Kendrick Lamar lights up Grammy stage
At 3 1/2 hours, Monday’s 58th annual Grammy Awards lasted far too long to qualify as a roller-coaster ride. But it had enough ups and downs to almost qualify, including performances that varied wildly in quality, audio glitches that marred Adele’s performance of the piano ballad “All I Ask,” and a sudden cancellation by Rihanna, who performed at Monday’s Grammy rehearsal, but withdrew from the telecast under doctor’s orders after being diagnosed with bronchitis.
The highs included a fiery, politically charged performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” by Compton hip-hop innovator Kendrick Lamar. He was the night’s biggest winner with five Grammy victories, including Best Rap Album (for his widely acclaimed and remarkably ambitious “To Pimp a Butterfly”) and Best Rap Performance (for “Alright”), although none were in major categories.
Lamar, 28, was nominated for Album of the Year, but lost to Taylor Swift, 26, who opened the show with a visually dramatic, but musically middling, performance of “Out of the Woods.” Released in 2014, Swift’s “1989" was her first all-pop release and the biggest-selling album of 2014. Lamar, who had a field-leading 11 nominations, shared a Best Music Video win with Swift for her song “Bad Blood.”
More highlights from Grammy Awards 2016
Had Lamar won, he would have been only the third hip-hop artist to win a Grammy, following OutKast and Lauryn Hill. His loss may suggest that the 13,500 voting members of the Recording Academy, are still resistant to hip-hop, at least when it comes to the major categories. Or, more likely, that his artistic achievements with “Butterfly” were simply overshadowed by Swift’s enormously popular “1989.” (Eligible recordings for this year’s Grammys had to be released between Oct. 1, 2014, and Sept. 30, 2015.)
Swift, who won three awards Monday, seemed to direct her Best Album acceptance speech at Kanye West. whose new song, “Famous,” finds him boasting that he should be credited for her success.
“As the first woman to win Album of the Year twice, I want to say to all the young women out there, there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame,” she said.
“But if you just focus on the work, and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday, when you get where you are going, you will look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there. And that will be the greatest feeling in the world.”
Accepting his Grammy for Best Rap Album during the telecast from the Staples Center, Lamar paid tribute to his parents and other mentors. He also gave a shout-out to his chosen musical genre and some of the artists who inspired him.
“This is for hip-hop,” he said. “This is for Snoop Dogg (and his album) ‘Doggystyle.’ This is for (the album) ‘Illmatic,’ this is for Nas. We will live forever, believe that.”
Mark Ronson’s infectiously retro “Uptown Funk,” which features Bruno Mars on vocals, won three Grammys, including Record of the Year. Alabama Shakes was the evening’s only other triple-winner.
Accepting the Record of the Year trophy, Ronson gazed out in the audience.
“I see George Clinton sitting over there, a man who has done more for funk than we can ever do in our lives” said Ronson, an Englishman who rose to prominence for his Grammy-winning collaborations with Amy Winehouse.
Two country acts, Little Big Town and Chris Stapleton, each won two awards, as did EDM artist Skrillex and Diplo, for their joint project Jack U.
“This is something you never dream of,” Stapleton said. “I’m super grateful for it.”
Two other artists also won two Grammys each, English acoustic troubadour Ed Sheeran and Canadian pop and R&B singer The Weeknd, whose planned “surprise” Grammy duet with Lauryn Hill fell through abruptly at the last minute.
“Lauryn came for dress rehearsals, completed it, and then did not make it back in time to make the show,” said Grammy honcho Neil Portnow, following the telecast.
Near the end of the show, Portnow and rapper Common appeared on stage together. They made an impassioned plea for musicians to be fairly compensated for their work, noting that (as ad-supported streaming grows) artists get paid pennies on the dollar, if that, for their work.
“Isn’t a song worth more than a penny?” Portnow asked. “Listen, we all love the convenience, and we support technologies like streaming, which connect us to that music. But we also have to make sure that artists grow up in a world where music is a viable career.”
Common nodded in agreement, then added: “So tonight, my comrades of the Recording Academy would like to thank our fans who support our work by going to a concert, subscribing to a music service, collecting vinyl, or speaking out for artists’ rights.”
Brittany Howard, the lead singer for triple-winners Alabama Shakes, voiced support backstage for these sentiments.
“My attitude is, why shouldn’t you get paid for what you do?” said Howard, a former mail carried, who was happily dazed be her band’s Grammy victory hat-trick.
“I didn’t expect (to win) one time in one night,” she said. “I never imagined even standing up there performing (or) having to speak to that many people.”
The ailing Joni Mitchell won the Grammy for Best Album Notes, for her essay accompanying her boxed set, “Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced.” She was not present. Neither was Bob Dylan, whose “The Basement Tapes Complete” was voted Best Historical Album.
For a performance-heavy show (there were nearly two-dozen by at least 33 different artists), the telecast was marred by too many so-so moments and some outright misfires.
Lady Gaga delivered a visually striking tribute to David Bowie and sang with obvious reverence. But by cramming 10, very truncated, songs into barely six minutes, she did them, and him, a disservice.
The Eagles fared better on “Take It Easy,” which featured Jackson Browne singing the late Glenn Frey’s lead vocal (the two co-wrote the song). Once an ode to youthful longing, it took on a more melancholic tone of wistful resignation Monday, one perfectly suited to paying tribute to a fallen comrade.
The late B.B. King was saluted by Stapleton, Bonnie Raitt and Gary Clark, Jr., who delivered a suitably searing version of the B.B. King classic, “The Thrill is Gone.” Stevie Wonder teamed with the a cappella vocal group Pentatonix for the Earth, Wind & Fire tribute “That’s the Way of the World,” and it was a highlight.
Not so the duet by Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt on their mash-up of “Take Your Time” and “Heartbeat.” The two had little discernible musical chemistry, and it showed. Little Big Town fared better with its Grammy-winning “Girl Crush,” which was wisely performed in an understated mode that let the song shine.
Even better was San Diego-bred neo-soul singer Andra Day, who performs a homecoming concert March 1 at Observatory North Park.
She didn’t win in either of the two R&B categories in which she was nominated. But her performance of “Rise Up” was a gospel-tinged treat that showcased her vocal range and control. Pairing her with Ellie Goulding, whose average voice sounded electronically enhanced, seemed more a matter of practicality (two young singers for the price of one), but Day held the spotlight convincingly on her own.
Adele was the victim of a technical mishap that marred her performance of “All I Ask,” which she performed with a pianist from a small round satellite stage in the Staples Center. One of the piano microphones fell into the piano, requiring a switch to a backup audio system. The transition was bumpy enough to distinctly throw off her singing. She shrugged it off later, with a simple: “S--- happens.”
Only eight Grammys were announced and presented during the telecast. The other 75 were given out during the pre-telecast, billed as the Grammy Awards Premiere Center, which took place at the adjacent Microsoft Theater. The pre-telecast featured six hosts and five musical performances, including by The Mavericks and gospel-music greats The Fairfield Four. One of the hosts was Anoushka Shankar, who grew up in Encinitas and is the daughter of Indian music icon Ravi Shankar.
She was nominated for the fifth time for Best World Music Album, a category won by Beninise singer Angelique Kidjo.
Her collaborator, orchestral conductor, Gast Waltzing, shared in the win for Kidjo’s album, “Sings.” By doing so, he apparently became the first Grammy-winner from Luxembourg, a European country with a population of just 500,000 or so.
“I am so happy to put Luxembourg on the map,” Waltzing said backstage. “We have a bad reputation, but it isn’t true; we are a nice little country.”
San Diego native and Nickel Creek co-founder Chris Thile was nominated for three albums with his current band, the bluegrass-and-way-beyond Punch Brothers, but the group came up empty handed.
Swift won the first award of the day at the pre-tel, when “1989" was named Best Pop Vocal Album. Although nominees had been instructed only moments earlier that only the winners could go on stage and give an acceptance speech, Taylor collaborator Jack Antonoff stepped up to the podium regardless.
“Taylor wants to be here so badly, but she’s in rehearsals (for the telecast),” he said.
Antonoff then called her on his cell phone and held it to the microphone.
“Hello, Taylor,” he said. “We just won Pop Vocal Album.”
Swift responded with excitement and a question about a fellow nominee in the same category.
“We won! Is James Taylor there?” she asked. “Can you tell him I love him?”
Antonoff replied: “I don’t know if he’s here.”
This promoted Taylor to say: “Could somebody who knows James Taylor tell him I love him?”
Later in the pre-telecast, when Swift’s “Bad Blood” was announced as the Best Music Video winner, its director, Ron Mohroff, referenced Antonoff. “Hold on, I want to call Taylor,” he said. “Oh, that’s right, I don’t have her number.”
Best New Age Album winner Paul Avgerinos offered an intriguing explanation of his musical goal. “I would like to give everyone in the world a back massage,” he said. “But it’s hard, because your hands get tired.”
Avgerinos also paid tribute to his guru, saying: “She has personally hugged over 35 million people.”
Joey Alexander, a 12-year-old jazz piano virtuoso, was nominated in two categories. While he lost, he was the only artist to perform during both the pre-telecast and the telecast.
Tony Bennett won the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album award for “The Silver Lining,” his Jerome Kern tribute with jazz pianist Bill Charlap. It was Bennett’s 18th Grammy victory.
At 89, he was the oldest honoree on hand. But the oldest winner was former President Jimmy Carter, who took the Best Spoken World Album prize for “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.”
Justin Bieber performed an acoustic ballad, “Love Yourself,” then joined Skrillex and Dilpo XXX for a performance that was both energetic and indistinct.
Monday’s telecast was preceded by nearly a full week of Grammy-related events. The most star-studded was Saturday’s all-star MusiCares Person of the Year concert, which honored Lionel Richie. It raised more than $7 million for the Grammy-sponsored MusiCares Foundation, which provides medical and financial aid to musicians in need. Richie also performed during Monday’s telecast, accompanied by a band that featured San Diego bass great Nathan East.
Richie was saluted on Monday’s telecast performance by John Legend, Demi Lovato, Luke Bryan, Tyrese Gibson and Meghan Trainor, who burst into tears on stage later while accepting her Best New Artist Grammy.
Jazz orchestra composer and leader Maria Schnieder was also teary eyed after her collaboration with the recently deceased David Bowie, “Sue (Or in a Seaon of Crime”), won the award for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals. Her group’s saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, went on to play a key role on Bowie’s 2016 farewell album, “Blackstar.”
“As a jazz musician, to have somebody like David Bowie come into our world, and with such appreciation, enthusiasm and spirit of collaboration, was remarkable,” she said backstage.
“He talked about how he loved (jazz greats) Stan Kenton and Gil Evans. This is a man who knew so much literature, so much art, that it was almost intimidating to be around (him). That’s why, in his lyrics, there is so much symbolism that leaves us with so many questions. We can’t even know all the references that are there.”
“Uptown Funk” co-writer Ronson also sang Bowie’s praises backstage.
“The way he never compromised is a good lesson,” Ronson said, “for everybody to make great art, all the time.”
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