A best new artist nod was “a goal from the beginning” for the label team surrounding Muni Long, says Def Jam executive vp LaTrice Burnette. A veteran songwriter whose swooning R&B ballad “Hrs and Hrs” hit the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 in January, the 34-year-old artist has followed a textbook path to a nomination: She finalized her Def Jam deal in March, promptly performed at the pre-Grammys Black Music Collective ceremony the following month to showcase her vocal skills to industry players and delivered her Def Jam debut, Public Displays of Affection: The Album, on Sept. 23 — a week before the 2023 Grammys eligibility deadline.
“First and foremost, we wanted to make sure Muni was happy with the body of work,” says Burnette. But also, she adds, “We were always keeping the Grammys cutoff in mind.”
Their strategy makes perfect sense. The past three best new artist winners — Olivia Rodrigo, Megan Thee Stallion and Billie Eilish — entered their Grammy nights having skyrocketed in popularity, thereby achieving the award guidelines’ requisite “breakthrough into the public consciousness” and making their respective races feel like foregone conclusions. But more than any year in recent memory, the 2023 competition could truly be anyone’s game, brimming with artists like Muni Long who are established within their genres but not yet household names. Those include rising country stars Zach Bryan and Bailey Zimmerman; pop breakouts Dove Cameron, Conan Gray and Tate McRae; “Big Energy” rapper Latto; and trilingual Brazilian singer Anitta, all of whom could make a shortlist that recently expanded from five nominees to 10.
“In past years, it has been pretty clear who’s going to win, and it usually comes to fruition,” says John Stein, head of U.S. and Canada editorial at Spotify, which hosts an annual best new artist Grammy party. This time around, Stein posits, maybe an indie band like Wet Leg will break through, or an artist from the Latin, K-pop or Afrobeats worlds. “This year is exciting because it could go a number of different ways.”
In part, the field feels wide open due to “the evolution of the digital landscape,” says Alex Tear, SiriusXM’s vp of pop music and programming. The TikTok-to-top 40 pipeline is producing hits more rapidly than ever, with songs like GAYLE’s “abcdefu,” Lauren Spencer-Smith’s “Fingers Crossed” and Em Beihold’s “Numb Little Bug” turning previously unknown artists into viral sensations. And as streaming programmers and radio program directors scoop up TikTok hits with less hesitation than before (“They’re not waiting a few weeks or months for a song that’s hot right now,” says Tear), those tracks climb to the upper reaches of the Hot 100 and their creators enter the best new artist discussion.
One Recording Academy voter also points out that a glut of major projects by established artists — from Beyoncé to Harry Styles to Adele to Bad Bunny — monopolized listeners’ attention this year, as did catalog songs revived as new smashes, all of which left less room for a Rodrigo-esque front-runner to emerge. (Sorry, Stranger Things fans: Kate Bush isn’t eligible for an out-of-nowhere nod since she has been nominated in the past.) The requisite “breakthrough” year will always be somewhat open to interpretation, but the clear-cut rule that a previous Grammy nomination as a performer makes an artist ineligible has knocked some shoo-ins out of the current race, including Steve Lacy, Jack Harlow, Tems and Brent Faiyaz.
“These artists should be eligible if they haven’t crossed a certain threshold of mass appeal,” says Tear, pointing out that Lacy, nominated as a solo artist for best urban contemporary album in 2019, is much more prominent this year thanks to his smash “Bad Habit.” “But then again, there are eligible artists who haven’t been nominated before and deserve their day as well. We have to keep staring down how we evaluate this to be fair.”
With artists like Lacy out of the running, the trophy will likely anoint an actual “new” talent in 2023 instead of coronating a superstar — and that might ultimately produce a more meaningful moment during the telecast. For someone like Muni Long, “just being nominated is a culmination of all the hard work that she has been doing,” says Burnette. “But to actually win in that category? That’s a major statement.”