Grammys 2017: Everything You Need to Know About the Battle for the Big 4 Awards

Dale Edwin Murray
             

Two words: Adele and Beyoncé. As awards show ratings plummet and viral moments increasingly decide a ceremony’s impact, the world’s two biggest stars going head-to-head on Feb. 12 — and also likely taking the stage at the Staples Center — may be the answer to CBS and the Grammy producers’ prayers. (Columbia Records, home to both divas, may prove the biggest winner of all.)

But there’s much more to the 59th annual Grammy Awards than even this match. And with the eligibility period closed and the first ballot mailing date of Oct. 14 fast approaching, the other potential nominees in the main categories — and the rest of the Feb. 17 ceremony — are taking shape. This may be, among other things, the year that hip-hop finally takes the Grammy spotlight: Big records from Drake, Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper are all possible contenders in the major, cross-genre categories — and give the awards a wide-open opportunity to capture the current musical climate.

Album of the Year

Adele’s 25 and Beyoncé’s Lemonade will almost certainly score nominations. The question is whether the near-universal commercial appeal of 25 — which had the biggest Nielsen Music sales week of all time — will carry more weight than Lemonade’s galvanizing, just-in-time social resonance. Though Adele’s album came out back in November 2015 and Beyoncé’s new music didn’t fully take off on radio, both women are flexing their popularity on tour.

Drake has never been nominated for album of the year, and this should be his chance: Though Views wasn’t his best-reviewed record, it held down the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 for 13 weeks and spun off his first No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 single (“One Dance”) and, with “Hotline Bling,” a hit-meme hybrid. Kanye West has been nominated in the category multiple times but never won. The bewildering rollout of The Life of Pablo and his inelegant moments from this year (the “Famous” video, the models fainting at his fashion show) may still keep the skeptics from coming around.

David Bowie’s Blackstar, released shortly before the 2016 Grammy ceremony, is more than just a sentimental favorite — it’s considered one of the strongest albums in his magnificent career. The rest of the slate might depend on how voters perceive Bowie’s legacy. If his nomination is seen as filling the “classic rock” slot, then Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool could win out as a more contemporary choice. But if he’s viewed as representing music’s experimental edge, then Grammy favorite Paul Simon might make the cut with his acclaimed Stranger to Stranger.

Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book may have an uphill battle against the bigger-name rap contenders, but a change in Grammy rules makes his highly praised, streaming-only album eligible despite never being sold commercially. Another digital-only album, Frank Ocean’s long-awaited Blonde, came out just in time to qualify for the awards, as did 22, A Million, the latest from 2012 best new artist winner Bon Iver. Response to Sia’s This Is Acting was a bit muted, but she gave a memorable performance at the ceremony in February and appeals to Grammy voters. Others in play: Rihanna’s Anti, Coldplay’s A Head Full of Dreams, Justin Bieber’s Purpose and country anti-hero Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

Record of the Year

Once again, Adele and Beyoncé look like locks here. “Hello” was as inescapable as a pop record gets nowadays, and Ms. Adkins previously won this trophy for 21’s “Rolling in the Deep.” “Formation,” though, was the year’s great call to arms, and from the obsessive analysis given to each frame of the video to Beyoncé’s hotly debated Super Bowl performance, her track helped define the culture in 2016.

Drake’s “One Dance” (featuring Wizkid and Kyla) ranks as Billboard’s official song of the summer and will likely get a nod here. Justin Bieber, having established his Grammy credibility with the Jack U collaboration “Where Are U Now” (the 2016 best dance recording), returned with the mature, acoustic-based “Love Yourself,” co-written with Grammy favorite Ed Sheeran. Lukas Graham’s “7 Years” was another earnest, massively popular statement from a young act.

The Chainsmokers’ “Closer” (featuring Halsey) would be a timely choice and a way to squeeze EDM into the major categories. Sia managed her first Hot 100 No. 1 with “Cheap Thrills” (featuring Sean Paul); the recent release of “The Greatest” (featuring Kendrick Lamar) might cut into the momentum of the older single, but also could keep her top of mind for voters. Kanye West’s gospel-tinged “Ultralight Beam” offers a way to recognize both the 21-time winner as well as the song’s featured guest Chance the Rapper. If The Weeknd’s “Starboy” earns a strong response out of the gate, his pairing with Daft Punk may be too alluring for voters to resist. Zayn pulled off the difficult trick of breaking away from a teen-pop group and standing on his own with “Pillowtalk” — and while his leading role model for that transition, Justin Timberlake, may not have had the comeback critics hoped for with “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” he should not be counted out.

Song of the Year

First, your annual reminder: Song of the Year recognizes songwriters; record of the year, performers and producers. 2015 and 2016 provided many of the big, heartfelt compositions that this category tends to favor. “Hello” (written by Adele and Greg Kurstin), “7 Years” (Lukas Graham leader Lukas Forchammer, Steffan Forest, Morten Ristorp and Morten Pilegaard) and “Love Yourself” (Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran and Benjamin Levin) all have a strong shot here.

Country songs often factor into this category, and this time there are two heart-tugging ballads going head-to-head: Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man” (which he co-wrote with Sean Douglas and Joe Spargur) and Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” (by Lori McKenna, who was nominated in 2015 for Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”). Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” (also co-written by Kurstin) seems like an outside shot, and while “Formation” (which Beyoncé co-wrote with Khalif Brown, Jordan Frost, Asheton Hogan and Michael Len Williams II) isn’t the typical kind of song for this category, its impact should earn it a serious look.

Best New Artist 

With a few rookies managing big hits but no artists breaking out across the board, this looks like one of the year’s trickier categories. Despite the mixtape projects he has released since 2011, Chance the Rapper rates as a “new artist” in part because he finally reached national prominence in 2016. The rave reviews for Coloring Book, his high-profile guest spots and TV appearances, and future-oriented, streaming-only release strategy make him a sure shot. Similarly, while Maren Morris previously had put out three independently released albums, her debut major-label LP, Hero, shot to No. 1 on Top Country Albums — plus she tied for the most 2016 Country Music Association -Award nominations. And for five years running, the category has recognized a country artist. (Kelsea Ballerini and Cam also have a chance at this slot.)

Further afield are acts with one or two big songs but maybe not the gravity of a career artist. Shawn Mendes ascended quickly to arena-headliner status. Lukas Graham is a strong contender, along with Alessia Cara, who is well-liked across genres. The Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” with Halsey, could tip the balance for one, or both, acts. Bryson Tiller was honored at the BET and MTV Video Music Awards, and Desiigner’s “Panda” was unavoidable for months. Voters also may reach back for acts that made their biggest impact in 2015 (Charlie Puth, Rachel Platten). As always — for better or worse — expect a surprise in this group.

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

2017 Grammys