At the 60th iteration of Music’s Biggest Night, Kendrick Lamar owned the opening, Kesha and Janelle Monáe delivered stirring calls-to-arms, Patti LuPone reprised her classic Evita role, and Sting and Shaggy refused to cede the spotlight. Here’s the best and worst of a night where Dave Chappelle played unofficial host and comedians played with adorable pug pups in the crowd.
Three years before #MeToo took stock of sexual assault in the entertainment industry, Kesha sued her ex-producer, Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, for “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally [abusing her] to the point where [she] nearly lost her life.” Sunday night she returned triumphantly to the stage to perform her Grammy-nominated comeback single, “Praying” – but not without a posse. Looking fierce in all white, Kesha’s Grammys squad featured Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Julia Michaels, Andra Day and Bebe Rexha, as well as the Resistance Revival Chorus of Women’s March fame. Fighting back tears with blazing fervor, Kesha sang, “Some say in life, you’re gonna get what you give … but some things only God can forgive.” Perhaps directed at Dr. Luke – or perhaps all those who turned a blind eye, only to applaud her in front of the cameras – Kesha’s words reflected a poise that’s impossibly demanded of all survivors of sexual abuse. Crowned by a massive group hug from her fellow performers, Kesha’s showing was a testament to the healing power of women’s solidarity. Pray for anyone who snubbed Kesha’s earth-shattering high note for Best Pop Vocal Performance.
“Come on, play it again, turn it up one more time – too many ballads tonight!” Bruno Mars exclaimed as the title track from 24K Magic faded out in advance of his Record of the Year acceptance speech. And, well, he wasn’t wrong. From Lady Gaga’s sweet-yet-slow medley of the searching “Joanne” and the mournful “Million Reasons” to Sam Smith’s churchy “Pray” and the night-closing performance of Logic’s anti-suicide rallying cry “1-800-273-8255,” the dominant pace of this year’s Grammys was methodical, measured, even mournful – in other words, slowwww. Whether the show’s string of torch-y downers was the result of producers not adding up featured songs’ BPMs until it was too late or artists’ overwhelming desire to reflect the admittedly anxious national mood, it made music seem wan and defeated – especially when compared to the night’s unusually high quotient of comedy, which even featured adorable “consolation puppies.” As Kendrick Lamar showed in his show-opening performance, it’s possible to be serious while picking up the pace – if anything, it’s an even better show of resilience.
The Grammy-nominated trio dialed it back to the Roaring Twenties in their scorching performance of “Wild Thoughts,” the DJ Khaled hit derived from Santana’s 1999 Latin hip-hop ballad “Maria, Maria.” Carlos himself was a no-show; instead the performance was an explicit celebration of the African diaspora across borders and generations, visually citing the swank of Josephine Baker and the Harlem Renaissance, the swagger of Seventies Blaxploitation and Sun Ra’s celestial visions. Rihanna topped it all off by busting a dance move known in South Africa as the Gwara Gwara, sending fans reeling in multiple continents. The festive mood was something this year’s Grammys desperately needed more of.
Kendrick Lamar opened the Grammys with perhaps the most impressive network-TV performance of his career to date, a masterful display that mixed technical bravura and jaw-dropping showmanship. He blitzed through recent songs – including a pair from his Album of the Year nominated Damn. LP (“XXX,” “DNA”) and his spitfire verse on Jay Rock’s “King’s Dead” – and employed a steadily shifting series of backdrops. The rapper emerged in the middle of a group of dancers clad in army fatigues; they marched in place as American flags waved in the background. The jerky rhythm of their marching soon gave way to vigorous, unpredictable movements, and they crowded around Lamar, evoking Kanye West’s performance of “All Day” at the Brit Awards in 2015. Later the stage emptied, leaving Lamar alone with a taiko drummer who slammed along to the beat. When the group of dancers returned, they were wearing red from head to toe. As Lamar sped through the staccato finale of his “King’s Dead” verse – a long string of four- or five-syllable declarations – each dancer fell down as if shot. And that was only part of it. Bono and the Edge also showed up briefly to sing their snippet from “XXX” (they later released their own version of this song titled “American Soul”). And Lamar might be the only artist working right now who could fold two Dave Chappelle interludes into a stunning performance without losing momentum.
During the first half of the Grammys, Dave Chappelle was a regular presence and an unexpected scene-stealer. There he was in the middle of Kendrick Lamar’s tour-de-force opening, annotating the performance through jokes with political bite. “I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America,” he said. “Sorry for the interruption – please continue.” When he reappeared to present the Best Rap Album award, he took a moment to honor A Tribe Called Quest, who were conspicuously absent from the list of nominees (to Q-Tip’s chagrin). “I have so much love and respect for all the nominees tonight,” Chappelle said. “I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge Jarobi [White], Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip, sometimes Busta [Rhymes], sometimes Consequence, and forever and ever Phife Dawg, may he rest in peace. Make some noise for Tribe Called Quest.” Later Chappelle received the award for Best Comedy Album, but he was more comfortable advocating for others than he was talking about himself. He briefly thanked colleagues, friends and family before adding, “see you on Monday.”
James Corden was billed as the host of the Grammys this year, but he didn’t show his face until six minutes into the broadcast when he briefly welcomed everyone to the ceremony, rattled off the list of the upcoming performers and directed the spotlight to Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson. The only moment that even resembled a joke came when he billed himself as “the least diverse host in Grammys history.” Why go to all the trouble of booking James Corden if you’re not going to let him deliver an opening monologue? He popped up occasionally during the rest of the show for dad-jokey bits like quoting “Empire State of Mind” lyrics back to Jay-Z, and chatting with his parents only to discover they’d missed much of the show to see Hamilton, but mostly he was a complete non-entity. (It felt like Dave Chappelle, not to mention Sting and Shaggy, got significantly more airtime.) Corden was clearly sidelined to free up as much time as possible for the performances, giving him no real chance to shine outside of that terrible “Subway Karaoke” bit. He might have killed if he’d only had the chance.
In a short, incisive speech before Kesha’s triumphant performance of “Praying,” Janelle Monáe delivered a steely-eyed message to those still fighting to protect music-business status quo: “Time’s up.” (A pin attached to the lapel of her sleek, flower-printed Dolce & Gabbana tux echoed the sentiment.) “We come in peace,” she said, “but we mean business. … We say time’s up for pay inequality, time’s up for discrimination, time’s up for harassment of any kind, and time’s up for the abuse of power. Because, you see, it’s not just going on in Hollywood, it’s not just going on in Washington – it’s right here in our industry as well. And just as we have the power to shape culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well. So let’s work together, women and men, as a united music industry, committed to creating more safe work environments, equal pay and access for all women.” Simple yet elegant, the statement put the music industry on blast/notice – and, one hopes, served as an inspiration to those watching at home, too.
Bruno Mars ran the table on Sunday night, with his love letter to Eighties and Nineties R&B 24K Magic and its attendant singles racking up six awards including Record, Song and Album of the Year. His performance of the Cardi B–assisted remix for his New Jack Swing throwback “Finesse” stayed true to the In Living Color aesthetic of its brightly hued video and added a few more Nineties touches – the “Bodak Yellow” breakout star sported a bucket hat and a color-blocked, peace-sign–emblazoned duster for her opening verse, Mars’ dancers bounced in unison like they were trying out for a Broadway adaptation of The New Edition Story and snippets of House of Pain’s 1992 rager “Jump Around” and Prince’s 1991 sexcapade “Gett Off” were dropped into the mix. Mars’ high-energy track, and his and Cardi’s good-time charisma, gave the telecast a much-needed boost – and a bit of Peak MTV-era optimism, too.
Grammy nominees past and present joined forces in the most riotous segment of the night. Riffing on the un-televised Best Spoken Word Album award – given posthumously to Carrie Fisher for her audiobook The Princess Diarist – host James Corden decided that with the right narrator, splashy Trump exposé Fire and Fury could score an easy Grammy win. So began a series of auditions, featuring juicy passages read by John Legend, Cher and a smoke-ensconced Snoop Dogg. Cardi B seemed legitimately bewildered by Trump’s diet (“This is how he lives his life?!” she asks the camera) while DJ Khaled hijacked his reading with a salvo of dancehall air horns and shameless self-promotion. A surprise reading by none other than Hillary Rodham Clinton hit the spot – “You bagged it,” Corden assures her – closing the video on a bittersweet note.
There are so many ways the Grammys could have honored Tom Petty this year. Imagine if the Heartbreakers took the stage together for the first time since Petty’s passing to play his tunes with three or four singers. Bob Dylan could have revived his performance of “Learning to Fly” from earlier in the year. Stevie Nicks could have done, well, anything she felt like. It would have been incredible. Instead, they producers opted to have Chris Stapleton and Emmylou Harris play an acoustic “Wildflowers” in front of a bunch of photos of pastel flowers. Why exactly didn’t images of Petty fill the screen instead? This isn’t to say that Harris and Stapleton didn’t do a fine job, but Petty deserved so much more. Then again, it could have been worse: Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington merely get two seconds each during the In Memoriam section.
Sunday’s telecast was teeming with ballads, but on the bright side, slowing things down allowed vocalists to show off their chops. Lady Gaga’s robust, confrontational alto amped up the power of “Million Reasons”; Kesha fueled her vocal power with raw emotion during “Praying”; Pink stayed earthbound and let her voice do the soaring on “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken”; and Elton John and Miley Cyrus offered up a spirited singalong of “Tiny Dancer.” Perhaps the presence of Patti LuPone, a Tony- and Grammy-winning vocal powerhouse who lit up Evita‘s torch song “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” in a tribute to composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, inspired other singers on Sunday’s bill to step up their collective game, but no matter the reason, the vocal prowess on display was a serious treat.
Sure, Lady Gaga, Kesha and Pink once again proved on Sunday that they’ve got platinum-plated pipes. But very few vocalists of any genre inside MSG (or anywhere) could belt toe-to-toe with Patti LuPone. The Tony-winning performer ended a nearly 25-year feud with Broadway impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber to honor him with a tribute performance of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” from 1979’s Evita. Perched atop a makeshift balcony, Broadway’s original Evita delivered a nuclear-caliber reprise of the show’s trademark anthem, singing with terrifying power and heartbreaking charisma as a woman (the real-life Eva Perón) negotiating, then commanding, the political realm. Trenchant and artistically awe-inspiring enough to make fans forget that Madonna movie – and, frankly, most of the 2018 Grammy performances. (Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt’s accompanying Leonard Bernstein tribute performance of “Somewhere” was also very nice.)
The Grammys largely avoided references to President Trump or the partisan grudge-matches taking place daily on Capitol Hill. But before introducing U2’s performance, Camila Cabello offered an urgent plea on behalf of the Dreamers, roughly 800,000 immigrants who are currently facing an uncertain fate due to Republican calls for increasingly restrictive immigration law. “Tonight in this room full of music’s dreamers, we remember that this country was built by dreamers for dreamers chasing the American dream,” Cabello said. “I’m here on this stage tonight because just like the Dreamers, my parents brought me to this country with nothing in their pockets but hope … I’m a proud Cuban-Mexican immigrant … and all I know is, just like dreams, these kids can’t be forgotten and are worth fighting for.” Many artists skirted around partisan politics, but Cabello showed the effectiveness of tackling the issues head on.
James Corden’s hosting was rocky at best, but he nearly redeemed himself in the aftermath of Dave Chappelle’s Best Comedy Album win: “I don’t want anyone to be upset tonight,” he declared, “so the good news is: Nobody goes home empty-handed because all night we will be handing out consolation puppies.” Cue shots of comedy-Grammy also-rans Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan and Sarah Silverman snuggling with adorable pug pups, even as Corden warned about their bad habits and lack of toilet training – followed by the inevitable “oohs” and “awws.” Perhaps he should have brought a couple of pups along on his ill-fated subway ride with Sting and Shaggy.
It’s time we made peace with the fact that there is no topping Pink’s aerial silks routine at the 2010 Grammys. Absolutely no chance. That said, the singer made a strong statement on Sunday night during her performance of a cut from her first album in five years, Beautiful Trauma. There were no backup dancers, no pyrotechnics, no high-fashion frills – just a diva and her sign-language interpreter, notably understated in white T-shirts and jeans. But lest the viewers lose sight of what got her the coveted spot in Sunday night’s program, Pink’s mighty vocal performance came correct.
There was no way James Corden was going to pass up the chance to transpose his famous “Carpool Karaoke” segment to New York City, but the resulting skit was predictable and overlong, running a single flimsy idea into the ground. Corden, Sting and Shaggy – the last two are promoting their new single “Don’t Make Me Wait” – boarded a subway car and started to sing, only to find that, surprise, the clichés you hear about New Yorkers are all true: They’re rude, standoffish and they don’t want to hear any music on their commute. Whether the trio sang Police oldies (“Every Breath You Take”), Shaggy hits (“It Wasn’t Me”) or new collaborations (“Don’t Make Me Wait”), the natives remained unimpressed, burying their heads in their hands. The bad puns started piling up. “We’re filming this for the Grammys,” Corden protested. “Not for this grannie,” a subway-riding grandma retorted. After the would-be buskers admitted defeat, Sting echoed the sentiments of viewers everywhere when he asked, “Whose stupid idea was this?” “It wasn’t me,” Shaggy replied, ending the skit on a bum note. This was not the last of Sting and Shaggy: The pair were given two chances to boost their forthcoming collaboration. The bassist later performed “Englishman in New York” before Shaggy joined him to sing “Don’t Make Me Wait” yet again. The mid-tempo reggae felt tepid, and it drained the energy from the evening following Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s powerhouse performance of “Finesse.”
Following a streak of relentlessly somber performances, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee cranked up the heat in their strictly Spanish-language performance of “Despacito.” Fonsi played it cool in white leather, while an elated Daddy Yankee surfaced in a bejeweled tracksuit. The song’s original video vixen, Puerto Rican actress and 2006 Miss Universe winner Zuleyka Rivera, took center stage in a mesh bodysuit, commanded attention among a crew of gyrating dancers. Beaming in the audience was songwriter Erika Ender, whose vision of a more inviting sexual anthem came to life in the broadcast. “We were looking for something new,” she explained on the red carpet earlier Sunday, “An urban fusion that would really take care of women … exposing us as works of art, not sexual objects.” How the most popular song of 2017 – and the track with the most-viewed YouTube video of all time – could fail to take home a single Grammy is between God, the voters and the collective side-eye of Latin American Twitter.
Just four days after announcing a farewell tour that will keep him on the road for the next three years, Elton John took the Grammy stage to belt out “Tiny Dancer” with his touring band. The song didn’t even crack the Top 40 when it came out in 1972, but decades of constant airplay on classic-rock radio and placement during a crucial scene in Almost Famous has turned it into one of his most beloved tunes. After the first verse, Miley Cyrus sauntered onstage in a maroon gown to deliver the “Jesus freaks” verse and lock voices with Elton for the rest of the song. The duet worked so well that nobody even seemed to care that they lopped off the soaring coda for time. It was just a tiny preview of the Grammy Salute to Elton John that’s filming at the Theater At Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, at which the legendary singer-songwriter will be joined by Miranda Lambert, John Legend, Little Big Town, Keith Urban and several others. What a strange coincidence that all this is happening right as tickets are going on sale for the tour.
Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover could have played it safe at the Grammys by performing “Redbone” – a Record of the Year nominee and the biggest hit of his music career to date – but instead he delivered a sublimely slinky rendition of “Terrified,” a deep-funk cut from his “Awaken, My Love!” album. The set-up was bare-bones: A guitarist unfurling long, keening lines, a bassist picking out three or four fat notes, a synth player conjuring soothing sheets of noise, and a drummer triggering pre-programmed snaps and flurries of hand-percussion. Wearing a resplendent white tuxedo, Glover sang with leisurely precision, swiveling his hips and draping falsetto couplets across the groove. He was joined by a small cadre of back-up singers during the chorus, and together they pushed “Terrified” towards spooky gospel. The 10-year-old singer JD McCrary, who appears on the album cut and will voice young Simba in the new Lion King remake alongside Glover’s adult version of the character, turned up to lend a hand. The song ended at an impeccable climax, as Childish Gambino did his best impression of Prince’s scream and his singers vamped through an exultant riff again and again. And for those fans who were missing “Redbone,” it soundtracked a psychedelic advertisement for Animojis as soon as the Grammys cut to commercial.
The Grammys haven’t featured a lot of noteworthy rock moments in the past few years, but the passing of twin icons Fats Domino and Chuck Berry in the same year simply had to be commemorated in some way. This could have led to a sloppy medley of their hits with a stage crammed full of singers, pianist and guitarists, but instead the producers opted for the simple route by putting Jon Batiste and Gary Clark Jr. together on a tiny stage with only a drummer to perform killer renditions of “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Maybellene,” highlighted by electrifying solos from the pianist and guitarist in turn. There may not have been time to play the complete songs, but within just a couple of minutes the pair paid fitting tribute to the two rock & roll forefathers as Chuck Berry’s son Charles Jr. looked on from the audience with pride.