Bruno Mars crashed the expected hip-hop party Sunday and walked away with all the big Grammy Awards.
Though the preponderance of hip-hop artists among the nominations announced several months ago was met with a barrage of media coverage championing a rap breakthrough, it was business as usual in the top categories. Despite nominations for Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Childish Gambino and Logic for song, record and album of the year, the Recording Academy embraced a mainstream pop performer with a relatively safe retro sound.
Mars won album of the year (“24K Magic”), record of the year (“24K Magic”) and song of the year (“That’s What I Like”) among his six Grammys. Lamar won five Grammys, including rap album of the year (“DAMN.”), but was shut out in the major categories. Hip-hop artists have won album of the year only twice in Grammy history: OutKast in 2004 and Lauryn Hill in 1999, a shameful snub of an art form that has shaped youth culture for the last 40 years.
Some highs and lows from the nationally televised broadcast, which honored recordings released between Oct. 1, 2016 and Sept. 30, 2017:
Politics as unusual: The Grammys have never been a wellspring of political commentary, but Sunday was at least slightly different. There were celebs reading from Michael Wolff’s best-seller “Fire and Fury” about President Donald Trump’s White House, most notably Hillary Clinton. “The Grammy’s in the bag,” she exclaimed, though the segment overall came off as more gratuitous than humorous. Immigration issues were on the docket as U2 cruised past the Statue of Liberty while performing on a barge in the Hudson Bay, and singer Camila Cabello championed her Cuban-Mexican heritage as she said, “This country was built by dreamers for dreamers chasing the American dream.”
Kesha owns the moment: The singer, who has her own long history with battling abuse in the music industry, rose to the #Time’sUp occasion with a wrenching performance of “Praying,” framed by a gaggle of women. Janelle Monae offered an eloquent introduction and Kesha’s chorus included Bebe Rexha, Andra Day and Cyndi Lauper.
#Time’sUp gets its due: Monae brought the fire while introducing Kesha. “we are also wives, daughters, mothers, sisters,” she said. We come in peace but we mean business. Time’s up for harassment of any kind and time’s up for the abuse of power. … It’s right here in our industry as well. … We have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well. Let’s work together, women and men … to create a safe work environment, equal pay and access for all women.”
Best meta commentary: Lamar sets the bar for the rest of the evening by rolling out an opening medley billed as a “satire,” with Dave Chappelle offering running commentary. “Is this OK for CBS?” the comic asks, just before a bunch of dancers pretend to be gunned down. The “XXX/American Soul” performance included a blink-and-you-missed-it walk-on by some Irish guys. Oh, that was U2, you say?
Nostalgia rules: If you thought this was a flashback to a Grammy telecast circa 1990, you were not alone. Elton John and Sting performed ancient-hits, an old Eric Clapton song was repurposed as a tribute to shooting victims, and U2 performed on a barge in the Hudson Bay with Bono megaphoning at the Statue of Liberty. Apparently, programmers were concerned that all those hip-hop nominees would chase away all viewers over 35, so they need to salt the proceedings with some — ahem — heritage artists.
The guy looks the part: Chris Stapleton is the new poster boy of country music, which is especially good because he doesn’t look anything like a poster boy but the kind of long-haired troublemaker who’d look right at home sitting next to Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard at a saloon. It doesn’t hurt that his music carries a thread of honky-tonk grit. Yet one of the token country tunes of the evening falls flat, mainly because it’s an Eric Clapton ballad.
Another best-new-artist headscratcher: This one seemed to be in the bag for R&B singer SZA, whose debut album, “Ctrl,” spawned two million-selling singles and widespread critical acclaim. But instead the award went to industry insider Alessia Cara. Flashback to Meghan Trainor over Courtney Barnett for best new artist in 2016, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis over Lamar in 2014, Fun over Alabama Shakes and Frank Ocean in 2013, and on and on.
Words matter: No one appreciates that more than Lamar, whose acceptance speech for best rap album (“DAMN”) is a brief but potent homage to the music that nurtured, educated and sustained him. Hip hop, he said, is “about expressing yourself and putting that paint on the canvas for the next generation to evolve.”
Ripe for parody: As the buoyant performance of “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee demonstrated, the song has been inescapable the last year. And as with any hit that has so saturated the culture, it’s ripe for parody. For that reason, any “Despacito” award should include an honorable mention for the YouTube blockbuster “I Wear Speedos.”
Jethro Tull redux: In the dubious Grammy tradition of art-folkies Jethro Tull beating out Metallica for best hard rock performance in 1989, the revered head-banger Leonard Cohen won posthumously for best rock performance (“You Want it Darker”), beating out Foo Fighters and Chris Cornell, among others. The dark humorist in Cohen, wherever he is, surely must be enjoying this one final cosmic joke.
Lady Gaga performed but we were too distracted by her piano adorned in angel wings: Need we say more?
Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.