The Grammy Awards ceremony is this Sunday, and there are five hopefuls in the Best New Artist category. Kasey Musgraves, Ed Sheeran, James Blake, Kendrick Lamar and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are all nominated.
Los Angeles Times pop music writer Mikael Wood thinks Macklemore & Ryan Lewis will win handily.
“He’s virtually a lock, he upholds a lot of traditional Grammy values and I think he’s a safe choice as a rapper,” Wood tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. But he wishes they wouldn’t. “The guy for me is so sanctimonious the way he comes on in [Thrift Shop].”
Wood would prefer to see Kendrick Lamar or Kasey Musgraves win. Despite their very different styles of music, he feels they both have a fresh take on a classic genre.
- Mikael Wood, covers pop music for the Los Angeles Times. He tweets @mikaelwood.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
The Grammy Awards are this Sunday. And we don't have time to go through every category, but we do want to talk about one: the best new artist category. And to do that, we're joined from Los Angeles by Mikael Wood, pop writer for the L.A. Times. Hi, Mikael.
MIKAEL WOOD: Hey. How are you?
HOBSON: Doing well. So let's get right to the music and the artists here and talk about them. And, first and foremost, one that - I don't think there's a single person in America who hasn't heard this song yet from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. This is their song "Thrift Shop."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")
MACKLEMORE: (Rapping) I'm going to take your grandpa's style. I'm going to take your grandpa's style. No for real, ask your grandpa. Can I have his hand-me-downs?
HOBSON: Now, I've seen that the good bet is that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis could very well win this category. Tell us, first of all, about them and their chances.
WOOD: Their chances are good, which for me is a tragedy. But, you know, Macklemore is - OK. So he's a rapper. He's rapping about unconventional topics, very interesting. He has a song "Thrift Shop" about buying clothes at Goodwill. Hey, that's cool. That's like an interesting topic for a song. But the guy for me is so sanctimonious the way he comes on in this song.
For me, it kills any joy that he might otherwise provide, and yet I think that he is virtually a lock for the best new artist because, you know, he's sort of upholds a lot of old Grammy values. And I also think that he's a safe choice as a rapper. So the Grammy's can say, we're going to give this to a rapper, but it's this one.
HOBSON: Well - and you could say that it would be not so much even about this song, "Thrift Shop," which, of course, made it big but also about the song "Same Love," which has a very strong message in a year when gay rights have been on the agenda nationwide.
WOOD: Sure. Message - beautiful. I, you know, I'm not into his delivery. I'm not into the way that he sort of wields his progressive use as a weapon, which is kind of his vibe for me. But, I mean, you know, look. If it brings some attention to the issue, that's cool.
HOBSON: OK. Another nominee is Kendrick Lamar. His song "Swimming Pools" is about overcoming a family history of alcohol abuse. Let's take a listen to a little bit of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWIMMING POOLS")
KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) If take another one down, I'm going to drown in some poison, abusing my limit. I think that I'm feeling the vibe. I see the love in her eyes. I see the feeling. The freedom is granted as soon as the damage of vodka arrived. This is how you capitalize. This is parental advice. Then apparently I'm over influenced by what you are doing. I thought I was doing the most till someone said to me.
HOBSON: So another rapper there, Mikael. What are his chances?
WOOD: I think that his chances are promising. Huge critical fave, huge favorite in the world of hip-hop, great rapper, great song, great album, everything Macklemore is not. He's giving you a fresh perspective on an - sort of a familiar theme. I mean, what Kendrick is sort of doing is looking at the kind of long-established West Coast gangster rap tradition, but he's giving you a fresh perspective. It's a little more introspective. It's a little more analytical.
You know, Dr. Dre is one of his big benefactors, Dr. Dre, of course, who pioneered this style with NWA back in the late '80s. But Kendrick is bringing it up to sort of today's mindset. I think he's great.
HOBSON: And are those who are deciding who's going to win this, are they looking at the message in that way?
WOOD: I think they're looking at the message. I also think they're looking at, like, the palatability. And like, for me, the thing is, like, Kendrick is so much more thoughtful than Macklemore. But his music is not any less palatable. I mean, that song we just heard, "Swimming Pools," it's very, you know, radio friendly, as they say. His whole record is extremely musical. So for me, there's like no reason not to give it to Kendrick over Macklemore. I mean, the record is just sort of pop-oriented, but it's so much more thoughtful.
HOBSON: OK. In a different category of music, there is another artist that's on the list here, and that is Kacey Musgraves. This is her song "Follow Your Arrow."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLLOW YOUR ARROW")
KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. So you might as well just do whatever you want. So make lots of noise. Kiss lots of boys. Or kiss lots of girls if that's something you're into. When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight, roll up a joint, or don't. Just follow your arrow wherever it points, yeah. Follow your arrow wherever it points.
HOBSON: It's a pop-country sound. It sounds very much like another big artist in Nashville, and that would be Taylor Swift. But what about Kacey Musgraves? What do you think?
WOOD: You know, in an interesting way for me, Kacey Musgraves is sort of like the country Kendrick Lamar. And what I mean is she takes a familiar sound, a sort of a familiar template. She's very into the old Nashville songwriting tradition, but she's applying a fresh perspective. So she has that song "Follow Your Arrow," which is, you know, kind of about - I mean, there's talk of a same-sex relationship, there's talk of other things in the song.
She also has a song called "Merry Go 'Round" where she talks about sort of being disappointed with like a small-town value system. So it's familiar at the same time that it's really novel, which I think is, you know, one of the best thing that a young artist can do.
HOBSON: There are two English candidates, Mikael, in the mix here. One of them is James Blake. Let's take a listen to one of his big hits. This is "Retrograde."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RETROGRADE")
JAMES BLAKE: (Singing) Ignore everybody else. We're alone now. Suddenly I'm hit. It's the starkness of the dawn. And your friends are gone. And your friends won't come. So show me where you fit. So show me where you fit.
HOBSON: We know that English people have a leg up for the Oscars, it seems like at least. Do they have a leg up for the Grammy's?
WOOD: James Blake winning would be a real shocker. I mean, this is a guy whose records are very beautiful but super arty, a little bit, you know, a little bit obscure. The very fact that he's nominated is kind of strange to me. I like his stuff. I mean, I like his records. I like his - I've seen him play a bunch of times.
But the tradition - I mean, he's coming out of sort of like a post-dubstep dance scene, which are four words you just don't really associate with the Grammy Awards in any way. So really cool stuff, but a real dark horse for sure.
HOBSON: OK. Well, the other English candidate is Ed Sheeran. This is his song "A Team."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A TEAM")
ED SHEERAN: (Singing) And they say she's in the class A team, stuck in her daydream. Been this way since 18, but lately her face seems slowly sinking, wasting, crumbling like pastries.
HOBSON: I have to say, every time I hear him, I think that I'm listening to Jason Mraz. But go ahead. Tell me about Ed Sheeran's chances.
WOOD: Jason Mraz. That - you've said it. No.
WOOD: I mean, he's good. Look. The "A Team" is a good song. So good, in fact, that the Grammy's last year nominated it for song of the year, which is sort of bizarre that now he's suddenly transformed into a best new artist. He's good. You know, he's another pal of Taylor Swift, which will get you far with the Grammy Awards. He's written songs with her and he went on tour with her last year. He's good. I'm, you know, I don't think that he's really not pushing any boundaries or anything, not that he needs to, but I don't know. For me, it seems like a little bit of like a wasted slot in this category.
HOBSON: Mikael, one more note before we let you go, which is that one of the previous winners of this category back in 1989 had to give the award back. That would be the artist that sang - well, actually the artist that didn't sing this song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLAME IT ON THE RAIN")
MILLI VANILLI: (Singing) Blame it on the rain that was falling, falling. Blame it on the stars that didn't shine that night.
HOBSON: Your thoughts. Milli Vanilli. Go.
WOOD: I mean, look. I might be in the critical minority here, but I have zero problem with the fact that they didn't sing the song. What were we giving them the award for, an astounding vocal performance?
WOOD: No, of course not. We were giving it to them because it was a compelling package that we like seeing on TV in the music videos. Long live Milli Vanilli. Come back. All is forgiven as far as I'm concerned.
HOBSON: Mikael Wood, pop writer for the L.A. Times. We'll be watching the Grammy's. Thanks so much.
WOOD: Yeah, you bet.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLAME IT ON THE RAIN")
VANILLI: (Singing) But no, you couldn't do that. You had to prove you were strong, oh. If you hadn't been so blinded, she might still be there with you.
HOBSON: And from NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. Robin Young has been broadcasting from WUNC in Raleigh, North Carolina today. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.