LOS ANGELES - In her elegant aqua and pink head wrap – and still makeup free – Alicia Keys immediately set the tone for this year’s Grammy Awards with a simple statement: “Music is so powerful.”
The first-time host, an artist whose soul is clearly and genuinely consumed with music, also unveiled the second theme of the 61st annual Grammy Awards in its opening minutes: This was going to be a ladies’ night.
Or, as best new artist winner Dua Lipa cheekily commented, “I guess this year we really stepped up,” a nod to a controversial comment made backstage last year by outgoing Recording Academy President Neil Portnow.
Country darling Kacey Musgraves swept her four categories, including the prestigious album of the year, for her lauded “Golden Hour.”
“Life is pretty tumultuous right now for all of us, and because of that, art is really thriving and it’s been beautiful to see that,” she said from the stage.
Lady Gaga, who slayed her performance of “Shallow” by tweaking it into a sequined-studded rock anthem, won a trio of awards, while H.E.R. picked up a pair for best R&B album (“H.E.R.”) and best R&B performance (“Best Part”).
Brandi Carlile received long overdue accolades by earning three awards during the earlier Premiere Ceremony – and later unleashed a striking rendition of “The Joke,” her powerful defense of the under-represented.
Backstage, she credited Janelle Monae – who went home empty-handed, but presented one of the most scintillating performances of the ceremony with her saucy “Make Me Feel” – with helping her overcome some stage fright.
“I got out there and was so freaking nervous. I looked out and saw one person with total peace on her face and it was Janelle Monae,” she said. “I lost my nervousness and I sang it to her. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”
And Cardi B, accompanied by husband Offset of Migos, was visibly overwhelmed by her first-ever Grammy win (best rap album) for “Invasion of Privacy.” She’s also the first solo female to score the award.
“Ooh, the nerves are so bad,” she said.
Donald Glover's alter ego, Childish Gambino, earned four more trophies to add to last year’s inaugural Grammy, including the marquee record and song of the year categories for “This Is America.” It’s the first time a rap song has won record and song of the year.
Gambino was conspicuously absent at this year’s ceremony (he performed last year), so his awards were accepted by co-writer and producer Ludwig Göransson, engineer/mixer Derek Ali and mastering engineer Mike Bozzi.
Göransson gave a shout-out to rapper 21 Savage – nominated for two awards with Post Malone – who remains in jail after being arrested Super Bowl Sunday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for allegedly living in the U.S. illegally.
“21 Savage should be here tonight,” Göransson said.
The rapper also received support backstage from England’s Dua Lipa.
“It’s quite upsetting that he hasn’t done anything and he’s given so much to American culture, even being a Brit,” she said.
At the start of the 3 ½-hour telecast from the Staples Center, Keys introduced her “sisters” – Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, former first lady Michelle Obama (who received an enthusiastic standing ovation) and Jennifer Lopez – who flanked her to share their valentines to music.
“Music took my ears, took my hands, my voice and my soul and it led me to all of you,” said Gaga.
“Music is the one place we can all feel truly free,” said Lopez, who would later silence critics with a fiery exhibition of Motown hits with Smokey Robinson, Ne-Yo and Keys.
“Every voice we hear deserves to be honored and respected,” added Smith.
And from Obama: “Music helps us share ourselves. Our dignity, sorrows, hopes and joys. Music shows us that all of it matters.”
While at times the show felt a bit overstuffed, its determination to please multiple generations signaled a refreshing representation of veterans to upstarts. A pleasant tribute to Dolly Parton (her goddaughter Miley Cyrus, Musgraves, Little Big Town and Katy Perry); Diana Ross (celebrating her 75th birthday a month early); and a potent memorial to Aretha Franklin (Fantasia, Yolanda Adams and Andra Day singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”) melded styles and big names.
Performance highlights were numerous, with H.E.R. impressing with a fizzy electric guitar melded with a gospel choir on “Hard Place” and Keys’ dual-piano medley of songs she wished she’d written (Roberta Flack, Kings of Leon) resurrecting the familiar.
One of the only light controversies of the show came when Drake, making a rare Grammy appearance, was cut off during his speech after winning best rap song (“God’s Plan”).
“This is a business,” he said from the stage. “You’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs; if you’re a hero in your hometown; if there’s people who have regular jobs who come out to see you in the rain in the snow – you don’t need this,” he said, holding up his Grammy.
Producers then cut to a commercial.
The explanation backstage was that Drake had taken a “natural pause,” and producers didn’t realize he was still talking. He was given the opportunity to return to the stage to finish his speech, but, “Drake said he was happy with what he said.”