On Sunday night, the 61st Grammy Awards telecast did its best to balance several requirements — making amends to an entire gender, widening its palette of winners and honorees and doing its best to award those who are affecting the mainstream now, not five years ago. Within the narrow lens of prime time awards shows, it seemed to make some progress on each count, without drifting too far from its comfort zone.
Kacey Musgraves won the night’s top honor, Album of the Year — her fourth trophy of the evening — for “Golden Hour” (which also won Country Album of Year). Childish Gambino won Record and Song of the Year for his epochal “This Is America” (which also won Best Music Video) but he did not attend the ceremony.
Other major awards were given to Cardi B, who received the prize for Best Rap Album for her debut solo effort “Invasion of Privacy” and Dua Lipa, who seconds after performing alongside St. Vincent was named Best New Artist (and pointedly observed that women must’ve really stepped up over the last year). Drake surprised everyone by showing up, before telling aspiring young artists they didn’t need the trophy he had just been given, for Best Rap Song.
Leading up to Sunday night’s show, the Grammys and its parent organization, the Recording Academy, went through a fairly awful year, dealing with the fallout from outgoing president Neil Portnow’s tone-deaf “step up” comment immediately after last year’s show and the persistent, well-founded, accusations of cultural myopia after years of failing to award some of music’s most forward-looking artists.
Alicia Keys, the third woman of color to host the ceremony (after Whoopi Goldberg in 1992 and Queen Latifah in 2005), was somehow able, early on, to pull off saying “I have been super blessed to win 15 Grammys” without being alienating in any way. Her charisma and loose confidence were infectious and did a lot of the heavy lifting throughout the show’s entire run time. (She wasn’t lying when she said, during her opening speech: “I got you.” She did.) And, as if to drive a stake through the heart of this identity crisis, Keys was joined for the tail-end of her introductory speech by former First Lady Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Jada Pinkett-Smith.
This year, the Academy increased the number of nominees in each of the four main categories (Song, Album and Record of the year, plus Best New Artist) from five to eight. In the Best Album category, there was some speculation that Brandi Carlile’s nomination for “By The Way, I Forgive You” — Carlile took home three genre trophies as a consolation — might cause a vote split between the two roots-rooted artists. But for the Academy’s voters, Musgraves’ idiosyncratic work elevated her above some formidable competition, including the Kendrick Lamar-curated “Black Panther: The Album,” Janelle Monáe’s visionary “Dirty Computer” and Cardi B’s breakout “Invasion of Privacy.”