The 59th Grammy Awards, held in February, ended with a surprise when Adele’s “25” was named album of the year over Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.”
Oh, that result was hardly unexpected: Embracing tradition at the expense of innovation is basically the Recording Academy’s operating principle, so of course Adele’s collection of finely crafted love songs beat Beyoncé’s daring meditation on black womanhood.
But Adele’s acceptance speech — in which she said she couldn’t take the award from Beyoncé and her “monumental” album — was an unusually public declaration of an idea held by many insiders as common knowledge: that the Grammys routinely misread what truly matters in pop music.
Now, with nominations for next year’s awards due to be announced Tuesday, the academy has the opportunity to adjust that perception at a time when the representation of race and gender in culture and politics is being questioned like never before.
A sea change may be too much to hope for.
Ed Sheeran, the baby-faced British crooner, is a virtual lock to dominate the major categories — he’s this year’s Adele, in other words — with his smash album “÷” and his inescapable singles “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill.” Other shoo-ins include work by Harry Styles, Foo Fighters, Lorde, the xx, Bruno Mars and the late Leonard Cohen.
Some of these expected nominations are fine by me.
As the second-biggest seller of 2017 (behind Taylor Swift’s “Reputation,” which was released after the Sept. 30 cutoff date for eligibility), “÷” should be among the contenders for album of the year; it connected with a mass audience while reflecting Sheeran’s deep record-making know-how — two qualities the Grammys, with their professed sweet spot of commercial success and artistic ambition, are right to enshrine.
The same goes for Mars’ “24K Magic,” an expertly conceived homage to the pop and soul of the 1980s and early ’90s that spun off a pair of top-five radio hits in the title track and “That’s What I Like.”
But to reflect the year in music with the authority claimed by the academy, the Grammys need to open up to more than familiar sounds and media-friendly faces.
Both merit the recognition: “Damn” for Lamar’s vivid thoughts on the price of black achievement in America; “4:44” for Jay-Z’s unsparing introspection, which was interpreted as a response to the marital trouble that Beyoncé, his wife, described on “Lemonade.”
Then again, these two oft-nominated rap superstars are established members of the Grammy ecosystem. And the aesthetic qualities of each album — the former’s Bono cameo, for instance, and the latter’s dusty R&B samples — are in keeping with the Recording Academy’s well-worn convictions about how music should be made. (That value system explains why Daft Punk, the French electronic duo, won album of the year only after hiring high-profile session players to help record 2013’s “Random Access Memories.”)
But what about the trailblazers at hip-hop’s vanguard — Migos and Cardi B and Lil Uzi Vert — whose ubiquity on streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music suggests they’re no less significant? Or Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, the Puerto Rican artists behind “Despacito,” which spent the entire summer atop Billboard’s Hot 100?
Or Kesha, whose album “Rainbow” grapples frankly with the power imbalances that have brought Hollywood under such overdue scrutiny?
My worry is that deserving nominees like these — acts that told the real musical story of 2017 — will be crowded out in the academy’s well-meaning effort to celebrate work by some of the many musicians who’ve died in the last year.
Cohen’s “You Want It Darker,” Chuck Berry’s “Chuck,” “One More Light” by Linkin Park, whose frontman, Chester Bennington, died in July: Each of these eligible records took on poignant emotional weight after their creators left us, which is one of the many beautiful things music can do.
But for an institution that too often overlooks right now in favor of back then — and is already promising to keep it up with a nostalgic promotional campaign emphasizing the Grammys’ 60-year history — such sentimental choices would make the problem only worse.
I mean, the academy wants the winners to hold on to their prizes, right?