Though the show opened with an expectedly sassy performance from three-time winner Lizzo (best pop solo performance, best traditional R&B performance and best urban contemporary album) the tenor of the night was quickly addressed by Keys, who returned as host for the second year and displayed admirable calmness and empathy.
“We’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built. Right now, Kobe and all those lost today are in our spirit, in our hearts, in our prayers, in this building,” Keys said, “We never imagined in a million years we’d have to start the show like this.”
Keys and Boyz II Men then quietly sang a few a capella lines from the Boyz’ 1991 hit ballad, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”
The vibe during the ceremony gradually brightened, and by the time 18-year-old Billie Eilish, the key winner this year with five Grammys, returned to the stage to accept the final award of the night for record of the year with a pithy, “Thank you, bye,” it almost felt like a celebration.
Eilish’s haul included a sweep of the four major categories for album of the year (“When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”) and record and song of the year (“Bad Guy”), as well as best new artist. She is the first artist since Christopher Cross in 1981 to achieve that feat.
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Backstage, Eilish and her producer brother Finneas O’Connell were still feeling joyful.
“We made this album in a bedroom and it was mastered in someone’s living room, so literally anything is possible,” Eilish said.
Bryant’s legacy was alluded to through some of the night’s most incendiary performances, including an epic showdown between Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C., who revisited their groundbreaking 1986 collaboration of “Walk This Way” (Bryant’s jersey was held aloft at the back of the stage).
Another heralded youngster, Atlanta’s Lil Nas X who won two Grammys in his breakout year (best pop duo/group performance with Billy Ray Cyrus and best music video), managed to stretch his wisp of a record-breaking song, “Old Town Road,” into one of the most entertaining spectacles of the show.
Starting while sitting on a couch and strumming a guitar (with a Bryant jersey draped on a chair), Lil Nas X walked through a series of doors on a revolving set that paired him with a slew of collaborators – BTS (the first K-pop band to perform on the Grammys), Diplo and primary sidekick Cyrus among them. But the appearance of (Big) Nas during the song was a much-appreciated hoot.
Artist tributes also populated the 3 1/2-plus-hour telecast, including Usher, in leather pants and a glittery jacket, smoothly executing a Prince medley of “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss,” with Prince’s longtime musical partner Sheila E behind him on the drums and FKA Twigs performing a pole dance.
Backstage, Sheila E said FKA Twigs’ decision not to sing was her own and that Usher chose his own Prince songs for the segment.
“If someone if going to do a tribute, you ask them what they want to sing because it has to be personal,” she said, “It’s important for him to dance and to sing and (to be featured) as an entertainer. He does all of the above.”
Rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was shot to death in March, also received musical love during a medley of “Letter to Nipsey” and “Higher” featuring Meek Mill, John Legend, Roddy Rich, Kirk Franklin and DJ Khaled doing his usual yell-a-thon.
Hussle’s legacy was further preserved with two Grammys – best rap/sung performance for “Higher” with Legend and Khaled, and best rap performance (“Racks in the Middle”).
Among the performances, Eilish and Demi Lovato opted to focus on vocals rather than flash, with the former unveiling the haunting piano ballad “When the Party’s Over” (with brother O’Connell, newly minted as a Grammy-winning producer, playing the instrument) and Lovato, in her first performance since her July 2018 drug relapse, belting a deeply emotional “Anyone.”
Other noteworthy productions came from Ariana Grande, shut out of awards (as was Taylor Swift), but nimble and perky onstage for a glossy medley that featured “7 Rings” and “Thank U, Next,” as well as H.E.R., who impressed again with her musical prowess on piano and guitar for “Sometimes.” Camila Cabello also stirred emotions with a beautiful performance of “First Man,” which she sang directly to her father in the audience.
Lil Nas X wasn’t the only Atlanta artist making his debut in the winner’s circle. Rapper 21 Savage, nominated for a pair of Grammys last year with Post Malone (while battling immigration legal tangles), earned his first gramophone for best rap song, “A Lot,” which he celebrates with fellow songwriters J. Cole, Dacoury Natche (DJ Dahi) and Anthony White.
Andre 3000 shared the best R&B performance award with Anderson .Paak for “Come Home.” The reclusive Atlanta music man wasn’t present, but Paak praised his contribution.
“(Andre) was one of the artists that showed me that hip-hop doesn’t have to be so one-dimensional. You can wear what you want to wear, you can smile, you can use influences like jazz and rock and funk and still be one of the baddest (expletive) with a rhyme,” he said. “Everyone knows how hard it is to get Andre to do anything. This is such an honor.”
Other multiple winners include Gary Clark Jr., who snagged three Grammys in rock and blues categories and country veteran Tanya Tucker, who scored her first Grammys after 14 previous nominations, for best country song (“Bring My Flowers Now,” written with Brandi Carlile) and best country album (“While I’m Livin’”).
“No matter how young or old you are,” Tucker said, visibly moved, “never stop following your dreams.”
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