Photo Illustration by Israel G. Vargas

Grammy Preview: Will Pop Make a Comeback in the Big 4 Categories?

The inaugural year of expanded categories brought much-needed recognition to hip-hop stars and critical faves. Will Ariana, Camila and Taylor return to reign this time around?

Over the past decade, the Grammys have drawn criticism for rewarding blockbusters by crowd-pleasing pop stars over more urgent, hip-hop-rooted works in its major categories: Taylor Swift over Kendrick LamarAdele over BeyoncéBruno Mars over Lamar again.

But in 2019, the Big Four winners (album of the year, song of the year, record of the year and best new artist) finally looked like a group everyone could agree on. Country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves’ modestly successful but highly acclaimed Golden Hour won album of the year; Childish Gambino’s incendiary chart-topper “This Is America” became the first-ever hip-hop winner for both song and record of the year. The only conventional-pop winner in the major categories was rising talent Dua Lipa, who won best new artist in a field of relatively unestablished names.

In fact, blockbuster pop was almost entirely absent from last year’s Big Four. Though newly expanded categories (from five nominee slots in each to eight) allowed for a wider pool -- leading to unexpected nods for Americana favorite Brandi Carlile and R&B polymath H.E.R. -- many of the year’s most noteworthy pop stars, including Ariana GrandeCamila Cabello and Swift, were relegated to the genre categories.

Will that carry over to 2020, following a year in which capital-P Pop had something of a comeback -- thanks to juggernaut sets from the likes of the Jonas Brothers, Grande and Swift, as well as breakthrough stars like Billie Eilish and Khalid? And, following its first wins in record and song of the year, will hip-hop continue its long-awaited Grammy takeover -- despite a year with surprisingly few chart-busting releases from established superstars and new acts alike? Perhaps most importantly: Will the Grammys continue its streak of choosing winners many of its loudest critics find acceptable?

 

Pop may well rule supreme among the frontrunners this year. Only six months after her Sweetener return, Grande drew rave reviews and some of the year’s best sales numbers for Thank U, Next. Swift also saw something of a perception bounce back after the divisive reputation with strong initial reactions to her Lover, while the Jonas Brothers enjoyed the mega-comeback no one saw coming with Happiness Begins. And don’t forget about Lady Gaga, whose best-selling A Star Is Born soundtrack with Bradley Cooper just squeezed into this year’s eligibility period.

While last year’s nominees tended toward rap superstars and acclaimed singer-songwriters, there are few obvious choices from either of those pools this year, though Maren Morris’ slow-burning GIRL could sneak in from the latter group. But a couple of 2010s stars who have long merged pop/hip-hop sounds with cult-singer-songwriter tendencies could see their first best-album nods this year: Lana Del Rey and Tyler, the Creator, for the well-received Norman Fucking Rockwell and IGOR, respectively.

Newly minted, genre-blurring superstars Eilish and Khalid could factor in as well, for their respective Billboard 200-topping sets When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and Free Spirit. And though none of the Knowles sisters’ albums this year was among their most obviously accessible works, they may still make their presence felt with Solange’s deeply personal When I Get Home and Beyoncé’s expansive The Gift (the musical companion to her Lion King film role) or explosive Homecoming: The Live Album.

 

The sub-drinking-age crowd could reign here. Lil Nas X’s viral, genre-splicing “Old Town Road” -- the biggest breakout of 2019 and the longest-running Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit of all time -- has a solid chance (record of the year is awarded to a song’s performers, producers, engineers and mixers, while song of the year rewards only the writers); so does the record that finally replaced it at No. 1, Eilish’s spooky alt-pop banger “Bad Guy.” Khalid’s “Talk” marked the pop/R&B star’s first true four-quadrant solo smash, and Shawn Mendes’ exultant “If I Can’t Have You” -- and steamy Cabello duet “Señorita” -- also look likely.

The slightly-more-veteran pop set could find its representative in Swift, whose topical synth-pop barnstormer “You Need to Calm Down” marked a new chapter for the formerly statement-reticent star, and in Grande, whose chart-topping, radio-dominating “7 Rings” should be a contender. Grown boy-band Jonas Brothers may squeeze in with “Sucker,” the year’s most immediately ingratiating pop-rock smash, and millennial heroes Halsey and Post Malone should also have a shot with their respective No. 1s, the anthemic “Without Me” and the summery Swae Lee duet “Sunflower.” And it’d be foolish to overlook Lizzo’s hit “Truth Hurts,” the sensation of the 2019 awards season.

 

It’s always a challenge to predict what will separate each year’s best-song crop from its best-record choices -- in 2019, six of the eight nominees were the same across the two categories, and a similar overlap seems likely this year. But a couple of stars with multiple contending songs could split recognition between them -- like Swift, whose “Lover” fits more neatly in this songwriters-only category, or Grande, whose names-naming “Thank U, Next” lyric was arguably the year’s most widely discussed.

The category could also offer recognition for some of 2019’s most ubiquitous singer-songwriters, including British breakout Lewis Capaldi, whose weepy “Someone You Loved” is growing into one of the year’s biggest international hits, and country star Luke Combs, whose “Beautiful Crazy” was one of the longest-reigning No. 1s on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in recent memory. Less radio-friendly singles from Morris and Tyler, The Creator -- “The Bones” and “Earfquake,” respectively -- may also figure in as down-ballot nominations, much like Carlile’s “The Joke” did last year.

 

Unlike last year, when it was tough to confidently predict more than a couple of likely nominees, this year the favorites seem set in stone: Eilish, Lil Nas X and Lizzo will almost certainly garner recognition as three of the year’s biggest, most talked-about and most fascinating breakout stars. Capaldi also seems like a fairly smart bet, as does alt-pop singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers, whose Heard It in a Past Life was one of the year’s most acclaimed debuts and a surprise No. 2 hit on the Billboard 200.

Elsewhere, a handful of young faces in hip-hop with top 10-storming Hot 100 hits could make a showing -- Blueface, DaBaby, Lil Tecca -- though last year’s snub of SoundCloud sensation Juice WRLD makes their individual chances look a bit dicier. A more likely candidate might be Megan Thee Stallion, whose acclaimed Fever and sizzling single “Hot Girl Summer” made her an instantly beloved new voice. And a couple of international stars have a shot to make Grammy history here: Spain’s Rosalía is a meteorically rising performer whose mainstream crossover feels imminent, and hitmakers Blackpink have made unprecedented commercial inroads as a K-pop girl group in America.

 

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Billboard.

2020 Grammy Awards


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