Ladies and gentlemen, here's the heavyweight card at the 44th annual Grammy Awards. In one corner is the dynamic duo of female R&B artists, India.Arie and Alicia Keys. In the other corner, we have the defending champions in the song and record of the year categories, the Irish-rock powerhouse U2. Let the best musician win.
Yes, this year's Grammy Awards, which will be telecast Wednesday night at 7 on CBS, is shaping up to be one heck of a battle.
Keys and India.Arie are adding a youthful spin to the ceremonies, with the upstart artists having received a combined 13 nominations. Keys is up for six golden gramophones, including best new artist, best song and record of the year. India.Arie has seven nominations, with nods coming in each of Grammy's big-gun categories (song and record of the year, album of the year and new artist).
However, U2 is contending for its own share of awards - with a total of eight nominations - including album of the year for its multiplatinum "All That You Can't Leave Behind." And in the coveted song and record of the year categories, U2, India.Arie and Alicia Keys will all go (ital) mano a mano (endital) at the mother-of-all music awards.
It's a time of tough choices for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the committee of some 13,000 music industry professionals that nominates and awards the Grammys. Still, Grammy observers are predicting that youth-oriented acts, and Keys in particular, might be in store for a stellar night.
"Unlike some years, where there's one sweep, two sweeps seem to be building this year," said Paul Grein, a Grammy historian and NARAS member. "I think Alicia Keys will win the most awards, but U2 will win the big one (album of the year) and could get up to five awards."
Keys is considered a front-runner for both song and record of the year with her hit "Fallin'." With piano tinklings a la Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and confessional songwriting set to an R&B bump, "Fallin"' reached the top of Billboard's Hot 100 singles charts and was one of 2001's most popular tunes. Also, Keys has crossed over from urban audiences to the pop charts, selling some 4 million copies of her self-titled album.
Grammy voters are apt to recognize Keys' tasty combo of artistic merit and commercial success, even against U2 and other would-be's in the song and record of the year categories. U2's "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," a song of the year nominee, hasn't been one of the band's stronger-performing tracks, peaking at No. 52 on the singles charts. U2, however, may rule in such categories as rock song and pop performance by a duo or group with vocal.
"Alicia has the qualities that (NARAS) usually turns to for big winners," Grein said. "Her album was a big hit; she was a critical hit, so they're not going too far on a limb. She was also the first big release on Clive Davis' J Records, and he's an industry legend."
Considering Keys' far-reaching successes, it came as a surprise in January when India.Arie scored more nominations than Keys. Though India.Arie's excellent debut album, "Acoustic Soul," peaked at No. 10 on the album charts and has sold 1 million copies, her singles, such as song and record of the year contender "Video," have yet to be pop smashes.
India.Arie is thus a sleeper when facing Keys in the new artist field. Only Linkin Park can match Keys' sales figures among the new artist crop, with the nu-metal band tallying some 4.8 million copies of its "Hybrid Theory." Rock acts, however, traditionally don't snag Grammy's top prizes.
India.Arie will also compete with Keys in the female R&B vocal, R&B song and R&B album categories. India.Arie's best chances of snagging Grammys come in these genre-specific categories, though Keys' populist appeal might result in an across-the-board sweep.
"Right now, India.Arie seems to be more of an urban artist," said Byron Kennedy, program director for Sacramento, Calif.-area R&B radio station KSFM. "She doesn't have that mass appeal yet. She's really talented and she won't just disappear overnight, but it's taking her longer to cross over into the mainstream."
Nevertheless, India.Arie has been heralded within R&B circles for her earthy approach, acoustic guitar playing and finely honed songwriting. In the January issue of the urban music and culture magazine Vibe, India.Arie was selected over Keys for best new artist in its editors-chosen "Vibe of the Year Awards."
"The reason we gave India.Arie the award is because we felt that her album, as a complete project, was an amazing body of work," said Emil Wilbekin, Vibe's editor-in-chief. "We loved the fact that she plays acoustic guitar and she is very involved with writing and performing her music. We also liked the fact that she'd been in Gap ads and collaborated with John Cougar Mellencamp (on the song 'Peaceful World')."
"We like Alicia, too," Wilbekin said. "Alicia had this huge pop break-out year, selling millions of copies of her debut. I think India's music is still very roots-based, whereas Alicia is more slick and polished. You have two different sides of urban culture at play."
But Wilbekin admitted that for all her artistic accomplishments, India.Arie was unlikely to usurp U2 for album of the year honors. After all, 2001 was a whopper of a year for U2, which included multimillion sales of "All That You Can't Leave Behind" and the year's top-grossing tour.
And U2 is no stranger to the Grammys. In 1987, the band won two awards, including album of the year for "The Joshua Tree," and has snagged eight more Grammys along the way. U2 already is coming off a big Grammy year in 2001, in which the band won both song and record of the year for "Beautiful Day," the lead-off single from "All That You Can't Leave Behind."
"Usually you don't see artists get back-to-back big awards, but U2 had such a strong year," said Grammy historian Grein. "They won record of the year from their first single, which was a taster, but this is the year they had a big impact. Their tour was a huge success and they seemed to have tapped into something in the wake of Sept. 11."
If U2 wasn't in the field, Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft" might have been a shoo-in for album of the year. Dylan's critical force was mighty in 2001 with the rustically refreshing "Love and Theft," and NARAS generally loves to honor such elder statesmen who produce still-relevant work, as was the case in recent years when stars like Carlos Santana, Steely Dan and Dylan himself scored top awards.
"Dylan is in his 60s and not only producing worthy work, but great work," Grein said. "I think he would've won (for album of the year) if U2 was out of the equation. They've sort of become the Beatles of this generation."
But overall, 2002 is seen as a year in which NARAS kept its nominees diverse, and opted much more for musicality over marketability. Along with Dylan, Keys and U2 in the best album field, nominees include hip-hop mavericks Outkast and the country/bluegrass "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack.
"This is the first Grammys that seemed fair and balanced in its nominations," Wilbekin said. "Normally they don't nominate urban acts, and there's even women in the rap categories. This year seems more multicultural and youth-oriented, and I think the emphasis is on craftsmanship.
"I think it's cool that with Alicia Keys and India.Arie, here are these two young women who have got so many nominations and attention," Wilbekin said. "It's a great step for women and urban music and black women. Urban music is very male-dominated, and all of a sudden there are two women running neck and neck."
This year's Grammy Awards boasts one of its most diverse nominee pools in recent memory. New artists are up for many top awards, and R&B musicians have given this year's field a distinct urban flavor. Still, such previous Grammy winners as Bob Dylan and U2 will keep the mix ripe with competition.
And the winners are...Here's a look at who I think should win, and who will win, in some of the most important Grammys categories:
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
"Acoustic Soul," India.Arie
"Love And Theft," Bob Dylan
"All That You Can't Leave Behind," U2
"O Brother, Where Art Thou?," various artists
Who should win: Outkast, for pushing hip-hop's sonic barriers with space-age beats and thoughtful lyrical feats. Too bad that hip-hop hardly ever wins the Grammy's top prize.
Who will win: Indie.Arie, Bob Dylan and the "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack are all formidable contenders, but there is no stopping U2's critical and commercial steamroller.
RECORD OF THE YEAR
"Fallin'," Alicia Keys
"Ms. Jackson," Outkast
"Drops of Jupiter," Train
"Walk On," U2
Who should win: Outkast's "Ms. Jackson." It's not only one of the catchiest songs, but a particularly provocative tune in hip-hop's canon with its sorrowful study of "baby mama drama."
Who will win: Alicia Keys will be rewarded for one of the most popular singles of 2001 and the tune that launched her from upstart to superstar.
SONG OF THE YEAR (songwriter)
"Drops of Jupiter," Charlie Colin, Rob Hotchkiss, Pat Monahan, Jimmy Stafford, Scott Underwood (Train)
"Fallin'," Alicia Keys
"I'm Like a Bird," Nelly Furtado
"Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," U2
"Video," India.Arie, Carlos "Six July" Broady, Reginald Harris, Shannon Sanders (India.Arie)
Who should win: Keys, who tugged heartstrings and showed remarkable songwriting skills in "Fallin'." Plus, she wrote the song on her own.
Who will win: Keys. After all, the winners for song and record of the year are normally the same.
Who should win: It's a tenacious pack with Nelly Furtado, an emerging pop music "It Girl," and India.Arie's tasty musical skills. But Keys is most deserving for crafting a multiplatinum splash via solid piano chops and songwriting craft.
Who will win: Expect there to be more controversy than in Olympics ice skating if Keys doesn't nab this prize.
BEST POP VOCAL ALBUM
"Whoa, Nelly!," Nelly Furtado
"All for You," Janet Jackson
"Songs From the West Coast," Elton John
"Celebrity," 'N Sync
"Lovers Rock," Sade
Who should win: 'N Sync! Just kidding... How about Sade, the super-svelte singer who showed fine form after an eight-year haitus.
Who will win: Rock veteran Elton John might be rewarded for his acclaimed set of songs, though "Songs From the West Coast" was a commercial stinker. While Furtado is likely to get creamed by Keys for new artist and song of the year honors, here's a field where the new-school pop star will be recognized for her hit-making ways.
BEST ROCK ALBUM
"Gold," Ryan Adams
"Just Push Play," Aerosmith
"Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea," PJ Harvey
"Hybrid Theory," Linkin Park
"All That You Can't Leave Behind," U2
Who should win: U2, for making some of the best music of its career.
Who will win: Ryan Adams and PJ Harvey pack a lot of critical clout, but they will be hard-pressed to topple the rock-solid U2.
BEST RAP ALBUM
"Pain Is Love," Ja Rule
"The Blueprint," Jay-Z
"Back for the First Time," Ludacris
Who should win: Outkast, because "Stankonia" is the bomb (and that means good).
Who will win: While "Stankonia" probably won't snag Grammy's top prize, this is where Outkast will be acknowledged for its contributions to hip-hop's cutting edge.