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An NPR music critic's take on the Grammy nominees for best new artist

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

All right, it's officially awards season. The Golden Globes were last week. The Emmys are airing tomorrow night. The Oscars aren't too far off. And the Grammys are airing in just three weeks on February 4. Now, the Grammys are promoted as music's biggest night. But like other award franchises, it often leaves out some of our favorite artists and albums. So each weekend leading up to the Grammys, we're going to pick one major category and talk about who was nominated and who should have been nominated. To kick us off, NPR music critic Stephen Thompson is here to talk about best new artist. Hey, Stephen.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Hey, Andrew.

LIMBONG: Let's start first with - so who was nominated, and what stands out to you from this crop of nominees?

THOMPSON: Well, there are eight nominees - Gracie Abrams, Fred Again, Ice Spice, Jelly Roll, Coco Jones, Noah Kahan, Victoria Monet, and The War and Treaty. And so you've got a pretty broad field across a bunch of different genres. Fred Again is a big star in electronic dance music. Ice Spice is a rapper who's crossed over into pop. Noah Kahan is, like, a singer-songwriter. Victoria Monet and Coco Jones are both big stars in R&B. The War and Treaty is an Americana duo that's been around for a while. So you've got a nice kind of range of pop and R&B, dance music, singer-songwriters to cover a broad array that maybe isn't as broad an array as it could have been.

LIMBONG: Yeah. I want to talk about one artist you named. His name is Jelly Roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEED A FAVOR")

JELLY ROLL: (Singing) I only talk to God when I need a favor, and I only pray when I ain't got a prayer.

LIMBONG: He's an interesting guy. He started as a rapper and then transitioned into this sort of, like, country and rock blend. And he's also been very outspoken about his history with substance abuse and being a drug dealer. Can you tell us a little bit more about him?

THOMPSON: Well, Jelly Roll's been around for a long time, you know, because Jelly Roll put out a bunch of albums as a rapper. But he kind of had a big breakthrough within the last year or two, and that's kind of what got him to this place. I think what stands out about Jelly Roll is just, he comes at country music from a very different perspective from what you typically hear on country radio. I complain all the time about how much country radio is dominated by dudes with two first names singing about, you know, small towns on a Friday night. And what really stands out about Jelly Roll's music is it's coming from a much deeper, darker place. He's wrestling with demons. He's addressing religion. He's kind of examining his place in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEED A FAVOR")

JELLY ROLL: (Singing) God, I need a favor. Amen, amen.

LIMBONG: Yeah, but you didn't need to go at Luke Bryan like that. Come on, I like...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I will always go at Luke Bryan.

LIMBONG: Come on. All right, so there are always these, quote-unquote "snubs," right? And this year's no different. So what artists do you think could have been slam dunks in this year?

THOMPSON: Well it's always tricky when we talk snubs because you come up against a certain amount of math, right? Like, if there are going to be eight nominees, there are more than eight new artists who merit consideration for an award like this. But two names that did really jump out at me as people I thought would be nominated in this category - one is the singer-songwriter PinkPantheress.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOY'S A LIAR PT. 2")

PINKPANTHERESS: (Singing) Every time I pull my hair, well, it's only out of fear that you'll find me ugly and one day you'll disappear 'cause what's the point of crying? It was never even love. Did you ever want me? Was I ever good enough?

THOMPSON: PinkPantheress has come up as kind of a viral pop star, in large part through TikTok - had a big hit duet with Ice Spice called "Boy's A Liar Pt. 2" I wouldn't be surprised to see PinkPantheress make this field next year. There's still time for her to enter this field next year, in part because her debut album came out after the window of eligibility. But she certainly had hits that would have made her eligible for this category.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOY'S A LIAR PT. 2")

PINKPANTHERESS: (Singing) The boy's a liar. The boy's a liar. He doesn't see you. You're not looking at me boy.

THOMPSON: The other name that I would bring up is Peso Pluma, who really helped popularize Mexican regional music across the U.S. in 2023 with a massive hit called "Ella Baila Sola," which is just a wonderful song. Let's actually hear a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELLA BAILA SOLA")

PESO PLUMA: (Singing in Spanish).

THOMPSON: It was really, like, an inescapable, like, TikTok smash. It crossed over to radio playlists, was enormously successful on streaming. And Peso Pluma only got one Grammy nomination, and it wasn't in any of the general categories. And I think a lot of people expected him to get more nominations as a major Latin crossover artist.

LIMBONG: All right. So historically, best new artist has been a pretty wonky category with a mixed track record of predicting future success, right? I've heard mumblings of a curse, you know, being bandied about. Can you give us a brief history on this category?

THOMPSON: Well, I think the idea of a best new artist curse has been pretty well vanquished in the last 20 or 30 years. But there was, in the '80s and early '90s, kind of a trend toward - where they would pick artists, and then those artists wouldn't necessarily be able to sustain long careers - Christopher Cross being a famous example. In 1990, this category gave the Grammys probably their biggest black eye ever when they gave best new artist to Milli Vanilli, who was later determined to not actually perform its own songs. And I think it's led the Grammys to be a little bit safer and more conservative in terms of chasing artists who experience kind of a big, what seems like it might be a flash in the pan amount of success.

But if you go back even farther, there are other embarrassments and issues. In 1986, Whitney Houston wasn't eligible for best new artist because she had recorded a couple of duets. And, you know, when we talk about the fact, like, oh, man, some of these people who are up for best new artists, they're not even new - that's in part trying to prevent a situation where an artist who's been bubbling under but hasn't really experienced any mainstream success winds up getting disqualified from this kind of award, the way Whitney Houston was.

LIMBONG: All right. So the big Grammys corporation gives you a call, right? And they say, Stephen, we're going to give you a magic wand. You can do anything you want with just this category - best new artist - to fix it and make it better.

THOMPSON: Oh, man.

LIMBONG: What are you - what's your dictum? What are you doing?

THOMPSON: I think changing the name of this category to something like breakthrough artist would make it a lot easier to create a kind of set of guidelines that make sense to people that - you know, it's obvious that an artist has had a breakthrough even when they're not a brand-new artist.

LIMBONG: All right. And finally, let's put some money down on who's going to win.

THOMPSON: I think this is Victoria Monet's year.

LIMBONG: Oh, interesting.

THOMPSON: She was nominated for seven Grammys. She's one of the leading nominees. Perfect example of an artist who's been floating around the music industry for more than a decade but had a huge breakthrough with this wonderful album she put out called "Jaguar II" and the song "On My Mama." She feels like somebody the Grammys are really, really embracing this year, and I suspect she'll take this win.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON MY MAMA")

VICTORIA MONET: (Singing) I put that on my own mama, on my hood. I look fly. I look good. You can't touch my bag. Wish you could.

LIMBONG: That was Pop Culture Happy Hour co-host Stephen Thompson. Thanks, Stephen.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Andrew.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON MY MAMA")

MONET: (Singing) Mama, on my hood. I look fly. I look good. You can't touch my bag. Wish you could. I look fly. I look too good. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)

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