Few Grammy categories are as easily derided as Best New Artist, which with each passing year continues to push the word “new” to the absolute limits of its meaning. Three of this year’s nominees released widely praised albums in 2011, while the other two, co-favorites Kacey Musgraves and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, have been actively recording for more than a decade. And yet there’s something noble, and perhaps even worthwhile, in attempting to bring artists as diverse as these five under a single cultural umbrella, however flawed the process might be.
Let’s get this out of the way: The artist least likely to win, Kendrick Lamar, is the one who most deserves to. Simply put, K-Dot is better at what he does than any of his fellow nominees are at what they do, and it’s hard to believe that anyone could listen to an era-defining masterpiece like Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and disagree. But the Grammys have a nearly unbroken streak of not awarding the Big Four categories to black, male hip-hop artists (OutKast’s 2004 Album of the Year win being the sole exception), and it’s unlikely that an understated concept album about growing up in Compton’s underclass will be responsible for changing that.
It’s possible that a similar effect might work against Musgraves, whose excellent Same Trailer, Different Park does a fair amount of truth-telling about rural poverty and exurban ennui that most in the country music world would rather gloss over. But strong sales, critical acclaim, and the Best New Artist category’s long history of solo female winners would surely make her a shoo-in in any other year. She certainly stands a better chance than either James Blake or Ed Sheeran, inclusions that both seem flukish. Blake’s dubby, soulful bass music is an odd fit for the Recording Academy, and Sheeran hasn’t released new music in over two years, apparently nabbing a nomination based solely on his performances as Taylor Swift’s Red Tour warm-up act. To the Academy, your talent for helping record companies print money is just as important as your talent for recording music.
Which brings us to the prohibitive favorite. With seven nominations, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis look certain to have a big night on Sunday, and though Best New Artist has only twice been awarded to hip-hop artists (Arrested Development in 1993 and Lauryn Hill in 1999), Academy voters will likely jump at the chance to prove they can embrace a rapper, especially if it’s one as milquetoast and harmless as Macklemore.
Will Win: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Could Win: Kacey Musgraves
Should Win: Kendrick Lamar