On November 24, the Grammy Nominations for 2021 were announced. Their picks were a typical mix of surprising and depressingly predictable. As usual, established artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift dominated while many more underground and avant-garde voices were brushed aside. It’s a real shame that the Grammys has largely once again chosen to play gatekeeper, ignoring the possibility of a more diverse lineup and potentially bringing an audience to exciting voices in the underground, instead recycling the same handful of names across multiple categories. However, despite this, some artists at their peak of relevance were in fact shut out, while a few underdogs pulled some pleasant upsets. First, the most controversial selection.
Justin Bieber > The Weeknd?
By far the biggest upset this year was the exclusion of The Weeknd, whose album After Hours ran away with both commercial and critical success at the start of the year. Despite being touted by many as not only his best album but one of the best pop and R&B albums of the year, and The Weeknd having been a Grammys favourite in the past, the record received not a single nomination. This resulted in considerable dissatisfaction, including from Abel Tesfaye himself, who accused the Grammys of a personal vendetta following a past dispute, where he was forced to choose between performing at the Superbowl or the Grammys. According to statements made on Facebook, he now considers his lack of nominations this year to be a spiteful act on the Grammys’ part for having slighted them with his indecision.
Tesfaye has received much support in this, including from regular collaborator Drake, who despite being nominated for his song “Laugh Now Cry Later”, also criticised the Grammys growing irrelevance. It’s certainly true that the Grammys stood to benefit far more in maintaining relevance from inviting The Weeknd into the fold than he would have from accepting. With multiple number one hits and six previous wins under his belt, Tesfaye isn’t some underground artist in need of the publicity bump or seal of endorsement that a seventh Grammy could provide.
Although Tesfaye’s Twitter tirade is certainly not a very dignified look, it’s arguably better than the one taken on by the artist widely considered to have stolen his nomination, Justin Bieber. Bieber was nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance and Best Pop Vocal Album, but responded ungraciously with a complaint, also delivered via Twitter, that he was placed in the Pop category and not the R&B one. Considering the fact that both his song “Yummy” and his album Changes were universally panned, he might count himself extraordinarily backlash-insulated to have received any sort of acknowledgement.
I’m not the biggest fan of either The Weeknd or After Hours, and there are many pop albums I would have sooner seen the Grammys throw their weight behind, but I think you’d have to go very, very far to find someone willing to argue that he deserved it less than Bieber did. With pop artists like Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, Jessie Ware, Juice WRLD and Rina Sawayama excluded, it’s fair to say that, at the very least, Bieber’s name should never have been in the frame.
No Respect for the Dead?
With three of the biggest and most beloved albums of the year released posthumously by recently departed artists, it seems perverse that the Grammys should not have sought to capitalise on this moment of reverence to have given those artists their flowers. This is particularly the case with Mac Miller, whose album Circles was not only one of the most universally acclaimed records of the year, but it would have been a ripe opportunity for the Grammys to have atoned for having snubbed Swimming, which was favoured in its category to win in 2019 but lost to Cardi B. Given how controversial this was at the time, one wonders how the organisation missed the opportunity to give what is widely considered Miller’s best album its due.
Recently deceased pop singer Juice WRLD and drill rapper Pop Smoke were also largely overlooked, with one deserved nomination for Pop Smoke for Best Rap Performance for his hit song “Dior”. The late Nipsey Hussle was also nominated in a feature capacity alongside Big Sean for their fan favourite song “Deep Reverence”. Although Pop Smoke’s album was somewhat subject to the diluting that often afflicts posthumous releases, it was easily weaker than either of the “Meet the Woo” mixtapes released while he was alive, Juice WRLD’s Legends Never Die was arguably his best work, and it’s a shame that the Grammys missed what was likely their last chance to recognise his work.
Not All Bad?
Though perhaps depressing to see twenty-seven nominations distributed among just four individuals, there was room for some more leftfield choices in some categories. They may be safe and obvious picks, but it would certainly be a lie to say that Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift don’t deserve their six nominations apiece, Future Nostalgia and Folklore are both superb records. It does perhaps seem a little excessive that Beyonce turns up nine times despite not releasing an album this year. Record of the Year is perhaps the most predictable line-up of familiar names: Beyonce, Billie Eilish, Beyonce again, but the Album of the Year stakes are a little more interesting, with the most pleasantly surprising inclusion being HAIM and their Women in Music Pt. III album.
It does seem strange though that it was not nominated for Best Rock Album though, despite being assigned to that category through the group’s nomination for Best Rock Performance. You wonder how that sort of thing works. Instead, the Rock album circle is typically male-dominated. American singer-songwriter Grace Potter the only female nominee, receiving a nomination for her third solo album Daylight. Interestingly this was also released in 2019, but let’s not be pedantic! It’s great to see a female nomination in this category and the power of Graces Potters voice is truly astounding. She has worked with the likes of The Flaming Lips and Don Was, and is also nominated in the Best Rock Performance category for “Daylight”.
Irish post-punk band Fontaines D.C. who are signed to the independent Partisan Record label, are perhaps the most shocking nominee in the Best Rock Album category. With their second album A Hero’s Death sounding quite different from their debut Dublin-inspired Dogrel, it has nonetheless been extremely well received by fans and critics alike. The current Covid-19 situation has seen them take stock and are already working on their third album. English singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka gets a Grammy nod with his third album Kiwanuka, released in November 2019 – a minor detail perhaps! He won the UK based Mercury Music Prize this year and has had huge critical acclaim. This is an album full of variety and power, including soul, gospel rock and breakbeats.
American country music singer-songwriter and actor John Sturgill Simpson is nominated for his fourth album Sound & Fury, also released in 2019 – no comment! He is already a Grammy winner with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth which won the Best Country Album in 2016. Finally, many saw The Strokes sixth studio album The New Abnormal as a return to form. The American indie rock band had massive success with their debut Is This It which was released in 2001, selling over 2million copies worldwide. However, they struggled to follow up this success until now. With the benefit of experience, they have produced an album with a greater musical cohesion within the band and more mature lyrics. The result is an album which should win the “Most Appropriate Album Title for 2020” category if such a category existed.
Indie darlings Fiona Apple and Phoebe Bridgers will go head to head in the rock and alternative categories as well. It would be nice to see Apple take best Song and Performance for the album highlight “Shameika”, while Bridgers receive Best Rock Album, as her record Punisher was more the more solid overall. It’s also nice to see R&B up and comers Chloe and Halle receive a couple of endorsements and Anderson. Paak and Lil Baby deservedly recognised for their fantastic protest songs “Lockdown” and “The Bigger Picture”. The inclusion of Country super-group The Highwomen in the best country song category is also a noble pick.
Rock isn’t the only category to oddly suffer from some 2019 albums slipping through and hastily tossed into the ring. Perhaps the most hilarious example comes in the form of Kanye West, whose disastrous album Jesus is King has been included in the Best Contemporary Christian Album category. At least the Grammys have a sense of humour I suppose?
Perhaps the most surprisingly solid line-up comes from the Best Rap Album category, which seems to have suddenly developed a sense of taste, singling out Nas, Royce da 5’9” and Freddie Gibbs. Perhaps it’s a testament to how strong a year it’s been for hip-hop that a solid line-up can be put together so easily and despite some notable losses, including the absence of Run the Jewels, Aesop Rock and the Griselda camp. Either way, for the sake of the acceptance speech alone, I’d love to see Freddie Gibbs with a Grammy.