The unofficial theme of the 60th annual Grammy Awards is simple: Quell a mutiny. The Grammys are a stuffy, doddering old institution that thrives on cognitive dissonance and insulting snubs, but for 59 years they’ve gotten just enough right to get most major stars through the door and on camera. Nominations were announced Tuesday morning for the 2018 ceremony (held January 28 at Madison Square Garden), and led by Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and (!) Childish Gambino, rap and R&B is dominant to a degree that underscores how close major rap and R&B stars have come to shunning this wobbly institution entirely. The Grammys haven’t been held in New York City in 15 years. Consider this a one-stop apology tour. Here are this year’s winners and losers.
Winner: The Grammys As a Thing Everyone Still Pretends to Care About
The 2017 Grammys — in which a sheepish Adele stomped everyone, including a far more deserving Beyoncé — were a debacle and a crisis point. In 2015 Beyoncé lost Album of the Year to Beck, to the profound disatisfaction of Kanye West; in 2016 Taylor Swift took the honor and all but called out Kanye from the stage, a decision she would definitely not come to regret. Stars from Frank Ocean (per his Tumblr: “Use the old gramophone to actually listen bro”) to Justin Bieber to Drake were no-shows in 2017, despite Drake’s Views being one of that year’s biggest albums and Frank’s Blonde being one of the best. The biggest names in rap, R&B, and youth-leaning pop were fed up, and were at least threatening to tune out the Grammys for good.
This year’s honorees, then, are precision-targeted to keep those big names happy, and to make sure that at least one of them wins something major this time. Jay-Z’s 4:44 (eight nominations) and Kendrick’s Damn. (seven) are your front-runners, fighting it out for Album of the Year with Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic, Lorde’s Melodrama, and, in a pleasant surprise, Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! It’s hard to root against any of these people, which counts here as Progress.
The other two major categories are likewise top-heavy and virtually spoiler-proof: Record of the Year (which honors a song’s performance) is a fight among Jay (“The Story of O.J.”), Kendrick (“Humble.”), Bruno Mars (“That’s What I Like”), Childish Gambino (“Redbone”), and the Luis Fonsi–Daddy Yankee–Justin Bieber summer juggernaut “Despacito.” Song of the Year (a songwriting award) is a little looser: “Despacito,” “That’s What I Like,” Jay’s “4:44,” Julia Michaels’s “Issues,” and Logic’s suicide-hotline anthem “1–800–273–8255.” But these are safe choices designed to all but guarantee we see a major rapper hoisting a major award, with even the underdogs a wilier and more diverse lot. That earlier discontent has not dissipated entirely: Drake made a big show of not submitting More Life for consideration this year. But otherwise the biggest stars will be in the building again, which for the Grammys itself is the biggest win of all.
Loser: Ed Sheeran (Winner: The Rest of Us)
LOL. Sheeran was perhaps the best candidate to be this year’s Beck or Adele, i.e. the white pop artist who dismayingly waltzed off with the most coveted hardware. But neither his wayward smash-hit 2017 album, Divide, nor its ubiquitous single “Shape of You” merited a nomination in the big three categories, instead relegated to Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Pop Solo Performance, respectively. That disaster, at least, has been averted.
Loser: Beyoncé, Somehow, Again
For those who regard the Grammys primarily as an elaborate Beyoncé-insulting device, here is a lesser but still quite unseemly disaster to contemplate: Jay-Z’s 4:44, in which he publicly apologizes for his infidelity, will likely win more awards than her Lemonade, which first vividly brought that infidelity to light. The optics of this are not so hot.
Winner: Stadium Rap in General
But the most likely outcome on Grammy night is that Kendrick’s Damn. dominates: It’s a critical favorite that cements his status as the consensus Best Rapper Alive. A big night for him — winning two of the three major categories, with either “4:44” or “Despacito” taking Song of the Year — is the safest play for the Recording Academy, and perhaps the dullest outcome, though in a nice change of pace arguably the most deserved result. The rap categories are generally pretty fun and weird this year: Rapsody and Tyler, the Creator snuck into the Best Rap Album category, and for Best Rap Performance, Kendrick and Jay are joined by Migos’s mighty “Bad and Boujee” and Cardi B’s even mightier “Bodak Yellow.” This is a classic Grammys setup, however, in that Best Rap Performance is rounded out by Big Sean’s “Bounce Back,” which is not mighty at all. If Big Sean wins this thing, you have my permission to throw your television at a passing car.
Winner: A Tentative Youth Movement
Best New Artist is traditionally the most volatile and snakebitten Grammy category, a reliable and headache-inducing source of total chaos. But this year’s slate — Alessia Cara, Khalid, Julia Michaels, Lil Uzi Vert, and SZA — is generally agreeable, or at least there is no Meghan Trainor to louse things up. It’s enough that there’s no wrong answer here, though SZA is the rightest answer, in that her tough and dreamy and gently experimental R&B calls to mind Kendrick, Beyoncé, and Frank Ocean in equal measure. Frank, in particular, may never rejoin the Grammys fold. But here’s a quick way to make his influence felt.
Loser: “Rock” As a Thing Everyone Still Pretends to Care About
The notion that Rock Is Dead is, of course, debatable; the notion that Rock as the Grammys Understand It Is Dead is undeniable. No 2018 category quite matches the pure random insanity of last year’s confounding Best Rock Performance free-for-all, but this year, Best Rock Performance alone is a goofy brawl between the dearly departed (Leonard Cohen, Chris Cornell), the impossibly staid (Foo Fighters), and the near-anonymous (Kaleo and Nothing More, both names you may very well be hearing for the first time). For voters, the boldest move here might be to transcend genre entirely and start an unprecedented write-in campaign for Ed Sheeran.