The Grammy Awards will look different this year—and it’s not just because Covid-19 means some pre-taped performances. There’s a new host, comedian Trevor Noah; a new executive producer, Ben Winston, who helms the show after his predecessor Ken Ehrlich’s four-decade run; and—in a salute to the struggling concert industry, music-venue staffers will present awards.
To prepare for the 63rd annual ceremony, which airs Sunday at 8 p.m. EST on CBS, here’s a playlist of songs by top nominees that unpacks the awards and recent pop-music trends.
Dua Lipa: “Don’t Start Now”
British pop singer Dua Lipa is one of only two artists up for three of the night’s four biggest prizes: album of the year, the most-coveted Grammy; record of the year, devoted to a song’s performers, producers and engineers; and song of the year, which recognizes composers and songwriters. (The fourth major prize is best new artist, which she won in 2019.) Post Malone, the pop-rap hit-maker, also earned nods for album, record and song of the year. But the 25-year-old Dua Lipa has been widely seen in industry circles as cementing her A-list status in the past year with her second album “Future Nostalgia.” Its most popular single, “Don’t Start Now,” is an upbeat kiss-off track (“walk away, you know how”) that drove one of last year’s biggest music trends: The resurgence of disco-influenced pop. Along with artists like Lady Gaga and the critically-acclaimed Jessie Ware, Dua Lipa made dance music for a year when we couldn’t dance.
Megan Thee Stallion: “Savage” (Featuring Beyoncé)
Female rappers are flourishing like never before. Megan Thee Stallion, a technically skilled Houston rapper who has worked frequently with influential Southern rapper and producer Juicy J, was ubiquitous in 2020. “Savage,” which hit No. 1 and was nominated for record of the year, was a sensation on TikTok, whose own popularity exploded last year, fueling hits like rapper-singer Doja Cat’s chart-topping single “Say So” (another record of the year nominee). A win for Megan Thee Stallion would make “Savage” only the second rap song ever to win record of the year, after Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” in 2019. And if she wins best new artist, she will be the first female rapper to take the prize since Lauryn Hill in 1999.
Phoebe Bridgers: “Graceland Too”
Rock music has been ruled by women for some time now. Los Angeles singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has won praise for her detailed, observant lyrics. “Graceland Too,” a song about trying to be there for a self-destructive friend, is from her album “Punisher.” Ms. Bridgers has four nominations, including best new artist—placing her at the vanguard of a female-rock movement that includes acts like St. Vincent, Haim (an album of the year contender) and Brittany Howard. It’s notable that all five nominees for best rock performance this year are female or female-fronted acts, including Ms. Bridgers, who started off playing cover songs at a Pasadena, Calif., farmer’s market a decade ago. “Elvis Costello, Neil Young—I remember doing a City and Colour song, Bright Eyes covers,” she told the Journal in 2018. “And then I started to sneak my own songs in there.”
DaBaby: “Rockstar” (Featuring Roddy Ricch)
This track by North Carolina rapper DaBaby, which has more than a billion streams on Spotify alone, was hard to escape last year. (Post Malone also has a huge hit called “rockstar.”) Such pop-rap tracks, where artists sing as much as rap, are the soundtrack of hip-hop’s dominance of the music business. Today, rappers are the new rock stars, combining flashy looks with catchy melodies to win lucrative record deals—much like ‘80s pop-metal bands years ago. DaBaby’s No. 1 hit “Rockstar,” which is nominated for record of the year, features something that’s become common among pop-rap songs: guitars or guitar-like sounds. With this radio-friendly style of rap becoming so popular, some hip-hop fans have turned to a darker, more foreboding-sounding alternative, Brooklyn drill—though this subgenre lost its leading proponent, Pop Smoke, last year.
Taylor Swift: “Exile” (Featuring Bon Iver)
Ms. Swift’s “Folklore” is considered the front-runner for album of the year. On her eighth studio album, the country-music-turned-mainstream-pop star re-embraces her singer-songwriter roots and introduces a new sound: hushed, atmospheric indie-folk. “Exile,” one of the album’s best-selling songs, features her and Bon Iver singing together about a relationship that has fallen apart (“You never gave a warning sign” / “I gave so many signs”). The platinum-certified “Folklore” is the most famous of many spare “quarantine” albums recorded by artists during the pandemic. Ms. Swift has won album of the year twice—for 2008’s “Fearless” and 2014’s “1989.” If she wins again, she’ll be in an exclusive club with Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. (Ms. Swift, who is among the night’s performers, is also up for song of the year for “Cardigan”—her fifth attempt to win that category.)
Beyoncé: “Black Parade”
Beyoncé has yet to release a follow-up to her blockbuster 2016 album “Lemonade.” But she supported nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality last year with the single “Black Parade,” a celebration of Black culture. The timeliness of the song—which has nine writers, including her husband Jay-Z, according to Billboard—makes it a serious contender for song and record of the year. But “Black Parade” wasn’t a smash hit. Despite taking home 24 trophies and earning 79 nominations, Beyoncé has only won one major award—song of the year for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” in 2010. Still, if she wins eight of her nine nominations Sunday—she’s nominated twice for record of the year, so she can’t possibly win nine—she will break the record for most career-spanning wins at the Grammys.
Jacob Collier: “He Won’t Hold You” (Featuring Rapsody)
The album of the year competition sometimes includes unlikely contenders. But this time around the dark horses became a stampede—with unexpected nods for retro-soul duo Black Pumas, R&B singer Jhené Aiko, veteran rockers Coldplay and Mr. Collier, a 26-year-old musical prodigy. Mr. Collier’s nominated album “Djesse Vol. 3”—the title refers to his nickname, J.C.—is the third installment in a series of four albums. “I planned each of the records about a different musical space,” he told the Journal recently. Unlike the big-sounding, orchestra-driven Vol. 1 and the relatively intimate, singer-songwriter-ish Vol. 2, Vol. 3 has an immersive, contemporary feel and leans heavily on R&B. On “He Won’t Hold You,” which was nominated for best arrangement, instruments and vocals, the North London artist mixes elements of a cappella, gospel, R&B and hip-hop, anchoring the track with his deep singing voice.
The Weeknd: “Blinding Lights”
The elephant in the room on Sunday will be The Weeknd, who wasn’t nominated for a single award—a snub that made national headlines and prompted him to say this week that he will stop submitting his music to the Grammys. Everyone’s baffled: The pop-R&B star was the best-selling artist of 2020 for Universal Music Group, the world’s biggest music company, according to a spokesman. Reviews of his album “After Hours” were strong. His hit “Blinding Lights” has become the first song in Billboard history to stay in the top ten for a whole year. The Weeknd even played the Super Bowl. Whereas Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” pumped us up with dance-pop, “Blinding Lights” soothed us with synth-pop: Its bright, retro melodies—inspired by a subgenre called “synthwave”—provided the comforts of nostalgia in an unusually difficult year.
Write to Neil Shah at email@example.com
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