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mac-miller

I love Mac Miller. Rather, I loved Mac Miller.

Malcolm James McCormick went by a lot of names: Easy Mac in his rambunctious teenage years, Mac Miller during his career’s most influential times, and even the peculiar Larry Fisherman — a pseudonym from when he worked as a producer. Each name represents a developmental phase in his career and a progressive elevation in his musical skill. His style, flow, and sound developed and matured through each album. His work is truly representative of his life. His work was representative of his life, until Miller died by an accidental drug overdose at the age of 26 last September.

That’s why seeing his album, “Swimming,“ and other amazing works in the category, lose to Bronx rapper Cardi B’s “Invasion of Privacy” was disheartening, painful, and emblematic of what the Grammys have succumb to in recent years: utter commercialization. It is an outright disrespect to not only Mac Miller but also to other nominated artists and their craft.

“Swimming” was rap in a delightful and sometimes an emotionally heartbreaking fusion of technical skill, masterful production, and meaning. Mac Miller scored a 78 on Metacritic compared to an 84 for “Invasion of Privacy” by Cardi B, an 86 for “Daytona” by Pusha T, an 80 for “Victory Lap” by Nipsey Hussle, and an 85 for “Astroworld” by Travis Scott, which were fellow nominees.

From a critical perspective, other albums outperformed Cardi B’s work. But Miller’s power comes from his emotional draw and true connection he had to fans.

I’ll never forget when I first listened to Miller’s album. Sitting on my bedroom floor, leaning against my bed at 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 2, I waited for the clock on my lock screen to flip to midnight. I opened Spotify, searched for Mac Miller, and listened. I stayed up for the next hour listening to what I thought was the best album of the year, shocked that each song was even better than the last.

On this 13-track record of soulful, melodic, and fantastically produced music, Miller changed his tone, compounding his jazzy rap style from his last album, “The Divine Feminine,” and transforming it into a deeper, introspective, and undeniably pensive feel in the last five songs.

The album’s name — an aspect of the art often underutilized by artists — also proves amazing. Miller signals the idea of swimming: his laborious, tiresome battle against substance abuse, addiction, and breakup to stay afloat, to keep treading water, and to keep going in life. It was painfully clear this was a means of catharsis — or an attempt at catharsis — for Miller. And fans resonated with it. His honest and mumbled, mellifluous singing is easily relatable but not basic or cliché. 

Therefore, Mac’s suicide hit me hard. I shed tears for him, but also for the fact that the world would never get to hear him make music again.

That’s why I’m so frustrated with the Grammys. The Grammys chose not to celebrate an artist who invested much of his life — Miller has been rapping since the age of 15 — into a genre that has witnessed his transformative growth and evolution. An artist who made an extremely qualified album to win the award. And, yes, an album that would be the last of a memorable yet deserving artist.

Instead, they went with the commercial success of powerhouse rapper Cardi B. While I don’t have any major issues with her as an artist or her album, the record is lackluster at best. I felt its commercial sales spoke to its win more than its content (every song on “Invasion of Privacy” went either gold or platinum) — but “Astroworld” still had 147, 494 more project units sold than “Invasion of Privacy.” Nonetheless, I applaud Cardi B for having dominated the mainstream rap scene since first seizing her moment with “Bodak Yellow” in 2017. She’s solidified herself not just as the Queen of Rap (sorry, Nicki Minaj) but also as a major player in the industry, regardless of gender. However, I wouldn’t go as far as to say she had the best album in the genre by any means.

The Grammys are chosen through a seemingly transparent process by the Recording Academy, composed of music creators, including artists, engineers, producers and songwriters. However, given the history of the awards show, there’s obviously more than meets the eye.

Take the 60th Annual Grammy Awards in 2018, for example, when Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic” beat out Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!,” Jay-Z’s “4:44,” Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.,” and Lorde’s “Melodrama.” Mars’s heavily radio-played album was, in the eyes of the Recording Academy, more deserving of the award than musical masterpieces in other genres geared more for the consumer and not the machine that is the music industry. Macklemore’s almost-insulting win of Album of the Year with “The Heist” over Kendrick Lamar’s social commentary masterpiece of “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” at the 56th annual Grammys perfectly encapsulated this false logic, too. Commercial success is celebrated by the Grammys, as they spit in the face of true artistic effort.

Many artists have skipped the Grammys in the past for various reasons. Notable industry leaders like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and R&B star Frank Ocean have passed on the show in the past, citing the Academy’s un-recognition of hip-hop and an outdated voting system.

Drake attended this year with an agenda for change. He slammed the institution while giving his speech for winning Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan,” a speech that was also cut off by producers when they believed he made a “natural pause.” Drake argued that fan interaction and local influence signify success, not a gold trophy of a gramophone: “You’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown,” he said. “You don’t need this right here. You already won.”

Maybe Drake’s right. The more I think about it, believing that he is right is the most satisfying solution to this apparent upset. I, and any music listener out there, don’t need the Grammys or the Recording Academy to tell me who it thought put out the best album of the year. Because when it comes down to it, music, like all art, is subjective. Having a forum to decide what piece of work was the best sounds like a decent celebration and showing of respect to an artist who works diligently at their craft. But in execution, the idea falls apart. Fans are upset, artists feel robbed, and the disconnect between industry and artist grows. The Grammys are irrelevant and unnecessary given their numerous flaws.

If Princeton has taught me anything so far, it’s to question institutions in an effort to better them. And I seriously question the Grammys, and I hope my discontent and the discontent of countless other fans and artists motivate a change in the nature of the show.

Music is a personal experience. Mac Miller demonstrated that fact to his fans. In our hearts, we know what his album signifies. And the fans of Cardi B know what her work signifies, too. Don’t let someone or something tell you what has value. Screw the Grammys — for now, at least.

Arman Badrei is a first-year from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at abadrei@princeton.edu.

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