At the 2018 Grammys, the showdown most people predicted would dominate the evening -- Kendrick Lamar vs. Ed Sheeran -- never materialized. Sheeran was shut out of the major categories, while Lamar lost out to Bruno Mars, who ended up taking home album, song and record of the year -- a sweep met with much criticism from watchers who believed the year was better defined by Lamar’s widely acclaimed, politically charged releases.
This not-unfamiliar pattern revealed a fundamental Grammys truth: The show’s biggest tension will always be between its attempts to modernize and the biases and established patterns of its long history. So this year, we look to the names likely to appear in the newly expanded Big Four categories and wonder what narrative they will tell about the current state of the Grammys’ moves toward greater inclusion, accuracy and relevance.
Already, the best new artist race has attracted attention: Cardi B and Post Malone, two of the past year’s biggest stars, are reportedly ineligible (though they could figure in other major categories). Will hip-hop finally have its day at the show, thanks to big-ticket releases from names like Drake, The Carters and Childish Gambino? Will previously under-recognized women like Ariana Grande, Janelle Monáe and Cardi benefit from The Recording Academy’s newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Task Force and from the backlash to president/CEO Neil Portnow’s infamous “step up” comments following the 2018 ceremony? Or will Grammy patterns continue to reward more traditional favorites like Sam Smith, Taylor Swift or even -- again -- Bruno Mars?
With eight slots now open for each of the major categories instead of five -- a wrinkle that could both allow for more left-field nominations and also all but ensure enough room for the old guard -- an unprecedented number of possibilities are now on the table.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Rap’s ruling class will surely make at least a couple of appearances in the Grammys’ marquee category, led by Drake, whose Scorpion posted the year’s best first-week numbers and spawned a trio of multiweek No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. (It didn’t get his strongest reviews, but neither did Views, Drake’s 2016 best-seller, which was also nominated for top honors.) The combined acclaim and name recognition of Beyoncé and Jay-Z should get The Carters’ Everything Is Love a look here as well (neither Bey nor Jay has won the award yet), while breakout star Cardi B may join them with her chart-busting and widely adored Invasion of Privacy.
Mega-pop should also make a strong showing in the category, led by Grande and her well-received Sweetener. Smith, a nominee in 2015 for In the Lonely Hour, could go two for two with late 2017’s chart-topping The Thrill of It All. And while Swift’s Reputation wasn’t as universally acclaimed as her previous two album of the year winners (2010’s Fearless and 2016’s 1989), don’t count the new Taylor out.
Which fringe candidates might take advantage of the extra slots? Future-funk practitioner Monáe should have a shot with her sci-fi opus Dirty Computer, which bears the influence of her mentor, Prince. So should rock maestro St. Vincent for her expansive and highly personal MASSEDUCTION, along with alt-country favorite Kacey Musgraves for Golden Hour, her most rapturously reviewed and crossover-accessible set to date -- though none of these three were commercial blockbusters. Finally, don’t dismiss the chances of the Lamar-curated Black Panther album becoming the first soundtrack to score an album of the year nod since O Brother, Where Art Thou? won in 2002.
RECORD OF THE YEAR
About those three Drake No. 1s: One of ’em will almost certainly take a slot in this category, which is awarded to a song’s performers, producers, engineers and mixers. (Song of the year rewards only the songwriters.) The first of the three, the exultant “God’s Plan,” seems the most likely nominee. Childish Gambino, who ended Drake’s 15-week run at No. 1, also looks like a frontrunner for a nomination with his topical surprise hit “This Is America.” They’ll probably face competition from a third No. 1, Camila Cabello’s solo breakout “Havana,” and another pop hit, Grande’s “God Is a Woman.” And Post Malone could squeeze in with a nod for "Better Now," "Psycho" featuring Ty Dolla Sign or "Rockstar" featuring 21 Savage.
With high-profile collabs dominating radio this past year, the rest of the category should be heavy on star team-ups. The Carters could appear here with their signature Everything Is Love single “Apeshit,” and 2018 Grammy fixtures Lamar and SZA might ride their combined momentum from that year to a nod for Black Panther’s “All the Stars.” Two genre-crossing collabs -- Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s anthemic “Meant to Be” and Zedd, Grey and Maren Morris’ club-slaying “The Middle” -- could factor strongly here. Then there’s the omnipresent Mars, whose “Finesse” remix with Cardi B might prove irresistible to the same voters who made him one of 2018’s biggest winners.
SONG OF THE YEAR
This category, solely based on songwriting, has been historically inhospitable to rap -- though much kinder in recent years. The 2018 awards alone saw nods for tracks by Jay-Z and Logic, and similar recognition for Drake and Gambino is likely. Add Cardi B to that list, both for her appearance on Mars’ “Finesse” and for her own J Balvin-and Bad Bunny-featuring summer banger “I Like It,” which could follow Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” featuring Justin Bieber, as the second bilingual track in two years to be nominated. (Cardi’s guest turn on Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” might sneak in as well.) The academy could also recognize breakthrough cuts from a couple of newer stars, including Ella Mai for her R&B radio hit “Boo’d Up” and Dua Lipa for her heavily memed dance-pop anthem “New Rules.”
But traditionally, this is the category for established pop stars (the last three winners were Sheeran, Adele and Mars), and they’ll undoubtedly make their presence felt. Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry” and Cabello’s “Havana” should be no-brainers for nominations; Swift’s slow-burning radio favorite “Delicate” may join them. And despite being a major category no-show last year, Sheeran may have his revenge this time around with his wedding ballad “Perfect,” the first No. 1 single of the calendar year and a smash still lingering in the chart’s top half nearly nine months later.
BEST NEW ARTIST
As usual in this category, a couple of artists are way ahead of the pack, and the rest is a toss-up. Lipa has grown her fan base and amassed enough addictive pop hits in the past 12 months to be a likely lock as well, and while “Boo’d Up” alone could have scored her a nod, Mai’s follow-up, “Trip,” which is already in the Hot 100’s top 20, makes her a sure thing as well.
And then? Well, it gets interesting. The expanded category could make room for rising R&B stars Daniel Caesar and H.E.R., who have the critical acclaim to mount impressive cases -- though they lack more mainstream chart hits and widespread name recognition. SoundCloud-propelled rappers Juice WRLD and Lil Pump scored a handful of the past year’s biggest chart hits, but for them to be recognized, enough people above the age of 21 have to take them seriously. Hayley Kiyoko and Billie Eilish are two of alternative pop’s brightest talents, but voters might have trouble naming a song by either. And what about acclaimed country singer-songwriter Ashley McBryde or crowd-pleasing retro rockers Greta Van Fleet? All stand a chance, but it’s anyone’s guess who’ll actually get in on music’s biggest night.