In the year the Grammys finally, truly recognized hip-hop, two critics break down an epic face-off (Kendrick vs. Jay), a pool of standout newbies (Alessia! Khalid! SZA!) and a monster hit (“Des…pa…cito”) due for a major award moment.
Matthew Trammell: As Kanye West once said, “Oh, it can’t be” — it’s Grammys time again, and we’re here to talk about the Big Four categories. Let’s start with record of the year. Between Childish Gambino’s “Redbone”; Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito”; JAY-Z’s “The Story of O.J.”; Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.”; and Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic,” it’ll come down to Kendrick: young, fast, agile, robbed once, and JAY-Z: old(er), measured, sturdy, winner several times over but never in this category. Like previous winners “Rehab,” “Get Lucky” and “Somebody That I Used to Know,” “HUMBLE.” feels timeless in concept, unique in sound and inescapable on a pop level. “Despacito” and Gambino might take other categories, but in the year that the genre hit critical commercial mass, it’s rap’s award to win.
Puja Patel: “HUMBLE.” is the best record of the year nominee for all the reasons you mentioned. But as the Kendrick versus Jay battle plays out — and splits the hip-hop vote — I have a feeling Bruno Mars will swoop right in with his pinky finger up.
Trammell: I don’t see Melodrama beating DAMN. for album. I love “Liability,” but while Melodrama is full of great songs, it isn’t a statement, and the Grammys like to reward statements. Adele released a ballad album during a pop rush, and Childish Gambino did something similar: that revival of Parliament/Isaac Hayes/Stax funk sound. He could’ve easily put out more campus rap, but he tried something new. It’s the only album I could see beating DAMN. — and it comes with a built-in star acceptance speech.
On song of the year, we’ve got the same read: “Despacito” should win, but Bruno will. This category considers the efforts of the songwriters alone. Wouldn’t it be amazing for a song written in another language to win?
Patel: Yes! Daddy Yankee deserves it solely for massaging that perfect “pasito a pasito, suave suavecito” into a single led by two artists far more practiced as frontmen. There’s also something triumphant about seeing Erika Ender, who wrote hits for jaunty conjunto group Los Tigres del Norte and Mexican singer-songwriter Gloria Trevi, write a song, sung by men, that approaches seduction from a woman’s perspective and make it a hit within that specific genre.
Trammell: Your close read of “Despacito” makes me root for it even more. With its once-in-a-career honesty, JAY-Z’s “4:44” could be a strong contender — but this category is very pop-leaning…
Patel: …And “That’s What I Like” is a catchy smash that could definitely stick the landing. Julia Michaels is a song nominee for “Issues” and a best new artist contender too. She’s a whip-smart songwriter, but I think she could use a year or two on her own music.
Trammell: She’s not the “statement” choice in a category with Lil Uzi Vert and Khalid. His “Location” is murder, and if best new artist singles out someone with potential for a long career, he’s got that in spades. Who’s your pick?
Patel: Alessia Cara is a clear Grammys fave — a young woman with a throaty, emphatic warble that’s super effective on big choruses — but in this moment she feels like more of the same to me, blending into the glut of radio pop. SZA is the clear star of the group. She’s got the voice, and her debut album, Ctrl, was easily one of the best of 2017, and the best female vocalist album in a year with so many notable releases — Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Halsey, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Kehlani. She is, quite literally, the best new artist of the past year — if there’s justice in Grammy world, she’ll take this one home.
Puja Patel is editor-in-chief of Spin. Matthew Trammell is night-life editor for The New Yorker.