The full list of nominations for the 63rd annual Grammys has arrived. The 2021 awards bring a few changes—the “Urban Contemporary” category is now “Progressive R&B,” “Best Rap/Sung Performance” has changed to “Best Melodic Rap Performance,” and “World Music” is now “Global Music”—as the Recording Academy tries to up its diversity efforts following last year’s cataclysmic leadership shakeup. Replacing Alicia Keys after two consecutive years as host will be The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah. But much remains the same: Beyoncé leads the nominees, plenty of people are up in arms about perceived snubs, and, as ever, we have thoughts.
It’s unclear at this time whether the Weeknd submitted After Hours for consideration, but his absence from the entire slate of awards is baffling. The “Blinding Lights” singer was expected to lock up nominations in several categories, seeing as he’s won before and the album was both a commercial and critical success. Meanwhile, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters felt like a lock for Album of the Year contender but only netted her nominations in rock and alternative categories. And in the words of… someone: What About Bob?
Beyoncé has a habit of sweeping up Grammy nominations, and then a habit of not winning all the awards she probably deserves. She is, after all, the most-nominated female artist ever. What’s unusual in 2020 is that she is once again the most-nominated artist, with nine nods, but this time in a year when she didn’t release a conventional album. She’s still up for Song of the Year with “BLACK PARADE,” and Record of the Year with “BLACK PARADE” and “Savage Remix,” and a host of other categories, including Best Music Film for Black Is King. Even when Beyoncé is relatively quiet, the Grammys listen—at least in the nominating phase.
Like so many facets of the Grammys, it pays to have lowered expectations when it comes to the rock and alternative categories. The lines between the two aren’t particularly clear, but guitar music’s ongoing identity crisis also seems to mean some equally confusing Grammy choices. For every Best Rock Album win by the War on Drugs, there are literally two for Cage the Elephant; last year’s Rock Songs race was among artists as disparate as Gary Clark Jr. (the winner), Tool, Brittany Howard, the 1975, and Vampire Weekend (who also won Best Alternative Album).
This year’s rock and alt nods look like a marked improvement, and women are rightfully leading the charge. Phoebe Bridgers, also basking in a Best New Artist nomination, is all over these categories with Punisher and “Kyoto,” vying against such worthies as Brittany Howard, HAIM, Big Thief, Tame Impala, and the one-and-only Fiona Apple. True, the categories still aren’t hard-and-fast: The ever-versatile Howard has nominations across rock, alternative, R&B, even American roots music. Ultimately, it’s refreshing when the Grammys’ cheesiest choice in the rock-ish realm is—let’s face it—the Strokes.
In 2018, the Grammys expanded the number of nominees in their Big Four categories. “This change will better reflect the large number of entries in these categories and allow voters greater flexibility when selecting this year’s best recordings,” the Recording Academy said at the time—which is why it’s all the more confounding that in a year that has given us plenty of great music, pandemic notwithstanding, the Album of the Year and Record of the Year nominations include music that was originally released in mid-2019, before the eligibility cutoff. Psych-soul duo Black Pumas were up for Best New Artist in 2020, off the back of their 2019 self-titled debut. A year later, the deluxe edition of that same record is now up for Album of the Year, and the big single from it, “Colors”—released in April 2019—is up for Record of the Year. Make it make sense.
Megan Thee Stallion looked convincingly shocked when, as a surprise guest on the nominations livestream, she was told she was a first-time nominee herself. But nobody else should’ve been surprised. Although her summer-dominating Cardi B collaboration “WAP” won’t be submitted for consideration until next year, and the same will presumably go for her brand-new Good News, her four 2021 Grammy nods cap a dizzying run that includes this spring’s Suga and last year’s Fever. Yes, one of her nominations is for Best New Artist and she’s not that new—get over it.
Dr. Luke returns to the Grammys with his first nomination in six years. He’s up for Record of the Year, for his production work on Doja Cat’s “Say So”—though you won’t find his name on any nominees list. Instead, you’ll see Tyson Trax, one of several production monikers he’s worked under since Kesha accused him of sexual assault and emotional abuse in 2014. (Luke has denied those claims and filed a countersuit against the singer for defamation that same year. The case is ongoing.) It’s disturbing to see the established alias of an alleged abuser listed among the credits for a song nominated for Record of the Year. After all, it was just two years ago that Kesha appeared on the Grammys stage to perform “Praying,” fighting back tears as she sang about the abuse she says she endured from her former producer. How quickly we forget.
Best Rap Albums has a shortlist of nominees so puzzling that it makes you question what the category’s criteria are. Though it’s great to see albums like Freddie Gibbs and Alchemist’s joint album Alfredo and Jay Electronica’s long-awaited debut A Written Testimony get their shine, Nas’ King’s Disease and Royce 5’9”’s The Allegory hardly moved the needle for most rap fans born after Illmatic. Ultimately, the one true newcomer who received a nod was Rhythm + Flow winner and Kendrick Lamar soundalike D Smoke—a decision that slightly cheapens the whole category.
For all the hullabaloo about progress, the Grammys sure seem like they’re also just doing the same thing under different names. The newly rebranded Global Music Album category was changed from World Music Album, purportedly symbolizing “a departure from the connotations of colonialism, folk, and ‘non-American’ that the former term embodied.” But the nominations are par for the course, with four nominees who’ve been up for World Music Grammys before (Burna Boy, Brazilian-American singer-songwriter Bebel Gilberto, Tuareg rockers Tinariwen, and Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka Shankar), and a Brooklyn-based Afrobeat group, Antibalas. Global, world, whatever; it’s still just a term for non-American music styles that industry players want to acknowledge but haven’t made space for elsewhere.
Every year, the Grammys broadcast includes an “in memoriam” segment with musicians who have died since the previous award show, and every year, someone is unfortunately excluded. A welcome pattern in this year’s nods, then, is some preemptive recognition for revered performers who have passed this year. Established legends (John Prine) and anti-establishment heroes (Pop Smoke, Power Trip’s Riley Gale) are posthumously in the running for awards, while late Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek is accounted for as well (Ken Jennings is nominated for Best Spoken Word Album for his reading of Trebek’s memoir). (Also nominated is Leonard Cohen, who died four years ago but whose presence still looms large.) In a year with more than 250,000 American deaths from the coronavirus alone, some extra respect for those we’ve lost feels tragically appropriate.
A few familiar names become first-time nominees through circuitous routes this year. Kamasi Washington receives his first nod not in a jazz category but in Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, where his score for the Michelle Obama doc Becoming faces competition from Max Richter’s work in Ad Astra and John Williams’ latest Star Wars opus. Devonté Hynes (aka Blood Orange), long an indie and leftfield-pop favorite, scores a nomination in a classical category, Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, for his album with Third Coast Percussion. And while Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bear has been an indie staple for more than a decade, he sees his first bit of Grammy recognition as a featured artist on Flume’s “The Difference,” which is up for Best Dance Recording.
Even the relatively insular world of Christian music is not immune from the overwhelming celebrity of Kanye West: One-time Trump supporter, failed presidential candidate, and now a Grammy nominee for Best Contemporary Christian Album. Jesus Is King is up against recordings from CCM artists like Cody Carnes and Tauren Wells, as well as institutions like long-running mega-church offshoot Hillsong Young & Free. We eagerly anticipate Kanye’s nomination for Best Country Album in 2024.
- The trainwreck that was the Cats movie got a nomination: Taylor Swift’s “Beautiful Ghosts” is up for Best Song Written for Visual Media. Officially rooting for “No Time to Die,” the saddest Bond song ever (in a good way).
- The judging of one category—the Best Immersive Audio Album—has been postponed entirely, until the committee can safely meet “in a way that is appropriate to judge the many formats and configurations of the entries.” This makes total sense—you can’t really engage with Surround music unless you’re in a Surround-enabled studio, ostensibly listening and judging together—but is curious to see nonetheless. Consider it a reminder of the strange year in music we’ve had, and the even stranger awards season to come.
- To close things out, here’s Justin Bieber with a complaint that is wildly tone-deaf about white privilege and who gets to be considered pop. (Frankly, he should just be grateful anyone forgave him for “Yummy.”)
The Grammys will air on CBS on Sunday, January 31, 2021 at 8 p.m. Eastern.