The fate of artists deemed problematic will be one of the main talking points when nominations for the 64th annual Grammy awards are announced Nov. 23. This year, perhaps more than any other, there are multiple potential nominees shrouded in a cloud of controversy. Will the Recording Academy effectively enforce the “cancellation” of these artists or politely ignore their respective backlashes and focus on merit?
An artist with a large asterisk next to his name is Morgan Wallen, the country star who became a household name for all the wrong reasons when TMZ posted a video of him uttering a racial slur during a drunken exchange with friends on Feb. 2. Wallen was removed from the playlists of most country radio stations for a few months and barred from competing or appearing on several country or mainstream awards shows — moves that did nothing to diminish the commercial success of what still stands as the most-consumed album of the year in any format.
“Dangerous: The Double Album” spent six consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (the most for a country artist since Garth Brooks’ “The Chase” in 1992) and nine non-consecutive weeks (the most for a male artist since Drake’s “Views” in 2016) and has racked up more than 2.5 million album-equivalent units. In other circumstances, a record dominating the landscape that much would be in the conversation for an album of the year nod, but that seems like a long shot for a record synonymous with scandal in many people’s minds. The Country Music Association Awards has sent mixed messages about how he’s viewed in Nashville: “Dangerous” is nominated for album of the year, but Wallen has been barred from attending or walking the red carpet — so there might not be much appetite for having the Grammys being his official coming-out party.
DaBaby is another contentious potential nominee. The 29-year-old faced battery charges in 2020 and has been mired in controversy since making homophobic remarks on July 2021 while performing at Rolling Loud Miami. The industry’s response was swift: DaBaby lost sponsorship deals and was summarily uninvited from many summer festivals including Governors Ball, Parklife and iHeartRadio. That would usually make the rapper’s chances of Grammy love minimal, but his feature on Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” remix, the version that accumulated the most radio airplay and streaming of the year during a record-breaking 36-week stint in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, puts voters in a hard spot. The track is a hot contender for both record of the year and song of the year, but the idea of bestowing a perceived homophobe with multiple nominations could still nix what should have been shoo-in nods for Lipa.
Kanye West has been an increasingly polarizing figure in the music industry due to his political views, remarks on slavery and failed presidential bid. Yet even after strongly criticized the Recording Academy by tweeting a video urinating on a Grammy on Sept. 16, 2020, voters didn’t hold it against him, rewarding him with one of those same trophies earlier this year for best contemporary Christian music album for “Jesus Is King.” Although it received mixed notices, this year’s “Donda” was lavished with enough praise for its personal exploration of mental health, religion, death, relationships and addiction that it would’ve been expected to contend for multiple Grammys… if not for the fact that it features fellow “problematic” artists DaBaby and Marilyn Manson. The album’s commercial success (it broke records for opening-day streaming tallies, before Drake re-broke them a week later) might be enough to convince the Recording Academy to look the other way, in rap categories if not the crowded album of the year field.
The Recording Academy might also give Dr. Luke, real name Lukasz Gottwald, another pass. The veteran hitmaker, who was accused of sexual assault by Kesha in 2014 before charges were dismissed in April 2016 (other legal disputes between the two continue), scored a nomination for record of the year courtesy of Doja Cat’s “Say So” at the 63rd Grammy Awards. With Doja Cat peaking even more this year, Dr. Luke stands as a strong chance of being nominated in the top two categories — album of the year for “Planet Her” and record of the year for her collaboration with SZA, “Kiss Me More.”