For the first nine months of 2018, Black Panther galvanized critics and fans in rare fashion. The Marvel flick broke numerous records at the box office, including becoming the highest grossing solo superhero film and the biggest movie from a Black director ever, all while earning nearly universal acclaim for both its breaking of the mold from traditional comic fare and its rare approach to a diverse tale within the medium. Not since Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight had a superhero movie been hyped not just for its populous appeal, but for its legitimate awards possibilities.
And while acting awards are more of a longshot for Black Panther — and potential honorees for Best Picture and Best Director might wind up being just happy to be nominated — there are many Academy Award categories where Black Panther feels like a true contender: Sound, Special Effects, Costumes, Art Direction, and, of course, Best Original Song. The soundtrack for Black Panther took on a life of its own following its February release, bolstered by a couple of songs that helped define the first half of the year for pop music, “All The Stars” and “Pray For Me.”
Both songs featured a couple of ascendent artists, SZA and The Weeknd respectively, and both were tied together by one of, if not the, most important musician in contemporary pop culture, Kendrick Lamar. The songs’ reach could be felt on streaming services and on the radio, on festival stages and on endless TV commercials. The album went to No. 1 just as the film did, and those songs became early contenders for a new kind of award for Lamar: An Academy Award.
Kendrick, of course, has had a turbulent relationship with awards show institutions. Sure, he’s just coming off winning a frickin’ Pulitzer Prize, something that is almost unheard of in the musical community. But he’s also been thwarted numerous times by music’s biggest award, the Grammys. It started back with his breakthrough album, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, when during the 2014 Grammy ceremony, Lamar saw himself losing out to none other than Macklemore in the categories of Best Rap Album and Best New Artist. Lamar was defeated on all seven awards he was nominated for that year, while the white rapper who was on a momentary commercial high felt the need to apologize to Lamar for beating him at the ceremony. Four years later, the choice seems egregious, but even at the time, many music fans knew that the award show had made a big mistake in failing to recognize a profound artistic achievement in favor of a flavor of the moment.
Lamar wouldn’t remain shut out of Grammy wins for long, but the snubs would continue. After winning a couple rap specific awards in 2015, 2016 saw him again with a ton of nominations, this time for his groundbreaking album To Pimp A Butterfly and its standout single, “Alright.” The album was a departure from the more commercial Good Kid, incorporating more jazz influences and spoken word delivery instead of stadium-sized bangers. It felt even more significant in a time where police brutality was at the forefront of the national conversation. Releasing an album that put his Blackness at the forefront rather than banking on his ability to make hits felt like a distinct statement, and it was one that was embraced wholeheartedly by both critics and fans alike, being named Album Of The Year by The Village Voice, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and, ahem, Uproxx.
But while Lamar owned the rap specific awards at the Grammys that year too, he was shut out of the major categories, notably losing Song Of The Year to Ed Sheeran and Album Of The Year to Taylor Swift, two releases which aren’t without their own merits but felt like a nod to safer (and whiter) territory. Lamar politely clapped while the Grammys relegated him to again being a genre artist, while music fans of all backgrounds bemoaned the Grammys’ clear whiff. By the time 2018 hit and Kendrick’s more accessible Damn was up for its own round of awards, its fate already seemed to be sealed. It didn’t matter that Damn felt like a chance for the award show to mend past mistakes, the idea that Kendrick’s contribution towards popular music culture was less important than other artists felt like a foregone conclusion. Again he swept the rap specific categories, and again, he lost the night’s biggest awards — this time to Bruno Mars.
But with Black Panther, something felt distinctly different for the first nine months of 2018. The success of Get Out in 2017 and Black Panther to start 2018 (and even Moonlight before both of them) felt like huge moments in Black art breaking through to the mainstream in both critical and commercial terms. More so than the music industry, there is a distinct mandate particularly in the awards world to include more diverse voices from marginalized groups. And with Black Panther‘s huge cultural impact, Kendrick Lamar looked poised to take a different type of hardware home, one that felt like it checked boxes for artistic achievement and pure pop saturation.
But, all that changed with the first screenings of A Star Is Born at the Venice Film Festival. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is a remake of a movie that has been in play for Oscars in all three of its previous iterations, but the overwhelming positivity with which it was received instantly shot it to the front of the favorites list. And while Lady Gaga might be in the running for Best Actress and Bradley Cooper could be the latest in the line of actors-turned-directors to receive nominations in both categories, one thing that nearly everyone was in agreement on was that Gaga and Cooper’s duet of “Shallow” was a virtual lock for Best Original Song.
When the video for the track was released a couple weeks back, it was easy to see what won over critics in Venice, Toronto, Zurich, and at advance press screenings around the world. It begins as an intimate duet that grows into a Coachella-filling anthem, the scenic palm trees providing the backdrop for Gaga’s character’s big moment in realizing her own potential. In short, it’s the kind of moment that the Oscars love, a musical number that is ingrained in the very fabric of the film. Say what you want about how Black Panther‘s music has come to represent it outside the film’s running time, it has nothing on how A Star Is Born‘s songs work within the film’s narrative.
The whole thing presents a very familiar scenario, where Kendrick Lamar stands to get bumped off the awards show podium by another safer, more white-appealing choice. In fact, this battle that will take place over the next few months feels even more symbolic — the hip-hop music from a movie that’s become one of the biggest Black art phenomenon in history is set to be defeated by a heartland story that’s literally been told numerous other times. One represents awards show tradition while the other is the paradigm for progression, one of music’s most tried and true forms against the style that is literally the heart and soul of contemporary pop culture. It’s not that the Oscars have always turned their back on rap — see the wins for Three 6 Mafia, Eminem, and Common in the past couple decades — but those wins are rarities when placed against the often forgettable and always safe tunes from Bond movies, Pixar films, and musicals.
And the recency of A Star Is Born‘s release might ultimately be the deciding factor that sinks Kendrick — films released in the first half of the year generally have less awards cachet than more recent releases, if solely for the fact that they are further back in the minds of voters. But if Lamar gets nominated for one or two of his Black Panther songs, it’s a wonder if he’ll even care enough to show up and perform at all as the decks continue to be stacked against him.
It says nothing about the quality of “Shallow” that this feels like an injustice — the song is legitimately stunning and the film is widely revered — and it isn’t right to blame Gaga and Cooper in the same way it felt wrong to blame Bruno or Taylor or Macklemore. But as Kendrick Lamar’s imprint on the arts continues to grow and the awards show hardware he collects for his work fails to represent that, it feels like he will always be the subject of a voting base that doesn’t regard his artform as legitimate as the white-appealing artists he’s often up against. What can the most acclaimed artist of his generation do to be treated as he deserves? The answer sadly seems to be nothing.