Last year’s Grammy Awards were about many things — questions about lack of representation at the podium, a stirring embodiment of the #MeToo movement’s power, the budding friendship between Sting and Shaggy. When it came to who actually took home the meaningful hardware, however, the night belonged to Bruno Mars.
While Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Childish Gambino and the “Despacito” duo of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee all competed in the major categories, Mars ended up winning album of the year for 24K Magic, record of the year for its title track and song of the year for “That’s What I Like.” By winning multiple trophies the Big Four categories, Mars dominated the telecast in the same way that Adele owned the Grammys the year before, Daft Punk controlled the 2014 ceremony and 2012 was all about… Adele, again.
So who is this year’s potential Bruno Mars? An artist, or group of artists, who could dominate the 61st Grammy Awards by winning multiple trophies in the Big Four categories? There are nine candidates for such supremacy, and while their chances of a sweep on Sunday night vary, their potential wins would signify different narratives of an awards ceremony in a transitional phase.
Will a hip-hop artist finally own the night after years of snubs? Or will a more traditionally Grammy-friendly voice be the loudest? Here are all nine candidates for multiple wins in this year’s Big Four Grammy categories, and what their wins would mean on a grand scale.
What She’d Need To Win: album of the year for Invasion of Privacy, plus record of the year for “I Like It” (feat. Bad Bunny and J Balvin)
What It Would Signify: A massive win for the changing face of hip-hop. There are several Big Four outcomes that would serve as a victory for the genre, with potential winners ranging from Drake to Post Malone to Childish Gambino to Black Panther, but both Cardi B’s debut album Invasion of Privacy and her No. 1 single “I Like It” especially demonstrate the expansive sound and global appeal of modern hip-hop. Invasion of Privacy finds an impossibly charismatic talent making the most of her time in the spotlight, and doing so by compounding trap, R&B, soul and Latin pop music while leaning upon a wide range of A-list guests (SZA, Migos, Chance The Rapper, 21 Savage).
Invasion of Privacy is both a singular work from an artist bursting with wit, hooks and sexual metaphors, as well as a snapshot of what hip-hop is today: fertile, vibrant, hard to pin down but naturally exciting. And that, of course, extends to “I Like It,” with Latin superstars J Balvin and Bad Bunny, which proved that the dominance of “Despacito” in 2017 was no Spanish-language fluke hit. The rare multilingual record of the year competitor, “I Like It” winning on its own would be huge for the Latin music community, especially after “Despacito” struck out in the Big Four last year. If Cardi B pairs that with an album of the year win, becoming the first female hip-hop artist to take home that prize since Lauryn Hill two decades ago? We’re looking at a historic Grammys night, with hip-hop’s most kinetic current star front and center.
What She’d Need To Win: album of the year for By The Way, I Forgive You, plus record of the year and/or song of the year for “The Joke”
What It Would Signify: A return to the old guard. One decade ago, the Grammys had a pretty big problem: They had routinely snubbed younger mainstream artists in the major categories, specifically album of the year, in favor of beloved oldsters who had never received their proper Grammy due. In the 2000s, artists like Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles and Steely Dan won album of the year trophies for works that were hardly part of the greater cultural conversation, or even those artists’ creative peaks. Naturally, this was a problem, and beginning in 2010 with Taylor Swift’s win for Fearless, album of the year was bestowed to more contemporary stars: Adele, Bruno Mars, Arcade Fire, and Swift (again), to name a few.
We dont’t bring this up as a slight against Brandi Carlile, a vital and under-appreciated 15-year veteran whose strong Grammy showing was a pleasant surprise when the nominations were announced. But a Carlile sweep would certainly be perceived as a reversion to what the Grammys used to be: honoring a songwriter for work that never significantly impacted the mainstream, and received positive, but perhaps not quite rapturous reviews. Expect accusations of the Grammys remaining “out of touch” to dot your social media timeline if Carlile wins big… and frankly, those claims would be unfounded, since Carlile is a respected songwriter in an underrepresented genre, as well as an LGBTQ artist who would be a trailblazer as the first openly gay album of the year winner. Here’s hoping that, should a big night for Carlile occur, that last point would not get lost in the shuffle of endless Twitter snark.
Kendrick Lamar/The Black Panther Team
What They’d Need To Win: album of the year for Black Panther: The Album, plus record of the year and/or song of the year for “All The Stars” featuring SZA
What It Would Signify: Justice for Kendrick Lamar, and a commemoration of the Black Panther phenomenon. The immediate narrative of the Lamar-produced Black Panther soundtrack winning album of the year and “All The Stars” taking home one of the top prizes would amount to a mea culpa: Kendrick Lamar, defining MC of the decade, Pulitzer Prize winner, three-time album of the year nominee and three-time loser, finally taking home a Grammy outside of the rap and music video categories, no longer egregiously passed over. Lamar earning a make-up album of the year for Black Panther would be a little like Martin Scorsese winning the best director Oscar for The Departed, except that the Black Panther soundtrack is actually great — not Damn. great, sure, but a wonderful arrangement of hip-hop and R&B superstars (Travis Scott, Future, The Weeknd) and rising talents (SOB x RBE, Jorja Smith, Zacari).
Aside from the Recording Academy giving Lamar his due, a Black Panther sweep would also recognize just how enormous of a cultural touchstone the Marvel film became last year. Remember: Black Panther has the chance to win the best picture Oscar and the album of the year Grammy for its soundtrack — something that has never happened before. Even if the album doesn’t become the first soundtrack since O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2002 to snag the top Grammy, its nomination signifies what a lot of us already knew: that Black Panther was a moment in pop culture that reached far beyond the box office and far wider than comic book diehards. Its blockbuster soundtrack, helmed by a beloved hip-hop hero, was a big part of that.
What He’d Need To Win: record of the year and song of the year for “This Is America”
What It Would Signify: An awareness of the cultural moment. “This Is America” is by far the most politically conscious — and caustic — nominee in the Big Four, with a message about American race relations and gun violence made explicit in its music video (which is also nominated for a Grammy). It has also become the biggest hit of Childish Gambino’s career, as he followed up his soulful breakthrough hit, the Grammy-nominated “Redbone,” with something far more radical and went straight to the top of the Hot 100 with it. “This Is America” and its music video touched a nerve with listeners far beyond Gambino’s fan base, tapping into the frustration of the Trump era and anger over continued discrimination within our country. The song captures the political climate in a way that most other hits do not and cannot.
But will the Grammys reward it for doing so? Whether you think it is capital-I Important, or not as powerful as it intends to be, “This Is America” will undoubtedly endure as one of the most clear-cut popular criticisms of the country during the Trump administration, and the Recording Academy may be wise to recognize such protest music before it heads to the time capsule. The Grammys have never been an overtly political platform, but a big night for “This Is America” would be a start; it would also mark a leap forward for a ceremony that has never given record of the year or song of the year to a hip-hop single. Even if Gambino only takes home one of the two prizes, “This Is America” emerging victorious in the Big Four would be a moment of real progress for the Grammys and what they represent. A lot of us have been waiting for that moment for years, but maybe 2019 is the year it finally arrives.
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
What They’d Need To Win: record of the year and song of the year for “Shallow”
What It Would Signify: The most high-profile award wins of Lady Gaga’s career — for a couple weeks, at least. Gaga has won six Grammys, but has somehow never snagged anything in the Big Four categories. And she might top a record of the year or song of the year award win exactly two weeks after the Grammys, when she competes for best actress and best original song at the Oscars on Feb. 24. But until then, a victory in one or both of the general song categories would be monumental for one of pop’s most celebrated superstars. (It would definitely be a pretty surreal moment in Bradley Cooper’s career, too.)
A big night for “Shallow” is a very real possibility: the duet from A Star Is Born is the sort of ultra-emotional, sweeping sing-along that the Recording Academy has long gravitated towards in the Big Four, from “I Will Always Love You” to “Use Somebody” to another soundtrack smash, “My Heart Will Go On.” Gaga certainly doesn’t need a victory in either category to cement her legacy, and an Oscar win or two later this month could serve as the ultimate consolation prize… but then again, “Shallow” is a rightful smash, a powerhouse pop-rock ballad that pulled off the rare movie-to-pop-radio crossover and will remain one of 2018’s most memorable cultural artifacts. If “Shallow” goes two-for-two in the Big Four, the wins will go down not only as an overdue general category recognition of Gaga, but an acknowledgement that “Shallow” is already one of her most enduring singles.
What He’d Need To Win: album of the year for Beerbongs & Bentleys, plus record of the year for “Rockstar” (feat. 21 Savage)
What It Would Signify: Let’s start with the fact that whichever musical legend is presenting album of the year would have to say the word “Beerbongs.” Remember when Barbra Streisand stuttered out that Arcade Fire had won in 2011? This would be way better.
If this year’s Grammys amount to a Post Malone coronation, it would mean a few things — greater visibility for hip-hop at the ceremony, recognition of the hit-making cultural force that Post Malone has become, a galvanizing moment for those horrified by what’s currently taking place to his “Rockstar” collaborator 21 Savage. Mostly, though, it would mean that a lot of people would get angry. If a white rapper becomes the first hip-hop act to win album of the year since Outkast a decade-and-a-half ago, and/or the first hip-hop act to ever win record of the year, the outcry would be immediate. Consider the deserving hip-hop acts of color (Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, Drake, Childish Gambino) nominated for these awards this year, and over the past decade… and then consider what the hip-hop community would viscerally experience while watching a white rapper accept the top prizes on the Grammys stage instead of them.
There’s nothing Post Malone could say or do to improve that situation. Although he’s been co-signed by a number of hip-hop artists of color, Post has routinely been clumsy in addressing his place as a white superstar in a predominantly black genre, and the optics of his win would be problematic. The criticism would be deafening, and the Recording Academy would once again be faced with accusations of underrepresentation for artists of color. Post Malone had a massive year, and his ubiquity has helped make him a strong Grammys contender. But a Grammys ceremony in which he dominated would inevitably equate to the opening of a large, heavily tattooed can of worms.
What She’d Need To Win: album of the year for H.E.R., plus best new artist
What It Would Signify: The most shocking Grammys outcome since at least 2015 (the year Beck trumped Beyoncé for album of the year), if not this decade. H.E.R., the pseudonym of 21-year-old R&B singer-songwriter Gabi Wilson, enjoyed a quiet breakthrough in 2018 thanks to her highest-charting single as a lead artist (“Could’ve Been” with Bryson Tiller, which hit No. 76 on the Hot 100) and a well-received headlining tour. Yet her inclusion in the album of the year race — for a project that is ostensibly a synthesis of previous EPs with some new tunes included — was among the biggest surprises of the nominations.
H.E.R. has developed a respectable following and was expected to receive a push from her label, RCA Records, into the expanded best new artist field. But artists like H.E.R. simply don’t get nominated for album of the year at this stage in their careers, especially without a crossover single to flaunt. Now, she’s the only best new artist nominee to also have a shot at another general category win. If H.E.R. can slide into the album of the year competition over artists like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and The Carters, is it really THAT impossible for her to pull off a win?
If the singer-songwriter does walk away from Grammy night with the best new artist and album of the year trophies, there would certainly be a lot of genuine confusion from older viewers, and even more snark from the Twitterverse (cue the “Her?” gif from Arrested Development). Yet this unlikely outcome would ultimately be a positive one for the Recording Academy, which has spent the past year expanding its voting bloc in an effort to become a more inclusive organization. H.E.R. would be the first female artist of color to win album of the year since Lauryn Hill in 1999; not prolonging a two-decade drought is obviously a step in the right direction.
However, championing a young, talented R&B artist who has not yet entered the mainstream would also represent a stark departure from Grammy days of yore, when aging boomers were given the album of the year prize as a sort of lifetime achievement award. Would the Grammys be… hip? Tastemakers? It’s hard to fathom.
Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey
What They’d Need To Win: record of the year and song of the year for “The Middle”
What It Would Signify: A huge coup for songs that debut in Target commercials during the Grammy Awards!
In all seriousness, if “The Middle” wins record of the year and song of the year, the dominant narrative of the Grammys would likely be, “Oh, that makes sense.” “The Middle” is a catchy drip of sunshine that took over Top 40 radio last year and gave Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey the biggest hits of their respective careers. Its creators are charming, its vibe is inviting, its hook is toasty. Did it break any ground? Not really — its general category nominations mark a first for EDM artists like Zedd and Grey, but the song itself is not traditionally EDM, and Zedd has been a presence in pop for a half-decade. Morris, a Grammy winner and former best new artist nominee, would follow in the footsteps of country artists like Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum to earn a record of the year trophy with a crossover hit — though again, one that doesn’t have much to do with country itself.
Would we be telling our grandchildren about the time “The Middle” took home half of the Big Four at the Grammys? Heavens, no. But “The Middle” and the team behind it are likable enough to pull it off. Don’t be shocked if the song wins big on Sunday night, the entire world bellows in unison, “Oh, that makes sense,” and we all move on with our lives.
What He’d Need To Win: album of the year for Scorpion, plus record of the year and/or song of the year for “God’s Plan”
What It Would Signify: That the Recording Academy can no longer shrug off the enormity of Aubrey Graham. Along with Adele and Taylor Swift, Drake is one of the most commercially successful artists of the 2010s, and while those two aforementioned artists have won two album of the year Grammys each, Drake still hasn’t taken home a single Grammy from the Big Four categories. His nods in the major categories punctuate his most dominant run to date, with a record-setting 29 weeks atop the Hot 100 in 2018, and “God’s Plan” becoming the biggest song on the chart last year. Scorpion, his latest Billboard 200-topping LP — also up for album of the year — contained that smash along with “Nice For What” and “In My Feelings”; the latter topped Billboard’s Song of the Summer chart and inspired a viral dance craze that became global and was unequivocally won by Will Smith.
More than just a commercial force, however, Drake is arguably the most influential figure in recent hip-hop: his command of melody and understanding of R&B vocals have birthed some of the biggest songs of the 2010s, from “Hotline Bling” to “One Dance” to “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” and inspired a new generation of MCs to try warbling themselves instead of employing hook-singers. Scorpion is not Drake’s most critically acclaimed album, and “God’s Plan” will not likely be remembered as his most beloved single, but a Grammy sweep would serve as recognition of a towering figure in popular culture and within music’s dominant genre, one that has not been properly honored by the Recording Academy during his decade-long career (and, as such, has inspired Grammy night no-shows from the 6 God). Drake owned the charts in 2018, and has owned pop music for far longer. If he takes home an armful of Grammys on Sunday, it would mean that the Recording Academy was toasting that fact while Drake is still on top.