Depending on your perspective, the Grammys’ best new artist award has long been either the most entertaining or the most confounding of the awards’ big four categories. Even ignoring the award’s historical idiosyncrasies — both The Beatles and Starland Vocal Band have won it — it’s still provided more than its share of surprises in recent years. Where else, after all, can one watch jazz virtuoso Esperanza Spalding triumph over the likes of Justin Bieber and Drake? Or see less-than-mainstream artists like Courtney Barnett and Silversun Pickups duke it out with pop’s heavy hitters?
Compared to the category’s wilder past, this year’s five nominees – SZA, Julia Michaels, Alessia Cara, Lil Uzi Vert and Khalid – hew to the oddsmakers’ predictions more closely than usual. There’s still plenty of room to quibble (Cardi B’s chart-topping “Bodack Yellow” was arguably the breakthrough single of 2017, and many tapped fellow rapper and song of the year nominee Logic as a likely candidate), but the Grammys have covered the waterfront with a strong and representative lineup. In keeping with the hip-hop and pop dominance of the other major categories, there isn’t a single rock or country act in this group for the first time in more than a decade, though the overwhelming maleness of the record, song, and album of the year categories finds a nice corrective here.
Whereas several past nominee classes have included a few conspicuous red-shirt freshman, this year only Alessia Cara could have been on a previous shortlist: Her 2015 debut album “Know-It-All” went platinum, buoyed by hit single “Scars to Your Beautiful,” and many felt she was snubbed last year (Chance the Rapper ended up winning). But as far as sheer ubiquity, the 21-year-old Canadian truly became a media staple this year, appearing on “SNL” and notching featured credits on high-charting, Grammy-nominated tracks like Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” and Zedd’s “Stay,” as well as recording the pop single version of “How Far I’ll Go,” from “Moana.”
As the first woman signed to Top Dawg Entertainment – the imprint that boasts Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q – SZA has been crafting a distinctive blend of indie R&B, hip-hop, and jazz influences for several years (and is featured on “Consideration,” the opening track from Rihanna’s last album), but she truly came into her own on this year’s official debut “Ctrl.” One of the year’s most assured records, “Ctrl” has an intimate richness that brings to mind both Frank Ocean and Bjork, with 27-year-old SZA’s lyrics and phrasing toggling between empowerment and self-doubt at will. “The Weekend” and “Love Galore” were the radio breakthroughs, but “Drew Barrymore” might be the album’s clearest statement of purpose.
Khalid, who appears with Cara on Logic’s “1-800-273-8255,” made a splash with his debut “American Teen,” spawning two hit singles in “Location” and “Young, Dumb, and Broke.” The youngest of the nominees, the 19-year-old projects a winning sort of nonchalance, fitting in effortlessly with his R&B contemporaries while drawing just as much from ‘80s pop. He won the MTV Video Music Award for best new artist in August, and even the famously cantankerous rock critic Robert Christgau is an unabashed fan.
Though only 24, Julia Michaels already counts as something of an industry veteran, having penned tracks for the likes of Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber and Gwen Stefani before managing to strike out on her own as a solo artist. “Issues,” the lead-off track from her July EP, “Nervous System,” is up for a song of the year Grammy, and she’s already racked up new artist award noms from the American Music Awards and VMAs en route to the Grammys.
Lastly, 23-year-old Philadelphia rapper Lil Uzi Vert is the closest to a surprise inclusion on the list, not due to lack of popularity – his debut, “Luv Is Rage 2,” hit No. 1 on the album chart this summer – but simply for the fact that his anarchic, confrontational style isn’t the type to historically find broad support in the Recording Academy. His guest verse on Migos’ smash “Bad and Boujee” certainly helped boost his name recognition, but it was the druggy nihilism of his single “XO Tour Llif3” that really ensconced him in the popular imagination. Whatever genre his music is filed under, Lil Uzi Vert is the closest thing to an old-school rock star to be found in the category.
If recent wins for Chance the Rapper and Bon Iver are any indication, the Recording Academy has been increasingly willing to embrace critical favorites outside the boldest-name hitmakers and major label darlings for this award, which certainly gives SZA a decent shot at the prize. (“Ctrl” has the highest Metacritic average of all the nominees’ albums, standing at 86, for what that’s worth.) But considering the dearth of emerging straightforward female pop stars, it’s easy to see industry support accruing for the likes of Cara and Michaels – the latter has goodwill from her years in the songwriting trenches, while former YouTube star Cara manages to project polish and personality without coming across as prefabricated. Then again, Khalid has a pair of strong hits as well, and the Academy has embraced hip-hop to a greater degree than ever this year, which gives Lil Uzi an outside shot.
All of which is to say, in this ever-unpredictable category, it’s a fool’s errand to count anyone out.