There are 84 Grammy categories. Eighty-four! That’s a lotta golden gramophones — and even though the majority of the awards are handed out before the official telecast of Music’s Biggest Night, they still mean something to the people who win them. Most categories are, as ever, dotted with industry curiosities along with some of the biggest and brightest names across myriad genres, making for some nominee face-offs that seem almost too perfectly paired when it comes to the potential for drama.
So what follows is a breakdown of some of the potential battles to watch out for as the winners’ list unfurls throughout this Sunday. We’ve left out the major categories (Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year) mostly because of their overall star wattage, but also because said star wattage makes identifying real inter-nominee struggles a bit of a crapshoot. Also, it should be noted that these are not predictions — if anything, these are but some of the races in which the winners of Grammy gold seem nearly impossible to predict. At the very least, think of this as a primer for what you’ll be getting angry about the morning after.
The Category: Best Music Video
The High-Stakes Face-off: Childish Gambino vs. Joyner Lucas
Why? Last year, Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino project was nominated for six awards and took home only one (Best Traditional R&B Performance, for “Redbone”); this year, he’s nabbed five noms, the majority of which are for his single “This Is America.” Upon arrival, the song was an instant digital-watercooler sensation largely due to its shocking and fascinating video helmed by frequent Atlanta lenser Hiro Murai; it’s an artistic achievement, and more often than not, such videos take home this award (last year, it was Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble”). Arguably, the only video that came close to achieving the virality of “This Is America” was the clip for rapper Joyner Lucas’s “I’m Not Racist,” a why-can’t-we-just-all-get-along attempt at racial commentary so middle-of-the-road that it might as well have been directed by Peter Farrelly. Green Book pulling off a Best Picture upset at this year’s Oscars is a nightmare scenario for many — and Lucas taking home this prize over Glover’s own statement-making clip is no different.
The Category: Producer of the Year
The High-Stakes Face-off: Boi-1da vs. Pharrell
Why? First thing’s first: Kanye’s never been nominated for this award until this year, and despite the fact that 2018 was a year in which he wore his “producer” hat more explicitly than ever before, he’s not really a contender here. Pharrell is, however; he’s won twice in the past — once as the Neptunes in 2004, and once on his own ten years later — making him a practical Grammy favorite. But the credited work Pharrell’s been nominated for (ranging from Ariana Grande’s Sweetener to Justin Timberlake’s nonstarter Man of the Woods) doesn’t have much real estate in this year’s top categories. Toronto producer Boi-1da, however, has spent much of the decade sneakily crafting strains of pop in his sonic image, and his hands are all over records from big-deal 2019 nominees Drake and Cardi B. After Pharrell’s win and a string of wins from white pop-crossover wizards (Greg Kurstin twice, Jeff Bhasker, Max Martin) that followed, could Boi-1da take it home and represent an effective changing of the guard?
The Category: Best Recording Package
The High-Stakes Face-off: Mitski vs. St. Vincent
Why? Last year, Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy tied for this art-direction-focused award with late Colombian musician Magín Díaz’s final album El Orisha de la Rosa — and it’s not unfeasible to expect another indie-centric winner out of this year’s crop. In terms of mass visibility, Mitski and St. Vincent’s biggest competition is South Korean pop supernova group BTS; pitting the former two against each other, though, makes for stiff competition. The dramatic photography and stylish lettering that adorns Be the Cowboy’s vinyl packaging is impressive in its own right, while pretty much everything visual that surrounded St. Vincent’s Masseduction — including its headless, shocking-pink album art — burst with appealing and disquieting color (hey, just like St. Vincent’s music!).
The Category: Best Song Written for Visual Media
The High-Stakes Face-off: “All the Stars” vs. “Shallow” vs. “This Is Me”
Why? Normally, this would be a two-horse race: Kendrick and SZA’s “All the Stars” and Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow” are two of the biggest movie-tied songs in recent memory, sensational in their own right and representing true blockbusters amid the sometimes-weak area of pop-focused movie soundtracks. But if there’s one lesson learned from popular culture over the past several years, it’s not to underestimate the power of The Greatest Showman. Hugh Jackman’s circus-tastic biopic-cum-musical was one of the biggest box-office successes — amid musicals and otherwise — in recent memory, even if you weren’t aware that it was; furthermore, “This Is Me” took home Best Original Song at last year’s Oscars. Will the Grammys roll with this year’s new, or instead throw their collective hands up and yell, “This is us”?
The Category: Best Musical Theater Album
The High-Stakes Face-off: The Band’s Visit vs. Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert
Why? The disaster that was Fox’s recent attempted staging of Rent on live TV was, among many other things, a reminder that last year’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert was not only a massive success for NBC, but also a genuinely moving and fantastic spectacle that had critics raving long afterward. But it faces stiff competition in the form of David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’s Broadway success The Band’s Visit, which last year became one of four musicals in history to win the Tony Awards’ “Big Six” — Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical, and Best Direction of a Musical. Will its steamrolling success continue in advance of its April closing, or will the power of John Legend compel Grammy voters otherwise?
The Category: Best Comedy Album
The High-Stakes Face-off: Dave Chappelle vs. Patton Oswalt vs. Chris Rock
Why? Chappelle was last year’s big winner for his Netflix specials The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, and his latest pair of Netflix’ers Equanimity and The Bird Revelation face stiff competition this year from previous winners Patton Oswalt and Chris Rock. Rock, in particular, has won a whopping three times in the past. Who will emerge victorious? (An even better question: How is the year in which Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette presumably eligible for nomination also the first in 12 years where all the nominees identify as male?)
The Category: Best Reggae Album
The High-Stakes Face-off: Sting & Shaggy vs. Ziggy Marley
Why? When I interviewed Shaggy in 2016, he seemed pretty burned about never receiving a Grammy — and the targets of his ire were clear: “The Marleys dominate the Grammys most of the time — and it’s not really their fault. Half these other reggae artists don’t know you have to vote and register and all that shit. The Marleys do, though — they vote, they register, they win, and we get all mad.” A year after his team-up with the perpetually reggae-adjacent Sting befuddled Grammy viewers, the pair’s 44/876 is up for nomination — against Ziggy Marley’s latest, Rebellion Rises. It’ll be interesting, to say the least, whether the canny career move that was 44/876 manages to stop the Marleys’ reign.
The Category: Best Americana Album
The High-Stakes Face-off: John Prine vs. Brandi Carlile
Why? In a bigger sense, it could very well be Carlile’s year. After being nominated for this category back in 2015, her By the Way, I Forgive You and subsequent single “The Joke” have garnered six nominations in total, and it seems like a foregone conclusion that she could be walking home with this award at the very least. But John Prine — who returned last year with his first album of new material in 13 years, The Tree of Forgiveness — is a multiple-Grammy winner of the past who was also bestowed a Hall of Fame honor in 2015. If there’s a category in which a potential win from Carlile could be upset, it’s this one …
The Category: Best Country Album
The High-Stakes Face-off: Chris Stapleton vs. Kacey Musgraves
Why? … And the same logic applies to this category. Musgraves’s Golden Hour is another potential win-it-all entry, with four noms credited — but Stapleton’s kind of owned this category in recent years. He won in 2016, beating Musgraves’s own Pageant Material (she won in 2014 for Same Trailer Different Park), and again last year for From a Room: Volume 1. He’s nominated this year for that latter record’s Vol. 2 companion, and despite the fact that he didn’t make as much crossover noise as Musgraves in 2018, he could very well take this one home even if Musgraves sweeps her other categories.
The Category: Best Rap Song
The High-Stakes Face-off: “Sicko Mode” vs. “God’s Plan”
Why? Forget “Drake featuring Drake” — this face-off is literally Drake vs. “featuring Drake.” Travis Scott and Drake’s respective nominated hits are too-big-to-fail in literal senses here, but the stakes here feel more symbolic. From a commercial standpoint, Drake was unstoppable throughout 2018, but aesthetically, the perpetually nipping-at-heels Scott gained serious ground with Astroworld, a commercial success of an album that also stood as his most stylistically forceful achievement to date. As much a canny copyist as Drake can be, Scott’s often accused of ripping off Aubrey Graham himself — and if “Sicko Mode” takes home this award, it could possibly represent the moment in which the student becomes the teacher.
The Category: Best Urban Contemporary Album
The High-Stakes Face-off: The Carters vs. Chloe x Halle
Why? Another student-teacher battle of sorts, only a little more lighthearted. Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s team-up as the Carters, last year’s Everything Is Love, was shut out of most of the major categories but could pull off an easy win here (especially to make up for past and obvious snubs); but don’t count out barely-old-enough-to-drink duo Chloe x Halle, whose The Kids Are Alright was one of last year’s most pleasurable surprises and saw release through Beyoncé’s Parkwood label.
The Category: Best Rock Performance
The High-Stakes Face-off: Greta Van Fleet vs. Chris Cornell
Why? Greta Van Fleet are massively successful both within the music industry and with your garden-variety rock-and-roll fan. This is just a fact that everyone has to accept at this point, regardless of your level of tolerance for Led Zeppelin knockoff tunes. Their nominations for this year’s Grammys were practically preordained, and even if they can’t swing the high-profile category they’ve been included in (more on that in a minute) this nom for their “Highway Tune” should be an easy win for them. But the rock world is still (and will be for some time) in mourning of late Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, and his posthumous nomination for “When Bad Does Good” could take this category by way of in memoriam vibes.
The Category: Best Pop Vocal Album
The High-Stakes Face-off: Taylor Swift vs. Ariana Grande
Why? The Grammy-gilded Swift was basically shut out of the major categories here for her Reputation (the album, not her actual reputation — although, funny to imagine!). Grande’s Sweetener represented something of an auteur move, as does her recent decision to basically not attend the ceremony at all after getting into it with producers who were trying to dictate the terms of her live performance. (Will they ever learn?) The stakes seem high here in terms of pure visibility alone: If Grande wins, someone’s going to have to accept it on her behalf, highlighting in bold-face type to the audience back home that one of music’s biggest stars decided Music’s Biggest Night wasn’t worth showing up for. If Swift wins, it similarly signals that, despite being an arguably even bigger star than Grande, she might be competing in a lower tier when it comes to Grammy gold for years to come.
The Category: Best New Artist
The High-Stakes Face-off: H.E.R. vs. Greta Van Fleet
Why? R&B impresario Gabriella Wilson’s H.E.R. project had a strong 2018, as the self-titled compilation of her previous EPs elevated her visibility to a point that she’s nominated for five Grammys this year. In a stacked category that includes Dua Lipa, Jorja Smith, and Chloe X Halle, she seems like the undeniable favorite to take home the always-squabbled-about award this year. Which is exactly what makes Greta Van Fleet such a threat: Awarding Best New Artist to one of the most critically loathed rock bands in recent memory over H.E.R. and her other formidable contenders is exactly the kind of troll move that the Grammys seemingly love to do to infuriate armchair commenters.