Culture Trips

Who will – and should – win the 2021 Grammy awards? | Grammy awards 2021

Record of the year

Beyoncé – Black Parade
Black Pumas –
Colors
DaBaby – Rockstar (feat Roddy Ricch)
Doja Cat – Say So
Billie Eilish – Everything I Wanted
Dua Lipa – Don’t Start Now
Post Malone – Circles
Megan Thee Stallion – Savage (feat Beyoncé)

Beyoncé didn’t release an album this year, but she is still top of this year’s Grammy nominations with nine across eight different categories. It’s testament to her versatility as well as the lyrical potency of Black Parade, a poetic vision of her becoming entwined with her African roots and becoming impervious to racial hatred: “Rubber bullets bouncing off me / Made a picket sign off your picket fence.” It wasn’t a hit, though, and while her delivery – more stately and queenly than ever – is hard-won and inspiring, the music and chorus-writing isn’t as arresting as the lyrics or her mellifluous vocal delivery.

Split votes with Savage will also hurt her chances, and as Billie Eilish won this award last year on the way to sweeping the board, voters might look elsewhere besides. Doja Cat’s Say So was rightly a pop-cultural phenomenon, though Dr Luke’s involvement in it will be controversial: the producer has long denied any impropriety as alleged by Kesha, but nominee Fiona Apple has been among those loudly protesting his presence on this ballot. The cop-baiting Rockstar cleanly connected in 2020 and DaBaby’s star quality could fill a constellation, but rap is rarely rewarded in this category and his past run-ins with the law may also turn off more conservative Academy members. Dua Lipa, then, could clinch this, and indeed should: Don’t Start Now’s hedonism arguably doesn’t chime with a pandemic, but pop doesn’t get better than this perfect, headspinning hit. There’s very little daylight between most of these nominees, though.
Will win: Dua Lipa
Should win: Dua Lipa

Album of the year

Jhené AikoChilombo
Black Pumas – Black Pumas
Coldplay – Everyday Life
Jacob Collier – Djesse Vol 3
Haim – Women in Music Pt III
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
Post Malone – Hollywood’s Bleeding
Taylor Swift – Folklore

This feels like the easiest win to call. Folklore’s sudden arrival, rich songwriting, grandly realised aesthetic and pop-cultural clout made it a true album event, and her numerous nominations this year suggest that perhaps the Academy is ready to embrace the two-time winner of this category once more after scorning her last two albums. Also, unlike in some of the quality-stuffed categories below, it’s a wobbly year here, with only three truly classic LPs: Swift, Lipa and my own favourite, Haim’s loose, varied, casually omnipotent display of high-fidelity lo-fi. But the Grammys often make bafflingly bad calls in this category: Beck beat Beyoncé. Mumford & Sons beat Frank Ocean. Herbie Hancock’s Joni Mitchell covers album beat Amy Winehouse and Kanye West. Decent-enough releases by Bruno Mars, Daft Punk and Taylor Swift were deemed better than Kendrick Lamar’s trio of masterpieces. Jacob Collier could end up edging this, for all I know.
Will win: Taylor Swift
Should win: Haim

Song of the year

Beyoncé – Black Parade
Roddy Ricch – The Box
Taylor Swift – Cardigan
Post Malone – Circles
Dua Lipa – Don’t Start Now
Billie Eilish – Everything I Wanted
HER – I Can’t Breathe
JP Saxe – If the World Was Ending (feat Julia Michaels)

It’s a loose rubric, but this award homes in on lyrics and melody rather than the overall produced product heralded in the record of the year category. Thus there is room for If the World Was Ending, which is deeply corny but its tale of a small earthquake triggering apocalyptic, lovelorn thoughts is nonetheless affecting, and speaks strongly to the pandemic; Taylor Swift does this sentimental storytelling better still. HER’s diatribe against the injustices and hypocrisies of white America is dynamite, though its music is a relatively perfunctory platform for it; language, in all its percussion, music and meaning, is the best thing about the equally pointed Black Parade. The Box is another stunning display of linguistic musicality and would be a deserved (if surprising) winner. But this is where Eilish could triumph despite last year’s wins: Everything I Wanted is a deeply moving song that miraculously conjures the liminal state between dream and nightmare created by fame, and an example of how something intensely personal – it’s about the support of her brother and creative partner Finneas – can be made universal.
Will win: Billie Eilish
Should win: Billie Eilish

Best new artist

Ingrid Andress
Phoebe Bridgers
Chika
Noah Cyrus
D Smoke
Doja Cat
Kaytranada
Megan Thee Stallion

Some odd choices here, particularly when you consider DaBaby should be winning this category and isn’t even nominated. Equally, you could argue that one of the more useful, less self-congratulatory roles of the Academy should be in breaking lesser-known artists, and the likes of Ingrid Andress and Chika are worthy inclusions. Phoebe Bridgers’ candid indie-rock has had a huge impact on a generation of young women – indeed, young women are now by far the most interesting proponents of the style – but bigger still has been the tag team of Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion. The former’s facility with earworms has made her the darling of TikTok and her superb debut album is still popping out viral hits; but the latter, with her proud sexuality, propulsive flow and infectious female empowerment, will surely take this.
Will win: Megan Thee Stallion
Should win: Megan Thee Stallion

Best pop solo performance

Justin Bieber – Yummy
Doja Cat – Say So
Billie Eilish – Everything I Wanted
Dua Lipa – Don’t Start Now
Harry Styles – Watermelon Sugar
Taylor Swift – Cardigan

The fact that the Weeknd isn’t nominated here, or indeed for record of the year, smells fishier that a post-Brexit harbourside. It goes beyond critical subjectivity: Blinding Lights, the year’s biggest pop song, is better by any metric than Justin Bieber’s Yummy or Black Pumas’ Colors, and the fact that those songs ended up on the ballots looks like – to put it in the kindest framework – evidence of some strenuous lobbying. Bieber aside, though, the rest of this category is excellent and in with a chance. I find Swift to be pedestrian compared with Eilish, Styles, Doja or Lipa, who express pop in a more strident and progressive way, but by deepening and broadening the genre with her downbeat performance and offering profound mid-pandemic comfort, Swift could bundle this up into her woollens.
Will win: Taylor Swift
Should win: Dua Lipa

Best rock performance

Fiona Apple – Shameika
Big Thief – Not
Phoebe Bridgers – Kyoto
Haim – The Steps
Brittany Howard – Stay High
Grace Potter – Daylight

It’s the first time this category has been all female-fronted, and while greybeard fans of the genre might splutter into their ale at this, it’s no sop to some imagined woke contingent: the quality is staggeringly high. Those narrow-minded nitpickers might argue that Brittany Howard and Haim’s breezy numbers don’t sufficiently convey “rawk”, but while not having the usual blokey signifier of big guitar chords, Fiona Apple undeniably channels its mythic spirit through the pounding piano of Shameika. Bridgers will certainly amass votes but Apple’s song, taken from Fetch the Bolt Cutters which was many critics’ favourite album of 2020, will likely prevail. My personal preference is for Big Thief’s Not, a slowly rotating gyre of negative energy that fills up your consciousness.
Will win: Fiona Apple
Should win: Big Thief

Best rap performance

Big Sean – Reverence (feat Nipsey Hussle)
DaBaby – Bop
Jack Harlow – What’s Poppin
Lil Baby – The Bigger Picture
Megan Thee Stallion – Savage (feat Beyoncé)
Pop Smoke – Dior

A poignant category, shadowed by the heartbreakingly young deaths of Nipsey Hussle and Pop Smoke. The homophobic sneer in the latter’s Dior never fails to jar, but it’s the only misstep in one of the most thrilling entries in the drill canon yet, and that fact combined with his vast posthumous popularity could seal a win. Also with no other nominations despite huge success, Lil Baby may be acknowledged here for his anguished lament about racist policing and social immobility, delivered in a relentless triplet time. In comparison, Megan and Beyoncé aren’t as thematically deep or technically brilliant – and yet as a performance, Savage is unforgettable in its matter-of-factness, and the Academy may well reward Beyoncé for exploring another side to her dodecahedronal artistry. Equally, DaBaby could clean up the rap categories even if he doesn’t secure record of the year, leaving another tough category to call.
Will win: Megan Thee Stallion & Beyoncé
Should win: Lil Baby

Best country solo performance

Eric Church – Stick That in Your Country Song
Brandy Clark – Who You Thought I Was
Vince Gill – When My Amy Prays
Mickey Guyton – Black Like Me
Miranda Lambert – Bluebird

In another quality lineup, this is actually a clear two-horse race between artists questioning the very nature of the genre – an interrogation that, in the wake of Morgan Wallen’s long run at the top of the US album charts after shouting a racial slur, is needed more than ever. Mickey Guyton is the first-ever Black female solo country nominee, and it would be a valuable – if arguably illusory – marker of progress if she won. Black Like Me, a bald assessment of ongoing racial inequality, is a deserving song, it emphatic chord resolutions hammering home her strength of feeling and the shifts through middle eight evoking a little of the dissonance of being Black in America. As her song movingly attests, though, she remains an outsider, and voters may well be swayed by the spectacle of Eric Church, once a US chart-topper, renouncing the good ol’ boys of his genre in the bleak, socially conscious and rousing Stick That in Your Country Song.
Will win: Eric Church
Should win: Mickey Guyton

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