The 58th Annual Grammy Awards reveled in hip-hop’s power, rock’s explosive churn and pop’s ability to get Sofia Vergara to dress up like a taxi cab on national TV. Taylor Swift burst with confetti and clapbacks while the Fame Monster paid tribute to the “Fame” monster. Here’s the best and worst of music’s biggest night.
BEST OF THE NIGHT: Kendrick Lamar Brings the Night’s Best Hip-Hop Musical
Sorry, Lin-Manuel. Kendrick Lamar conquered the Grammys with a theatrical hip-hop musical that jettisoned through history, paying tribute to the hands that really built Alexander Hamilton’s America. This intense piece of jailhouse rock traveled from New Orleans to Compton to Africa to N.W.A’s “Express Yourself” music video to Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” music video to Diddy’s ecstatic adlibs. It ended with a celebration of hip-hop itself: Just a close up of Kendrick Lamar’s face — all spittle and strobes — bringing an explosive arrangement of “Alright” and new lyrics of fury about the slaying of Trayvon Martin. “2012 mistakes for the world to see/Sent us back another 400 years/This is modern-day slavery.” He proceeds to give us what we need.
BEST: Lady Gaga Brings the House Down for Bowie
Lady Gaga spent the days before her Grammy tribute to David Bowie getting an Aladdin Sane tattoo, then showed up on the red carpet dressed as Ziggy Stardust. So, yeah, there was never any doubt she meant business. And like most things she and her Haus do, the attention to detail in her performance was evident — but that’s a requirement when attempting to honor a chameleon like Bowie. So while her outfits were dazzling, and her nods to Bowie’s performances (updates of “Rebel Rebel,” “Fame” and “Heroes“) showed a true obsessive, what made Gaga’s performance perfect was the way she captured the spirit of the man’s work throughout his career. Bowie’s looks changed, but the guiding principle behind his work didn’t: He delighted in remaining true to himself. And you got the same sense from Gaga, who wasn’t just celebrating the man’s music, but relishing the opportunity to perform it in front of this buttoned-up, all-business crowd. It was odd, amorphous, over-the-top and everything you could’ve hoped for. Bowie would’ve loved this.
WORST: Adele’s Audio Rolls Into Deep Trouble
The fact that Adele — who wasn’t even eligible for any of this year’s awards — was performing at the Grammys, made it a must-watch event. The woman with the best-selling album of 2015, who broke all kinds of records and saved the music industry (again), was to be a draw that would bring together generations during an often disparate awards show. Donning a sparkly red gown and a messy bob that screamed, “I don’t give a fuck,” she appeared in the middle of the audience to perform her piano ballad “All I Ask.” The performance was plagued by poor sound mixing, dissonant tones that sounded like a fork on a guitar and a volume drop that nearly silenced the singer. “The piano mics fell on to the piano strings; that’s what the guitar sound was,” explained Adele on Twitter. “It made it sound out of tune. Shit happens. Because of it though… I’m treating myself to an In n Out [burger]. So maybe it was worth it.” Adele soldiered on in her first Grammys performance since 2012, but it was a disappointment for those who awaited her return.
BEST: Taylor Brushes Off a Famous Hater
As the cameras turned to Taylor Swift for the Grammys’ opening number, a question hung in the air: Would she take this chance to lash back at Kanye West’s crass, misogynist shot at her on his song “Famous” (and his subsequent, half-assed attempt to claim her blessing for the same)? The answer was no: She saved that for a pointed subliminal in her Album of the Year acceptance speech a few hours later. Instead, at the top of the show, she got her best revenge with an arena-rock performance of 1989‘s “Out of the Woods,” belted out in front of a spooky forest out of Wicked with help from Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff doing his best Springsteen-circa-Born in the U.S.A. As the song reached its emotional peak, Swift strode right out to the crowd, cool and confident. Pieces of her confetti explosion could be seen flecked on audience members long after she left the stage. Sorry, Kanye, this just wasn’t your night.
BEST: Hamilton Gives America a Free Ticket
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is a revolutionary Broadway smash, but for the millions of would-be fans who haven’t been able to get into the New York stage production, it remains just out of reach, experienced vicariously through others’ excited tweets and endless soundtrack streams. The Grammys did their part to rectify that by broadcasting the show’s stirring opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” letting Miranda and co-stars Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo and more make the case for a modern musical drama about the “$10 Founding Father without a father.” It’s not Hamilton‘s most compelling set piece, but it’s a very solid introduction to the show’s characters, cast and themes. For millions that won’t be able to make it to Broadway this year, watching it performed on network TV was the next best thing to actually scoring a ticket.
WORST: Rihanna Bails
While probably half the audience wanted to do the same, Rihanna dipped out of not only attending but also performing at the three-and-a-half-hour Grammy ceremony. At the beginning of the night, TMZ reported that she had the left the building and a spokesperson revealed that the singer had been suffering from bronchitis for the past few days and wasn’t responding to the antibiotics. The pop star was put on strict orders from her doctor to not sing to avoid vocal hemorrhaging, which means fans missed out on her crooning one of the excellent new songs from her album Anti for the first time on live television.
BEST: Jackson Browne Soars With the Eagles
In the 2013 doc History of the Eagles, Glenn Frey credits Jackson Browne — his onetime downstairs neighbor — with teaching him how to write songs. Browne meanwhile, thanks the late singer-songwriter for penning the masterfully cocky line (“It’s a girl, my lord, in a flat-bed Ford/Slowin’ down to take a look at me”) that capped off their jointly written smash “Take It Easy.” So it was comforting to see Browne taking center stage to sing that very song during the surviving Eagles’ classily understated tribute on Monday’s show. In a night that often seemed strained and gimmicky, the group’s unadorned harmonies, backed by spare golden light, provided a rare moment of serenity. The humility radiating from the stage and the bliss evident in the crowd (Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard could be seen crooning along to the “oohs” in the outro) turned the performance into the Grammy equivalent of a campfire sing-along, a stirring reminder of the peaceful easy feeling that Frey so effortlessly conveyed.
WORST: Lionel Richie’s Tribute Seems to Last “All Night Long”
Lionel Richie spent what must have been a surreal holiday weekend sitting in the audience as a parade of contemporary stars covered his hits. Saturday’s MusiCares Person of the Year dinner honoring Richie was packed with A-list talent, from Stevie Wonder to Rihanna and Dave Grohl, leaving only a jumble of oddly matched singers — John Legend, Demi Lovato, Luke Bryan, Meghan Trainor and Tyrese Gibson — to carry the torch at Monday’s main event. The medley started decently enough, with Legend’s smooth “Easy” and Lovato’s fiery “Hello” (you could see Richie in the audience mouthing a sincere “Yes!”) but quickly descended into cheese once a lounge-singer-esque Bryan took the stage to croon “Penny Lover.” Trainor and Gibson only added to the karaoke-caliber scenery chewing. Even Richie’s stage-storming “All Night Long” finale felt like far too little, way too late.
BEST: The Weeknd Goes Stag
The singer-producer delivered a notable solo performance early in the night, donning a smart tuxedo and backed by pulsating LED lights as he strutted along to his smash hit “Can’t Feel My Face.” He eventually dialed it down to a dramatic rendition of his Thriller-tinged single “In The Night,” accompanied only by the delicate touches of a pianist and cellist. Although Lauryn Hill was reported to have attended rehearsals for this performance, the R&B legend was nowhere to be found at Monday’s show, citing miscommunications — though Neil Portnow might say otherwise. Still, The Weeknd powered through on his own, meriting a standing ovation, kicked off by pop diva Adele.
BEST: Stevie Wonder and Pentatonix Honor a Shining Star
Yes, Pentatonix is an acapella group, which means they are burdened with a completely inescapable level of uncool that even Stevie Wonder himself cannot untangle. (Though, the fact that they dress like the Death Star crashed into a Hot Topic certainly doesn’t help). However, together with Wonder, they paid tender, touching tribute to Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire. One of the most intricately arranged, chops-heavy bands in the history of black pop was reduced to the sounds of the human body harmonizing and popping in percussive joy. A bold choice in the shadow of monster, big band tributes to Lionel Richie and B.B. King, but by reducing “That’s the Way of the World” to just its melody, it highlighted the indelible backbone that supported EWF’s concept albums and huge arena performances.
WORST: Pitbull Hails a Cab
What the hell was that closing number? It started out fine with “El Taxi,” where Mr. Worldwide bounced merrily over the riddim from Chaka Demus and Pliers’ dancehall classic “Murder She Wrote.” Sofia Vergara even popped up in a taxi costume after the lyric that referenced her. But the cab went over the divider when Pit switched to a performance of his charmless new single “Bad Man,” featuring sleazy Robin Thicke, Blink-182’s Travis Barker and, for some reason, Joe Perry. That’s right, the 2016 Grammys included two separate all-star performances featuring Joe Perry.
BEST: Justin Bieber and Jack Ü Are Guitar Heroes
Bieber, Skrillex and Diplo brought one of the night’s most pleasant surprises to the Grammy stage. After the pop star’s solo acoustic take on single “Love Yourself,” the superstar DJ duo appeared not from behind their boards, but behind a guitar and drum respectively. With Bieber belting, Skrillex, Bieber and their full band — including Jon Theodore of Mars Volta and Queens of the Stone Age — turned the dance hit into a heavy arena rock joint that was almost as triumphant as Bieber finally getting a Grammy win.
BEST: Lin-Manuel Miranda Raps His Hamilton Acceptance Speech
Approximately 15 minutes after the cast of Hamilton performed the Broadway musical’s incendiary opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” the show’s wigged star and creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, vaulted through the wings of a New York theater to rap his acceptance speech for Best Musical Theater Album. “We write music, we write songs to tell the story/ Whether you’re King Kendrick or [Fun Home composer] Jeanine Tesori,” he spat in a fiery burst that also shouted out the Roots and his Hamilton team. “The best idea goes in the pot whether you’re [Fiddler on the Roof writing team] Harnick and Bock, punk, Biggie or Pac/The cast is unstoppable, the band is unbeatable, inimitable, inevitable, always inspiring me to pull through. … Sebastian, Daddy’s bringing a Grammy home for you.” As far as presidential speeches go, Hillary or Bernie are going to have a hard time beating that.
WORST: Gwen Stefani Wins the Grammy for Integrated Marketing
For a brief moment last night, the Internet erupted when it appeared Gwen Stefani took a spill during the roller-skating segment of her Target-sponsored “live music video” for “Make Me Love You.” However, our schadenfreude soon dissipated when we learned that it was probably a stunt double — meaning Gwen only figuratively slipped last night. No matter what Target decided to call it, or how skillfully director Sophie Muller handled its one-shot concept, this was still just a commercial, one that ended with Gwen ascending skyward in the center of the company’s bull’s-eye logo. For the normally savvy Stefani, it was a rare misstep, one that made her look like she was trying to crash the Grammy party from the parking lot. Maybe she was. All we know for sure is that the Target version of This Is What the Truth Feels Like comes with four bonus tracks. And isn’t that the point, really?
BEST: Hollywood Vampires Light One Up for Lemmy
Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp and Joe Perry — the core of the supergroup Hollywood Vampires — led a hard-rocking tribute to late Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister with a performance of “Ace of Spades.” Cooper and Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan traded harmonies on the tune’s gritty verses, as dry-ice smoke surrounded them. Perry and Depp played synchronized guitar squeals and offered up dueling solos. All the while, Kilmister’s bass rig, trademark cowboy hat and dangling microphone sat lit up but unplayed.
WORST: Tori Kelly and James Bay Rack Up YouTube Snooze
Both Tori Kelly and James Bay rode the YouTube train to Best New Artist nominations — as did BNA winner Meghan Trainor — which might explain why their performance last night felt a lot like a bid to assert their artistry, to prove they belonged on music’s biggest stage. But the end result was something that felt decidedly small-screen: a coffeehouse set, with requisite raspy vocals, breathy runs, acoustic guitars and eyes closed oh-so-tight. Both singers managed to intertwine their respective hits (Bay’s “Let It Go” and Kelly’s “Hollow”) well, but on a night with so many high-voltage moments, this somber performance was a distant memory within minutes. Like Bay sang: “Forget about me.” Done and done.
BEST: Alabama Shakes Maintain Their Groove After Big Wins
Alabama Shakes’ rootsy mix of rock and soul earned them three trophies this year: Best Alternative Music Album, Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance, the latter two honoring the group’s slow-simmering single “Don’t Wanna Fight.” So when the time came for them to perform the track, you could hear the exultant joy in Brittany Howard’s voice when she let loose the tune’s opening shriek. Dressed in a white robe, she led her bandmates, a righteous organist and a crew of synchronized gospel backup singers through the performance, as she howled the chorus and waved her finger in the air for emphasis. Don’t be surprised if they walk away with a bump in sales this week.
BEST: Bonnie Raitt Takes the Blues for a Stroll
A fashionably late entrance from Bonnie Raitt helped elevate what could’ve been a run-of-the-mill Grammy tribute to the late B.B. King to the level of the sublime. Chris Stapleton and Gary Clark Jr. kicked off the homage with soulful vocals and a stinging lead, respectively, but only Raitt — a friend and longtime collaborator of the blues legend — brought the requisite world-weary wisdom to the trio’s reading of King’s 1969 hit “The Thrill Is Gone.” She strolled in from stage left wearing black leather and sporting a slide on her fretting hand, and matched a molten solo and smoky turn at the mic with the kind of stoic demeanor that King himself was famous for. When she sang the song’s title line, it was clear that it held special meaning for her in light of King’s absence.
WORST: Ornette Coleman’s Micro-Memorial
Given his stature as one of the most influential musicians of the past century, it was a little disconcerting to see Ornette Coleman — the multi-instrumentalist and composer who passed away last summer at 85 — flash by in less than the time it took to read his name during the 2016 Grammy memorial video. Everyone from Flea to Patti Smith turned up to honor the jazz trailblazer and powerful melodist at his last public performance in Brooklyn in 2014, so it seemed like a missed opportunity that no music was played in his honor at Monday’s show. Jazz was instead relegated to a parlor trick: The fantastically talented 12-year-old pianist Joey Alexander showed off his prodigious skills as Common and Neil Portnow nodded from the sidelines like bored parents at a talent show.
BEST: Little Big Town Class It Up for “Girl Crush”
From their geometric stage setup to the string section fleshing out the usually stark ballad, Little Big Town’s performance of “Girl Crush” was thoughtful elegance. And it had to be. This was a song the vocal group have been performing everywhere from the CMA Awards to Ellen, and new life was required for the critical Grammy viewership. But LBT have always been masters at country class, staying the course while some of their peers chase trends. With Karen Fairchild’s conflicted vocals at the fore, this “Girl Crush” felt alive and of the moment in a way that even the studio version can’t match — and without sacrificing any of the mature delivery that helped land the band a Best Country Duo/Group Performance Grammy earlier in the night.