It’s Not Just Beyoncé and Adele: Why the Grammy Album of the Year Race Is Tighter Than Ever
At the now-infamous conclusion of the 2017 Grammys, Adele took the podium to accept the award for album of the year for her blockbuster 25, then devoted a big chunk of her speech to another nominee — Beyoncé, whose Lemonade did not match 25’s historic sales, but whose cultural and artistic impact that year was without peer, particularly to Adele.
“I can’t possibly accept this award,” the teary singer-songwriter protested. “My artist of my life is Beyoncé, and this album to me, the Lemonade album, was just so monumental.”
Nearly six years later, a sense of déjà vu looms. Adele and Beyoncé will again likely vie for the top prize, as both artists’ long-awaited comebacks arrived during the eligibility period for the 2023 awards: Adele’s 30 last November and Beyoncé’s Renaissance in July. Both received the rare combination of rapturous critical acclaim and robust initial sales numbers that usually signals a potential Grammy juggernaut. As two of the most-recognized artists in Grammy history — Adele boasts 15 wins; Beyoncé, setting the record for any singer, has 28 — it feels inevitable that both albums will be nominated in November, and perhaps again be the joint favorites to win.
“Culturally, they both, among music fans, suck up the most air in the room in terms of just the broadness of [their] appeal,” says David Gorman, global catalog programming lead for Amazon and a longtime voting member of the Recording Academy. Plus, Gorman points out, the two artists are famous enough to have name recognition among the academy’s considerable number of members from outside the pop realm: “A 78-year-old cellist who has not even listened to either the Adele or the Beyoncé record is going to cast a vote for one of those.”
But while Adele and Beyoncé have history and familiarity on their side, they’re far from the only major contenders for the marquee award — and the category has swelled from five nominees to 10 in the past five years. Kendrick Lamar, whose Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers was released in May, is another universally celebrated artist whom many expected would take home the prize in 2018 for his Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN., his third album of the year nomination — and it’s not unusual for the Grammys to reward an artist after a magnum opus. Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti cemented him as a global superstar, while also becoming the most commercially enduring album of 2022, spending 11 weeks atop the Billboard 200.
And then there’s Harry Styles, whose Harry’s House had similarly massive first-week numbers and solid reviews, establishing him as a grown-up artist and spawning the longest-reigning Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 of the decade so far, “As It Was.” Artist development specialist and academy member Chris Anokute believes Styles is on roughly equal footing with Adele and Beyoncé in the upcoming race: “Multiple singles, multiple hits, consistent touring … he’s a threat. He’s really competitive, to me.”
The lasting impact of Harry’s House and some of these other albums means this isn’t a two-artist race. Gorman notes that the pop impact of Adele’s and Beyoncé’s releases had a shorter shelf life than their prior albums (“The initial response was massive, and then they tapered off pretty quickly”), offering an edge to artists like Styles whose singles (and longer media cycles) have remained unavoidable. “When it comes time to actually get out the ballot and vote, I think it certainly matters that the record is still fresh for you,” he says. “A lot of it is going to be swayed by, ‘Who is the most culturally relevant in that moment?’ ”
But as anyone who has followed the Grammys long enough knows, popularity and critical acclaim combined do not always lead to a win.
“The album of the year last year was Jon Batiste, for God’s sake!” one veteran label head exclaims, referring to Batiste’s We Are, which won the award in 2022 despite unextraordinary sales, no hit singles, few reviews of any kind in mainstream media and competition including household names like Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish. “I think it’s very strange that people seem to always assume that the album of the year race will boil down to a choice between the biggest-selling albums of the year, period. That has never really been the way the Grammys have worked.”
With an expanded pool of nominees, potential vote-splitting among more top 40-approved artists may also offer an advantage to those like the jazz-based Batiste, who likely appealed to an academy constituency unrepresented by his competitors. “You could win the freaking thing with as little as 11% of the vote, mathematically,” the label head says incredulously. “If every single jazz person [in the academy] voted for Jon Batiste, that might have been enough to win in a fractured election with 10 candidates.”
Still, it’s in the academy’s best interest that popular favorites remain true contenders. Without them, says Anokute, “you’re just going to upset a lot of people, and you’re going to make the award show … not entertaining. Because [the biggest] artists aren’t going to want to perform and support.”
Though betting website GoldDerby lists recent Grammy darling Silk Sonic’s An Evening With Silk Sonic with the second-best odds at album of the year, behind 30 but ahead of Renaissance, all seem to agree that Beyoncé and Adele will be nominated. But Adele might have mixed feelings about another win in the category. (Her first came in 2012 for 21.) She has little left to gain in terms of exposure, or even legacy, with another victory, and a win would likely spark backlash from both Beyoncé’s legion of fans (she has yet to win the top prize) and pop fans who want to see more diverse winners in the Big Four categories.
A Beyoncé victory would bolster the award’s credibility for some — “In 50 years’ time, they’re going to be looking back, going, ‘How is it possible she didn’t win an album of the year Grammy?’ ” Gorman says, echoing a sentiment that dates back to Beck’s 2015 win over Beyoncé in the category. But she’s also not the only artist whose album of the year victory could symbolize an evolving academy. Lamar would be the first hip-hop winner since OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004. Bad Bunny would be the first recipient for an album performed predominantly in Spanish (and the first non-English-language winner of any kind since Stan Getz and João Gilberto’s mostly Portuguese Getz/Gilberto in 1965) — a distinction alt-pop star Rosalía may also be vying for with Motomami, 2022’s most acclaimed album, according to review aggregator Metacritic. Even if Adele’s résumé and 30’s commercial and critical standing make it seem like a clear front-runner, some feel that a third Adele win in the category would perpetuate the status quo and diminish the academy’s recent efforts to improve its diversity.
Or, as Anokute puts it: “If Adele wins for a third time, it may be an indication that we still have a lot of work to do.”