Grammys 2005: West and the rest


February 6, 2005


With no big theme dominating this year's nominations -- no "year of the woman" or overdue acknowledgement of the chart supremacy of hip-hop -- the big story of the 2004 Grammy Awards is the recognition of an extraordinary artist who happens to hail from Chicago.

The voting membership of the Recording Academy, which sponsors the Grammys, justifiably honored 27-year-old South Side native Kanye West as a triple threat -- an exceptionally talented rapper, producer and songwriter -- and rewarded his 2004 debut "The College Dropout" with a phenomenal 10 nominations, including several in the "big four" categories viewed as the awards' most prestigious.

This slate of Grammy nods is surpassed only by Michael Jackson and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds for the most in a single year -- with 12 each -- and it ties with other recent multiple-nominee giants Carlos Santana and Lauryn Hill, according to Grammy historians. It is also the most nominations ever for a Chicago artist.



West and the rest
With no big theme dominating this year's nominations, the big story of the 2004 Grammy Awards is the recognition of an extraordinary artist who happens to hail from Chicago.

DeRogatis: Five Grammy talking points
A 'rescue' for 911 Mambo
Country, Latin & blues Grammy picks
Sailing from the Aloha State to Grammys
All hail the Queen, your host
Complete Grammy nominees

Because of the wide-ranging diversity of the 2004 contenders -- a better slate overall than the Grammys have mustered since the mid '90s -- West is unlikely to duplicate the sweeps that Santana and Hill achieved, claiming nearly all of the categories they were nominated in. But veteran Grammy handicappers and music-industry insiders predict that West will have a very good night, nonetheless, coming home with at least three or four golden phonograph statuettes for his mantelpiece.

Grammy executives are prohibited from talking about the nominations or offering their insights into the byzantine politics of the academy, but one high-ranking insider confided that in addition to voters being attracted by West's obvious and multifaceted technical skills -- he also directs his own videos -- they were impressed by the positive message of his lyrics, especially the hit single "Jesus Walks," which finds the artist offering a thankful prayer for surviving a devastating car wreck.

In addition to the varied slate of competitors -- with Usher and Alicia Keys also topping the list -- the biggest factors working against West on Grammy night are his outspoken and notoriously cocky attitude (though let's hope voters will realize that's just part and parcel of the hip-hop world) and the Grammys' consistent and undeniable urge to honor venerated elders who have recently passed away.

"Genius Loves Company," a posthumous collection of tepid duets, is one of the least remarkable albums in Ray Charles' great career, but it became his best selling disc ever after his death last June. Grammy voters love big chart hits almost as much as they love dead legends, and they also like to be seen as being hipper than Oscar voters, who are weighing the merits of Jamie Foxx's starmaking turn as Charles in "Ray."

Bearing in mind my annual caveat that fickle Grammy voters are notoriously hard to predict, here is a look at how I handicap the key categories for the 47th annual Grammy Awards, which will be handed out Feb. 13 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles:

Record of the Year

Awarded to the performer and producer of a single track

The nominees: "Let's Get It Started," Black Eyed Peas; "Here We Go Again," Ray Charles and Norah Jones; "American Idiot," Green Day; "Heaven," Los Lonely Boys; "Yeah!," Usher featuring Lil Jon & Ludacris.

Predicted winner: "Here We Go Again." Sure, Usher's hit was massive, but Grammy voters love Jones, and they won't be able to pass up the chance to honor Charles one last time.

Most worthy: "American Idiot." This angry but tuneful anthem was among the best songs in a year that saw an amazing resurgence of political rock and pop. In fact, the only tune that was stronger was ...

Sadly overlooked: "The Revolution Starts Now" by Steve Earle.

Album of the Year

The nominees: "Genius Loves Company," Ray Charles and various artists; "American Idiot," Green Day; "The Diary of Alicia Keys," Alicia Keys; "Confessions," Usher; "The College Dropout," Kanye West.

Predicted winner: Charles, for the reasons cited above, though some armchair analysts suggest that fans of Keys, Usher and West may split the R&B and hip-hop votes, giving the prize to Green Day.

Most worthy: "The College Dropout."

Sadly overlooked: Whoo-boy, where to start? "The Revolution Starts Now" by Steve Earle, "Franz Ferdinand" by Franz Ferdinand, "The Tipping Point" by the Roots, "Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds, Vol. 2" by Jill Scott, "A Ghost Is Born" by Wilco, to name just a few.

Song of the Year

Awarded to the songwriter

The nominees: "Daughters," John Mayer; "If I Ain't Got You," Alicia Keys; "Jesus Walks," Kanye West; "Live Like You Were Dying," Tim McGraw (Tim Nichols & Craig Wiseman, songwriters); "The Reason," Hoobastank.

Predicted winner: "Jesus Walks."

Most worthy: "Jesus Walks."

Sadly overlooked: "Float On" by Modest Mouse, "Family Reunion" by Jill Scott and "Autobiography" by Ashlee Simpson. (Honest! It's a great guilty-pleasure pop song!)

Best New Artist

The nominees: Los Lonely Boys; Maroon 5; Joss Stone; Kanye West; Gretchen Wilson.

Predicted winner: West, hands down the biggest talent in a pretty underwhelming category.

Most worthy: West, though given the infamous curse of the best new artist Grammy (Arrested Development, where are you?), maybe we should root for someone else.

Sadly overlooked: The Secret Machines.

Pop Vocal Album

The nominees: "Genius Loves Company," Ray Charles & various artists; "Feels Like Home," Norah Jones; "Afterglow," Sarah McLachlan; "Mind, Body & Soul," Joss Stone; "Brian Wilson Presents Smile," Brian Wilson.

Predicted winner: Charles, though he may split the historically minded vote with Wilson and open things up for easy-listening fans to continue showering love on the yawn-inducing Jones.

Most worthy: Wilson. Though "Smile" is not the "lost masterpiece" of legend, it is an impressive accomplishment that took three and a half decades to complete, and this could be a make-good prize for failing to honor the superior "Pet Sounds."

Sadly overlooked: "Autobiography" by Ashlee Simpson. (Seriously! Why do you keep laughing?)

Dance Recording

The nominees: "Good Luck," Basement Jaxx featuring Lisa Kekaula; "Get Yourself High," the Chemical Brothers; "Slow," Kylie Minogue; "Comfortably Numb," Scissor Sisters; "Toxic," Britney Spears.

Predicted winner: Spears (or maybe Minogue), but only because the three hip and very deserving competitors will split the votes of sharper underground tastemakers.

Most worthy: Basement Jaxx.

Sadly overlooked: "Six Days" by DJ Shadow.

Rock Song

The nominees: "American Idiot," Green Day; "Fall to Pieces," Velvet Revolver; "Float On," Modest Mouse; "Somebody Told Me," the Killers; "Vertigo," U2.

Predicted winner: U2, in a grave injustice, as voters who actually have their finger on the pulse of current rock split between Green Day, Modest Mouse and the Killers and old fogies go with a name they trust.

Most worthy: "American Idiot."

Sadly overlooked: "Hit the City" by Mark Lanegan and PJ Harvey.

Rock Album

The nominees: "The Delivery Man," Elvis Costello and the Imposters; "American Idiot," Green Day; "The Reason," Hoobastank; "Hot Fuss," the Killers; "Contraband," Velvet Revolver.

Predicted winner: Green Day. The punk trio garnered eight nominations for its surprisingly mature rock opera, and voters can't ignore it all night, especially since left-leaning music industry insiders will enjoy the dissing of President Bush. (Call this the "Fahrenheit 9/11" prize.)

Most worthy: "American Idiot."

Sadly overlooked: "The Ride" by Los Lobos.

Alternative Music Album

The nominees: "Medulla," Bjork; "Franz Ferdinand," Franz Ferdinand; "Uh Huh Her," PJ Harvey; "Good News for People Who Love Bad News," Modest Mouse; "A Ghost Is Born," Wilco.

Predicted winner: Bjork, because pretension is on her side for this nearly unlistenable album crafted almost exclusively with vocal sounds.

Most worthy: I have to go with Chicago's Wilco, narrowly edging out Franz Ferdinand.

Sadly overlooked: Once again, where to start? How about "Bubblegum" by Mark Lanegan, "Together We're Heavy" by the Polyphonic Spree or "Now Here Is Nowhere" by the Secret Machines?

R&B Song

The nominees: "Burn," Usher; "Call My Name," Prince; "My Boo," Usher and Alicia Keys; "Yeah!," Usher; "You Don't Know My Name," Alicia Keys.

Predicted winner: Prince, a venerated elder, who opened last year's show, and who will likely benefit from Usher and Keys each splitting the vote twice.

Most worthy: "You Don't Know My Name," which finds Keys getting some noteworthy songwriting and production help from the ubiquitous Kanye West.

Sadly overlooked: "Talk About Our Love" by Brandy.

R&B Album

The nominees: "My Everything," Anita Baker; "I Can't Stop," Al Green; "The Diary of Alicia Keys," Alicia Keys; "Musicology," Prince; "Beautifully Human: Words & Sounds, Vol. 2," Jill Scott.

Predicted winner: This is an odd category this year, since the Grammys also have created a slate dubbed "best contemporary R&B album," even though all of the artists recognized here are contemporary, and several of the contenders in the contemporary category (notably Brandy and Usher) really belong here. In any event, among these messy nominations, I predict that voters will go with Keys to continue the coronation they started with her last album.

Most worthy: "Beautifully Human: Words & Sounds, Vol. 2."

Sadly overlooked: Pure and simple: Mavis Staples was robbed! The Chicago gospel, soul and R&B legend released one of the best albums of her career with "Have a Little Faith." She deserved some Grammy respect, but she was seriously dissed.

Rap Song

The nominees: "Drop It Like It's Hot," Snoop Dogg; "Hey Mama," Black Eyed Peas; "Jesus Walks," Kanye West; "Let's Get It Started," Black Eyed Peas; "99 Problems," Jay-Z.

Predicted winner: "Jesus Walks."

Most worthy: "Jesus Walks."

Sadly overlooked: "Dream" by Dizzee Rascal.

Rap Album

The nominees: "To the 5 Boroughs," the Beastie Boys; "The Black Album," Jay-Z; "The Definition," LL Cool J; "Suit," Nelly; "The College Dropout," Kanye West.

Predicted winner: "The College Dropout." This may sting Jay-Z, though Jigga should console himself; if the Grammys weren't weird in defining the year 2004 as Nov. 1, 2003, through Oct. 31, 2004, he wouldn't have been competing with his protege -- "The Black Album" was released on Nov. 14, 2003 -- and he probably would have claimed the prize.

Most worthy: "The College Dropout."

Sadly overlooked: "The Tipping Point" by the Roots and "The Grey Album" by DJ Danger Mouse, the brilliant bootleg mash-up of "The White Album" by the Beatles and "The Black Album" by Jay-Z.


Five Grammy talking points

I make these points every year, but they continue to hold true, and it helps to keep them in mind while watching the Grammys and trying to contain the impulse to hurl hard objects at your TV set after some of the more dubious awards.

1. The Grammys remain the most credible awards in popular music.

Unlike MTV's Video Music Awards or Dick Clark's American Music Awards, the Grammys have a public voting system, with prizes determined by the nearly 20,000 music industry professionals in the Recording Academy (formerly known as the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences). There are problems with the system -- primarily in the way select committees winnow down thousands of artists into a shortlist of those eligible to be nominated -- but it's a lot more fair than having the names chosen in a smoke-filled corporate board room.

2. The Grammys are slowly and steadily improving.

The Grammys were founded in the mid-1950s by ultra-conservative pop icons like Frank Sinatra and Mitch Miller, who wanted to honor "good" (read: "old-fashioned") musical values at the expense of that noisy new scourge rock 'n' roll. While their omissions (say, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan) were notorious in the '60s and '70s, over the last two decades, they've been getting much better, albeit at a glacial pace. Nevertheless ...

3. The Grammys still aren't nearly as good as they should be.

The academy as a whole is still overly impressed with commercial success at the expense of its stated criteria of "musical excellence and innovation," and it's prone to trying to make up for previous sins of omission. While the genre awards have become more respectable, the "big four" prizes -- record, song and album of the year, and best new artist -- still hone too closely to the top of the sales charts much of the time. And when in doubt, the Grammys will usually throw the prize to a venerated geezer legend.

4. Instead of complaining, you could actually join the group and work to change it.

Grammy membership is open to any musician or studio engineer who has worked on six commercially released tracks, as well as to some educators and other music industry professionals. There is an annual membership fee of $100, but there are fringe benefits: You'll be eligible to buy many CDs at a discount, and you'll be able to vote for next year's Grammy Award nominees instead of just whining about them. For more information, visit

5. The Chicago chapter of NARAS is one of the fastest growing and most active in the country.

As executive director, Griff Morris made great strides in bringing national attention to Chicago, sponsoring worthwhile forums and panel discussions, increasing charitable activities and opening up the membership to embrace young music makers from underground genres.

Morris moved on last year to become a vice president of the Grammy Foundation and MusiCares at the national offices in Santa Monica, but his replacement, Tera Siwicki, continues to make the branch a great resource for networking and community-building.

All hail the Queen, your host

After two years without a host, Grammy organizers have picked a good candidate to helm the 47th annual awards show when it is telecast live Feb. 13 from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Queen Latifah is an inspired choice, though she's no Kid Rock, and the Grammys are no MTV Video Music Awards. In fact, it appears as if this year's show will lack a big whiz-bang surprise performance a la Eminem and Elton John, Prince or the tributes to the Beatles and the Clash that elevated the last few telecasts.

The best the show's organizers have announced so far, as surprise pairings go, is the first joint performance by Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, who remain mum on their reported marriage. The couple is rumored to be crooning a tune from "Rebirth," the new album from Jenny on the Block.

The other marquee performers this year are Alicia Keys and U2 -- both predictable, ho-hum choices (especially given U2's publicity blitzkrieg) -- while the "special attractions" aren't very special at all, including a performance by Bonnie Raitt and Billy Preston in honor of Ray Charles, and a tribute to Southern rock featuring Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Gretchen Wilson, Elvin Bishop, Dickie Betts of the Allman Brothers and what's left of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The show's most fiery moments will likely come from Green Day, who should tear the house down like the White Stripes did last year, and Kanye West, who will perform "Jesus Walks" and a medley of his other hits in collaboration with Mavis Staples (an obvious attempt to rectify the unconscionable lack of nominations for Staples' "Have a Little Faith"), the Blind Boys of Alabama and his regular sidekick, keyboardist John Legend.

The Grammys will air locally starting at 7 p.m. Feb. 13 on WBBM-Channel 2