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Rock & Roll in the NEWS: Where New Rock Meets Old Rock...January 29, 2018 (Who should win in the Grammys' - Next post Who did Win)

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The Grammys' Big Four Categories: Who Should Win, and Who Will Win?

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The 60th Annual Grammy Awards coming up this Sunday (Jan. 28), and the races for the big awards have never been tighter. Not only do all five nominees in each of the big four categories -- album of the year, song of the year, record of the year, and best new artist -- seem to have at least a reasonable shot, but it's such a strong and diverse crop of nominees this year that it's hard to tell who we're rooting for. 
Before the big night, Billboard editorial director Jason Lipshutz and senior editor Andrew Unterberger debate who should win and who will win for each of the big four categories -- though in a couple of them, it still may be a little too close to call. 
Jason Lipshutz: Before we dig into the Sunday night predictions and personal biases, let’s start with a general question: what do you think will be the prevailing narrative of the 2018 Grammy Awards? Usually this narrative is shaped by who wins album of the year (especially when it’s a perceived snub, like Adele’s 25 triumphing over Beyonce’s Lemonade, which is how the 2017 ceremony will forever be remembered).
But sometimes the main storyline is based off of an unforgettable performance (the Madonna & Macklemore same-sex marriage jamboree in 2014), an arrival of new stardom (Frank Ocean -- and Fun.! -- in 2013), or an all-encompassing awards sweep that often includes album of the year, also known as the 'Santana 2000.’

So what do you think we’ll be talking about after James Corden cheekily signs off from Madison Square Garden? To me, it’s going to be either side of the same coin: "Kendrick Lamar’s long-overdue coronation," or "Kendrick Lamar -- snubbed, again."
Andrew Unterberger: Hm, it's a tough one to peg this year, especially since we were all off with our initial predictions of a Kendrick vs. Ed showdown. 
For me, I'm not sure if this year is going to be so much about an overall artist or showdown as maybe a coronation for hip-hop as the new center of mainstream music. Hard to discuss this without getting too deep into our predictions for individual categories, but it seems pretty likely that rap artists will emerge triumphant in some, if not all, of the big four categories. I'm not sure we're giving enough credit to just how unprecedented an occurrence that would be: Rap artists have won album of the year just twice before (OutKast in 2004 for Speakerboxx/The Love Below and Lauryn Hill in 1999 for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), and same with best new artist (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis infamously in '14, and Chance the Rapper last year.) They've never won in song or record of the year, incredibly. 
I think "Kendrick Lamar -- snubbed" gets dejuiced as a narrative if he loses to JAY-Z. If he loses to Lorde or Bruno Mars... you may be onto something. But regardless, I think the more compelling narrative here isn't Kendrick vs. JAY-Z, or even Kendrick and JAY-Z vs. the field -- it's Kendrick and JAY-Z vs. Grammy history.
Lipshutz: I agree with you that if JAY-Z wins album of the year, the "What about Kendrick!" backlash will be quieter, which I think is only partly about honoring a huge year for hip-hop. Both Kendrick and Jay have different dimensions of being due for this award: while Kendrick has been nominated twice before in the album of the year category and lost, JAY-Z has never gotten this nod before now, but has arguably the most storied career of any rap artist. One has responded to losing this award in the past by making an even bigger critical and commercial blockbuster, and the other is a legend who shook the Academy awake with his best album in a decade. Either could win, and a large faction of viewers would nod and agree that the win makes sense.

DAMN. should take home album of the year because it was 2017's most vital full-length and sharpened every edge in Kendrick Lamar's skill set; when it's all said and done, it's the album that could come to define his legacy, as well as the pinched fury that the world at large felt in 2017. Do I think it's going to win? Maybe; probably. Certainly not definitely, though, based on the past three album of the year recipients called up to the Grammy podium. The smart money was on Beyoncé, To Pimp A Butterfly and Lemonade to win, but voters smirked at our bets and honored Morning Phase, 1989 and 25 instead. DAMN. could potentially end the pattern of either Beyonce or Kendrick being slighted every other year, and I think it will... but I wouldn't bet my life against something like Lorde's Melodrama, a whip-smart pop record from a critical darling, splitting the hip-hop vote and scoring a surprise win.
Unterberger: Both the most exciting and frustrating thing about the album of the year Grammy to me is that nothing is ever impossible -- unlike with the Oscars, where only two or three films at most have even a slightly realistic chance of winning best picture, I can see a path for all five albums to the win here, as with most years. Lorde, Bruno Mars and even Childish Gambino could theoretically benefit from vote-splitting and/or being more Traditionally Grammy albums; if this Bruno album was Unorthodox Jukebox rather than 24k Magic I might actually be predicting him here, too. 
But here's something that I think doesn't get considered enough when predicting the AOTY Grammy: Four of the last six albums to win have been the most commercially successful of the bunch, with Beck's Morning Light win in 2015 -- which I swear was actually at least 25 years ago at this point -- being the sole true outlier. And while you might not think of DAMN. in the same commercial class as Taylor Swift's 1989 or Adele's 25, it was pretty comfortably the best-seller of the five albums nominated, and considering that Kendrick's only real competition for 2017 mainstream dominance didn't even get nominated, I still think the award is his to lose. 
And rightly so, I'd also say -- while I don't feel as strongly about DAMN. as I do Butterfly, it was an album his career (and music in general) really kinda needed, an Internet-slaying blockbuster with undeniable singles but conceptual coherence, which continued to push him vocally and thematically and featured no obvious commercial concessions. Lorde's and Childish Gambino's albums were more intimate but less extraordinary to me, Bruno's adds up to less than the sum of its parts, and while I wouldn't begrudge JAY his Departed-winning-Best-Picture moment, I can't see a non-career-based argument for him being more deserving than Kendrick.
Lipshutz: Martin Scorsese winning for The Departed is the ULTIMATE "he's winning because he's due" award presentation; at least 4:44 is really good and not full of nonsensical plot twists. Justice for The Queen!

My predictions scorecard over the past half-decade or so has been cleanest in Record of the Year, and it's once again the category I feel the surest in calling. "Despacito" towers over its competition on this field, as both the biggest and most important song here. The recent history of record of the year nods to the song that defined the past year in popular music more than any other -- think previous winners "Uptown Funk!," "Hello," "Get Lucky" and "Stay With Me." And while Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's 16-week Hot 100 reign wouldn't necessarily guarantee a W here, I do think that what "Despacito" signifies, as a Spanish-language song that dominated U.S. radio and helped open the door for more non-English singles to explode stateside, can't be overstated. "Despacito" was a huge cultural moment in and outside of America; something like Bruno Mars' "24K Magic" was a likable hit, but nowhere near as indispensable.

Unless Sunday is just Kendrick Night and a win for "Humble" here becomes part of a clean sweep for rap's new ruler, "Despacito" has this one in the bag, and rightfully so. If I sound especially confident, it's because I just listened to "Despacito" again, for the billionth time, and... damn, it's still really great!
Unterberger: I liked The Departed! And I like 4:44, a lot -- don't mean to discredit what an achievement it was. But if JAY had won this award two or three times already, I'm not sure we'd be talking about him as a serious threat to Kendrick here.
I can't disagree with you about the worthiness of "Despactio," but i think I'm leaning more towards "Humble" for record of the year, largely for the reason you suggest -- I think this is just Kendrick's year -- and because it fits the qualifications you lay out as a MAJOR RECORD of 2017.
And to be honest, I wonder about English-language biases within the Academy. I don't think there's been a foreign-language winner since "Girl From Ipanema" in the '60s -- not sure if the "Ipanema" version that won had any of the original Portugese lyrics, even -- and unless you count "Livin' La Vida Loca," there hasn't even been one nominated since Los Lobos' "La Bamba" cover in '88. Is "Despacito" big enough to buck all of that? Possibly, but with another viable candidate like "HUMBLE" available, I'd feel more secure betting on that. 
All that said, I'm not really sure where that leaves song of the year. Foreign-language songs haven't had any more success in that category than record, but I don't see a "HUMBLE"-level competitor to really challenge "Despacito" here. I know we're both huge "Issues" fans, but even with her behind-the-scenes industry background, it's hard to imagine Julia Michaels being a big-enough name to win here. Logic is also somewhat of a newbie to the Grammys realm, and a rap song has never won song of the year -- I can't necessarily see "1-800-273-8255" being the first. "The Story of O.J." is an obvious 4:44 highlight, but hardly feels like the kind of big single that traditionally wins in the major categories.
So does that leave Bruno Mars' "That's What I Like" as the frontrunner here? Or do you see "Despacito" going two-for-two? 
Lipshutz: I definitely expect "Despacito" to get more love in record of the year category than in the songwriters field -- which is where that aforementioned English-language bias may come into play, but I think the song's strength is unquestionably its production, arrangement and the contrasting vocal category. As for Song of the Year... Andrew, I think you are Mackling less than you should be.

Although Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Same Love" was defeated in Song of the Year four years ago, Logic's "1-800-273-8255" will avenge that LGBTQ anthem and score a victory for Socially Conscious and Radio-Friendly Hip-Hop in 2018. It's got all the ingredients for the Recording Academy -- a big hook, sentimental flourishes, a contemporary significance in these politically charged times -- plus a pair of guest stars, Khalid and Alessia Cara, who are best new artist candidates. I'm sounding a little cynical here, so I'll add that "1-800-273-8255" is a genuinely moving song (like "Same Love" was before it), that raised suicide prevention awareness in a meaningful way. In a case like this, that type of visceral emotion will be hard to top.

Don't sleep on Julia Michaels' "Issues," my pick for what should win here, as a dark horse, though. Know what defeated "Same Love" in 2014? The debut single from a young, clearly female singer-songwriter who put a premium on lyricism -- Lorde's "Royals." This could be the funky year in which Michaels loses out on best new artist but scoops up a surprise song of the year trophy.
Unterberger: I'd be fine with Logic & Co. taking song of the year, and it certainly would be a very 2018 choice, but I think it has too much going against it Grammy-wise for me to make the leap. And I can't see Julia Michaels taking either song or best new artist, sadly: Lorde is an interesting parallel, but "Royals" was about 20 times more culturally pervasive than "Issues" was, and the fact that the latter came out towards the beginning of 2017 -- and hasn't had a particularly notable second life since -- hurts it too much here. I'm rooting Julia, but leaning Bruno. 
But as long as we're speaking of best new artist: this might be the hardest of the four to pick a likely winner, and it's almost definitely the hardest to pick a deserving winner. All five of the candidates could be frontrunners in a lesser year; there's no honored-to-be-nominated underground favorite or if-you-say-so middling pop talent in the bunch. The only one who might be viewed as a surprise winner in this would be Lil Uzi Vert -- just because nontraditional, streaming-friendly rappers are an historical anomaly here -- but after Chance the Rapper's win last year, I'm not sure it could really be considered shocking, either.
Frankly, I'm rooting for Uzi: Not just because he's a Philly guy, but because I think of all the breakout hip-hop stars of last year, he's got the strongest identity, the sharpest songcraft and the highest potential to get even greater from here. But my gut tells me SZA is the leader in the clubhouse here: Her momentum has been one long swell over the last half year since she released Ctrl to unanimous acclaim, and you can tell by how frequently her songs have been covered by other artists how much the industry already loves her. But am I paying too much attention to our critical echo chamber (including Billboard's own year-end lists?) Does Alessia Cara, who has far more of a pop presence, really have the inside track? 
Lipshutz: First of all: if Uzi won, would he shout out Nick Foles at the podium, or Joel Embiid? Or both?

Prognosticators have been discounting Alessia Cara in this category, but I do think she's got a legitimate shot at pulling this off: great commercial appeal, recognizable hits, and the type of presence and personality that is difficult to dislike. Working against her is the feeling that she should have been nominated in this category last year; working for her is the fact that there's no clear-cut front-runner like Chance was in 2017.

You think SZA is going to take this home; I hope you're right, since Ctrl was my favorite album of last year, but I believe in the power of Khalid. He ticks off every Grammy-friendly box, and has a more electric stage presence and bigger hit singles than SZA at this point. SZA and Lil Uzi Vert would each be cerebral, forward-thinking picks -- I'm personally investing a ton of stock in their respective futures -- but Khalid rose like a tidal wave over the past 12 months, and to painfully extend this simile, I think he crashes down on the rest of the field come Sunday night. I agree with you that I'd be pleased with any of these five taking it home, but if I had to bet my life here, give me Khalid's hangdog charm over the field.
Unterberger: Can't say I see Uzi being much of an organized sports guy in general, but because I enjoy those NBA Live 18 commercials that use "444 + 222," I'll say Embiid. 
Alessia Cara really might be the smart bet here, just because she's probably the most widely recognized name in the bunch -- not a lot of artists out there with hits alongside each of Zedd, Troye Sivan and Logic -- and because her year-too-late nomination shows just how motivated her team is to get her this damn thing. 
I think I'm actually gonna ride with Cara for best new artist after all: you may be right that SZA is still a little too insider-y at the moment, and as great a year as Khalid had (and as much as I love American Teen personally), I just don't know if he has the presence for this yet -- "Location" still ranks as his biggest hit as a lead artist, and I don't think that song was anywhere near unavoidable. There are both more popular and more acclaimed artists in this category, so him winning seems a tad unlikely to me. But as we've already agreed, nothing's impossible here. 
Final thoughts? I kinda just hope the Grammys don't fuck this up -- and I'm not even totally sure how they would, since there really aren't a lot of eye-rollers in the major categories. (Bruno Mars going 3-for-3 would be less than ideal, I guess.) But I kinda just want a Grammys where we don't have to deal with a wave of controversy over the winners (and subsequent backlashes-to-the-backlashes) in the morning. There'll undoubtedly be plenty of real-life controversy to be had at this year's Grammys, over matters more important than best new artist, y'know? Let's hope we can feel good-ish about the awards for once, at least. 
Lipshutz: Even a Bruno sweep would be sort of compelling! Before the nominations came out, you and I were both envisioning a redux of 2017, but this time with Ed Sheeran sheepishly accepting album of the year instead of Kendrick. Is 24k Magic a better album than DAMN.? Not by a long shot, but a surprise win for one of the defining pop artists of the decade isn’t the worst fate. Ultimately, there’s no Two Against Nature in this Grammy field, which makes this year especially exciting. (Sorry, Steely Dan heads.)
FINAL THOUGHTS: WHO WILL WIN?
Album of the Year
Jason: Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Andrew: Kendrick Lamar, DAMN
Record of the Year
Jason: Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee feat. Justin Bieber, "Despacito"
Andrew: Kendrick Lamar, "Humble" 
Song of the Year
Jason: Logic feat. Khalid & Alessia Cara, "1-800-273-8255"
Andrew: Bruno Mars, "That's What I Like" 
Best New Artist
Jason: Khalid
Andrew: Alessia Cara
FINAL THOUGHTS: WHO SHOULD WIN?
Album of the Year
Jason: Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Andrew: Kendrick Lamar, DAMN.
Record of the Year
Jason: Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee feat. Justin Bieber, "Despacito"
Andrew: Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee feat. Justin Bieber, "Despacito"
Song of the Year
Jason: Julia Michaels, "Issues"
Andrew: Julia Michaels, "Issues" 
Best New Artist
Jason: SZA
Andrew: Lil Uzi Vert

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