Chances Are …

The Grammys’ Best New Artist Isn’t All That New

Artwork by Stevie Lacher

Artwork by Stevie Lacher

Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper had a big night at the 59th annual Grammy Awards. Chance took home three Grammys that night, one for Best Rap Album for his phenomenal mixtape “Coloring Book,” one for Best Rap Performance with his smash hit “No Problem,” and one for Best New Artist. That last Grammy is a bit peculiar as well … Chance the Rapper is not a new artist. He’s been releasing critically acclaimed mixtapes since 2012. In fact, “Coloring Book,” the album that got him the most buzz as an artist, is his third mixtape. Did the Grammys screw up here? Why would they give the Best New Artist award to someone who has been a beloved, independent artist for the past five years?

Well, one thing to realize about the Grammys is that the Best New Artist award does not technically mean the artist is completely new. If that were the case, none of the nominees would have been eligible, as The Chainsmokers have been releasing music since 2013 (you probably remember their 2014 single “#selfie”). Anderson Paak released an album in 2014, though under a different name. Maren Morris released four independent albums before her major label debut that got her the Grammy nod. Kelsea Ballerini is technically the only new artist, but even then, her debut album was released in mid-2015. In actuality, the Best New Artist category is for artists who have recently received critical and commercial success in the mainstream. They need not be a completely new act, as stated by the official Grammy guidelines, hence why all the previously named artists have been nominated in this category. Even so, Chance has had buzz and commercial success as an independent artist well before 2016, much unlike the other nominees. What made him more qualified as a new artist than the other nominees, despite having a longer-lasting career than all of them?

Another thing to consider about the Grammys prior to this year is that they did not consider the number of streams and free downloads, but instead only physical and digital sales. An album, song, or artist wouldn’t be eligible if they didn’t sell the units. In 2012 and 2013, when Chance released stream-only albums, he was never given the chance for the award (pun not intended).

This year, the Grammys took streaming numbers into account when determining an album’s commercial success, and what better way to commemorate that then by nominating a stream-only album for Best Rap Album? As such, the reason Chance was never given the attention before this is because he was not eligible until this year. To the Grammys, Chance is an anomaly; an artist who established his career off the “brand-spanking new technology” of streamable music.

Yes, the Grammys continue to remain behind the times by awarding a well-established artist with the Best New Artist award, but Chance the Rapper’s Grammy win is important for several reasons. His nomination alone was enough to establish streaming as a possible means to make an impact in the music industry. Essentially, his nomination went against the norm of the typical record sales of the industry by being a cultural phenomenon without selling a single record. None of Chance’s mixtapes are available to buy, but instead, they are readily available on streaming services like Spotify. Chance always believed his music should be free to everyone, and he chooses to remain independent even after his Grammy wins.

In terms of the artists who won the Best New Artist award this decade, Chance is unlike any other. He isn’t like a Sam Smith or Meghan Trainor, both of whom make wholesome, generally agreeable pop music that sells units en masse. He is the first independent artist to ever win the Best New Artist moniker; not to mention, he is also the first black hip-hop artist to win the award since Lauryn Hill in 1999. I respect the Grammys to go for Chance instead of the arguably more predictable act, The Chainsmokers, who have had five of their singles hit the Billboard Top Ten in the past year. Chance’s win is not only widely unique and unheard of in Grammy history, but also has the ability to draw more attention to one of the most likeable and unique hip-hop artists in the game. And I have no problem with that.