For the first time in years, the 2023 Grammy Awards will likely be remembered for the awards given out as opposed to the performances.
Stars bringing their A-game to the stage is usually what occupies water cooler conversation the day after the Grammys, but this year’s ceremony – which went down at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on Sunday (Feb. 5) – featured several surprise wins that few saw coming. From best new artist victor Samara Joy to a visibly shocked Bonnie Raitt winning song of the year to an overjoyed Lizzo nabbing record of the year to Harry Styles winning album of the year (in a category that included Beyoncé and Bad Bunny), it was an evening of twists that could only have been matched if you skipped the Grammys entirely and caught M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin instead.
That isn’t to say the performances didn’t leave an imprint on viewers. The Questlove-curated 50th anniversary salute to hip-hop was one of the most wildly entertaining, jaw-dropping performances at any awards show in years, bringing together generation-spanning pioneers such as LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, Method Man, Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, Rakim, Run-D.M.C., Grandmaster Flash, Ice-T, Big Boi and many, many more – plus new genre stars such as Lil Baby and GloRilla. It was the only thing that justified making the 2023 Grammys telecast run nearly four hours.
Below, we’re ranking all the performances at the 2023 Grammys Awards, from least to greatest. One thing worth noting: We are not ranking any of the ‘in memoriam’ performances (by Kacey Musgraves, Quavo, Mick Fleetwood, Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt), in a nod to the tone those moments take in the telecast.
Against a lovely moonlit backdrop, Luke Combs sang a moving rendition of “Going, Going, Gone” at the Grammys, with violins nicely augmenting his acoustic strumming. Truly no disrespect to a solid performance, but when a low-key ballad airs late into an awards show that runs nearly four hours, it tends to fade into the background.
Harry Styles’ 15-night run at Madison Square Garden was electric. The perpetually amped-up Styles demonstrated he can command a crowd night after night without ever losing his affable charm and magnetic stage personality. But at the Grammys stage, he seemed a bit tired during “As It Was,” failing to capture the buoyant energy that usually makes him such a delight to watch in concert. It was an off night for a performer who is typically one of the most delightful live acts around.
Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Chris Stapleton
Stevie Wonder is one of the greatest musical talents of all time, so having the three-time album of the year champion lead a Motown medley in tribute to Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson during the 2023 telecast seemed like a no-brainer. But while Chris Stapleton and Wonder sizzled when trading lines on the latter’s irrepressibly funky “Higher Ground,” the rest of the medley fell a bit flat. Robinson sounded good on “Tears of a Clown,” but it felt like a slightly odd choice to spotlight, and the rendition of the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do” was too mild to make an impact.
The eclectic newcomer gave the Grammys a smooth, likable performance of his Hot 100-topping breakthrough, “Bad Habit,” with fellow genre-bender Thundercat backing him on bass. Nothing against the performance, but similar to Combs’ placement in the run of show, this slow, vibey song might have landed better had it not come so late into the night.
DJ Khaled, Jay-Z, John Legend, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Fridayy
It’s tough to command attention when an awards show has been dragging on for more than three-and-a-half hours, but the crew of rap/R&B royalty DJ Khaled brought to the Grammys managed to turn out an absorbing performance of his all-star “God Did” collab. Jay-Z’s smoldering, lengthy verse — delivered while seated at an overflowing banquet table — was the perfect digestif to end the night on.
Often described as an Americana artist, Brandi Carlile demonstrated her rock chops at the outset of the Grammys with a roaring run-through of “Broken Horses.” From her galloping guitar to her ability to make a vocal performance feel like it has a beginning, middle and end, Carlile riveted.
Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige’s Good Morning Gorgeous (Deluxe) may have been a surprise nominee in the 2023 album of the year category, but the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul demonstrated exactly why she’s more than deserving of Grammy gold these days when she took the stage and sang the title track to her LP with a vocal technique that was as flawless as her crystalline dress.
Prior to winning record of the year for “About Damn Time,” Lizzo reminder viewers that she’s one of the most reliable live performers at any awards show with an a cappella portion “Time” and a stunning “Special”; the latter was augmented by an all-Black gospel choir who elevated her inimitable energy and vocal finesse to heavenly heights.
Sam Smith & Kim Petras
Cleverly playing into obsessive evangelical preaching about the LGBTQ community burning in hell, Sam Smith and Kim Petras turned the Crypto.com Arena into a fiery underworld for a hellacious performance of their brimstone bop “Unholy.” A commanding, sultry Petras prowled around a cage surrounded by hellfire while Smith – wearing a horned top hat and devilish platform heels – oozed stygian sex appeal while surrounded by demonic backup dancers (among them Drag Race legends Violet Chachki and Gottmik).
Somewhere in the afterlife, Dante Alighieri is sh00k that his Inferno just became the InfernHO.
Bad Bunny opened the 2023 Grammy Awards with an explosion of hues that traversed the color wheel and a celebratory array of sounds that island-hopped from the Caribbean to Puerto Rico. Benito tapped a crew of cabezudos (giant characters) representing Puerto Rican legends such as Tego Calderón and Roberto Clemente (all of them handcrafted in Puerto Rico) for an exuberant “El Apagón” and brought out a coterie of merengue dancers for “Después de la Playa,” which had everyone from Taylor Swift to Jack Harlow dancing along. It opened the Grammys on a sky-high note that seemed impossible to match for the majority of the ceremony, at least until….
Various Artists, Hip-Hop 50th Anniversary Salute
Bunny would have taken the top spot on our list any other year – but with the 2023 Grammys celebrating hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, it was not a Grammys like any other year. With talent-wrangling unicorn Questlove serving as producer/musical director (which he told us a bit about), dozens of hip-hop luminaries from the genre’s formative period to present day performed bars from some of rap’s most impactful, riotous, and mind-boggling songs. (Many of the featured performers appear on our list of the 50 Greatest Rappers of All Time, which reveals its top 10 this week).
Without recapping the entire knockout medley (which Carl Lamarre expertly broke down here), let’s simply say that while it’s an impossible task to sum up 50 years of any genre (much less one that fought for decades to get a modicum of mainstream respect and eventually became the dominant genre in American music), this electrifying medley brought to vivid life the charged personalities, thumping grooves, deft deliveries and unpredictable flourishes that make hip-hop a global force. Bravo.