengue-minded single, “Después de la Playa.” It was such a dynamic performance that Taylor Swift was moved to get out of her chair and dance, feeding the evening’s GIF– and meme-generating forces.

The tone of the evening quickly downshifted into standard Recording Academy mode: the Grammy favorite Brandi Carlile gave her requisite performance, as did Stevie Wonder. There was a lengthy tribute medley to the artists who had passed away last year. Sam Smith and Kim Petras won an award for the song “Unholy,” which they later performed after a tonally bizarre introduction by Madonna. When Kendrick Lamar accepted his award for Best Rap Album, he offered up a sound bite for those following along on social media: “I finally found imperfection with this album.” There was a cringey fan-discussion panel that aired in bits and pieces throughout the night. Anyone inclined to turn off the show and head to bed was probably dissuaded by the Grammys’ most invigorating segment: an ostentatious celebration of fifty years of hip-hop, which managed to unify the genre’s elder statesmen onstage with its modern insurgents. It was the sort of thing that could have come off like a PowerPoint presentation. But, through the curatorial and social savvy of Questlove, who spearheaded and d.j.’d the segment, the medley felt like a genuine love letter to hip-hop, and an energizing reminder of the genre’s status as American canon—even as the Grammys have long failed to treat it as such. When the performance wrapped, the cameras found Jay-Z, who was shooting a finger gun in ecstatic celebration.

But back to Beyoncé, who did, indeed, break the record and become the winningest artist in Grammy history. It was a qualified victory, however: she wound up making history by taking home one of the evening’s most minor awards, for Best Dance/Electronic Album. Though she has molded herself into a ruthless innovator, Beyoncé is also an institutionalist at heart, with the quest for achievement so deep in her DNA that she once made a music video (for “Pretty Hurts”) spotlighting her contentious relationship with awards and trophies. The milestone of breaking the record was not lost on her, and when she took the stage to accept her award she was tearful, breathless, and seemed overcome with emotion. “I’m trying not to be too emotional,” she said. “I’m trying to just receive this night.”

Anyone who has paid attention to the Grammys’ galling conservatism over the years was not surprised when the big awards rolled around and Beyoncé was bested by other stars. Bonnie Raitt took home Song of the Year, for “Just Like That,” presented by Jill Biden, and Lizzo took home Record of the Year. Like Adele, Lizzo was compelled to use the end of her stage time to state the obvious: “Thank you so much,” she told Beyoncé. “You clearly are the artist of our lives.” Harry Styles looked a bit stunned as he accepted the night’s final award, for Album of the Year, for “Harry’s House.” “I think, on nights like tonight, it’s obviously so important for us to remember there’s no such thing as ‘best in music,’ ” he said. Maybe so, but there are other superlatives that felt appropriate in Beyoncé’s case. Last night—during a ceremony that was designed to feel like a coronation but instead came off like an apology—she became the most celebrated and most winning, and yet somehow most undersung, artist in Grammy history. And the Recording Academy’s record for baffling decision-making went unbroken. ♦

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