It’s never too early to start a conversation about presumptive nominees — but the race in question is even farther off than the presidential election. It’s the Album of the Year contest for the Grammys — yes, the 2017 Grammys — where even nine months out, it’s already easy to foresee a showdown between two clear single-monikered front-runners, both of whom happen to be on Columbia Records in the U.S.: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Adele vs. Beyonce.
No, we don’t need a reminder that the eligibility period lasts through the end of September and the nominations won’t be out for another seven months. Yes, this is premature prognosticating when we’re still due for expected albums from past Album of the Year winners like U2, Paul Simon, and Beck and prior category nominees like Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, and Bruce Springsteen. But the critical showdown already seems clear here.
So who might it be? A survey of several long-time Grammy voters (who wanted to remain anonymous) turns up some clues.
“I would vote for Beyonce’s album, myself,” says one veteran of the Grammys‘ board of governors. “For someone who’s not exposed herself much, it seems this one is opening up the curtain for her emotionally, because she always seemed to be so protective, and I appreciate that. I don’t feel Adele pushed as much, or maybe we’re just used to having her journal open. She sold such a huge amount of records, but I’m more excited about what she’s going to do on her next record than this one.”
One label A&R vp gives the nod to Adele, saying “I feel like she will get some of the votes from other genres like classical and folk,” before hedging, “Honestly, it could go either way, as Beyoncé would get the votes from the R&B and rap genre voters. It’s going to be a tight race.”
Let’s weigh their respective strengths and handicaps:
• By Metacritic.com’s metrics, Lemonade is the best-reviewed album of 2016 so far, with a 93 consensus score (ahead of second-place Radiohead’s 89).
• Beyonce’s stadium tour launches on June 5. In and of itself, that might not mean much at the Grammys — it doesn’t for One Direction — except that it may be hard for voters to resist this rare chance to reward someone who is packing the top deck at Dodger Stadium, debuting at No. 1 and possibly topping the annual Village Voice critics’ poll. You could argue we have’t seen exactly that combination of sales, massive live pull and “cred” album since U2’s salad days.
• Beyonce de-emphasized the dancefloor in favor of what amounts to a serious concept album about infidelity. So her previous nominations for Album of the Year in 2010 and 2015 fell short of the prize (as Kanye West would be quick to remind us), this time she has the “artistic leap” narrative going for her.
• Lemonade’s surprising guest list — Jack White, The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar and James Blake — makes a quick and easy case for stylistic diversity, with all four of those marquee names being proven Grammy bait themselves.
• While Best Music Film may be a separate Grammy category, the long-form video companion to Lemonade stands up as a singular piece of work, unlike her previous video compendiums. After creating an unexpected buzz with its HBO premiere, the visual album finally gave a lot of people the reason to subscribe to Tidal that’d previously eluded them. One producer with long ties to the Grammys goes so far as to say: “The HBO thing reinvents the album format for this generation.”
• She is, to quote Nina Simone, young, gifted, and black… which, looking at the history of the Album of the Year category, you might argue is a historical detriment. The last young African-American artist to win Album of the Year was Outkast in 2004. Given the tough time R&B and hip-hop artists have had winning the top prize, Beyonce makes it easy for voters to offer some redress to that situation.
• Maybe this won’t be at the forefront of voters’ noble minds, but who can resist looking forward to the cutaway shots of Jay Z if she wins? Will the alleged primary subject of Lemonade’s angry story line look cuckolded, proud, or both?
• Older or more conservative voters still favor singular singer/songwriters as the true auteurs of music, and won’t quickly give up their bias against material with as many co-writers and producers as Lemonade.
• The steady stream of F-bombs on the first few tracks of Lemonade might dissuade some traditional-values Grammy voters from even digging into the rest of the album, whereas Adele keeps her sailor’s mouth off-record.
• Even in a contest with Adele, who has plenty of collaborators of her own, the bias may still go toward a no-frills performer over someone many voters may still associate most with waxing and wind machines.
• Speaking of cutaways, not everyone will be eager to see the inevitable reaction shots of awards disrupter Kanye gloating over finally getting his way.
AND IN THIS CORNER, ADELE
• In February, 25 crossed the 8 million mark in album sales, after being out for less than three months. By the time the Grammys roll around next February, it’s not unlikely the album will have surpassed 10 million. That’s something Beyonce won’t likely come close to accomplishing, however strong Lemonade is. Can the Grammys really pass up the chance to honor what could be the last diamond-selling album in our lifetimes?
• …let alone a diamond album that has critical respect? Reviews for 25 weren’t as enthusiastic as for 21, but they were respectful at worst and effusive in the main.
• That Saturday Night Live sketch where the dysfunctional family bonded over “Hello” for the holidays? Even though her lyrics are often downcast, Adele is a feel-good artist, which may be welcome after what will probably be a bitter presidential election.
• She may not have booked herself into stadiums yet, but she is indisputably the hottest ticket of 2016, and maybe this century so far, based on the four-digit resale asking price for even some of her crummier seats on her arena tour.
• She continues to be the heroine of the “cut it out with the choreography and just sing” crowd… which intersects the Grammy voter crowd to a huge degree.
• As everyone remembers, she won multiple Grammys with her previous album. Wouldn’t that be an advantage going into this cycle? Hardly. Taylor Swift became the first woman to win Album of the Year twice when 1989 got it earlier this year. But it’s not like a lot of men have been repeat winners, either. U2 won the category in 1988 and again in 2006, Paul Simon triumphed in 1976 and 1987, and Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder both enjoyed three-fers back in their ‘60s and ‘70s heydays — and those are the only times dudes did it. That historical evidence suggests there’s no particular love for repeat winners at the “been there, done that” Grammys, even when someone is following up a behemoth album with another behemoth.
• Despite generally favorable reviews, there was underlying agreement that 25 was basically a 21 II — more sequel than departure.
• The memoir narrative is missing. While the lost-love themes of 21 were close to Adele’s personal experience at the time, she’s admitted that their repetition in 25 doesn’t really reflect her current mood as a mother. And that could be a drawback when Beyonce is seen as drawing from her real life in a raw way with Lemonade.
Of course, there will be other albums in the running. No one should count out David Bowie’s Blackstar (which, like Lemonade and 25, is on Columbia Records). The album instantly became one of the most critically hailed releases of 2016, even before his passing just days after its release. Bowie has not been a Grammy favorite in the past — his last and only Album of the Year nomination came for Let’s Dance in 1984 — but those past omissions may help more than hurt if voters get around to thinking about righting historical wrongs.
Fresh off being nominated in the previous cycle, Kendrick Lamar released yet another album, although a Grammy nominating committee may feel okay about passing over a collection of self-described leftovers. The 2015 category winner, Beck, will be returning with a follow-up soon, but it’s being described as more in his funky mode than the contemplative mood that earned Morning Phase a win, which is not as much of a sweet spot for Grammy voters.
Paul Simon’s new one has terrific advance buzz, although some in the Grammy camp may be reluctant to feed into the “boomers always win” complaint bloggers make about the awards, fairly or otherwise. U2 will probably be back in contention, but it may be an uphill struggle for Songs of Experience (if that’s what it’s ultimately called) to overcome the burdens of its prequel.
Another wild card could be Lady Gaga, who won Album of the Year nominations three years in a row, then fell off the Grammy radar when Artpop went plop — only to reinvent and re-emerge with Cheek to Cheek, her duet album with Tony Bennett, which won Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album in 2015 — and gave her a “Hey, she can really sing!” platform during the ceremony. Other previous nominees or winners in the category that could make the preliminary ballot this cycle include Radiohead, Frank Ocean, Rihanna, Keys, Springsteen, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Dylan, Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani, Bonnie Raitt and even Kanye himself, if he ever actually finishes work on the released-at-least-twice-already Life of Pablo. Other outliers could include Drake, Sia, Sturgill Simpson, LCD Soundsystem, Esperanza Spalding, Miranda Lambert, Macklemore & Lewis, or Brandy Clark … not to mention a host of contenders that may not even have been recorded yet, much less released.
But when it comes to the super-diva smackdown, predictions are in order. “NARAS is going to reward Beyonce for her overall Beyonceness, and everyone on the planet wants to hear how she accepts the ultimate trophy for this ultra-personal statement,” says former Columbia and Arista A&R exec Mitchell Cohen. “My hunch is Adele makes a series of walks to the stage for ‘Hello’ — Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Pop Vocal — but Lemonade takes the last prize. Beyoncé’s never won Album of the Year, and 25, which was a lock until a few weeks ago, feels to me more like a Success than an Event.”
In other words, Adele could still walk away with more trophies, but for Album, she may need an extra dose of luck in getting the Grammys to put a ring on it.