Academy voters are on the right track now

Welcome to this year's edition of "Fear Factor," pop music version.

As they've shown over the years by handing out awards to such embarrassments as Milli Vanilli, Grammy voters can make such wrong choices it can make a grown man scream.

The good news is that we can all relax a little this time around.

By nominating Kanye West's "The College Dropout" for album of the year, in fact, the recording academy on Tuesday opened the door to what could be one of the Grammys' finest hours.

Not only does the nomination give the academy the chance on Feb. 13 to actually honor the year's most deserving album for one of the few times in its 47-year history, but a West victory would also reaffirm the organization's acknowledgment of hip-hop as one of America's most vital music forms.

But don't take anything for granted.

Because the nominations were often so hapless, the academy initiated a blue-ribbon screening committee in the mid-'90s to help protect voters from themselves by giving the committee the power to name the final nominees.

The process has worked well, rewarding such cutting-edge acts as Beck, Bob Dylan, Eminem and OutKast with nominations in the most prestigious category, album of the year.

Even so, there is no screening committee when it comes to picking the winners. The full membership casts that vote — and that's where the results can be frightening.

Over the last five years, the academy has only once chosen the most distinguished of the five albums: OutKast's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" in the 2003 competition.

That victory was noteworthy because it was the first time hard-core hip-hop had been honored in the top category since the genre entered the pop consciousness in the mid-'80s.

West's album is even bolder than OutKast's: a mixture of gangsta rap sonic force along with raps that are as introspective as something you'd expect from a sensitive singer-songwriter.

West sounds tough, yet the music is free of clichés about the thug life.

But he's no cinch to win.

First, there's the split vote possibility.

West's audience has enough connections to the silky R&B of Usher's "Confessions" and Alicia Keys' "The Diary of Alicia Keys" to give a lot of voters hard choices.

That leaves a big opening for Green Day, the punk band that showed enormous growth in the socially conscious "American Idiot" album.

There were more appealing rock albums this year, including lighthearted Franz Ferdinand's debut in "Franz Ferdinand," but "American Idiot" was filled with the sort of grand theme and purpose that many academy voters may prefer.

The real competition for West, however, is the Ray Charles duet package, "Genius Loves Company." The posthumous collection isn't Charles' finest hour, but it has some touching moments, and the attention surrounding his death and the film "Ray" certainly places him on everyone's mind.

Charles, who died in June at age 73, never won a Grammy in the top category — even though he was twice nominated in the album category in the early '60s— so a Grammy is a feel-good proposition for voters.

Still, the fear factor is low in this category. You can't embarrass yourself honoring Ray Charles, after all.

There is more reason to fear the academy verdict in the record of the year competition, which honors single recordings and where West's "Jesus Walks" is a disappointing omission.

The spiritually minded statement of inner-city struggle is a great, thoughtful rap record, one that ranks with such all-time rap gems as Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" and Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day." It was nominated for best song of the year.

In handicapping this field, skip past the marginal entries — the Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get It Started" and Los Lonely Boys' "Heaven." A win on Grammy night by either would fall into the major embarrassment realm.

Green Day's vigorous "American Idiot" and, especially, Usher's zesty "Yeah!" are more formidable works, but neither matches the gentle artistry or lure of Charles' duet with Norah Jones on the country-flavored "Here We Go Again."

The touching ballad is the one track on "Genius Loves Company" that showcases Charles at his best — and Jones holds her own in a marvelous pairing.

The third major Grammy category is best new artist, and it's never quite clear whether you are supposed to vote for the artist who did the best work during the year or the one with the potential to do the best over a career.

Either way, Kanye West should be the easy choice. Fear not.

Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at

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