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THE GRAMMY WHISPERER PICKS THE BIG WINNERS

 

The Grammy Nominations Review Committee threw us a curve this year. Just about everybody expected a showdown between Kendrick Lamar and Ed Sheeran in the top three categories. In many ways, it would have been a replay of last year’s epic showdown between Beyoncé and Adele. Seemingly concerned that Sheeran might sweep all three awards—as Adele did last year—the committee simply didn’t nominate the affable Brit in any of the top three categories.

Well, that’s one way to solve the problem.

My fellow Grammy nerd Lenny Beer coined a word for it—Sheeran was “Timberlaked.” That’s a reference to 2013, when Justin Timberlake had the year’s best-selling album, yet was passed over for noms in the Big Three categories. I think Sheeran’s snub is even more egregious than Timberlake’s was. The Grammys slighted him—“shafted him” would not be too strong a phrase—in an attempt to solve their own image problem. (I’m referring, of course, to the Grammys’ long history of favoring mainstream pop artists at the expense of contemporary R&B and hip-hop artists—and, before that, rock artists—in the top categories.)

The Nominations Review Committee also surprised us by nominating two hip-hop artists—Lamar and Jay-Z—for both Album and Record of the Year. Will that double the chances of one of them winning—or reduce them by splitting the vote of hip-hop fans? And will the presence of Childish Gambino in those same two categories further split the vote of fans of R&B and hip-hop?

Let’s take a look at the Big Four categories and Best Pop Vocal Album.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

This is the fourth time that two rap albums have been nominated for Album of the Year in the same year. This previously happened in 2002 (Eminem’s The Eminem Show and Nelly’s Nellyville both lost to Norah JonesCome Away With Me), 2003 (OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below beat Missy Elliott’s Under Construction) and 2013 (Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city and Macklemore & Ryan LewisThe Heist both lost to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories). So a rap album can still win even when two rap albums are nominated, but it has happened only once. And the year it did, OutKast was clearly the chief rap draw. The duo had one more nom than Elliott that year, and it was a big one—“Hey Ya!” was nominated for Record of the Year, while Elliott’s “Work It” was not.

This year, Lamar’s DAMN. was thought to be the rap album to beat. But Jay-Z has one more overall nomination (nine vs. eight; Jay-Z is up for Song of the Year and Lamar isn’t.) Does the academy have enough voting members who are receptive to rap for a rap album to win when there are two strong, evenly matched rap nominees? That is this year’s big question. If just one of these albums was in the finals, I think it would win. But with two, I’m not so sure. It’s a muddled picture. Neither album is the clear rap favorite.

So what else is in the mix? Bruno Mars24K Magic is a potent entry. Mars and Jay-Z are the only artists who are nominated in each of the Big Three categories this year. 24K Magic isn’t exactly a progressive choice, but the Nominations Review Committee apparently decided he’s hipper than Sheeran.

Lorde’s Melodrama is the only pop album in the race (at least according to Grammy classifications; they put Mars’ album in the R&B category), the only album by a female artist and, for those keeping track of such things, the only album by a white artist. It was a critically lauded album, but it didn’t really sustain commercially after debuting at #1. Remarkably, this is the album’s only nomination. Rank-and-file voters didn’t nominate it for Best Pop Vocal Album. This is the first time that an album that was passed over for a nom in its “genre album” category wound up with an Album of the Year nom since Sara BareillesThe Blessed Unrest was gifted with an Album of the Year nom four years ago. If Melodrama winds up winning Album of the Year, it would be the first album to win the big one that was passed over for a nom in its “genre album” category.

Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love!” rounds out the category. Frankly, I don’t see a route to victory for this album. Progressive voters would rather see a hip-hop album win (for only the third time in Grammy history). Traditional voters will be deciding between Lorde and Mars.

My prediction: Bruno Mars.

RECORD OF THE YEAR

No hip-hop record has ever won in this category. And with two nominees—Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” and Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.”—splitting the rap vote, I don’t think this will be the year for that breakthrough.

Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” will surely win for Best Traditional R&B Performance. This is the first time that a nominee in that category has also received a Record of the Year nom. This sleeper smash surprised Lenny and me by landing a nom here—we both love it, but thought it would be squeezed out. But I don’t see it winning.

Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” has a chance. It’s a good record, though it pales next to “Uptown Funk!,” the 2015 winner in this category by Mark Ronson featuring Mars.

“Despacito” by Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber was both a bigger hit and a more important record than “24K Magic.” It paved the way for other pop/Latin crossover hits. (And it’s about time they enter the Top 40 mix.) “Despacito” is a genre-bridging song that has artists of different races and countries of origin working together. That will speak to a lot of Grammy voters, especially in the Donald Trump era. Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, who are both natives of Puerto Rico, would be the first musicians of Latin heritage to win in this category since Santana won 18 years ago for “Smooth” (featuring Rob Thomas).

My prediction: Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber.

SONG OF THE YEAR

Jay-Z’s “4:44” and Julia Michaels’ “Issues” are both long-shots. Jay-Z co-wrote “4:44” with producer Dion Wilson, a.k.a. No I.D. Michaels co-wrote “Issues” with Benny Blanco, Justin Tranter and the members of the Stargate production team—Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen.

Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” is a serious contender, though I think it’s a little light to win Song of the Year. There are eight writers on this song. (Apparently, it’s not easy to come up with a song this seemingly simple.) Mars co-wrote the ditty with Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy, Philip Lawrence and the members of The Stereotypes production team—Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus and 
Jonathan Yip. “That’s What I Like” will 
be a commercial jingle one of these days, and 
it will doubtless boost sales of whatever 
product it is used to market.

I think it comes down to “Despacito” and “1-800-273-8255.”  Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber co-wrote “Despacito” with Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, Erika Ender and Marty James Garton.

Logic, Alessia Cara and Khalid co-wrote “1-800” with producer Arjun Ivatury, a.k.a. 6ix.

“Despacito” would be the first (mostly) foreign-language song to win in this category since Domenico Modugno’s Italian-language smash “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” at the very first Grammys in 1958. (The Fine Print: The Beatles’ “Michelle,” the 1966 winner, has a few lines in French, but it’s mostly in English.) “1-800-273-8255” would be the first message song to win in this category since “Change the World” 21 years ago. (Other message songs that have won here over the years are “We Are the World,” “That’s What Friends Are For” and “Streets of Philadelphia”).

It’s close between these two, so let me take another look at the nominations list. (When in doubt, go the source.) Rank-and-file voters put “Despacito” in the finals for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. “1-800” was passed over for a nom in that category. Granted, that’s a performance category, while this is a songwriting category, but it does suggest the relative strength of each entry.

My prediction: “Despacito.”

P.S. Did you notice that four of the five nominated songs have four or more credited writers? That would seem to be a trend.

BEST NEW ARTIST

Lil Uzi Vert is probably the least likely to win. He wasn’t  nominated for Best Rap Album—though admittedly the competition in that category was fierce.

Julia Michaels has a Song of the Year nom, which is a real achievement for a new artist. But she has yet to follow “Issues” with another hit. A win here is unlikely.

My first thought when I saw the nominations list was that Alessia Cara would win. She has had three Top 10 hits this year. She’s a classy, mainstream pop artist, precisely the kind of artist that the Grammys have long favored in this category. Ironically, that could pose a problem for her this year, with the Grammys’ obvious effort to be hipper.

Let’s take a close look at the other two nominees. SZA and Khalid each received five noms, one more than Cara. Two of the noms for both Cara and Khalid are for their work on Logic’s “1-800.” By contrast, all five of SZA’s noms are for her own album and tracks from it. SZA has received tremendous critical acclaim. Last year, the critically acclaimed Chance the Rapper won here, beating the more commercially successful The Chainsmokers and Maren Morris.

My prediction: SZA.

BEST POP VOCAL ALBUM

There are six nominees in this category—there must have been a tie—so let’s start the process of elimination. Coldplay’s Kaleidoscope EP (it’s just a five-song EP) and Lana Del Rey’s Lust for Life (she was passed over for a nom for Best Pop Solo Performance) seem the least likely to win. Lady Gaga’s Joanne and Kesha’s Rainbow are both strong contenders. Gaga is a past winner in this category. Kesha will have a lot of support, especially from women, because of what “Praying” represents. Imagine DragonsEvolve spawned two giant hits. But is it in the right category? Is this a pop album or a rock album? I think that voters will make up for Ed Sheeran’s egregious snubs (there, I said it again) in the Big Three categories by voting for ÷ here.

My prediction: Ed Sheeran.

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