The Grammys head into the great wide open
Even in the age of Peak TV and Netflix-documentary glut, music is the popular art form on which it’s most difficult to get a complete handle — the weekly new-release reserves topped the 100-album mark last year quite a few times, and that’s not even counting the myriad reissues released by catalog-stuffed labels. So the Grammy Awards, in theory meant to represent the “best” popular music, will always have more naysayers than satisfied observers when they announce their nominees, let alone their winners.
This year’s ceremony — the 61st, which airs Sunday night at 8 on CBS — is a culmination of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ first attempt to change that. Following the lead of the Academy Awards, which widened the best picture nomination field from five nominees to 10 in 2009, the Grammys have welcomed more members into the running for certain categories, including the four awards with cross-genre nomination slates: album of the year, record of the year, song of the year, and best new artist. In addition, the recording academy added more than 900 women and people of color to the Grammys’ voting ranks last October.
This widening is welcome, long overdue, and, given the slate of nominees for those categories in particular this year, probably not dramatic enough. This year’s top-four categories all boast critical favorites like Brandi Carlile and Janelle Monáe, commercial leviathans like Drake and Cardi B, and head-scratchers like Greta Van Fleet and Post Malone. But they also feel somewhat incomplete, and only partially representative of what music looked like between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 30, 2018.
This year, Pulitzer-winning MC Kendrick Lamar and cross-continental mogul Drake led the nominations, with eight and seven respectively. Lamar’s nominations stem mostly from the soundtrack for “Black Panther”; he co-executive produced “Black Panther the Album,” and rapped on the brooding SZA collaboration “All the Stars,” which is nominated for song and record of the year. Drake’s nominations come from his lengthy, sensitive “Scorpion,” which broke streaming records and spawned a slew of singles, including the watery, determined “God’s Plan,” also nominated for song and record of the year. This tracks with the way hip-hop in general — and Drake, specifically — dominated music in 2018.
Hip-hop is well-represented in this year’s Big Four categories thanks to Drake and Lamar, as well as Bronx-born supernova Cardi B, chill-bro exemplar Post Malone, and multi-hyphenate Childish Gambino (a.k.a. “Atlanta” creator and former “Community” star Donald Glover). Dropping below those four categories, though, shows that the recording academy’s push for greater representation has had ripple effects, although they’re not all evenly spread out.
Hip-hop and R&B are at the nexus of energy for pop music right now, and the nominees in those genres’ respective categories are probably the best-realized of this year. Take the competition for best urban contemporary album: Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s joint effort as the Carters, “Everything Is Love,” leads the pack in Q rating, but its competitors are varied and great. Chloe x Halle’s 21st-century update of the blood-harmonies ideal, Chris Dave & the Drumhedz’ multi-headed soul music hydra, Miguel’s sun-baked dystopia, and Meshell Ndegeocello’s reimagination of the late 20th-century’s soul-pop smashes are all worthy of winning, but more importantly, they’re worthy of being elevated to “important album” status.
If only the winner of that category was able to appear on TV. The producers of the Grammy telecast have a problem similar to the academy’s voting members: Too much to include in a 24-hour telecast, let alone a three-hours-and-change one. This year’s Grammys have 84 categories; last year’s telecast showed nine presentations, with the rest shunted off to the afternoon-long Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony. Online video has, at least, made that ceremony more accessible to viewers. (It streams live at www.grammy.com on Sunday beginning at 3:30 p.m.)
The rest of the show is made up of performances, which, if years past and the current trickle of announcements are anything to go by, will consist largely of sometimes-understandable, sometimes yikes-inducing pairings of artists from past and present generations — country titan Dolly Parton with spiritual descendants Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris, moany alt-rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers with moany sorta-rapper Post Malone. A few big names will be missing — Lamar, Drake, and Glover all turned down offers to perform, according to a New York Times interview with producer Ken Ehrlich, while the music trade pub Hits reported that Ariana Grande, whose new album “thank u, next” comes out Friday, dropped out after clashing with the show’s producers over song choice.
But even with those absences, there’s enough talent in music right now that there will probably be at least one performance that wows observers in the moment. My money’s on Carlile, whose starkly felt songs got “Grey’s Anatomy” and Olympic-ad pickup, and who has enough in-the-biz fans to inspire a tribute album featuring Parton, Pearl Jam, and Adele — but who has yet to win a Grammy. A sweeter comeback story couldn’t be told.
The GRAMMY Awards
On CBS, Sunday at 8 p.m.