For these two Billboard critics, the progressive bent of this year’s nominees raises two questions: Will cautious voters reward “songcraft” over statements? And who will call out The Donald?
Jody Rosen: The big question hanging over the 59th annual Grammy Awards is the perennial one: How safe will they play it? It’s possible that the political and cultural upheavals of 2016 will jolt the Grammys too, yielding some surprise winners, a break from the predictable same-old. In fact, this year’s nominees a list dominated by black R&B and hip-hop heavyweights would seem to forecast a progressive turn, ratifying the feisty racial and gender politics of nine-time nominee Beyoncé and the mischievous insurgent moves of Chance the Rapper, who garnered seven nominations despite spurning the record biz altogether, building his stardom with self-released mixtapes.
But history tells us that Grammy voters will cast the cautious institutional vote. Does this mean that the ceremony’s biggest prize, Album of the Year, will pass over the record that commandeered the zeitgeist, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, in favor of the year’s rather pallid best-seller, Adele’s 25? Or might voters default to the sole album by a-man-with-a guitar, Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth? Me, I’m rooting for Beyoncé, but putting my smart money on Simpson.
Carl Wilson: Jody, it feels like a jinx to say it, but the notion of Simpson beating this whole roster of culture-shakers seems perverse even for the Grammys. Given how current events have raised the consciousness of even the more staid corners of entertainment-biz liberalism, I’d like to think that a collective spirit would favor Beyoncé. But Adele always seems like she sprang straight out of Grammy voters’ fantasies.
I picture them intending to vote for Ms. Knowles but finding themselves unable to say no to the woman who pairs “old-fashioned songcraft,” as the cliché goes, with moving record-breaking mountains of actual physical albums. For Record of the Year, likewise, Grammy seems apt to say hiya back to Adele’s “Hello” rather than endorse the radicalism of Bey’s “Formation.” She will split numbers with Rihanna’s “Work” (ft. Drake), even as Lukas Graham robs Twenty One Pilots of a share of the tender-young-white-dude vote. As Chumbawamba once put it (really!), never mind the ballots — our hopes for a bold statement this year are better placed with the speeches and performances.
Rosen: Yes indeed, I suspect that politics, presidential and otherwise, will be a theme onstage, even if the voters navigate a middle-of-the-road course. The stakes were raised by last year’s literally incendiary Kendrick Lamar performance; I expect we’ll see some more statements, perhaps even from habitually apolitical types. As for the big award categories: I’m fascinated by the Song of the Year contest, which, like Record of the Year, pits “Formation” (beats, politics) against “Hello” (classicism, “classiness”). Then there are the three undercard candidates, triple-blast of millennial white boy pop: Graham’s “7 Years,” Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” and Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.” It’s difficult to imagine graybeard Grammy voters going for these rather insipid songs. Yet it’s hard to argue, in “songcraft” terms, with Bieber’s stripped-back ballad, which boasts a co-writing credit for industry darling Ed Sheeran to boot. Could the Bieb, of all people, sway the trad-vote?
Wilson: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Grammys chose to cap Bieber’s long-running redemption drama with that award, though a few might flinch at the way the “love” in “Love Yourself” seems like a euphemism for a more hostile four-letter word. Speaking of callow youth, though, they’ve really washed away the gray this year. Beyoncé at 35 looks almost senior among the major nominees. Frank Ocean might have chosen the wrong season to boycott for stodginess. The only boomer icon with a strong presence, David Bowie, is deceased and relegated to the minor categories. Rock in general is mostly off the menu.
The millennial hustle is especially hot in Best New Artist, natch, and it looks to me like Chance the Rapper’s spot. The other nominees include two sharp young Nashville women, as bro-country’s giant baseball cap seems at last to be sinking beneath the horizon, but Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini will cancel each other out. I doubt Anderson .Paak has enough shine to do the same to Chance, though I liked .Paak’s album nearly as much. Still, a stern application of Grammy’s Law makes me fear the nod may go to the Chainsmokers’ two-dude assembly line of accomplished but shallow hits. I’m pulling for 77-year-old Stax Records veteran William Bell, for one, to win Traditional R&B Performance (though it’s too bad it’s at the expense of, among others, Fantasia’s terrific “Sleeping With the One I Love”).
Rosen: By rights, Best New Artist should go to the effervescent Chance. But I have a sneaking suspicion that .Paak might get the nod. I’m applying basic Grammy Mathematics, here: Chance is a rapper (says so right in his name), and Grammy doesn’t like rappers much; Morris and Ballerini will split the votes of country partisans; the Chainsmokers flopped hard when they performed at the MTV Video Music Awards in September, a failure that won’t have escaped the notice of industry types.
That leaves .Paak, a multi-instrumentalist whose neo-soul-inflected hip-hop has a flavor profile that will please old-timers. When it comes to the down-ballot races, I was pleased by the inclusion of Beyoncé’s Jack White collaboration “Don’t Hurt Yourself” among the Best Rock Performance finalists, and hope Bey takes that prize. And I’m charmed again this year by the pileup of unlikely nominees in the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album category: Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Willie Nelson, Barbra Streisand and your favorite Nobel-laureate-cum-crooner, Bob Dylan.
Wilson: Your .Paak calculus is persuasive, Jody, but thinking “rapper” is still a dirty word four decades on is too glum for me. Alongside Chance, I’m pulling for Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” to get props as the year’s most rapturous Rap Song, between them marking the surprise resurgence of gospel as a presence in hip-hop — a reminder that faith hasn’t always been just a toxin in American culture. And despite my doubts, if Beyoncé doesn’t get at least one big prize, I’ll be the one dragged away by security, at least in my dreams.