This year’s Grammy Awards could see history-making victories from Beyoncé and Adele, but a young independent rapper from Chicago may steal the spotlight.
With a diverse field of nominations that lean more to the current pulse of pop rather than industry veterans, much remains a mystery about Sunday night’s gala. The same can be said for the onstage action. In the wake of a contentious election season that led to the Donald Trump presidency, telecasts such as the SAG Awards and the Golden Globes have taken a more political bent.
Expect drama. Here are the few races — and moments — to watch for.
Adele vs. Beyoncé
Three of the night’s biggest honors — record, song and album of the year — are a face-off between pop’s biggest divas, with Adele’s blockbuster “25” and Beyoncé's provocative “Lemonade” as front-runners for the night’s top prize.
It’s tradition against innovation, as the celebrated releases show vastly different approaches to album-making. Adele is a favorite in the top categories, and a win for album of the year would make the British singer the first artist to take the category for consecutive releases since Stevie Wonder did it back in the ’70s.
But if Beyoncé goes home with album of the year, she would become the first black woman to win the trophy in nearly 20 years — a fitting honor for the singer’s bold and politically charged exploration of black womanhood.
Expect a politically charged night
With a divisive election season resulting in Trump’s White House victory, the left-leaning Hollywood has used this year’s awards circuit for messages of resistance. Meryl Streep’s speech at last month’s Golden Globes took aim at Trump, and the SAG Awards were full of impassioned pleas against a ban on travelers from certain predominantly Muslim countries.
It’s unlikely that a room full of musicians won’t use music’s biggest night to make bold statements. Consider, for instance, that the lineup includes performances from A Tribe Called Quest, Katy Perry, John Legend, Chance the Rapper, Metallica, Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys and Adele — artists unafraid to speak their mind on and offstage.
However, all eyes will be on Beyoncé.
Last year she caused national outrage at the Super Bowl with her performance of “Formation,” an urgent pro-black anthem up for record and song of the year. On one of the world’s largest nonpartisan stages, she delivered the black-power salute and paid homage to civil rights leader Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and the Black Lives Matter movement. It was just one moment in a year where the superstar was at her most overtly political.
After the Internet went wild last week in the wake of her pregnancy announcement, the questions are rampant: What will she sing? What will she say? How will she, in her words, slay?
A few upsets to consider
It wouldn’t be the Grammys if there wasn’t a shock or two.
Surprise snubs and underdog victories are a given, especially with voters as historically unpredictable as the Recording Academy. In the new-artist field, Chicago’s Chance the Rapper is the favorite, but he could easily be upended by young country powerhouses Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris — or hitmakers the Chainsmokers could make history as the first EDM act to take the honor.
Adele’s mega-hit “Hello” is certain to take home a major prize, unless it’s edged out by Beyoncé’s “Formation” or Lukas Graham’s sleeper hit “7 Years.” All three singles are up for song and record of the year.
And Justin Bieber put out an album in “Purpose” that finally won over Grammy voters. Could pop’s reigning bad boy be this year’s dark horse for album of the year? Unlikely, but if Adele and Beyoncé split the vote, who knows?
An In Memoriam for the ages
For music fans, it felt like much of the past year was spent grieving.
Consider this: since the Grammys aired in February 2016, the music world has mourned country legend Merle Haggard, pop provocateur Prince, a Tribe Called Quest’s ace lyricist Phife Dawg, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, soul queen Sharon Jones, rocker Leon Russell and pop icon George Michael — and that’s an abbreviated list.
Not everyone can get the tribute treatment during the ceremony, but the Grammys will almost certainly carve out time to fete as many fallen musicians as it can. It might be safe to keep a box of tissues next to the TV.
The rap card might not be all Chance, all the time
If Chance the Rapper wins new artist, he will become only the fourth hip-hop act to take the award, a major feat considering his seemingly swift ascent to the mainstream and Grammy voters’ unjustified slow embrace of one of pop’s major genres.
Chance has an impressive seven nominations. In the rap song category alone, his name is on three of the five records up for the honor. Yet there’s still some stiff competition.
For rap album, Kanye West has long been the perennial favorite and he’s only lost the award once in his career. And Chance’s three opportunities at rap song — two of which are collaborations with West — could be canceled out by Drake’s earworm “Hotline Bling.”
Yet if Remy Ma and Fat Joe’s summer anthem “All the Way Up” edges him out for rap song or performance, it will still be a groundbreaking moment. A victory in either category for Remy Ma would be the first for a female rapper.
Unconventional albums will define the night
The year’s biggest loser might be tradition, as unconventionally released albums could be among the night’s victors. At the Grammys that aired in 2015, Beyoncé’s surprise-release, self-titled visual album was denied the highest honor. She’s again in the running for album of the year for a record that didn’t adhere to long-held industry practices. “Lemonade” was first introduced via a highly stylized visual film that premiered on HBO.
Beyoncé has lots of company.
Works from Radiohead, Drake, Rihanna, Kanye West and Chance the Rapper dot the nominations, and they’re all albums that came out on their own terms. Chance made Grammy history when his breakout mixtape “Coloring Book” became the first streaming-only album nominated.
Drake, meanwhile, leveraged a high-profile deal with Apple Music for “Views,” debuting it on his Apple Radio show before it become the first album to hit 1 billion streams on the streaming service. Rihanna gave away 1 million copies of her multi-nominated “Anti” to Samsung users and West has tinkered with his “Life of Pablo” in real time since its digital-only release.
The representation of these albums shows Grammys voters at their most forward thinking.
For more music news follow me on Twitter:@GerrickKennedy