Last week, Republic Records — the home of Drake, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and dozens more — announced it would no longer use the term “urban” to describe “departments, employee titles and music genres” in an effort to “not adhere to the outdated structures of the past.” The radio-format term had long been used in the music industry as a synonym for traditionally Black musical genres such as hip-hop, R&B, and more dating back to the 1970s, pioneered by DJ Frankie Crocker. The company said in a memo (per Variety), “As with a lot of our history, the original connotation of the term urban was not deemed negative.”
But over time, the term “developed into a generalization of Black people in many sectors of the music industry, including employees and music by Black artists,” the note continued. Indeed, The Guardian‘s Kehinde Andrews pointed out in 2018 that the term still “allows for gentrification of the genres,” something NPR’s Rodney Carmichael further explored a year later addressing the larger issues of the Recording Academy. “The Grammys don’t have a hip-hop problem,” he wrote, “the Grammys are the problem.”
Republic’s actions have also reportedly propelled Warner Music Group and IHeartMedia to drop their usage of the term as well. “Urban,” meanwhile, had also found its way into the Grammys’s nomenclature, appearing in several categories, including Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album (along with several discontinued awards). But on Wednesday (June 10), the Grammys unveiled a massive slate of changes, including a few that directly address the term.
Most notably, the Recording Academy has renamed its Best Urban Contemporary Album category: It will now be known as “Best Progressive R&B Album.” The update to the award, won by Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You earlier this year, was designed “to describe the merit or characteristics of music compositions or performances themselves,” according to a statement. Likewise, Best Rap/Sung Performance — last won by DJ Khaled, John Legend, and Nipsey Hussle for “Higher” — will now be known as “Best Melodic Rap Performance.”
Additionally, the Latin Urban genre has now moved into the Latin Pop category to create two new designations: “Best Latin Pop or Urban Album” and “Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album.” The criteria for Best New Artist has also been updated, so now if a “new” artist has released 10 albums (or mixtapes), they can still be eligible. “While there will be no specified maximum number of releases, the screening committees will be charged with determining whether the artist had attained a breakthrough or prominence prior to the eligibility year,” the language reads.
The changes come following a turbulent start to 2020 for the Recording Academy. Just days before this year’s awards telecast, chief executive Deborah Dugan was placed on leave after she sent a memo detailing how “something was seriously amiss at the Academy,” including voting irregularities and conflicts of interest. Beyond the Academy’s updates to category titles, other new changes seem to address those complaints, formalizing conflict of interest protocol via disclosure forms. (You can read more about that in detail on the Grammys site here.)
They also come after Tyler, the Creator’s comments directly addressing the term “urban” following a big win at this year’s ceremony in the Best Rap Album category. “It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that’s genre-bending or anything, they also put it in a rap or urban category,” he said in the press room. “I don’t like that urban word. It’s just politically correct way to say the N-word to me.”