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Will Grammys bring surprise or same old?


Even the stiff, chronically unhip Recording Academy couldn't fight the feeling. This year, the Grammys are going to the 'hood, so to speak -- venturing into the urban music terrain and spotlighting the rappers and R&B; singers who have owned the charts all year. OutKast, Beyonce, Missy Elliott, Pharrell Williams, Jay-Z, 50 Cent -- all received five or six nominations apiece.

But those Academy voters can be tricky. Remember what happened to India.Arie three years ago? The Atlanta singer snagged seven nominations, including album of the year for her platinum debut Acoustic Soul. But she went home with nada. Last year, as if to make up for the embarrassing oversight, India.Arie was awarded two Grammys -- one in a brand new category: best urban / alternative performance.

As some winners stroll away with a golden gramophone, I wonder if the Academy has a clue. In 2001, when Christina Aguilera, Pink, Lil' Kim and Mya won for their garish, nerve-fraying remake of "Lady Marmalade," I considered not watching the Grammys ever again. But a year later, I gave it another shot and nearly choked on my Kool-Aid when Ashanti picked up a Grammy for best contemporary R&B; album.

Still, tonight's nominations in the major categories are pretty interesting. Here are my picks for who will probably win and who should walk away with an award.

Record of the Year

Who will win: "Crazy In Love." This is perhaps Beyonce's greatest accomplishment to date. The blazing horns, lifted from the Chi-Lites' 1969 hit "Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)," announce the song before giving way to an irresistible go-go beat. And Beyonce's confident, brassy vocals keep the heat up.

Who should win: OutKast's "Hey Ya!" If the Beatles and Prince got together in the studio, this is what they would have concocted. Eccentric rapper-singer Andre 3000's energetic performance and that rhythmic bounce snatch your attention and keep it. Plus, the recurring line Shake it / shake it like a Polaroid picture, makes the song a classic.

Album of the Year

Who will win: The White Stripes, Elephant. Critics loved this album for its stripped-down approach to rock. Although the group didn't do anything revolutionary, the Academy still may go with this set because of its accessibility.

Who should win: OutKast, Speakerboxxx / The Love Below. One of the most experimental albums to hit the streets (and the top of the charts) in years. Also, the Atlanta duo was able to keep the music edgy, flexible and open enough for pop audiences.

Song of the Year

Who will win: Warren Zevon, "Keep Me In Your Heart." Zevon put out the best album of his career, then he died. Recorded months after Zevon was diagnosed with lung cancer, the single carries the emotional heft that may appeal to award voters. In his nearly 40-year career, the celebrated singer-songwriter never won a Grammy. He finally may get one, now that he's not here to receive it.

Who should win: Eminem, "Lose Yourself." For a while, you couldn't escape this insistent song. And it's actually one of Eminem's better cuts -- a driving rock-influenced rhythm with a forceful delivery.

Best New Artist

Who will win: Evanescence. This award can be the kiss of death. Some past winners fulfill the promise of their careers: Bette Midler and Natalie Cole come to mind. But some that walk away with the prize fall into that black hole for one-hit wonders: A Taste of Honey and Paula Cole are great examples. Based on sales and popularity, the main criteria for industry awards these days, 50 Cent would be the obvious choice. But the Academy rarely goes with the obvious in this category.

Who should win: 50 Cent. Although he was far from the greatest artist out last year (selling the most albums still doesn't make him The Best), he should get this award. Maybe then the New York rapper with such limp skills will fall into that infamous black hole, never to be heard from again.

Best Pop Album

Who will win: Justin Timberlake, Justified. His vocals are derivative and weak, but he was smart enough to hook up with the freshest beat makers around to give him a hip, baaad sound. A white boy appropriating black attitude and music. The Academy just loves that.

Who should win: Michael McDonald. The ex-Doobie Brother is perhaps the finest blue-eyed soul singer ever, imbuing baby-boomer classics with cracked-heart vulnerability and smoldering sensuality. If they must reward a white guy who cops the nuances of soul, at least give the award to one who does it right.

Best R&B; Album

Who will win: Luther Vandross for Dance With My Father. Although the album is far from his best, the smooth soul singer, who suffered a stroke in April, may get sympathy votes.

Who should win: Erykah Badu for Worldwide Underground. Of the nominations, Badu's album is the most exciting and unconventional. The intriguing set blends hip-hop, fusion jazz, bottom-heavy Southern funk and free-flowing R&B; -- seamlessly groovin' along the way.

Best Rap Album

Who will win: 50 Cent for Get Rich or Die Tryin'. It was The Biggest Album of 2003. His pop-friendly raps dominated radio and the story of his nine bullet wounds consumed the press. If he doesn't score in any other category, he may nail this one.

Who should win: The Roots, Phrenology. Black Thought, the Roots' dynamic MC, is so overlooked, the band's soundscapes so progressive and intoxicating, the unit deserves the award, the only one for which it received a nomination.

And that's a shame.

The key categories

For tonight's Grammy Awards -- 8 o'clock on CBS (WJZ, Channel 13) -- these are the major categories:

Record of the Year: "Crazy In Love," Beyonce; "Where Is the Love," The Black Eyed Peas; "Clocks," Coldplay; "Lose Yourself," Eminem; "Hey Ya!," OutKast

Album of the Year: Under Construction, Missy Elliott; Fallen, Evanescence; Speakerboxxx / The Love Below, OutKast; Justified, Justin Timberlake; Elephant, The White Stripes

Song of the Year: "Beautiful," Christina Aguilera; "Dance With My Father," Luther Vandross; "I'm With You," Avril Lavigne; "Keep Me In Your Heart," Warren Zevon; "Lose Yourself," Eminem

Best New Artist: Evanescence, 50 Cent, Fountains of Wayne, Heather Headley, Sean Paul

Best Pop Album: Stripped, Christina Aguilera; Brainwashed, George Harrison; Bare, Annie Lennox; Motown, Michael McDonald; Justified, Justin Timberlake

Best R&B; Album: Worldwide Underground, Erykah Badu; Bittersweet, Blu Cantrell; So Damn Happy, Aretha Franklin; Body Kiss, The Isley Brothers; Dance With My Father, Luther Vandross

Best Rap Album: Under Construction, Missy Elliott; Get Rich or Die Tryin', 50 Cent; The Blueprint 2 -- The Gift & the Curse, Jay-Z; Speakerboxxx / The Love Below, OutKast; Phrenology, The Roots

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