To say that the 2019 Grammy Awards have something to prove is an understatement of epic proportions.
While 2018 seemed set to be a triumph for the ceremony — a return to New York for the awards’ 60th anniversary, capped by possibly the most racially and musically diverse slate of nominees in Recording Academy history — instead, it brought more problems than any year in memory. The voters went conservative, with multiple nominations for Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar effectively cancelling each other out and resulting in a big night for Bruno Mars. The performances and nominations were notably heavy on male artists — Lorde, the only female Best Album nominee, did not perform on the show, even though the four other (male) nominees were invited — and even worse, a post-show question about the year’s unusually low number of female winners led Academy chairman Neil Portnow to say that women artists and executives need to “step up.” While he backtracked from the comment, calls for his resignation swirled in the weeks after the show, and he finally announced late in May that he’s stepping down next year. It’s an anticlimactic finale for a chairman who did much to transform the Academy and the Grammys into 21st century organizations.
Against that backdrop, we head into 2019 Grammy season, the first that sees its four main categories expanded from five nominees to eight (making greater diversity almost inevitable). The controversies have already begun: After the screening committees — which determine eligibility for the artists and releases that will be presented to the nominating committees — met earlier this month, word leaked out that Post Malone, arguably the biggest new artist of 2018, will not be a nominee for Best New Artist because he “came to prominence” before the 61st awards’ window of eligibility, which spans Oct. 1, 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018. Likewise, Camila Cabello does not qualify (she rose to prominence as a member of Fifth Harmony), and neither does Cardi B, who was nominated for two awards last year. And this was before the nominating committees, which meet to determine the final candidates through the end of October, had even begun.
With all of that in mind, Variety takes a look at which artists and releases seem likely to be nominated for Grammys. Will Drake and Cardi B’s chart and cultural dominance translate into awards? Will the Grammys offer The Carters — a.k.a. Beyonce and Jay — an olive branch after two consecutive years of snubs? (We’re betting not, but it’s possible.) And does the quest for greater diversity mean that Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” — the most controversial and socially relevant song to be released in recent memory — receive some gold that reflects its true cultural impact?
Some answers will become clear when nominations are announced on Dec. 5, and the rest when the 61st annual Grammy Awards air on Feb. 10, 2019.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
If 2018 belongs to any artist, it’s Aubrey Drake Graham, the Canadian superstar better known by the mononym Drake. From a chart standpoint, no album in any genre has dominated the year as thoroughly as “Scorpion,” the 32-year-old Canadian’s fifth studio release.
The double album, which led Billboard’s Top 200 for five weeks, was already well on its way to being one of the year’s top sellers seven days after its June 29 release, with first-week sales of 732,000 and a record 132.45 million Spotify streams. Its three No. 1 singles (“God’s Plan,” “Nice for What,” and “In My Feelings”) led the Hot 100 for a combined 29 weeks; after its first week out, 22 of its tracks entered the Hot 100, joining five already-charting Drake songs to make him both the act with the most simultaneous debuts and the act with the most simultaneously charting songs in history.
Of course, the Grammys aren’t all about sales and streams, but there’s little question that Drake has the musical and cultural angles covered too. Although it received mixed reviews and inspired carping by rap purists who accused it of being too pop, “Scorpion” is a solid if lengthy set. Drake confidently tackles every hip-hop mood, from hard-hitting bangers to trap to electro-rap to straight-up R&B to contemplative love songs. He raps, sings, ponders, and, of course, boasts (oh-so seductively on “Nonstop,” the best track). Indeed, the accessibility of “Scorpion” will give it an edge with Grammy voters, who remain a fairly conservative bunch. But if Drake wins the top prize, he’ll be the first rap act to do so since OutKast pulled it off in 2004 with “Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below” — and if he doesn’t, well, “Scorpion” is already the album of the year by nearly every other measurement.
Cardi B, “Invasion of Privacy”
With Cardi B ineligible for a Best New Artist Grammy nomination due to her 2018 nods for “Bodak Yellow,” will the Academy reward the year’s greatest upstart success story by including her in the Album of the Year contenders? Her debut suggests she’s too talented to be a one-album wonder, and its pair of No. 1 singles – “Bodak Yellow” and “I Like It” – made her the first female rapper to top the Hot 100 more than once.
Janelle Monáe, “Dirty Computer”
The benefit of expanding the top-category Grammy nominees to eight can be seen with this bold and innovative album, which has a much stronger shot that it would have in a field of five. While Monáe’s third studio album isn’t a massive seller, its vibrant fusion of Prince-inspired pop-soul-funk (the artist himself even guested on the album before his death) received rapturous reviews, earning a whopping Metacritic rating of 87 out of 100. (To put that into perspective, the most recent Album of the Year, Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic,” got 70.)
Kacey Musgraves, “Golden Hour”
While nominally a country artist, with “Golden Hour” Musgraves has stepped out of that box with her third album, shifting into a genre that, as said in its Variety review, “might best be described as artful adult contemporary, where the acoustic guitars and banjos sound more canyon-y than twangy.” It’s a mold-breaking career move that leaves the future open for this artist, with pop-laced Texas torch and twang that is catchy and memorable without ever sounding hokey and formulaic.
Sam Smith, “The Thrill of It All”
With his debut album “In the Lonely Hour,” British troubadour Smith won Grammys for Best New Artist, Best Pop Vocal Album, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year in 2015. All he had to do to remain Grammy-friendly was to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump and showcase his sky-scraping voice with some strong songs, and he’s done all of the above with this collection of tasteful blue-eyed soul. “The Thrill of It All” reached the Top 200 summit and spawned the Top 5 single “Too Good at Goodbyes,” making the closest thing we have to a male Adele an automatic Album of the Year contender.
Soundtrack: “Black Panther: The Album”
Only two movie soundtracks have won Album of the Year since 1994 (“The Bodyguard” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). But in 2018, “Black Panther” heated up the format as the musical companion to one of the biggest pop-cultural phenomena of the year. It was also curated by superstar rapper Kendrick Lamar, featuring several songs from him as well A-list guests including The Weeknd, Travis Scott, and SZA.
Soundtrack: “The Greatest Showman”
The first of three soundtracks to top the Billboard 200 chart this year, “The Greatest Showman” is a surprise blockbuster and one of the biggest albums of 2018. The single “This Is Me” has already been nominated for best original song at the 2018 Academy Awards — it lost to “Remember Me” from “Coco,” but belated Grammy recognition would still be sweet.
Taylor Swift, “Reputation”
Swift is proving to be the Meryl Streep of this category: Her last three albums were all nominated and two of them — “Fearless” and “1989” — took the big prize. “Reputation” wasn’t as critically beloved as its predecessors and spawned fewer hit singles, but Swift is at a transition, stepping into more controversial, adult-oriented terrain. More daring musically than she was on “1989,” she dove deeper into electropop and nailed sexy for the first time with “Dress.”
SONG OF THE YEAR
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, “Shallow” (from “A Star Is Born”)
This late-comer was released just days before the October 1 deadline for Grammy eligibility, and the film’s momentum is bringing it Oscar buzz as well. It never hurts to have a cinematic connection for Song of the Year nominees — the award recognizes songwriting, while Record honors producers and musicians — and “Shallow” marks the moment in the film where a star is truly born: Filmed before a live audience at L.A.’s Greek Theater, Cooper shambolic country-rocker sings the first verse, and then summons the unknown Ally (Gaga) to belt out the second verse. The song seems certain to be performed during either the Grammys or the Oscars next year.
Following the opening of the film on Oct. 5, the single — penned by Gaga and Mark Ronson, along with Dirty Pretty Things’ Anthony Rossomando and Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt — predictably took off, climbing to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, marking Gaga’s 15th Top 10 and, well, Cooper’s first. The song’s theme of not taking the easy road and sacrificing to embrace one’s dreams without regrets is the kind of message that makes for awards-show gold.
Dan & Shay, “Tequila”
This Nashville-based duo — Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney — has been hovering on the edges of crossover success through three albums. Their best showing to date is this single, a full-on ballad and unlikely ode to mezcal which features the kind of solid, manicured production and tuneful vocals the Academy loves to celebrate.
Drake, “Nice for What”
The second hit single and chart-topper from Drake’s “Scorpion” features samples from Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor” and nods to the torch song “The Way We Were.” But by any metric, it was one of the biggest hits of the year.
Ariana Grande, “No Tears Left to Cry”
Considering its title and context — the song was the first released by Grande after the May 2017 bombing at her concert in Manchester, England, which killed 22 people — “No Tears” is surprisingly upbeat. Written by Grande with hitmakers Max Martin, Savan Kotecha and Ilya, the song peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100 and offers the kind of redemption story awards shows love.
Khalid, Normani, “Love Lies” (from the “Love, Simon” soundtrack)
The singer-rapper made a big splash at the 2018 Grammys with five nominations and a performance during the show that demonstrated his poise and promise. This duet with ex-Fifth Harmony member Normani was written by the pair with Jamil Chammas, Ryan Vojtesak and Tayla Parx, and it harks back to vintage Motown while still being rooted in today’s hip-hop-informed R&B.
Post Malone (featuring 21 Savage), “rockstar”
Deemed too successful to be nominated for Best New Artist, Post Malone’s blockbuster year may earn him gold in other categories. This song kicked off 2018 for him by topping the Billboard Hot 100 for a whopping eight weeks and breaking Spotify’s record for the longest run at No. 1 on the streamer’s global charts.
Keala Settle, “This Is Me” (from “The Greatest Showman”)
“A Star Is Born” will probably be looming over the Grammys, but this rousing self-empowerment anthem penned by the red-hot duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of “Dear Evan Hansen” and “La La Land” fame) suggests the ongoing success of this unlikely blockbuster will resonate for some time to come.
Taylor Swift, “Delicate”
Swift flipped the script with her sixth album, “Reputation,” adding more challenging material and a confrontational attitude. And while her sixth album lacked a smash single on the scale of “Shake It Off,” this late-bloomer, written by Swift with Max Martin and Shellback, proved that she’s lost none of her hitmaking skill.
RECORD OF THE YEAR
Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
Gambino — a.k.a. actor/singer/rapper Donald Glover — took home a 2018 Grammy for his sultry R&B ballad “Redbone,” but “This Is America” is something else entirely. Released in the middle of his polymathic turn on “Saturday Night Live” in May, the song and its video are such a meaning-loaded statement on what it means to live the U.S. today that people are still unpacking it. While the clip directed by Glover’s “Atlanta” collaborator Hiro Murai, features commentary on everything from gun violence to racial politics to smartphone-obsessed youth, the song itself — which almost immediately topped the Billboard Hot 100 based on streams alone — is less easy to parse, keying on the lines “Get your money, Black man” and Young Thug’s outro (“You just a black man in this world, you just a barcode”). While it’s not the kind of traditional verse/chorus song that the Academy tends to favor for Song of the Year — which is why we’re putting it in the Record category — there’s no question that it was the most impactful, controversial and now song of 2018. If the Grammys are looking to make a statement about diversity and relevance — and, in the process, recognize arguably the most important song of the year — this is their chance.
Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J Balvin, “I Like It”
This smash single, one of three Billboard No. 1s to feature the young rapper in the past year and change, finds her teamed with Puerto Rican trap/reggae singer Bad Bunny and Colombian reggaeton superstar J Balvin. But the song also tips its hat to the past, sampling Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 hit “I Like It Like That (A Mi Gusta Asi).”
Drake, “God’s Plan”
Drake’s “Scorpion” album was such a juggernaut that nearly all of its songs charted on the Billboard Hot 100 at once, but this song, along with “Nice for What,” are the album’s true singles. “God’s Plan” reached No. 1 in 14 countries and broke streaming records on Apple Music and Spotify. As if Drake weren’t already popular enough, the song’s music video follows the rapper around Miami as he gives away $175,000 to random people on the street — and the clip’s opening states that its full budget of $996,631.90 would eventually be given to charity.
Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa, “One Kiss”
Best New Artist hopeful Lipa and dance music titan Harris – along with co-writer Jessie Reyez – made some beautiful music together with this global smash, which topped the charts in 21 countries.
Kendrick Lamar, SZA, “All the Stars” (from “Black Panther”)
The lead single from one of the biggest films and soundtrack albums of the year, this dream pairing teams one of the world’s greatest rappers with a stellar hook from the fast-rising young R&B singer, both of whom had a multitude of nominations at the 2018 Grammys. The song, the lead single from the Lamar-helmed “Black Panther” soundtrack, reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and top 5 in both the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop and Rhythmic charts.
Ella Mai, “Boo’d Up”
This 23-year-old London transplant — who spent some of her formative years in Queens, New York — had one of the top songs of summer in this breezy single from her debut Interscope album. “Boo’d Up” topped Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs and reached the Top 5 on the Hot 100, and was certified triple-platinum.
Bebe Rexha (featuring Florida Georgia Line), “Meant to Be”
This unlikely pairing of the Brooklyn blonde and the good-old bros from the Deep South indeed had the best of both worlds, as it hit No. 2 on the pop charts and topped the Country Airplay and Hot Country tallies.
Zedd, Maren Morris, Grey, “The Middle”
Possibly the biggest double-crossover song in a year filled with them, dance-music producer and DJ Zedd and duo Grey tried out more than a dozen singers on this song — including Camila Cabello, Charli XCX, Demi Lovato and Tove Lo — before finally striking gold with country songstress Morris. It was worth the extra effort: The end result brings the worlds of pop, dance and country together into an irresistible song that is much more than the sum of its parts.
BEST NEW ARTIST
Christine & the Queens
In recent years at the very least, the Best New Artist category has been the most contentious in the entire Grammy canon, largely because it is so difficult to quantify (even though the definition is frequently updated). Since the screening committee decided that Post Malone and Camila Cabello are ineligible because they “came into prominence” before Oct. 1, 2017 (and Cardi B was nominated for two other awards last year), the 2019 new artist category lacks three of the year’s biggest breakthrough artists.
However, it is certainly not lacking in promising and talented artists, which is why we’re highlighting a rather left-field choice, Christine & the Queens. Essentially a one-person act consisting of ambi-gendered French-born singer Christine (or Chris, real name Heloise Letissier), she has been around for several years: Her 2014 eponymous debut sold 1.3 million units worldwide and earned praise from Elton John, Madonna and Katy Perry, but she definitely hasn’t penetrated the mainstream on a Post Malone scale. Her second full-length, “Chris,” doubles down on the possibilities presented by the debut: pop but not cheesy, danceable but not really dance music, the album has already drawn a rave from none other than Paul McCartney. A Best New Artist nomination for a self-described “pansexual” musician like Letissier would certainly see the Academy living up to its pledges of greater diversity.
If there’s a Nashville star for the future, it’s Kane Brown. The Georgia native is multiracial and has a strong hip-hop element in his music, and with his neck tattoo and tight haircut, he looks much more like a rapper than a country singer. But at heart he’s a strong-voiced balladeer, and has become one of the prime post-bro hopefuls on the country scene over the past few years. He’s had three Top 10 singles on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart — “What Ifs” went No. 1 — and his forthcoming sophomore album looks likely to establish him as a major star.
Already a star in Europe, this Kosovar/British singer’s debut album was released in June of 2017, but her Stateside rise has been a gradual one. Her triple platinum “New Rules” single was the breakthrough, and “IDGAF” and “One Kiss,” her collaboration with Calvin Harris, each have racked up more than half a billion streams on Spotify alone. Expect big things from her next album, due in 2019, which she’s cooking up with superproducer Max Martin.
This 16-year-old Los Angeles native specializes in slower, introspective songs that show her to be a singer of precocious ability and far from the sort of teen pop one might expect from an artist her age. She posted her song “Ocean Eyes” onto SoundCloud early in 2016, followed with a video in March, and by November the song had been re-released by Interscope. Her nine-track EP, “Don’t Smile at Me,” followed soon after, and she’s been dropping singles (including collaborations with Khalid and Vince Staples) at a steady clip.
Greta Van Fleet
This young, Michigan-spawned outfit’s ability to channel the Zeppelinesque hard rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s — music that is old enough to be this band’s grandfather — is as remarkable as it is effective. Literally a band of brothers — Josh, Jake and Sam Kiszka, with drummer Danny Wagner — the group’s debut album was released after the Grammy deadline, but they’re already headlining tours and building a solid rep on rock radio.
Emo-rap has come into the mainstream due in part to the success of fast-rising Chicago-born rapper Juice Wrld (real name: Jarad Higgins). The numbers speak for themselves: His dark and challenging album peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, and his single “Lucid Dreams” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is nearing 500 million streams on Spotify alone.
This London-born singer-songwriter dropped her eponymous debut album outside the Grammy eligibility period, but her smash single “Boo’d Up” was arguably 2018’s song of the summer and she has already headlined a North American tour.
By the time she turned 21, Smith had dueted with both Drake and Kendrick Lamar and opened a major North American tour for Bruno Mars. “Lost & Found,” released in June, is a combination of classic and contemporary sounds, mixing Amy Winehouse, Sade and a hint of Erykah Badu. In England, she’s already a star — the album debuted at No. 3 on the British charts and is one of just two debuts on the shortlist for the country’s prestigious Mercury Prize — and while the going has been a bit more gradual in the States, Smith looks set for a long and rewarding career.