At the 59th iteration of Music's Biggest Night, Beyoncé performed a dreamy meditation on motherhood, Adele performed an emotional tribute to George Michael and MetalliGaga performed through technical errors and bad ideas. Here's the best and worst of a night where A Tribe Called Quest took on the president and Twenty One Pilots took off their pants.
By Christopher R. Weingarten, Hank Shteamer, Brittany Spanos, Suzy Exposito and Maura Johnston.
Yeah, we didn't imagine a scenario where anyone could possibly steal an awards show from Beyoncé – but we didn't exactly predict a victory for the man Busta Rhymes calls "President Agent Orange" either. Hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest returned in a big way last year with their first album in 18 years, but only a very small part of their performance reveled in nostalgia: Their brief ride into 1993's "Award Tour" practically sped past "New York, N.J., N.C., V.A." and was instead re-routed to "Graaaaaaaaaaam-myyyyyyys!" Looking forward, they boosted still-rising Best New Artist nominee Anderson Paak who played some ridiculous drums before unleashing the most powerful political and musical moment of the night.
For a performance of "We the People," ATCQ kicked down a literal wall and had dancers that looked like the S1Ws version of the Border Patrol. The stage filled with a diverse group of actual immigrants who put a human face on Trump's executive order as Tribe, Paak, Busta and Consequence performed the vitriolic and absolutely prescient song with the chorus "All you Black folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go/And all you poor folks, you must go/Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways." Q-Tip shouted "Resist! Resist!" and Busta Rhymes yelled explicitly about the unsuccessful Muslim ban nearing "Scenario" volume – and there was still plenty of room to pay raised-fist tribute to the group's fallen brother Phife Dawg. Truly a performance that showcased what hip-hop has been trying to tell the Grammys for decades. Powerful impact, boom from the cannon.
The Lemonade/25 showdown may have been a major talking point leading up to last night's show, but what really had viewers buzzing was speculation over who in this gathering of artistically minded liberals would bring the Donald Trump smackdown. Early digs (a limp Trump one-liner in James Corden's opening monologue, Katy Perry's "Persist" armband and "No hate!" sloganeering) felt slight, like taking on Godzilla with a pea shooter. When Busta Rhymes finally unleashed his glorious, hashtag-worthy "President Agent Orange" tirade, it felt like too little, too late. What could have been a night of revolution-tinged righteousness (think Kendrick Lamar on the cop car in 2016) gradually became, on the whole, just another on-message industry party.
It was a mystery to everyone what Beyoncé would do after announcing her pregnancy. The star – who already appeared to be fairly far along in her term during her maternity photo shoot – is known for intense choreography in her live performances, and it seemed completely fair for her to not even take the Grammy stage at all. Still, she showed up and interwove her pregnancy into a gorgeous, gold-washed, 10-minute spectacle that only she could pull off. Dressed like a sun goddess complete with a halo, she performed in front of a holographic screen showing different versions of her current self as well as an image of three generations of Knowles women, including her mother Tina and daughter Blue Ivy. As she sang "Love Drought" and "Sandcastles," the forgiving conclusion to the honest marital exploration of Lemonade, she offered a new layer of clarity and catharsis to her album's story and proved that even when seated, she is lightyears beyond her peers.
Beyoncé's Lemonade was a towering achievement both visually and musically, bringing together disparate styles and reference points to create a portrait of black womanhood that resonated widely, spinning off fiery rock broadsides, cracking down-home sing-alongs and sumptuous ballads. Adele's 25 was the long-awaited third album from the British belter who's brought the Diamond life back to the music business – that album and its predecessor, 21, are the only two records to have broached the 10-million-sold mark since 2004. Oh, and it has some decent singles; the brooding "Hello," which won Record and Song of the Year, and the swirling "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)," Max Martin's update of The Knife's glitchy 2003 track "Heartbeats."
The winner of the Album of the Year race was not the album with prog-rock levels of ambition, though; it was Adele's collection, which, while extremely popular, paled on the "artistic ambition" end. Chalk it up to Grammy voters possibly honouring sales over artistic scope: Lemonade ended the year at Number Four on the Billboard 200, while Adele's 25 topped it. Or maybe it's the short shrift consistently given to black artists by the Grammy voting body (only 11 black artists have won the Album of the Year award in the Grammys' 59-year history). Or maybe it's the lack of respect given by the ceremony to younger artists whose music falls within the "urban" category. Or maybe that David Bowie had to die in order to receive awards for his music.
Even Adele knew this was the wrong move.
As the surprise performer of Monday's tribute to her fellow British pop titan George Michael, Adele wanted everything to be right. So she did the unthinkable: She asked the ensemble backing her on a moody 2017 update of Michael's 1996 single "Fastlove" to start over, saying, "I fucked up, I can't do it again like last year. … I can't mess this up for him." Why did Adele choose to perform a slowed-down version of Michael's sinewy, Patrice Rushen-nodding hit about cruising when Michael has a slew of torch songs in his robust catalog (not to mention the somber "Praying for Time," which has lyrics that remain politically pertinent 27 years after its initial release)? It was a mystery at first – until Adele reached the climactic lyric "I miss my baby," which she sang as tears threatened to breach her lengthy eyelashes.
In one of the best possible tributes to Prince imaginable, the blood-and-sweat version of his work, Prince-produced Minneapolis party rockers the Time, re-emerged for a high-octane performance of two songs he wrote or co-wrote under the Jamie Starr alias. Having seemingly buried the hatchet with "the Kid," the band played in front of a mock-up of Purple Rain's First Avenue nightclub, doing their two hits from Prince's biggest moment on planet Earth — "Jungle Love" and "The Bird." Coming towards the end of a night full of Adele's weepy power ballads, Katy Perry's arty modern dance, A Tribe Called Quest's arresting politics and Beyoncé's high concept imagery, this simple blast back to the pop-rock-funk-dance-music-sex-romance world of 1984 was easily the most cathartic moment for the audience, who danced along ecstatically. Even Jay Z!
Bruno Mars, who clearly owes more than a small amount to the Time's Morris Day, emerged immediately after with some loving Prince cosplay. His crew turned into the world's most famous Purple Rain tribute band. Mars dressed in the frilly purple suit, played the curvy guitar and even learned the solo from "Let's Go Crazy." But unlike in Purple Rain, the Time definitely stole this show.
P.S.: The Time's music has been on streaming services this whole time!
Of all last night's Grammy pairings, MetalliGaga was the one that seemed to have the best shot at actual awesomeness – a chance for pop's most metal-friendly superstar to bare her teeth alongside true giants of the genre. That their version of Metallica's Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct rager "Moth Into Flame" (maybe the band's most Gaga-apt song given its perils-of-fame theme) turned out to be a complete clusterfuck was only about half the performers' fault. Goofy onstage faux-moshers and gratuitous pyro set a cheesy Rock of Ages tone right from the start. James Hetfield suffered complete mic failure, turning his and Gaga's line-trading duet into a nonsensical half-song. From that point, it was a mad sprint to the finish, with Hetfield knocking over his mic stand in frustration, and Gaga doing her best to pick up the slack via desperate vocal histrionics and an ill-conceived mid-song annoying of Lars Ulrich. As Hetfield disgustedly tossed his guitar offstage at the conclusion, you had to sympathise: A band that already suffered one infamous Grammy indignity (that Jethro Tull loss) found itself once again at serious risk of mockery.
Bruno Mars is made for primetime award shows like envelopes and Taylor Swift reaction shots. For yet another of his reliably incredible performances, this one-man New Edition miniseries and his razor-sharp band blew through "That's What I Like" with the effortless electricity that's become familiar but never boring. Dressed like the Force M.D.s with bright white sneakers, Bruno and his crew of retromaniacs were crammed on a tiny glowing triangle. Instead of exploding across the stage, the limitations made them dance by contorting their bodies like funky worms. They broke the fourth wall (er, third wall?) of the triangle stage and landed in front of the audience to sing a more stripped-down coda and thrusted the air like classic Bobby Brown. Before launching into some silky harmonies, Bruno Mars asked, "Can I break it down," like both a question and a demand. Jennifer Lopez, transfixed, was nodding an affirmative.
Adele opened the Grammy ceremony that she would ultimately dominate, singing an explosive "Hello" before accepting the first of five awards, rounding out her total wins to 15. Met with cheers, the British hit maker glimmered like a stained glass window in Givenchy, her voice careening lithely across the Staples Center without a hitch. This was a mighty bounce back from last year's performance of "All I Ask," which was plagued by an audio issue. Adele would later win the Grammy for Album of the Year, reluctantly accepting the award while wearing a lemon-shaped brooch – a show of respect to her formidable competitor, Beyoncé.
Chance the Rapper may have talked right through the dreaded Grammy play-off music last night, but Greg Kurstin didn't even get the chance to do that following his Song of the Year win. Co-writer of a little ditty you may have heard of called "Hello," a record-smashing juggernaut whose YouTube play count is currently sitting at 1.8 billion, Kurstin barely got, "Thank you to my mom and dad," out before being swallowed up completely. A rare chorus of bona fide Grammy boos ensued, clashing surreally with Solange's A Tribe Called Quest intro. Thankfully Adele righted the wrong when the pair took the stage again for their Record of the Year win, only sort of mock-snarling, "You cut him off last time!"
Katy Perry's new single "Chained to the Rhythm" is a blockbuster – writing credits from Max Martin and Sia, a cameo appearance from Marley royalty. Having released the jittery, reggae-tinged track via a network of stereo-equipped disco balls last week, she gave the song its TV debut Sunday night, mirroring the unease expressed in its lyrics ("Living our lives through a lens/Trapped in our white picket fence/Like ornaments/So comfortable, we live in a bubble"), performing it amidst a suburban tableau that she was initially trapped by. She wobbled around while sporting a white casual-Friday look that included an Elizabeth Warren-honouring PERSIST armband. The fence that had been trapping Perry eventually broke up into a dance troupe, giving Perry's uneasy comeback single a happy-on-the-surface ending that belied some "wake up, sheeple" lyrics.
At the tail end of a wildly successful night – winning not only his first three Grammys, but the first Grammys ever for a streaming-only album – the 23-year-old Chicagoan capped his victory with an explosive, spiritual performance, featuring Grammy-winning gospel singers Kirk Franklin and Tamela Mann, plus Francis and the Lights and a rapturous church choir. "It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap," Chance warbled before delivering a rousing sermon to his fans. Earlier in the evening, he shouted out his hometown, Atlanta legend DJ Drama and Soundcloud for his successes – but at the end of the day, rap music's Rookie of the Year claimed no greater patron than God. "I claim the victory in the name of the Lord," he yelled.
In case the introduction by Paris "We could really use this kind of excitement at a pipeline protest, guys" Jackson wasn't cool enough, the Weeknd and Daft Punk brought a different kind of chill to their mashed-up performance of "Starboy" and "I Feel It Coming." Poised atop a ginormous ice cliff, the enigmatic French duo surfaced for their first performance since their 2014 Grammys, tepidly bobbing their signature helmets. The Weeknd, however, mustered up some jazz hands and served a flawless vocal performance on the rocks.
Even Barry Gibb looked perplexed at the haphazardly collected assortment of "stars" coming through to honour the 40th anniversary of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. The situation already began to look suspect from the moment John Travolta took the stage an hour before the tribute to introduce a different performance as opposed to offering some meaningful words as the star of the film. From there, Demi Lovato ignored the graceful falsetto of "Stayin' Alive" for a much harsher delivery than the song can handle before Tori Kelly's blasé take on "Tragedy." Little Big Town seemed well-matched for the tender harmonies of "How Deep Is Your Love" while the very talented Andra Day gave a good but forgettable take on "Night Fever."
Decorated Grammy veteran Alicia Keys and young gun Maren Morris are two of the earthiest divas you could ever hope to meet. Having already undertaken a genre-spanning collaboration in a 2016 episode of CMT Crossroads, the singer-songwriters reunited – and effortlessly rocked – a live rendition of "Once," off Morris' Grammy-nominated debut, Hero. Decked in killer jumpsuits, pipes ablaze and chemistry off the charts, Keys and Morris exemplified the golden standard of duets.
A few years back, the National Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences got wind of the mash-up trend, which they've used to their ratings advantage: It's not only "cool," but pairing two non-huge artists speeds up the show. These mashups have often been strained at best, but few plumbed the depths like the pairing between country ingénue Kelsea Ballerini and Danish pop-soulster Lukas Graham. Ballerini's "Peter Pan" is a gently wounded ballad about a guy whose refusal to grow up means that she has to give him the heave-ho; Lukas Graham's "7 Years" is a plodding whinge about feeling old while in one's mid-20s, dragged along by a lumbering fiddling-on-the-piano. The two songs could be in dialogue with each other – Ballerini pushing Lukas Graham frontman Lukas Forchhammer to grow up already, while Forchhammer bangs on about smoking weed as a kid – but the disastrous staging of the two tracks on Sunday night resulted in a mess. Ballerini's feather-light rebuke was lost amidst Forchhammer's "remember when" sulking.
Upon winning the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance Grammy for their anxiety-plagued mega-hit "Stressed Out," Ohio duo Twenty One Pilots did what many people in their situation might: They partially disrobed, hitting the stage with a "business up front, party down below" look that showed off their boxer briefs. According to vocalist-keyboardist Tyler Joseph, the plan had been brewing for years. "It was a few years ago, and it was before Josh and I were able to make money playing music," Joseph recalled. He invited bandmate Josh Dun over for a Grammy viewing party that happened to be full of people shooting – and feeling – the breeze. "As we were watching, we noticed that every single one of us was in our underwear," Joseph said. "Josh turned to me and said, 'You know, if we ever go to the Grammys – if we ever win a Grammy – we should receive it just like this.'" Don't ever give up on your dreams, kids.
Two of the biggest names in country made bold moves in a performance of "The Fighter," the ambitious, club-friendly, crossover-ready single from Keith Urban's Grammy-nominated LP, Ripcord. Backed by a dizzying light display, Urban and Carrie Underwood recalled the swagger of Eighties dream team Womack & Womack, laced with New Romantic synths and the down-home feel of a banjo. What the pair lost in the abysmal live sound quality was recouped in their enthusiastic harmonies; still, their electro-country didn't quite pop with the audience. With a nod to his role in Grease, John Travolta heralded the pair as "the most dynamic duo since Danny and Sandy." We're thinking more "three drinks in at the 25-year reunion."
Gary Clark Jr. has become the big awards shows' on-call shredder, and we're not complaining. Clark may be an underwhelming songwriter, but as a guitarist and wingman, he's lethal, a fact demonstrated last night alongside Stax survivor William Bell, who had taken home a Best Americana Album trophy earlier in the day for 2016 comeback LP This Is Where I Live. Clark was more than happy to play a supporting role here, tossing out stinging leads on his yellow SG as the 77-year-old Bell growled through a version of his immortal blues classic "Born Under a Bad Sign," made famous by Albert King. In a night plagued by contrived, awkward team-ups, this one felt sleek and natural, a virtuoso display courtesy of a young gun and an industry vet finally getting his turn in the spotlight.
Last night's show was heavy on high-concept set pieces – Katy Perry's cubist suburban home, Beyoncé's trippy avant–dinner party – so the understated old-school class of Sturgill Simpson's performance was all the more welcome. Teaming with the Dap-Kings, there to honour their late, great front-marvel Sharon Jones, who died just months ago, Simpson turned in a gripping rendition of "All Around You," his Sailor's Guide to Earth tale of uplift in the face of adversity. The result was big, brassy Americana at its finest, like The Last Waltz gone Grand Ole Opry, and a reminder that timeless elegance always plays better on TV than gimmicky bombast.