In retrospect, Beck’s controversial album of the year win over Beyoncé in 2015 might’ve been the best thing to ever happen to the Grammys. The upset was an obvious moment for much-needed reflection on what music’s marquee awards wanted to become, and what they presently were. Now, three years, and some much-needed rule changes and added committees later, the Grammys finally appear ready to step into the future.
The evidence of this sea change — sorry, Beck — is right there in the 2018 nominations, announced Tuesday morning (Nov. 28). The major categories are dominated by rap and R&B, with expected favorites JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar leading the way alongside slight surprises Bruno Mars and Childish Gambino. All four artists are nominated for both album and record of the year, with Lorde’s Melodrama rounding out the former category and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Justin Bieber-featuring “Despacito” remix keeping them company in the latter.
One thing you’ll notice about those categories is a lack of an obvious commercial outlier, a la Alabama Shakes’ Sound and Color two years ago or Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth last year. No “Who the f–k is [artist I’ve never heard of]??” trending topic needed here — indeed, all five albums have charted at least one song in the top 25 of the Billboard Hot 100, only the second time in the last ten years that an entire AOTY pool could make such a claim. Even the one old guy here — JAY-Z, a ripe 47 — had his biggest moment of contemporary relevance in at least a half decade with his unanimously acclaimed (and best-selling) 4:44 project.
Another thing you’ll notice in the major categories is a total lack of rock, or anything vaguely resembling it, really. There was no RAWK in the major categories last year, either, but there was Simpson, a guitar-playing singer-songwriter who still fit the general mold, as well as alternative radio heroes Twenty One Pilots, nominated for record of the year for their “Stressed Out”. This year, the closest thing to a rock star in the Big Four categories (album, record, song and new artist) is the alt-by-default Lorde, only because Melodrama is just a little too left-of-center to be considered straight pop.
And speaking of Simpson — there’s no country to be found in the majors here, either. The historic chart success of Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” apparently wasn’t enough to sneak it into song or record of the year, nor was the allure of a Taylor Swift nomination for Little Big Town’s Swift-penned “Better Man.” Even Luke Combs, one of the few true breakout stars the genre produced in 2017, couldn’t elbow his way into best new artist, a category that housed a pair of country artists last time around.
But most conspicuous in his absence is Ed Sheeran. Like Simpson, Sheeran is a six-string-wielding singer-songwriter, but unlike Simpson, he’s also a global superstar, with one of the year’s best-selling albums (Divide) and most unavoidable singles (“Shape of You”) to his credit. He even has Big Four Grammy history on his side, having already been nominated for album of the year (X in 2015) and both record and song of the year (for “Thinking Out Loud,” 2016) — even winning the latter. In previous years he would’ve been as big a shoo-in for the majors as Kendrick Lamar and JAY-Z; in 2017, he’s relegated to the pop categories.
Instead, occupying the Big Four slot that would’ve seemed ticketed for Sheeran is Childish Gambino, a.k.a. multi-platform auteur Donald Glover. He’s up for album of the year for his P-Funk-esque soul odyssey “Awaken, My Love!,” as well as record of the year for the set’s unexpected crossover single, the No. 12-peaking Hot 100 hit “Redbone.” Glover would seem to lack both the critical unanimity and the commercial ubiquity to be a major Grammy player, but his album is undoubtedly of an artier complexion than the likes of Sheeran, while still feeling extremely 2017-relevant — indicating that the Grammys’ increased emphasis on nomination review committees, meant to “override the popular vote to focus on what is really the best,” may be having their desired effect.
Of course, that would hardly explain the pervasive presence of Bruno Mars, nominated for album of the year (24K Magic), as well as record (title track “24K Magic”) and song of the year (“That’s What I Like”). Like Sheeran, Mars is a gravitational pop force who’s more liked than loved critically, but one cut more from the classic soul and funk molds of James Brown and Prince. His Grammy supremacy, to the exclusion of Sheeran, shows that the dolorous guitarist no longer holds intrinsic sway over the smiling showman for the awards’ purposes.
Also of note when considering shifting genre norms among this year’s Grammys nominations is the way contemporary rock seems to be hurt by its increasingly hybridized nature. Two of the biggest “rock” hits of the year, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” and Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder,” were both acknowledged, but under the best pop duo/group performance category. Both artists were shut out from the rock categories, which instead opted for the less ambiguous (if less timely) headbanging of of veteran artists like Metallica, Avenged Sevenfold and even the heaviest Foo Fighters song in ages. Tellingly, though Lorde is nominated for the evening’s biggest prize in album of the year, she’s nowhere to be found elsewhere in the nominations — seemingly because she lacks an obvious fit in the genre categories.
When it comes to the big night, it seems likely that the overriding Kendrick Lamar vs. Ed Sheeran showdown much of the industry predicted (including Billboard) will instead fall to Lamar and JAY-Z, marking the first time in history that hip-hop’s biggest battle at the Grammys will not be against the pop/rock establishment, or even against the cluelessness of the masses, but merely against itself. Kendrick and JAY are two of the industry’s current titans and unassailable all-time greats, neither of whom have ever won in a major Grammy category — the latter has never even been nominated for album of the year before. Though Lamar’s album is probably the more vital to 2017 between the two, either emerging triumphant would undoubtedly be a win for rap culture.
But the biggest W for hip-hop might have already come today, courtesy of the best new artist nominations, where alongside a pair of burgeoning R&B stars (Khalid and SZA) and two ascendant alt-pop talents (Julia Michaels and Alessia Cara) lies Lil Uzi Vert. While Lamar and JAY-Z essentially represent hip-hop legacy at this point, Uzi is the new vanguard, a punky, young, streaming-dominant “mumble rapper” — the kind the Grammys would’ve avoided like the plague at any other point in history. His nomination shows that not only have the awards finally fully embraced rap in the present, but they don’t seem actively frightened of what’s to come.
Not a moment too soon, either. Three years after the Grammys nearly inspired Kanye to pull another Kanye, the show finds itself on precarious footing with the artists most closely defining popular music in 2017. R&B star and critical favorite Frank Ocean declined to indulge the awards last year, not even submitting his obvious contender Blond for consideration, claiming the Grammys didn’t “seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from.” This year, Drake appears to be following suit, not even explaining why he didn’t bother putting his More Life project up for the awards. It wasn’t hard to sense a full-scale rebellion from the hip-hop and R&B worlds brewing against the Grammys — particularly after another universally adored Beyonce LP went down again last year, albeit in slightly less egregious fashion.
Will Kendrick and JAY dominating the 2018 ceremonies be enough to stem the tide? That remains to be seen, but what’s clear at least from this year’s nominations is that whether by the rule changes and new institutions put in place, or shifts within the music industry establishment itself, legitimate change is finally underway at the Grammys. And it may be a long, long time before a culturally marginal album by a veteran rock singer-songwriter wins out over a commercial behemoth by a pop or hip-hop star again.