How to kick off a salute to Jay-Z on the eve of the Grammy Awards?
With a performance by Barry Manilow, of course.
That was the typically curious reasoning at work Saturday night in a glittering ballroom at the Sheraton New York Times Square, where the veteran music impresario Clive Davis gathered a crowd of show-biz insiders for his annual pre-Grammy gala.
Each year the party recognizes a different player (or “industry icon,” to use Davis’ preferred term), and this time it was the hit-making rapper headed into Sunday’s ceremony with eight nominations for awards including album, record and song of the year.
Those nods are part of a larger embrace of hip-hop by the Recording Academy, which historically has minimized the form.
Indeed, in a speech Saturday, Jay-Z said he’d boycotted the Grammys in the late 1990s to protest the academy’s treatment of DMX, who released two multi-platinum albums in the same year without scoring any Grammy nominations. (Jay-Z came back to the show, he added, in 2004, when Beyoncé, now his wife, was nominated for her breakout solo single, “Crazy in Love.”)
But if the choice of honoree gave Davis’ bash an on-message feel, that didn’t mean that the event had any more internal logic than it usually does.
Before an audience that included Beyoncé, Jerry Seinfeld, Pink, Sting, Nancy Pelosi, Timbaland, Tina Fey, John Legend, Martha Stewart and Cardi B, Manilow began the evening’s performances with a deeply schmaltzy rendition of “This Is My Town,” followed by “Theme from New York, New York.”
In both, Manilow could’ve been a hologram beamed in from 1977.
After that, it was Luis Fonsi’s time to do “Despacito,” the Puerto Rican singer’s sticky 2017 smash that’s up for record of the year. Then Atlanta’s Migos appeared for a thundering “Bad and Boujee,” which got folks in gowns and tuxedos — at least those not looking totally perplexed — out of their seats and on their feet.
“OK, let’s settle down,” Davis said when Migos finished, and pretty soon you could understand why: His next performer was the actor Ben Platt, who had a show tune from Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen” to sing.
Who else was in Davis’ grab bag? Gladys Knight turned up to do “Stand by Me” and “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Khalid grinned his way through “Young Dumb & Broke.” And Jennifer Hudson, for some reason, mashed together a handful of old Aretha Franklin tunes.
The night did feature one coherent stretch, which was Alicia Keys’ lengthy tribute to Jay-Z.
Sitting at a grand piano, the singer performed stripped-down excerpts from “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” “Run This Town,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” and her own duet with the rapper, “Empire State of Mind.”
“That was fun,” she said at the end, but not to worry: Soon enough, Logic would be onstage rapping about suicide.