Mocking the Grammys’ history of cluelessness is almost too easy.
In 1985, Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down beat out entries by Prince (Purple Rain), Bruce Springsteen (Born in the U.S.A.), Tina Turner (Private Dancer) and Cyndi Lauper (She’s So Unusual) for album of the year. In 1979, A Taste of Honey topped Elvis Costello and the Cars for best new artist.
It often seems that so many Grammys are given out each year that everybody gets at least one. Winners will be named in 84 categories on Sunday, most of them off screen before the 60th annual Grammy Awards are broadcast at 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS at Madison Square Garden.
It’ll be the first time since 2003 that the ceremony has happened in New York rather than Los Angeles, and this year there’s an East vs. West Coast rap battle among the biggest nominees: Brooklyn born Jay-Z leads with eight. Compton’s Kendrick Lamar has seven.
Yet, the list of revered artists without one is staggering: Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, Bob Marley, the Notorious B.I.G., Patti Smith, Tupac Shakur, Chuck Berry, Snoop Dogg, Iggy Pop, Janis Joplin, the Kinks, Queen, Patsy Cline: None of them have ever won a Grammy.
The Recording Academy has struggled for decades to get in step with the times, but voters have frequently not cooperated with that plan. Sometimes, older artists have been rewarded for lifetime achievement at the expense of younger talent that might offend or confuse conservative voters.
In 2001, Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature won album of the year over Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP and Radiohead’s Kid A. In 2008, Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters topped Kanye West and Amy Winehouse.
In recent years, Grammy controversies have ignited social media outcries about race: White rapper Macklemore beat Lamar for best rap album in 2014, Beck topped Beyoncé for album of the year in 2015, Taylor Swift beat Lamar in 2016. And Queen Bey once again failed to win the top award last year, when the spectacularly tangy Lemonade was bested by Adele’s tastefully bland 25.
In that context, this year’s top category nominees look pretty good. In 2017, R&B/hip-hop was the most popular genre of music in the U.S., accounting for 24.5 percent of all music consumption, based on both sales and streams.
And there’s lots of hip-hop and R&B in the album of the year category, starting with Lamar’s DAMN. and Jay-Z’s 4:44. Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic and Childish Gambino’s “Awaken My Love” are also up for the top honor. The lone female representative in this year of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements — the latter of which Grammy-goers will acknowledge by wearing white roses — is New Zealand songwriter Lorde, for Melodrama. It’s the first year ever without a single white male in the prestige category. Sorry, snubbed Ed Sheeran: You lose!
Three of the top 10 most popular 2017 albums garnered multiple Grammy nods. That includes Lamar and Mars — who pulled in six — and Khalid, the 19-year-old Georgia songwriter, whose American Teen has him up for best new artist as well as song of the year for “1-800-273-8255,” his antisuicide song collaboration with rapper Logic and singer Alessia Cara. Another worthy nominee, is North Jersey’s R&B singer SZA, who’s up for five trophies. She plays the Fillmore on Wednesday.
Do all these credible candidates mean that the Grammys days of making boneheaded mistakes are a thing of the past?
I wouldn’t count on it. We’ll have to watch to see if they still manage to screw it up.
But the awards show’s efforts to align itself more closely with popular tastes have made it more likely that a deserving rap act will win the crowning album of the year trophy.
Before we get to prognosticating the four major categories, a word on the chances of Philadelphia-area acts. The Philadelphia talent with shots at the biggest awards are “XO Tour Llif3” rapper Lil Uzi Vert, who’s up for best new artist, and The War on Drugs, whose A Deeper Understanding is in the running for best rock album.
Do the War On Drugs have a chance of beating out Metallica, Mastodon, Queens of the Stone Age, and Nothing More in their rock category? At least as good of a chance as the Eagles — who they showed their support for on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon this past week — do against the Patriots in Minnesota next week. I’m picking them.
Other locals worth rooting for: Wife and husband duo The Baylor Project, from Mount Laurel in Burlington County, are up for best jazz vocal album for The Journey, and best traditional R&B performance for “Laugh & Move On.” Lancaster, Pa. band August Burns Red are up for best metal performance for “Invisible Enemy.”
Ardmore’s Tony- and Oscar-winning songwriter Benj Pasek is up for awards for the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen and the La La Land soundtrack. And Pink, jazzman Christian McBride, comedian Kevin Hart, and R&B singer Musiq Soulchild are also up for Grammys.
On then, to the top four general field categories.
Album of the year
Jay-Z, 4:44; Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.; Bruno Mars, 24K Magic; Lorde, Melodrama; Childish Gambino, “Awaken My Love.”
Should win: DAMN. Lamar’s rap opus is the leader of the pack, and it’s his third great record in a row. He deserves his due.
Will win: 4:44. Much is being made of this year’s youthful vibe, but Jay-Z is in fact a 48-year-old elder statesman, who’s made his most relevant music in years. That fit the Grammy blueprint. He gets the prize.
Record of the Year
Childish Gambino, “Redbone;” Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee feat. Justin Beiber, “Despacito;” Jay-Z, “The Story of O.J.;” Kendrick Lamar, “HUMBLE;” Bruno Mars, “24K Magic.”
Should win: “HUMBLE.” The greatest rapper alive preaching humility. It oughta be a winning combination.
Will win: “Despacito.” It’s not supposed to be a pure popularity contest, but this super catchy juggernaut not only struck a blow for diversity in a xenophobic time by becoming the first Spanish-language hit to top the Billboard charts since the “Macarena” in 1996. It also tied Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s record of 16 consecutive weeks atop the charts, with “One Fine Day,” also set in 1996.
Song of the Year
(This is a songwriter’s award, but I’m going to list the artist rather than the full credits because in some cases in these days of songwriting-by-committee, the list of contributors is often absurdly long.)
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee feat. Justin Beiber, “Despacito;” Jay-Z, “4:44;” Julia Michaels, “Issues;” Logic feat. Alessia Cara and Khalid, “1-800-273-8255;” Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like.”
Should win: “4:44” Beyonce’s husband is worthy of props for the prostrate apology that’s the centerpiece of his understated, superbly crafted and cohesive collaborative album with producer and cowriter No I.D.
Will win: Tough call. I’ll go with Jay-Z, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the life affirming message of “1-800-273-8255” — the number of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline — carries the day.
Best New Artist
Alessia Cara, Khalid, Lil Uzi Vert, Julia Michaels, SZA.
Should win: SZA. Ctrl, the 2017 album by the Maplewood, N.J., songwriter and singer born Solana Rowe, makes the most impressive and consistent artistic statement among this bunch.
Will win: Khalid. This award is up for grabs with no clear favorite, but look for the Grammys to be a coming-out party for the talented teen who turns 20 next month.