In November 2011, Ivan Barias was on a flight home to the East Coast from L.A., where he'd been working with Frank Ocean, or Miguel, or Justin Timberlake, or one of the other superstar singers for whom the 40-year-old produces and writes, when a light bulb above his head lit up. "I said, 'Let's create a new category called Urban Contemporary,'" he explained over the phone from Philadelphia, where he's president of The Recording Academy's local chapter. "Anyone that's singing on urban radio, they're not doing anything that you would call traditional R&B."
Barias organized a committee of R&B producers, songwriters, and managers he'd collaborated with (he declined to give names, but described members as "veterans" and "heavyweights"), and together they wrote up a proposal officially defining the Urban Contemporary Grammy category: "albums containing at least 51 percent playing time of newly recorded contemporary vocal tracks derivative of R&B." They outlined potential nominees as "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." The proposal was passed by the Awards and Nominations Committee, and went in front of the National Board of Trustees. They agreed, and by 2013 Frank Ocean's Channel Orange became the first ever Best Urban Contemporary Album.
Two years earlier, the then 52-year-old Grammys underwent a significant restructuring. The number of categories had grown to 109, and the Academy felt it was too easy to win an award. After two years of deliberation, the Grammys cut the number down to 78, axing categories like Best Rock Instrumental Performance and Best Country Vocal Performance. "Before people were just throwing stuff where it didn't belong because they thought they could get a nomination" Barias says. "[The restructure] worked because the entries have become more quality entries. There are less places, so people make sure [the music] really fits the category."
In spite of the extra precision, R&B took a hit. While there had once been eight distinct R&B categories—in 2008 Chaka Khan won for R&B Album, Ne-Yo took home Best Contemporary R&B album, Gerald Levert for the Best Traditional R&B Performance, and Lupe Fiasco and Jill Scott for Best Urban/Alternative Performance—there were now just four, and only one of the four categories was awarded to an entire album. In 2012, the first year of the newly restructured Grammys, Chris Brown won Best R&B Album over Kelly Price and El Debarge—artists that were arguably different enough in sound and audience to have warrented different categories. "You shouldn't penalize those traditional R&B artists, and you shouldn't penalize the new breed of R&B artists. It deserves its own space," Barias says, explaining how the new limited category definition hurt both. "How do you sit there and not say something about it?" In his eyes, the Urban Contemporary category serves as a counterbalance.
"'Drunk in Love' is not a pop song. It wasn't intended to be 'I Kissed a Girl.' It became popular, and there's a difference." -Tricky Stewart
But what exactly is Urban Contemporary? The words themselves are vague and broad. In the music industry, urban is often code for black; contemporary just means current. This year, nominees include Jhene Aiko, Beyoncé, Chris Brown, Mali Music, and Pharrell Williams, a wide spread itself. With previous nominees boasting major selling records and consistent presence on pop radio, what made them Urban Contemporary instead? Surprisingly, some artists saw the new category not as a slight, but a necessary correction. "I had a big huge fight this year trying to get Beyoncé to be acknowledged as Urban Contemporary," says Tricky Stewart, who produced Rihanna's "Umbrella" and Beyoncé's I Am…Sasha Fierce, and has a role in the Grammy selection process. "They told me that it was a pop song. 'Drunk in Love' is not a pop song. It wasn't intended to be 'I Kissed a Girl.' It became popular, and there's a difference."
Stewart, like Barias, is working to define and celebrate black music on its own terms, before it's melted into the cannon and claimed as pop music. Stewart and Barias' goal is to diversify the options of black music, and assert ownership over it before anyone else can. "I hear people say it's just R&B, and that's not fair, because it's about people wanting to be pop and not necessarily get the credit for the genre that they come from," Stewart says. "I'm trying to bridge that gap between the future and the past."
Considering ways to recast R&B is especially necessary now, as newer artists shy away from the genre distinction, thinking it already passé. "There's a stigma because of what we in the music industry created," says Barias. "We've created this perception that R&B is dead. That it no longer works." Progressive artists have resisted the classification, like Twigs, who argued her music was more punk than the alt-R&B label critics heaped on. "The structures aren't typical, it's relentless. It's like punk," FKA Twigs explained of her music to the Guardian this summer, before declaring "fuck alternative R&B." Miguel continued to lament how reductionist the label had gotten: "With any R&B artist it's like, 'Oh he's a 'sexy crooner. It's always the same words used, like ladieeees, or bedroom," he told the Washington Post in 2012 after he released Kaleidoscope Dream. "My life exists 95 percent outside of the bedroom. That's the real."
"Urban Contemporary sounds like they had a bunch of words on the wall and were just throwing darts." -Mack Wilds
Problems with the category remain. It's only existed three years—when the Best Americana Album was added to the Grammys, its definition changed every year for its first four. "We need to come up with a different name for it, because it sounds like they had a bunch of words on the wall and were just throwing darts," says Mack Wilds, whose New York: A Love Story is nominated for this year's Best Urban Contemporary Album. He still appreciates the space crafted for his unique sound, but he doesn't think the words match. "I would want to know the definition of urban," Jhene Aiko adds, who's also nominated for Best Urban Contemporary album this year. "That could be code for black, but I don't look at it as that. To me, it's anything with an edge."
Even as Tricky Stewart advocates for the category, he raises similar issues. "I'm personally not a big fan of the word urban," he says. "Urban is a code word that the industry has come up with to mean music they don't like. But if it's music they love, and the world loves, then it's pop. I don't think that's fair to the black artists and to the black categories of R&B music." It's why he pushed to include Beyoncé: to disrupt the thought that if something is called "urban," it's not accessible and won't sell. It's also why Barias first gathered the committee to define and approve his airplane a-ha moment to begin with—to make sure his community would be recognized, understood, and accepted. "It was a little self-serving because these are people that I know. These are records that I know. We need something to make sure we're being represented."
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