Welcome to the 2019 Grammys, where no one knows anything anymore.
This year music’s biggest prize starts anew with the expansion of nominated albums from five to eight. After several years of unpopular winners and negative press (some inherent, some self-inflicted) this was an obvious attempt to make the Grammys more diverse. But it’s hard to believe that the increase of nominees won’t create far more problems than it solves. With more choices comes more losers and even less likely a chance of any sort of consensus. This award feels as unpredictable, as exciting, as infuriating as ever. Say this for the Grammys, they are never boring. Let’s stack up this year’s crop of Album Of The Year candidates.
Invasion of Privacy by Cardi B – After the out-of-nowhere smash success of “Bodak Yellow” it was fair to wonder (expect?) that Cardi B was going to be a flash in the pop music scene. But with Invasion Of Privacy she planted her flag in a big way. The album is a perfect reflection of Cardi – it balances fun and playful with sheer intimidation and swagger. “Get Up 10,” and “I Like It” in particular stand out for their craftsmanship. She has work to do as an MC, her flows become predictable over the course of the album, but Invasion of Privacy is an infectious romp nonetheless. At the moment Cardi B is rocking the one/two punch of music that’s wildly successful and a persona people can’t get enough of. People will want her to win.
By The Way, I Forgive You by Brandi Carlile – Look no further for this year’s dark horse candidate. The rootsy, American flavor and singer-songwriter nature of By The Way, I Forgive You just feels like the kind of album Grammy voters would have a soft spot for. Carlile’s songwriting is adventurous, her voice refreshingly raw and poignant. There is a well of emotional depth to By The Way, I Forgive You that makes it equal parts gripping and charming. Carlile is a new age troubadour. This would be the biggest upset of the eight nominated albums but it should surprise no one.
Scorpion by Drake – Scorpion is inarguably the most commercially successful album of this bunch. It broke Spotify’s single day stream record, was the #1 album for five weeks, features 2018’s inescapable song of the summer with “In My Feelings,” as well as two additional #1 songs in “God’s Plan” and “Nice For What.” There are some years where an album this dominant is a lock to win yet virtually no one thinks Drake will win. Perhaps it’s because of his track record, just 3/35 for nominations/victories. Or it could be because Scorpion is an uneven effort with a ridiculous 90 minute run time. Drake’s most redeemable quality remains his production chops but when the music itself is largely about how hard it is to be Drake, it makes him impossible to ignore but easy to deny.
H.E.R. by H.E.R. – H.E.R. clearly has supporters in high places as the only Best New Artist nominee to also be up for Album Of The Year. Her album is more or less a cumulative compilation effort, which kind of feels like cheating, but it would not be an unprecedented victory (Frank Sinatra’s retrospective A Man And His Music won in 1966). Her warm, delicate voice undoubtedly owes a lot to 90s R&B but with just enough variation for her to not be a completely derivative reincarnation (cough cough Greta Van Fleet). But she never strays from a very narrow aesthetic and the album suffers for not straying above 60 BPM. H.E.R. is a long shot to win in this category but may get a nice consolation prize as the favorite for Best New Artist.
Beerbongs & Bentleys by Post Malone – The weakest album of the eight nominated. There’s little payoff here beyond the album’s two smash hit singles “Psycho” and “Rockstar.” Beerbongs & Bentleys isn’t a story, it isn’t a playlist, and it isn’t even 18 honest attempts at hit singles. Post rarely has anything interesting to say and any attempts at sincerity are lost under smarmy trap beats. Beerbongs & Bentleys is nothing more than a grab at the streaming machine that encourages long album and discourages any sort of self-editing. Rewarding this album would set a very dangerous precedent.
Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe – A lot of the surrounding talk about Dirty Computer has been about its empowering message and its messenger, the ever-embattled Monáe. But while this is entirely valid, there have been plenty of albums in recent years to also bang this drum – and often as a way of hiding the shortcomings of its content. What differentiates Dirty Computer from other albums of its time is the musical legs with which the album stands on. The tracks are exuberant and richly layered yet never in a way that feels pompous or outside the spirit of the songs. There’s an impressive guest cameo list that could help it as Grammy bait : Brian Wilson, Pharrell Williams, Stevie Wonder, and, depending on who you ask, Prince. But Monáe is the star, an absolute powerhouse who delivers a thoroughly satisfying ass kicking and making funk feel as relevant as ever.
Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves – First, it’s worth saying what Golden Hour is not. Musgraves has been painted in many circles as some sort of Nashville outlaw breaking down conventional country music. One listen to Golden Hour and it’s clear that narrative has been greatly exaggerated. While there are some fun, unexpected choices like the vocoder in “Oh What A World” or the unabashed disco of “High Horse,” there are still banjos, distilled harmonies , and a twang of a country singer. The magic of Golden Hour is an overarching feeling of optimism and sunshine despite much of the music speaking to a delicate pain. Golden Hour feels like an antidote album, the reassuring vocals from Musgraves on the other side letting you know that emotional trauma is fleeting and bliss is never far away.
Black Panther Soundtrack by Various Artists – Between A Star Is Born, Hamilton, The Greatest Showman and Black Panther, soundtrack albums have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts that harkens back to their late 90s-early 2000s heyday. A soundtrack has only won Album Of The Year four times but the ways in which Black Panther dominated cultural conversation in 2018 give it a very formidable shot. There’s an impressive through line of cinematic scope inside the music, pushing hip hop, a genre not exactly known for expansive musical landscapes , into exciting new territory. But the narrative here is all about album curator Kendrick Lamar – a three time AOTY runner up who’s losses have triggered increasing outrage. Though it’s an admittedly high bar, this is the weakest album of the Lamar efforts to be nominated. Black Panther winning certainly wouldn’t be egregious by any stretch, but there’d be a stench of over-correction and lifetime achievement that may taint it slightly.
Prediction: The easiest way to handicap this race is by process of elimination via vote splitting. The Grammys stacked the category with hip hop in a shameless attempt to get the genre its first win since 2004 but by doing so likely hurt its chances greatly. Post Malone and Drake will almost certainly cancel each other out while it’s probable Black Panther and Cardi B will also lose too much ground due to the genre’s crowded mix. H.E.R. still feels like too much of an unknown commodity to win. Brandi Carlile stands the most to gain from all this vote splitting but an upset bid still feels like a too much of a long shot. That leaves Musgraves and Monáe, both with acclaimed, forward-but-rooted-in-tradition albums. Personally, I would vote for Monáe because she pulled off a decidedly more ambitious effort. But Musgraves will have the Nashville (country) vote all to herself and that will make the difference in a crowded field.
Should Win (My Pick) : Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe
Will Win: Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves
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