Even in normal times, predicting the Grammys’ album of the year category can feel like trying to guess where lightning will strike. Great albums released early during the eligibility window can fade from memory, and the recently increased field of eight nominees means plenty of dark horse entries can shake things up. Yet with a pandemic that has made time a blur and a national reckoning with racism that has renewed attention toward how media and entertainment companies acknowledge Black creators, the category for the 2021 ceremony is as unpredictable as ever.
“The thing I’m looking for most, which is the trickiest thing this year, is impact,” says Recording Academy member and Grammy-winning songwriter-producer Mark Batson (Eminem, Alicia Keys). “It’s going to have an asterisk for me because there’s not much music reflecting what’s actually going on in the United States albumwise.”
Part of that comes down to timing: The major artists most likely to create a body work that speaks directly to the pandemic or the Black Lives Matter protests haven’t had the time to create it yet. Even so, a management/publishing executive and voting member tells Billboard the industry cannot settle for “business as usual” this time. “Whether or not the voting bloc of the Grammys is or isn’t tone-deaf this year remains to be seen,” he says, “but I hope that our industry links arms with one another in a meaningful way, whatever the outcome is.”
The diversity of winners particularly has come under fire in recent years, as back-to-back ceremonies spawned hashtags like #GrammysSoWhite and #GrammysSoMale. And while Batson says he still votes with quality in mind, the events of 2020 are hard to ignore. “A hundred and eighty-five thousand people have died [from COVID-19], and we have public executions that we’re watching again and again,” says Batson. “That has to have a connection to how people vote, and I’d say, ‘Let those emotions in.’ ”
A Black artist hasn’t won the award for album of the year since Herbie Hancock in 2008, and only two hip-hop talents have taken home the night’s biggest honor: Lauryn Hill in 1999 and OutKast in 2004. While DaBaby, Roddy Ricch and Lil Uzi Vert could see big looks in the Big Four categories alongside such likely nominees as Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift and Fiona Apple, the artist perhaps most likely to make history is The Weeknd, whose After Hours has been both a commercial smash and a fixture on critics’ midyear lists. If the climate of 2020 increases his chances, says one label head and longtime voter, his win would reverberate well beyond the awards show.
“If African American artists were dominant in this year’s Grammys, it would be a sign that the music industry is implicitly endorsing Black Lives Matter,” says the label head. “If we can make that statement, that’s great. Sometimes, making the political statement is more important than just making an artistic statement.”