Maren Morris, Chance the Rapper and Alessia Cara photographed Sept. 22 at Essanay Studios in Chicago. 
Maren Morris, Chance the Rapper and Alessia Cara photographed Sept. 22 at Essanay Studios in Chicago. 
Austin Hargrave

Grammys Preview: Best New Artist Hopefuls Chance the Rapper, Alessia Cara & Maren Morris on a Pivotal Awards Season

For someone who’s 48 hours away from mounting a one-day music festival that will draw 47,000 fans, Chance the Rapper looks remarkably chill. On a soundstage at Essanay Studios in his native Chicago, the 23-year-old splays his arms and knees in imitation of Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow as “Ease On Down the Road” from The Wiz plays on a boom box. (He later says the movie helped inspire his new live show.) He’s smiling and wearing Super Mario-esque burgundy overalls and one of his trademark baseball caps — this one red and embroidered with the number 3, a reference to his latest album, Coloring Book — as a photographer snaps away.

The two artists who join Chance on set exude a similar calm, despite the logistical Tetris required to get them all in the same room.

“We’re all pretty laid back,” explains country artist Maren Morris, 26. She has flown in from Nashville, where she lives, and, shortly after the shoot is over, will hop on another plane to Tampa, Fla., to rendezvous with her boyfriend, the singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd, who is opening for Chase Rice that night.

The youngest of the three, 20-year-old Ontario, Canada, pop phenom Alessia Cara, took a morning flight from Toronto, where she played a show the previous night and will return after the shoot to play another.

Chance, meanwhile, will board his tour bus and make the half-hour trip to U.S. Cellular Field to prep for his Magnificent Coloring Day festival, which will light up Twitter thanks to Kanye West’s surprise appearance and Chance’s creative set.

While the three draw from distinct musical vocabularies, they are all mutual fans — Chance calls Cara a “kid genius” and Morris says the rapper’s emotional “Summer Friends” “really hit me.” They also are, potentially, competitors: All three are likely to be nominated for Grammys in multiple categories, and touted to be nominated in the highly prestigious category of best new artist.

“Oh, my God, it would mean everything,” says Cara of a nomination coming her way on Dec. 6. The pop artist’s raw, confessional album, Know-It-All, was one of the year’s outstanding breakout debuts. Says Morris, who garnered five Country Music Association Award nominations in 2016: “To be the Nashville representation would be cool.”

Chance already feels like a winner: After the rapturous reception to Coloring Book, released exclusively on Apple Music, The Recording Academy (coincidentally, it says) changed its rules to make streaming-only albums and songs eligible for awards. “Me being nominated would be a whole other victory,” says Chance. “If I do win, just know that I’ll be reveling in it.”

The three have extended the boundaries of their genres: Chance seeding hip-hop with gospel; Morris climbing country radio playlists — and the Billboard Hot 100 — with feisty and soulful songcraft that’s the antithesis of bro country; and Cara remaking the pop star as someone who eschews glamour and artifice, performing such songs as “Scars to Your Beautiful” makeup free and attaining the upper reaches of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot 100 charts. Together, they represent the vanguard of a Grammy season that promises heightened recognition of artists of color (like Frank Ocean and Drake) and women (main attractions Beyoncé and Adele).

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but: Will you thank God if you win?

Morris: The first people I’m going to thank are my parents because they’re basically God to me. They busted their asses driving me around Texas to every honky-tonk and [Grand Ole] Opry show. Otherwise, I’m going to get a phone call.

Cara: I probably will thank God. I definitely always think it in my head. I’m not crazy religious, but I do believe.

Chance: The first thing I’ll do is give glory to God. If I get nominated, I’m going to throw a huge party in Chicago and I’ll fly in all my friends. We’ll celebrate the Grammys’ recognition of grass-roots independent artists and this new way of releasing music by nominating me. We’ll f—ing go crazy for, like, two days straight.

Let’s get this out of the way: Adele or Beyoncé for album of the year?

Chance: Beyoncé. I thought Lemonade was a well-structured album, politically vocal, streets-ready and cohesive. Not to say that Adele’s album didn’t have any of those things, but I only heard it, I think, once. Coloring Book would be a strong contender for album of the year, too. I’m not coming for Beyoncé at all. She will be nominated but I’m just saying, why not Coloring Book for album of the year?

Cara: Adele had great songs on 25, but Beyoncé pulled together a beautiful body of work as a whole, and I’m really into that.

Morris: That’s so hard because I wore both of those albums out. I lean towards Beyoncé because she made such a social statement with her album. And it’s a visual album. As a songwriter, when I first watched Lemonade, I was so moved.

What are the challenges that people of color and women face when it comes to the Grammys and the music industry in general?

Chance: Pretty much the same challenges that they face throughout the rest of the world in terms of being overlooked, underappreciated and held back from a lot of stuff. Colorism and racism don’t stop when you’re a musician or when you have wealth or when you’re in any given position. Kendrick [Lamar] going home Grammy-less [in 2014, when he was nominated in seven categories] was an awesome moment for people to recognize that it plagues us regardless of talent or skill.

What can the industry do better for women and artists of color?

Cara: One thing would be stop trying to pit [women] against each other all the time. Why does [competition] always have to be portrayed as a feud? You don’t really see that with men.

Maren, do you think that country gets short shrift in the major categories?

Morris: When it comes to best new artist or album or song of the year, yeah, it’s very rare that you see someone in country win one of those. It’s a very strong genre, and it’s got roots so deep in our culture. I think the pool of voters listen more to pop and R&B and hip-hop. Those seem to be the major contenders.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from another artist?

Chance: Donald Glover told me when I was, like, 19 to hire a business manager. He said it was the smartest 5 percent he ever gave up, and I agree, just in terms of structure and planning. That same year I was chilling with Jill Scott, and she asked me how I was dealing with my finances. Then she broke down to me how I should delegate money to my family, to my own needs, to my craft and, of course, to my taxes.

Cara: When I toured with Coldplay, Chris Martin said that the audience will always give you what you give them. I also randomly met Tricky at an airport one day, and he told me, “Take care of yourself. You come first.” He said he didn’t do that when he was in his prime, and it’s the one thing he regrets.

Morris: Natalie Hemby, a big writer in Nashville, told me, “Don’t be an asshole on the way up and don’t be an asshole on the way down.”

Have you had a moment with a fan that made you think all of this hard work is worth it?

Cara: It ranges from someone telling me that one of my songs helped them reconsider taking their own life, to the girl who told me that I had given her the courage to come out to her family. She said that I was actually the first person that she came out to, and that she was going to go tell her family next.

Chance: I’ve had a few people tell me that they were in dark places and then my music helped them out. I give them a hug and just let them know, like, we overcame whatever was going on then. And I’m happy to be in their presence.

If you could use your power as a musician or celebrity to change one thing in society, what would it be?

Chance: I’d change the entire world’s value of black American ingenuity and opinion.

Morris: Fine arts education in public schools is really abysmal. The same emphasis should be put on music, theater, dance — anything creative — that’s put on math and science.

Cara: I’d like to shut off all the noise and allow people to be creative without all the judgments and standards that we think we have to follow. The bar is set so high for women, and it doesn’t really exist for men.

When I did the [2016] MTV Video Music Awards [preshow], I chose to go with no makeup because I’m doing this whole campaign for my song “Scars.” I just wore my regular clothes — I didn’t fancy it up — and a lot of articles, especially those written by women, said, essentially, “We understand what you’re trying to do, but if you just could have elevated it a bit...” That’s so frustrating! I’m trying to make a statement, and they’re saying they acknowledge that statement, yet wish I would change. You put so much work into being a good performer, and then all people can talk about is what shoes you’re wearing.

Another big question: Trump or Clinton?

Chance: Hillary Clinton, by far. Not to sound selfish, but she’s from Chicago so I would hope that she’d be engaged in our city’s current troubles and needs. She has a certain sincerity that’s hidden by the media. I’m not sure if it’s because she’s a woman or because Donald Trump just has a stronghold on the media at this time, but she’s unfairly treated. I can’t really speak on her policies but I feel a certain connection to Hillary Clinton that’s just not there with Donald Trump.

Morris: I have to go with Hillary just because I can’t stand Trump.

Cara: I’m just going to say that I’m very lucky to be Canadian.

What’s next for you?

Cara: I’m trying to write a bit on the road. I thought it was going to be easy but it’s actually very difficult. When I make an album I want to dedicate all my time to it, because I got to do that for the first one.

Chance: I want to tour a lot of continents I’ve never been to — Asia, Australia, South America — but eventually stop and open up a theater in Chicago and do a show there for a while. My new tour is based off a few of my favorite Broadway productions: Hamilton, The Wiz, The Sound of Music and, more than anything, The Lion King. But this wouldn’t be like a Chance the Rapper concert. It would be narrative [combined] with new musical and theatrical production.

If you’re nominated, what will you wear to the Grammys?

Morris: Oh, my God, I haven’t even chosen what I’m going to wear to the CMA Awards, and they’re in November. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Chance: A suit — somebody told me that the VMAs was more lax, so I wore overalls. Then I got there and there were people in suits, so I was f—ing pissed. I’m not going to make that mistake again. All award shows, next year’s VMAs — straight suit.

Cara: I feel like that’s one night where I would just go all-out for fun. So if you do see me in, like, a full-out gown that’s just because I decided to do that. I would never wear anything because someone told me to.

Alessia, will you wear makeup?

Cara: If I’m performing “Scars,” I won’t onstage. But if I’m going to go all out for that night, I might as well go all the way out.


ALESSIA CARA

Chart Climb: Her April 2015 single “Here” finally peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 2016.

Awards Buzz: In 2016 she won breakthrough artist of the year at the Juno Awards and best new artist at the BET Awards.

Big Shows: After playing festivals like Glastonbury and opening for Coldplay, she started her own tour in September.

 

CHANCE THE RAPPER

SNL Looks: Saturday Night Live’s first unsigned musical guest in December 2015, he performed with Kanye West in February 2016.

Streaming Win: Apple Music exclusive Coloring Book debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 in May.

Hit Single: On the Oct. 8 chart, ”No Problem” became his first Hot Rap Songs top 10.

MAREN MORRIS

The Crossover: In June, Hero debuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart and at No. 5 on the Billboard 200.

Road Test: She joined Keith Urban as opening act on his Ripcord Tour running from June to October.

Nashville Love: She’s nominated for five Country Music Association Awards — the same number as Eric Church and Chris Stapleton.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 15 issue of Billboard.

2017 Grammys