The takes poured in, fast and oh-so-furious, after these 65th Annual Grammy Awards. At issue was the fact that Beyoncé, despite making history by now racking up more golden gramophones than anyone ever, didn’t end the night with the big one: Album of the Year, for Renaissance, which seemed to many (myself included) both like the obvious choice on its merits and an overdue but welcome corrective.
Days before Music’s Biggest Night™️, I took part in an NPR Music critics exchange that opened with a Zen koan from Ann Powers: basically, how is it that Beyoncé can seem at once like an imperial power and a perennial hopeful? History has our answer, as Ann went on to elaborate, pointing to “a pattern of exclusion that has come to feel inevitable” in the major categories, Album and Record of the Year. Arguing for Record as a likelier outcome, she put her finger on the problem (one of them, at least): “I could see some fuddy-duddy Grammy voters still resisting Bey in the album category, even though Renaissance is definitely a unified listening experience.” Mmhmm.
We’ll get back to Beyoncé. Before we do, I’d like to draw a contrast with one of the other, happier storylines from Sunday — the Best New Artist anointing of Samara Joy, who was exactly as stunned and charming in her acceptance speech as you’d expect. I had a vested interest in this outcome, having devoted a good amount of time and energy to writing a piece about her phenomenal rise, also for NPR Music. As you’re reading me here, I hope you’ll also read me there; it’s a reported profile that also functions as a critic’s notebook, and I think it puts her into some useful context.
The award went instead to Harry Styles, who literally seemed lost during his performance earlier in the ceremony. If you sifted through the postgame analysis today, you might have seen any number of dramatic headlines — like No One Won at the Grammys (from a typically much more nuanced Carl Wilson piece in Slate) or Beyoncé Should Never Attend Another Grammy Awards (from a behind-the-paywall story at the Los Angeles Times).
Those fuddy-duddy Grammy voters, whose aggregate numbers make a difference in the four General Field categories, surely played a role in propelling Joy to the finish line. Her sound and style, no less than her repertory, point toward an established model of greatness — a reassuringly familiar form of artistry with undeniable power. It’s not a knock on Joy to state this, plain and clear.
I think she totally deserves the honor. Her win speaks to what Best New Artist should be: a vote of confidence, even more than a certificate of achievement. Like esperanza spalding, who managed a more literal upset in 2011, Joy will be judged by how she fulfills her promise. I have absolute confidence in that bet, but no clear ideas about the precise musical outcome; to me, that’s the most exciting thing about her triumph.
Now back to Beyoncé, in a roundabout way. During the Winter Jazzfest Brooklyn Marathon last month, I was leaving a show at the Opera House when somebody pulled me aside. It was Melanie Charles, the multi-hyphenate creative force whose most recent album is titled Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women. Melanie was conducting on-the-spot interviews for the Make Jazz Trill Again podcast, which she hosts with Yunie Mojica. Suddenly I was on mic, talking about the euphoria of the fest, and how good it felt to be back in full. Then as a parting question, Charles threw something of a curveball: “Who is your jazz Beyoncé?”
I hope I’m not stealing some thunder from the pod by sharing the answer here, but after taking a moment, I said that my jazz Beyoncé is… Beyoncé. By which I mean: Beyoncé could make a pretty ridiculous jazz album if she chose to, and not in a throwback songbook fashion. This is outright fantasy, but hear me out. We know about the shining synthesis of HBCU brass and drums on Homecoming, and the horns that bring New Orleans swagger to “Daddy Lessons,” her collab with The Chicks. We know she can sing whatever and however she likes, and possesses both the Virgo tendency to do her homework and the peerless resources to bring her ideas to life.
Perhaps you also know about her time at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, curtailed by the massive success of Destiny’s Child. She was there a few years behind pianist Robert Glasper, who just won his latest Grammy in the Best R&B Album category, for Black Radio III — another star-studded affair, featuring everyone from Jennifer Hudson to Lalah Hathaway to Killer Mike. But still: no Bey. What if she decided to direct her famous talent and work ethic toward a 21st century jazz album, one with a Houston accent? Tia Fuller, a veteran Beyoncé band member, would naturally be on alto saxophone. Glasper would be just one of the contributing pianists, alongside Jason Moran, James Francies and Helen Sung. I’m hearing Mike Moreno on guitar, Walter Smith III on tenor, and some of the finest drummers on the planet: Eric Harland, Chris “Daddy” Dave, Jamire Williams, Kendrick Scott.
Scott has a big Da Camera commission, Unearthed, premiering in Houston this spring. It’s inspired by the discovery of the Sugar Land 95 — crucial Black history of the same dimensions that Beyoncé has sought to explore musically. Imagine what kinds of gears might get turning if she showed up to that concert with open ears. I’ll remind you that I am fully aware of how delusional this sounds, but I think she could deliver something no less immersive, transformative and freeing as Renaissance, in a different musical mode — one that (cough, ahem) much of the Grammy electorate seems to appreciate, if not understand. Not every jazz album by a pop star has to be a conservative move, and Beyoncé could have some serious fun in that zone. Putting my Bitcoin down on an Album of the Year win in 2027.