It has been a period of atonement for the Grammy Awards, with its organizers, the Recording Academy, taking steps to recognize more female and younger artists after a wave of criticism.
Alicia Keys hosts the 61st annual Grammys, airing Sunday on CBS. Here are five things to watch for:
Will the Grammys ‘Step Up’?
Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, drew criticism last year when he was asked about the lack of female honorees and said that women needed to “step up.”
Since then, the organization formed a task force on inclusion; invited female, nonwhite and younger people to join its pool of more than 13,000 voting members; and diversified its influential nomination-review committees. Earlier this month, it announced an initiative to improve opportunities for female producers and engineers.
It also expanded the number of nominees for its highest-profile awards to eight, up from five. That has resulted in one of the most wide-ranging slates of nominees in years, with more recognition of female, country, younger and less-commercial artists.
The question now is whether that translates into a more diverse group of winners. Expanded categories put more nominees in the major races, but if the lesser-known ones cancel each other out, that clears the way for megastars like Drake.
The Wide-Open Race for Album of the Year
Album of the year, considered the most prestigious prize at the Grammys, is up for grabs. Will it go to “Black Panther: The Album,” co-executive produced by Kendrick Lamar, or “Invasion of Privacy,” by Cardi B, one of 2018’s biggest success stories? The last rap artist to win this award was Atlanta duo Outkast, 15 years ago.
Yet neither “Black Panther” nor Cardi B is a clear front-runner. Fellow hip-hop nominees Drake and Post Malone are also contenders, while the pop star Janelle Monáe is a critical favorite. R&B artist H.E.R., who is also nominated for best new artist, is considered a long shot, while Americana singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile’s tear-jerker single, “The Joke,” made waves in the industry, and she is the evening’s most-nominated woman. Last but not least, there is country-pop singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves, whose “Golden Hour” is one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2018.
How Brightly Will ‘A Star Is Born’ Shine?
One wild card is how well “A Star Is Born” stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper do with their song, “Shallow.” While the movie’s soundtrack came out too late to be eligible for this year’s Grammys, “Shallow” was released in time and picked up nominations for song and record of the year.
It won best original song at the Golden Globes and is nominated in the same category for the Academy Awards. But at the Grammys it is up against Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin’s “I Like It,” potentially a big win for Latin music, and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” whose provocative message struck a chord with many listeners. Then there’s “God’s Plan,” by Drake, the most-streamed song in the U.S. in 2018, according to Nielsen Music, as well as two other hits, “The Middle” (including Maren Morris) and Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up.”
Despite Lady Gaga’s early years as an electro-pop trailblazer, “Shallow” is a traditional pop-rock hit—the kind that many Grammy voters gravitate toward, especially for song of the year. If she wins that prize or record of the year, she denies any other artist a chance to repeat Bruno Mars’s 2018 sweep of album, record and song of the year.
Hip-Hop Still Seeks the Big Trophies
Rap artists were well-represented among last year’s Grammy nominees, but they didn’t win any of the big awards.
Jay-Z, the most-nominated artist, left with zilch. Kendrick Lamar was up for album of the year but lost to pop star Bruno Mars. No rap song has won two of the other top prizes, record of the year, which recognizes performers, producers and engineers, or song of the year, a songwriting award.
This year, hip-hop artists including Cardi B, Mr. Lamar and Childish Gambino are nominated for some of those awards, and their fans will be watching to see whether they win.
Genre-Blurring Performances and Tributes
Buzzworthy performances are the lifeblood of the Grammys telecast—especially since last year’s ratings drop.
It may help that this year’s program features several young artists whose musical styles blur genres and cultural boundaries. They include Cardi B, Post Malone, Camila Cabello, H.E.R., Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris.
Cardi B’s summer smash, “I Like It,” is a bilingual track; Post Malone is a popular practitioner of today’s ubiquitous “sing-song-ey” pop-rap; and Ms. Musgraves mixes country, pop and even disco.
Write to Neil Shah at email@example.com