2018 is an unusually tough year to predict. It’s a even playing field with no true underdog. There’s no Arcade Fire or Beck or Sturgill Simpson to crash the Grammy party. It’s also noteworthy that there are no rock or country acts up for Album of the Year (AOTY), leaving two large demographics of voters who are wide open for persuasion. Who does their vote go to? More on that later. First, some general thoughts on the 5 nominees.
24K Magic by Bruno Mars – I prefer some of the songs on Unorthodox Jukebox but this is the first Bruno album without at least one weak link. “Chunky” is my personal favorite with its jamming bass line and there are plenty of other great moments throughout – including the incredible lyric, “I got Alicia waiting/ Aisha waiting/all the ‘eesha’s waiting on me.” With that said I’m not sure an album that’s so firmly retro fitted (it’s a not-so-subtle nod to late 80s R&B/new jack swing) is AOTY material. On one hand working within a limited template and being successful at it is a testament to the songwriting quality but on the other it can be viewed as a lack of originality following a well-established blueprint. As much as I enjoy Bruno and could live with him winning, I can’t help but feel like this would be a boring choice in a year where the Academy is clearly trying to spread the wealth.
“Awaken, My Love!” by Childish Gambino – Gambino did a 180 by ditching his straight rap sound for a funk/neo-soul outfit, making “Awaken, My Love!” the biggest risk taker of this bunch. The sonic world here is incredible – equal parts gritty, lush, and cosmic. What strikes me most is the diversity of vocal styles. There’s everything from distorted screaming to whispered intimacy and it all manages to fit cohesively. Glover the actor benefits Gambino the musician by fully inhabiting these songs’ various characters, making even bizarre tracks like “California” compelling. The same argument I made against Mars could be made again here against Gambino – why should an album so dominated by the sound of a previous era be an AOTY winner? The difference is how Gambino curates his influences and turns them around. There’s undeniable Prince traces on “Redbone” and Parliament Funkadelic on “Have Some Love” (to name a few) but the raw, emotional delivery executed here could only come from Gambino himself.
4:44 by Jay-Z – The Academy loves a good maturing/coming-into-their-own album and Jay-Z’s deeply personal and introspective 4:44 fits that bill. He kills off his alter ego (“Kill Jay Z”), encourages his mother in her struggles (“Smile)” and apologizes to Beyonce (“4:44”). The biggest question worth asking is how much of the content here is genuinely captivating for its quality and how much is for its celebrity? There are tabloid ready shoutouts to Solange and Becky (with the good hair I’m guessing?). Some of the confessional vibe on this album feels really forced and insincere (like throwing a f*** Shawn Carter into the chorus of “Bam”). To me there’s just not enough to the body of work at large for it to move the needle as one of the top contenders from this year, let alone this category.
DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar – I feel safe in calling this Kendrick’s most accessible album. Simplified choruses and Rihanna showing up are indicative of that. That’s not to say the lyrical themes are compromised though. There’s a fair amount of reflection, pride, and musings on the life of a rap star. Perhaps the most interesting added dimension on DAMN. are the religious undertones prevalent throughout (“DNA,” “Yah,” and “Pride” all contain some sort of spiritual reference). The hard thing for me was not constantly comparing DAMN. to To Pimp A Butterfly. The tracks on DAMN. are considerably scaled back as opposed to some of the interesting live instrumentation of its predecessor and the lyrics are far less abstract. To Pimp A Butterfly was a game changing record that ascended Kendrick to the thrown. DAMN. is still a really good hip hop album but it doesn’t bring something new to the table the way Butterfly did. If Kendrick should win, it will be deserved, but it will be one album too late.
Melodrama by Lorde – The poignant solitude and tasteful musical expression on Melodrama reminded me of some of Frank Sinatra’s earliest concept records. Full marks to Lorde and co-executive team – who’s brilliant production is more flourished than Pure Heroine but is still relatively understated. This album is a song cycle of sorts and considering there are recurring thematic elements and reprises, it was clearly assembled with a big picture in mind. One of the potential hallmarks of a great album, ironically, is how little of it can work out of context. “Green Light” is an obvious push for a hit but it’s hard to imagine songs like “Liability” (a real highlight), “Writer In the Dark,” and the parenthetical title track as potential singles. That can prove to be a double edged sword however as evident by the fact that this category is Lorde’s lone nomination. Can it win? Melodrama checks a lot of boxes for its craftsmanship and use of an album as an art form. I could see it appealing to a diverse cross section of voters.
The award is hip hop’s to lose this year. Kendrick Lamar has been knocking on the door (third time up for AOTY) and there are a lot of people that believe it’s his time. But with Jay-Z also nominated and a split of the vote between the two likely, I have a hard time seeing Kendrick getting enough votes to win. And that’s not even taking into consideration hip hop’s historically poor track record in this category. With no direct competition genre-wise Lorde could be the biggest beneficiary of the Jay-Z/Kendrick split. But I keep coming back to the fact that Bruno Mars has the most widespread appeal. The demographics without an easy choice to vote for I think will default to him.
Will Win: 24K Magic – Bruno Mars
My Vote (Should Win:) “Awaken, My Love!” – Childish Gambino
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