The Recording Academy’s rationale for their expansion from eight to 10 nominees in each of the Big Four categories at the 2022 Grammy Awards was “to cast a wider net, to make room for more artists and genres from music’s expansive and diverse landscape, and to embrace the spirit of inclusion.”
And to a certain extent, it did that. The expansion resulted in a record of the year nod for a hip-hop track, Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)”; an album of the year nod for a rap album (Kanye West’s DONDA); and best new artist nods for a rapper and a global music artist (Baby Keem and Arooj Aftab, respectively).
But what effect will the supersize field of nominees have on who wins next month?
With 10 nominees in each category, someone could theoretically win with just a little more than 10% of the vote. This may work to the advantage of polarizing artists who have fiercely devoted supporters, if not necessarily broad-based support (the aforementioned Ye comes to mind). And it may work to the advantage of artists in less dominant genres, such as traditional pop (the best examples this year are Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, nominees for record and album of the year).
Could the extra nominees in each category lead to vote-splitting? The evidence on that is mixed. In 2018, the year the Grammys expanded from five to eight nominees in each of the Big Four categories, four of the record of the year nominees were what the Grammys then called rap/sung performances: Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” Kendrick Lamar & SZA’s “All the Stars,” Post Malone’s “Rockstar” (featuring 21 Savage) and “I Like It” by Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin. According to the vote-splitting theory, these four hits would have canceled each other out for record of the year, but “This Is America” won.
That same year, album of the year went to the only country album in the race, Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. You could argue that the presence of three rap albums (Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, Drake’s Scorpion and the Black Panther soundtrack), one R&B album (H.E.R.’s H.E.R.) and one album that the Grammys then called urban contemporary (Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer) split the vote of contemporary Black music fans. Perhaps it did, but the previous record of the year scenario suggests that if enough voters want to vote for someone, such obstacles can be overcome.
Last year, Megan Thee Stallion won best new artist, even though there were two other rappers in the category – Chika and D Smoke. Megan had become a major star, and that was more important than the fact that there were two other artists from her genre in the category.
We’ll have to wait until the Trevor Noah-hosted 64th annual Grammy Awards on Jan. 31, 2022, to know what the impact of this year’s expansion will be in terms of who wins. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at each of the Big Four categories with these principles in mind.
Record of the Year
Seven of the contenders vied for nominations in pop performance categories; three competed in R&B performance categories. Not one of the record of the year nominees competed in rap, country or rock.
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” Brandi Carlile’s “Right on Time,” Doja Cat “Kiss Me More” (featuring SZA), Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever” and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” are all nominated in pop performance categories. Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” and ABBA’s “I Still Have Faith in You” both vied for nominations in pop performance categories, but were passed over.
Justin Bieber’s “Peaches” (featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon) and Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open” are both nominated for best R&B performance. Jon Batiste’s “Freedom” vied for a nod in that category, but was passed over.
“Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” and “I Still Have Faith in You” were added to the nominations list when the Academy made its eleventh-hour decision to expand the field of nominees from eight to 10. (The Academy has confirmed to Billboard that the names of the contenders who were added to the final nominations list, cited in a New York Times report last week, were accurate.)
Analysis: “Drivers License” has felt like the front-runner in this category virtually since the week it was released in January. But the records that have their lanes all to themselves, or at least face less competition in their lanes, can’t be ruled out. “I Get a Kick Out of You” stands alone as the only traditional pop entry here. “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” is the only hip-hop track. (The Grammys don’t have a hip-hop category. Faced with a choice of categorizing it as pop, R&B or rap, the Grammys chose pop.)
Of the three R&B contenders, “Leave the Door Open” has the best shot at winning, both because of its broadly appealing ’70s soul throwback sound and Bruno Mars’ strong Grammy track record. The pop master has already won twice for record of the year, as a featured artist on Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk!” and for his solo smash “24K Magic.” Mars is vying to become only the second artist in Grammy history, following Paul Simon, to win three times in the category. Simon’s tally includes two Simon & Garfunkel classics.
Album of the Year
Six of the finalists vied for nominations for best pop vocal album, two competed for best R&B album, one for best rap album and one for best traditional pop vocal album.
Justin Bieber’s Justice (Triple Chucks Deluxe), Doja Cat’s Planet Her (Deluxe), Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever and Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour are all nominated for best pop vocal album. Lil Nas X’s Montero and Taylor Swift’s evermore both vied for a nod in that category but were passed over.
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga’s Love for Sale is nominated for best traditional pop vocal album.
H.E.R.’s Back of My Mind and Jon Batiste’s We Are are both nominated for best R&B album.
Kanye West’s DONDA is nominated for best rap album.
DONDA and evermore were added to the nominations list when the Academy made the decision to expand the field of nominees.
Should DONDA win, it would be just the third rap album to win album of the year, following Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. West would become the first male solo rapper to win.
Should evermore. win, Swift would become the first four-time winner in the category (as a lead artist). Moreover, she’d become the first artist to win two years running since Stevie Wonder in 1973-74.
Analysis: This is probably the most competitive of the Big Four categories; the only one in which Rodrigo isn’t the clear front-runner. One of the six pop albums could win, but keep your eye on the albums that face less competition in their lanes, namely Back of My Mind, We Are, Love for Sale and DONDA. Because Montero straddles categories (even though the Grammys classified it as pop), it too merits attention.
Song of the Year
The Grammys classified seven of the nominees for this songwriter’s award as pop. There is no best pop song award, but the corresponding tracks vied for nominations in pop performance categories, so the songs would have competed for best pop song if the Grammys had such a category. (The reason they don’t is that the Academy has long felt that the nominees would overlap too much with song of the year.)
Of the three other song of the year contenders, two vied for nominations for best R&B song; one for best song written for visual media.
“Drivers License” (Olivia Rodrigo), “Happier Than Ever” (Billie Eilish), “Kiss Me More” (Doja Cat featuring SZA), and “Right on Time” (Brandi Carlile) are nominated in pop performance categories. “Bad Habits” (Ed Sheeran), “A Beautiful Noise” (Alicia Keys & Brandi Carlile), and “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” (Lil Nas X) competed for pop performance nods, but were passed over.
“Leave the Door Open” (Silk Sonic) is nominated for best R&B song. “Peaches” (Justin Bieber featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon) vied for nod in that category, but was passed over.
“Fight for You” (H.E.R.), which won an Oscar in April, is nominated for best song written for visual media. The song was featured in the film Judas and the Black Messiah. (Songs are allowed to compete in only one genre category, so this didn’t also compete for best R&B song.)
“Kiss Me More” and “Right on Time” were added to the nominations list when the Academy made the decision to expand the field of nominees.
Analysis: This has also long seemed like Rodrigo’s award to lose. But since there are fewer R&B songs in the running than pop, one of them could take it. If “Fight for You” were to win song of the year, H.E.R. and collaborators Dernst Emile II (D’Mile) and Tiara Thomas would become the first songwriters in Grammy history to win song of the year two years in a row. They won in March for “I Can’t Breathe.” “Fight for You” would also become the first song to win both an Oscar for best original song and a Grammy for song of the year since “My Heart Will Go On” 23 years ago.
Best New Artist
The 10 nominees competed for genre album awards in six different genres.
Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour is nominated for best pop vocal album. FINNEAS vied for a nomination in that category last year with Blood Harmony, but was passed over. (If FINNEAS had been nominated for best pop vocal album last year, he would have been ineligible for a best new artist nod this year.)
Two of the contenders, Arlo Parks and Japanese Breakfast, are nominated for best alternative music album with Collapsed in Sunbeams and Jubilee, respectively. A third, Glass Animals, was entered in that category last year for Dreamland, but didn’t land a nomination.
Baby Keem vied for a nomination for best rap album for The Melodic Blue, but was passed over. The Kid LAROI vied for a nomination in that category last year for F*ck Love, but was likewise passed over. Saweetie has yet to release her long-awaited solo debut album, Pretty Bitch Music, which will presumably vie for a best rap album nomination next year. She was nominated for best new artist this year on the strength of an EP and a half-dozen singles which were released during the eligibility year.
The two other nominees are the only representatives of their genres. Jimmie Allen vied for a nod for best country album for Bettie James Gold Edition, but was passed over. Arroj Aftab vied for a nod for best global music album for Vulture Prince, but was passed over.
Aftab and Baby Keem were added to the nominations list when the Academy made the decision to expand the field of nominees.
Analysis: Rodrigo has a seemingly insurmountable lead in this category. But as the only country representative in any of the Big Four categories, Allen can’t be ruled out. He won as new artist of the year at the CMA Awards on Nov. 10. He also has a strong narrative – as one of a wave of Black artists currently making inroads in country music.