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The Grammys’ Big Four Categories: Who’ll Go the Distance?

In most cases in the top four Grammy categories, it comes down to a two-artist race. Dua Lipa, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift are top contenders for record, album or song, while best new artist should come down to a duel between Megan Thee Stallion and Phoebe Bridgers.

Grammy Voting Guide Beyonce Dua Lipa
Beyonce: Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup/MEGA; Dua: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP; Megan: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

If nothing else, the Grammys made prognosticating results in the top four races a little easier this year. The nominating committees completely shut out some expected contenders (the Weeknd, Summer Walker, Bob Dylan). Other would-be heavy hitters were relegated to less distinguished genre categories (Harry Styles, Lil Baby, Fiona Apple, Maren Morris). And Cardi B eliminated herself, deciding to hold off submitting “WAP” — and giving CBS censors a reprieve on Jan. 31.

Also making life easier for anyone whose business is predicting these things: while the Grammys usually align with either blockbuster commerciality or a critical mass of media acclaim, there are a surprising number of nominees in the top four that achieved neither in 2020, allowing for some serious whittling of the field.

Not one of the top four contests presents an absolute shoo-in; the easy bet died with Billie Eilish’s sweep last year. Just a single artist is nominated for record, song and album of the year this time around — Dua Lipa — and while it’s conceivable she’d take all three, no one considers her a lock for winner-take-all headlines.

Even if there are eight contenders in each of these divisions, in most cases it looks to come down a tight race between two top candidates. Let’s take a look at the heavyweight contenders:

RECORD OF THE YEAR

MAIN EVENT: Beyoncé’s “Black Parade” vs. Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now”

DARK HORSE: Post Malone’s “Circles”

With neither the Weeknd nor Taylor Swift having made the cut in this category, the choice is between Beyoncé’s one-off slab of social consciousness and Lipa losing her consciousness about a bad romance on the dance floor. It’s easy to imagine either a Black Lives Matter-themed song by a superstar or the year’s most delectable slice of escapism prevailing in a pandemic race. By some measures, Post Malone was the year’s most popular artist, so his most accessible single across genres shouldn’t be counted out, but his tatted visage still isn’t what most Academy members like to think of as music’s face. Eilish may be viewed as someone who already having had her rewards, and likely will again when a second album appears. DaBaby and Doja Cat don’t seem quite poised to take the marquee prize. And Black Pumas, however meritorious they may be, strike most voting members as one of those recurring committee head-scratchers. The question: Since Beyoncé is double-nominated in this category — she’s also a featured guest on Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” — could she split her own vote and leave Lipa the spoils?

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

MAIN EVENT: Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” vs. Taylor Swift’s “Folklore”

DARK HORSE: Post Malone’s “Hollywood’s Bleeding”

However worthy you might consider them, four here can be knocked off the title card immediately, barring divine intervention: Black Pumas, Coldplay, Jacob Collier and Haim. Jhené Aiko has a shot to upset, but is likely to get her love in R&B. Malone could ride his blockbuster to a Grammy, but odds are this is going to belong to a powerful woman. The fact that Lipa is triply nominated at the top doesn’t necessarily augur for a sweep: Her music is light-hearted enough that voters could feel happy giving her just one major award. That leaves the field open for Swift, whose album has the most compelling pandemic narrative. Lipa will likely prevail if voters feel that giving the album prize to a fresher face — instead of someone who’s already won it twice, as Swift has — seems like a better story for the Grammys to tell, which is highly possible. Swift-as-workhorse still feels like it’ll have more potency for voters, especially since she got snubbed on her last couple albums, and especially now that she’s just released a second acclaimed 2020 album (“Evermore”) that can’t help but influence the vote for the first.

SONG OF THE YEAR

MAIN EVENT: Beyoncé’s “Black Parade” vs. Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now”

DARK HORSE: H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe”

Collaborators J.P. Saxe and Julia Michaels can feel happy just to be nominated. Roddy Ricch is repped by a behemoth “Box,” but “crime drama” is not usually what the Academy looks for in this category. Voters who think Swift has the album prize in the bag may not worry so much about rewarding “Cardigan” here — unless that’s outweighed by any grievance over the song having been denied a vote in the more eminent record of the year category. Malone, again, for all his noms, seems like a slight outlier, as cred goes, while Eilish can coast on being last year’s big insider. It feels like it may be a spread-the-love kind of year, so you could envision a scenario in which voters decide to reward Lipa’s romp for record of the year and then give Beyoncé her due here for crafting a more serious song. But the wrinkle in that is the inclusion here of H.E.R., which gives voters sensitive to the BLM movement two strong picks to choose from, possibly splitting the social consciousness-favoring vote and leaving Lipa lapping the field.

NEW ARTIST

MAIN EVENT: Phoebe Bridgers vs. Megan Thee Stallion

DARK HORSE: Ingrid Andress

Chika, Noah Cyrus, D Smoke and Kaytranada have their work more than cut out for them making their music better known to mainstream voters before deadline. Doja Cat is in the running, but faces stiff competition. It looks like a race between the quiet indie-rock of Bridgers and the anything but whispery hip-hop of Megan. But keep an eye on Andress, since she is the only country candidate in any of the top four categories, and the Nashville contingent, many of them unhappy that Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen got shut out, may be looking for someone of their own to coalesce around in their feeling slighted. Then again, there’s a good chance that fans of rock and hip-hop may feel their own genres are being widely underserved in favor of pop contenders, too, and put just as much passion into electing Phoebe or a stallion in this horse race.