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Grammy Watch: Will Kendrick Lamar vs. Ed Sheeran Be This Year's Adele vs. Beyonce?

Kendrick Lamar performs at Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2017 in Indio, Calif.
Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Kendrick Lamar performs at Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2017 in Indio, Calif. 

In the months leading up to the 59th Grammy Awards this January, Billboard will be featuring Grammy Watch, a weekly column looking at the artists, music and trends likely to be featured heavily at this year's ceremonies. This week: Andrew Unterberger looks to the Beyonce vs. Adele storyline that overshadowed the whole of the 2017 Grammys, and wonders if a similar showdown might steal the spotlight in 2018.

For all the many stories that defined the 2017 Grammys -- the mainstream validation of Chance the Rapper and streaming-only artists in general, the country coronation of Maren Morris, the tributes to Prince and George Michael -- for many casual viewers, the night boiled down to two names: Adele and Beyoncé.

The showdown between the two superstars -- who faced off in the album, song and record of the year categories -- was the rivalry that drove the evening's primary drama, pop's one-night version of the Lakers and Celtics. Which isn't to say that Adele and Beyoncé had any kind of pre-existing rivalry or personal animosity, just that the two squaring off was a narrative everyone could understand and have an opinion on: Did you favor the innovative, timely, highly acclaimed urban masterwork (Beyoncé's Lemonade), or the historic, crowd-pleasing megapop blockbuster (Adele's 25)?

With the eligibility period for the 2018 Grammys nearing its close -- Sept. 30 is the last day a song or album can be released to be considered eligible -- it's not hard to see a similar overarching story coming together for next year between two artists who make for a similar contrast. In Adele's spot would be singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, another demographic-spanning pop crossover artist who sold in staggering numbers (for his March 2017 album Divide) and notched one of the year's most omnipresent Billboard Hot 100 hits (with the 12-week No. 1 "Shape of You"). And slipping into Beyoncé's shoes would be rapper Kendrick Lamar, who released arguably the most unanimously crit-praised album since Lemonade with April's DAMN., and has cemented himself as something of a people's champ in pop and hip-hop.

"I could definitely see it happening," says Harvey Mason Jr., a Grammy-winning writer/producer and longtime Grammy voting member, when asked about Ed vs. Kendrick becoming the Adele vs. Beyoncé of 2018. "I think both of them had amazing years, which generally leads to a lot of speculation and team-choosing -- you know, you’re either on one team or the other."

So which team is looking like the odds-on favorite this year? Well, recent history would certainly favor Sheeran, who's already been a winner in one of the Big Four categories -- taking home song of the year (as well as best pop solo performance) in 2016 for his crossover ballad "Thinking Out Loud" -- and who generally falls in line with the folksy, adult contemporary-friendly big winners of the '10s, like Beck, Mumford and Sons and Taylor Swift. And of course, if you're comparing 2018 to 2017, it's unavoidable that the Grammys leaned Adele in a big way last February, awarding album of the year to 25 and song and record of the year to her "Hello," while relegating Beyoncé's victories to the best urban contemporary album and best music video categories.

However, the equation is weighted a little differently this year. Though with his coffeehouse-ready acoustic ballads and gently club-flavored big singles, Ed Sheeran is obviously the more conventionally pop-friendly artist than the hard-hitting, weighty-conscience hip-hop of Kendrick Lamar, he hasn't necessarily the more commercially successful one in this potential showdown this year. Divide moved 451,000 equivalent album units in its first week of availability and has since been certified platinum by the RIAA, but those numbers actually pale in comparison to Lamar's with DAMN., which moved 603,000 units in its opening frame and has since been certified double-platinum. And though Lamar hasn't spent 12 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 this year like Sheeran, he did get to the chart's apex for the first time as a lead artist this year, with DAMN.'s lead single, "Humble." (At midyear, "Shape of You" led Nielsen Music's song chart, while DAMN. led the album chart.)

The fact is, this isn't the same Kendrick Lamar who went 0-4 against Macklemore & Ryan Lewis at the Grammys in 2014. That Kendrick was a cult hero and critical darling who sold well and dabbled in top 40. This Kendrick is an unquestioned, no-qualifiers-needed superstar, who's basically crossed over to every demographic there is to cross over to. "He’s definitely more popular -- he’s more visible, he’s put out more content, more product," Mason says. "I think people are definitely aware of him, and I think he’s continued to put out a level of excellence and quality, so I think people respect that. Will that put him above the competition? We’ll find out." 

Maybe the Grammys should hope it does. The backlash when Adele beat Beyoncé for the major awards last year was considerable, but maybe just short of disrespectful: The former is still a venerated figure who achieved unprecedented sales with 25, so her victory was at least explicable, even if the album was less universally beloved. And If Lamar were going against Adele, he might still be at a disadvantage, because everyone's at a disadvantage against Adele: When it comes to commercial success in the 2010s, she is quite obviously in a class entirely by her lonesome. Against Ed Sheeran, though, in the midst of a excellent-but-hardly-unprecedented year of mainstream success? If the rapper were to get shut out again, the Grammys might never hear the end of it from the Internet -- and young artists and fans from the hip-hop world who already suspect the awards of being out of touch will have all the confirmation they'll ever need.

But are we letting last year's hype and results sway us into a binary narrative too easily, ignoring some potential party-crashing third party? Could some other major figure, maybe like Lorde or JAY-Z, emerge as the real frontrunner on the evening, and maybe steal the thunder from this potential rivalry before the storm ever really starts raging?

"No," says Mason with a laugh, after giving the question careful consideration. "There’s always somebody that surprises all of us, somebody that’s got a record that you really didn’t know everything about until you go through and listen to it, and then you’re like “Oh shoot, that’s an amazing record.” So I’m sure there’s gonna be one of those of note. But I think Kendrick and Ed both had such huge years, I can see those guys having a nice little back-and-forth."

2018 Grammy Awards

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