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BEST NEW ARTIST RACE HEATS UP

Things move fast in this business. When MTV producers booked the VMA telecast, they put Julia Michaels on the main show and Khalid (save for his featured role on Logic's song) on the pre-telecast warm-up show. That made perfect sense at the time the decision was made. Michaels' "Issues" was a giant pop hit. Khalid's "Location," though a chart fixture for months, never climbed quite as high as Michaels' smash.

But by the time the awards were presented on Aug. 27, momentum had shifted. Khalid's debut album, American Teen, had returned to the top 10, while Michaels' seven-song EP, Nervous System, had performed modestly. Khalid wound up winning the award.

Could Khalid also win the Grammy for Best New Artist? He very well could. He would become just the fourth artist to take Best New Artist at both of these high-profile award shows. The first three were Hootie & the Blowfish, Alicia Keys and Maroon 5.

Khalid will be 19 when the Grammys are presented on Jan. 28. (He turns 20 on Feb. 11). If he wins, he'll become just the third artist to take Best New Artist before turning 20. He would follow LeAnn Rimes, who was 14 when she won, and Christina Aguilera, who was 19 when she took the award.

Can you take one more Grammy factoid? If Khalid wins, this would be the second year in a row that an African American male solo artist has won in this category. Chance the Rapper won earlier this year. That's noteworthy because in the first 58 years of the Grammys, only one African American male solo artist won the award—John Legend, the 2005 winner.

I don't mean to suggest that Khalid has the award in the bag—Michaels and SZA are also potent contenders—but at this point, he's probably the front-runner.

We're rolling out pieces in which I look at the likely nominations in the top four Grammy categories. We started with Record of the Year. After all four pieces run, I'll huddle with fellow Grammy nerd Lenny Beer for a no-holds-barred conversation.

The Grammys changed the eligibility requirements for Best New Artist this year. It's no longer necessary for an artist to have released an album within the eligibility period. The new rules say an artist "must have released a minimum of five singles/tracks or one album," but cannot have released "more than 30 singles/tracks or three albums" prior to the start of the current eligibility year. (Got all that?) The latter part of the rule renders the prolific Migos and Lil Uzi Vert ineligible.

Khalid's American Teen has been high on the charts for six months. The lead single, the deeply soulful "Location," cracked the top 20. A follow-up, "Young, Dumb & Broke," is about to crack the top 30. Khalid was nominated for Best New Artist at the BET Awards in June.

SZA's debut album, Ctrl, made the top five. Its single, "Love Galore" (featuring Travis Scott), cracked the top 40. SZA is featured on the new, fast-climbing single by Maroon 5—the 2004 winners in this category. SZA was nominated for Best New Artist at the VMAs. She is getting phenomenal press, such as being listed as one of "18 women shaping the culture of tomorrow" in the current issue of Rolling Stone. (They call her "the R&B rebel" and say "she made a bold, blunt and mesmerizing debut album.")

Julia Michaels has a great back-story, having written hits for such artists as Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Selena Gomez and Fifth Harmony. Female solo artists historically have an edge in this category (which would boost both Michaels and SZA). "Issues" has sold more than 1 million copies. But Nervous System, which contains the hit and her follow-up, "Uh Huh," barely registered. (In Michaels' defense, it's possible her fans are waiting for her first full-length.)

Rag'n'Bone Man has a good chance—if enough rank-and-file voters are familiar with "Human," the international hit from his debut album of the same name. (He would need to make the top 20 on the list of initial choices by voting members to even be considered by the Nominations Review Committee, which determines the final nominations in the top four categories.) At the BRIT Awards in February, Rag'n'Bone Man won two awards—British Breakthrough Act and Critics' Choice Award.

James Arthur's "Say You Won't Let Go" is the of the year's top hits, with sales approaching 1.2 million. An instant-classic ballad in the Ed Sheeran mold, it lifted Arthur's sophomore album, Back from the Edge, into the top 40. Arthur has a chance to become the first artist to be nominated for Best New Artist and Song of the Year in the same year since Sam Smith did it three years ago. (If both Rag'n'Bone Man and Arthur are nominated in this category, this will be the second time in the past five years that two English male solo artists were finalists in the same year. James Blake and Ed Sheeran were nominated in 2013.)

Those are the five contenders that seem to have the best chance of being nominated, but let's look at other key possibilities.

Post Malone reached the Top 10 with his debut album Stoney and his hit "Congratulations" (featuring Quavo). The album also includes his 2015 hit "White Iverson."

Brett Young, Jon Pardi, Luke Combs, Old Dominion and Lauren Alaina are vying for New Artist of the Year at the upcoming CMA Awards. Pardi won New Male Vocalist of the Year at the ACM Awards in April. Young was nominated in that category. And he gained ground over the summer with his hit "In Case You Didn't Know." Alaina was nominated for New Female Vocalist of the Year at the ACM Awards. (Alaina may be disqualified on the grounds that she attained prominence in 2011 when she was runner-up to Scotty McCreery on Season 10 of American Idol.)

Kane Brown also has a chance, though he was passed over for a CMA nom for New Artist of the Year. (He was nominated for the ACM award for New Male Vocalist of the Year.) His eponymous debut album made the top 10 and spawned a top 40 hit, "What Ifs" (featuring Lauren Alaina).

Cardi B has a current top five smash with "Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)." The rapper was nominated for Best New Artist at the BET Awards. She performed on the pre-show on the VMAs.

Young M.A reached the top 20 with her 2016 hit "OOOUUU." Her 2017 EP Herstory didn't fare as well. The rapper was nominated for Best New Artist at both the VMAs and the BET Awards.

Midland, which had a top five country hit with "Drinkin' Problem," is scheduled to release its debut album, On the Rocks, on Sept. 22.

Kodak Black's debut album, Painting Pictures, and his mixtape Project Baby Two, both made the top five. "Tunnel Vision," a single from Painting Pictures, made the Top 10. Kodak Black was nominated for Best New Artist at the VMAs.

21 Savage reached No. 2 with his debut album, Issa Album. "Bank Account," the first single from the album, is approaching the Top 10. He was nominated for Best New Artist at the BET Awards.

Marian Hill's 2016 debut album Act One spawned the hit single "Down," which took off after being featured in a commercial for Apple's Airpods.

Grace VanderWaal, who got her break on America's Got Talent, hit the top 10 with a five-song EP, Perfectly Imperfect. She'll turn 14 on Jan. 15, about two weeks before the Grammys. If she's nominated—a long-shot, I'll grant you—she would be the youngest solo artist ever to make the finals. LeAnn Rimes was about six months older when she was nominated (and won).

Other names in the conversation include KYLE, Russ, Playboi Carti, Cheat Codes, AJR and Kygo.

Note: Harry Styles and the other solo members of One Direction are ineligible on the grounds that that group had "attained prominence." (That's an understatement.)  Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani and other group alumni were likewise ineligible to compete here.

Kehlani is ineligible because her mixtape You Should Be Here was nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album two years ago. Lil Yachty is ineligible because he was nominated last year for Best Rap/Sung Performance for D.R.A.M.'s "Broccoli," on which he was featured. (The new rules stress that "any artist with a previous Grammy nomination as a performer" is ineligible.) 

My early picks: Khalid, SZA, Julia Michaels, Rag'n'Bone Man, James Arthur.

Note: Last year, 376 artists were entered for Best New Artist, making it the least crowded of the "Big Four" categories.

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