Veteran record executive Clive Davis attempted a complex balancing act at his annual pre-Grammy Gala Saturday night at the Sheraton Hotel in Times Square: how to celebrate the vintage sounds of bygone pop eras with current superstars side by side.
The evening seesawed frequently and sometimes incongruously between these two poles. Barry Manilow sang standards; Migos rapped a gruff, hyper-modern hit. Throwback Broadway pomp collided with a more recent global phenomenon: Luis Fonsi's lithe, smacking reggaeton, sung almost entirely in Spanish. Gladys Knight performed "Stand By Me," a song that's old, wise and rich; in contrast, a perpetually smiling Khalid chose to perform his pop hit "Young Dumb & Broke."
If there was one constant across these zig-zags, it was Jay-Z, who was on-hand to receive the "Grammy Salute to Industry Icons Award." He was barely on stage for five minutes, but he kept popping up throughout the night. Logic cited the rapper as an inspiration before performing his Record of the Year-nominated single, "1-800-273-8255." The dressed-to-the-nines, star-filled crowd, which included Beyoncé, Diddy, Tina Fey, Mariah Carey, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen among many others, broke into an impromptu chant of "Hova, Hova," a reference to Jay-Z's exalted nickname. (At one point, comedian John Oliver threw up the Roc symbol, a nod to Jay-Z's old label, Roc-A-Fella Records.) But it was Alicia Keys who delivered the night's highlight, a boisterous, career-spanning medley of Jay-Z's hits that was both swinging and jubilant.
The other source of cohesive force at the gala was, of course, Davis, who served as the night's cheerful host and cheerleader-in-chief. In between performers, he introduced famous audience members as if he were running a trivia night at a local bar, heaping clues but refusing to reveal a name until the last possible moment: "For nearly two decades, this man has been one of music's most innovative, Grammy-award winning producers… for Missy Elliott, for Justin Timberlake, for Beyoncé, for Michael Jackson, for Jay-Z, he's always at the cutting edge and the top of the charts… Timbaland is here!" Davis stacked superlatives in yearbook-worthy heaps – "the peerless, the incomparable, the fabulous!" And he reeled off numbers like an overeager statistician: records sold, streams amassed, awards won, accolades earned.
But Davis also used his bully pulpit to advocate for the power of singers. This became explicit when he introduced Maxwell, an R&B artist in attendance: "I hope that as the urban mainstream has wonderfully incorporated hip-hop to the extent that it has, that they don't disenfranchise our great, great, great, great singers," Davis said. He also made his preferences clear via the performance lineup, which was skewed towards singers with dramatic, flexible, highly textured voices – Knight, Keys, Jennifer Hudson (singing an Aretha Franklin medley) and Khalid – of the sort that Davis has always favored. (His lengthy resume includes work with Franklin, Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston, among others.)
As a result, there were moments of whiplash during the rare hip-hop performances. When Migos took the stage to deliver "Bad and Boujee," the large backing band were suddenly reduced to accessories as the track's juddering programmed beat zipped through the speakers. Quavo – which Davis pronounced "Quahvo" – Takeoff and Offset delivered a whirlwind, strobing rendition of their Number One hit while the musicians behind them looked on as vestiges of a previous era.
Though there wasn't much hip-hop on the schedule, a rapper still had top-billing. Neil Portnow, President and CEO of the Recording Academy, dubbed Jay-Z "the ultimate music man" before handing him the Industry Icon award. During a brief acceptance speech, Jay-Z remembered boycotting the Grammys for six years to protest their treatment of hip-hop, specifically DMX getting shut out of any nomination in 1998. He returned in 2004 to support Beyoncé's debut solo album, but offered a gentle reminder on Saturday that the Recording Academy has not always been as interested in elevating black artists as they appeared to be this year. (Four out of five nominees for Album of the Year are non-white, including Jay-Z.)
But the rapper mostly let the Recording Academy off the hook – "Art is super subjective, everyone's doing their best, and the Academy are human like we are" – and suggested that shunning the Grammys may not be the right choice for any artist who feels that the Recording Academy is not acting fairly. Instead, Jay-Z encouraged artists to lobby the Grammys to recognize more types of art. "We have to get involved," he said.
While the speech was a polite formality – short and even-keeled – it was Keys who was Jay-Z's more assertive spokeswoman. She took the stage before his remarks, settled in behind her piano and cannonballed through her New York "soundtrack," a series of Jay-Z's indelible hits: "Dead Presidents II," "Feelin It," "Can't Knock the Hustle," "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)" and more.
Keys performed many of Jay's hits without a beat, remaking them as duets between her piano – emphatic rhythm in her left hand, shivering melody in her right – and her nimble, thunder-fingered bassist. She played the old R&B records that Jay-Z sampled (the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back," Meli'sa Morgan's "Fool's Paradise") to create his beats. And just as easily, Keys used the rapper's own music as her sample source, transforming his arena-sized hip-hop hits into her own decadent, glinting piano-soul.
As she flitted niftily between genres and across decades, the evening's dissonances disappeared and distinctions – modern vs. anachronistic, rapping vs. singing, hip-hop vs. R&B – vanished. All that remained was Keys, making a masterful argument for the enduring strength of Jay-Z's songs.