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LOS ANGELES, Feb 14, (AFP): Socially conscious rapper Kendrick Lamar leads nominations going into the Grammy Awards on Monday but he faces tough competition led by pop superstar Taylor Swift.
A diverse array of artists is in contention at the music industry’s premier awards ceremony, an action-packed evening that will feature performances by leading stars and tributes to deceased legends.
Nominees for Album of the Year, the most prestigious award, include Lamar’s experimental rap opus “To Pimp a Butterfly” and Swift’s pop blockbuster “1989”.
Other albums in contention are “Sound and Color” by acclaimed bluesy indie rockers Alabama Shakes, rising Canadian R&B star The Weeknd’s “Beauty Behind the Madness” and Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller”, the first solo album by a long behind-the-scenes country songwriter which he released at age 37.
Lamar is nominated in 11 Grammys, the most for any artist in a single night except Michael Jackson in the era of “Thriller”, the top-selling album of all time.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” breaks free from commercial formulas by running for nearly 80 minutes with a jazz backdrop and lengthy interludes of spoken word.
Much of the album is a rumination on the state of US race relations, with “Alright” — nominated for Song of the Year — an unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality.
Lamar’s hometown of Compton, the notoriously rough Los Angeles County city that gave birth to gangsta rap, on Saturday presented the 28-year-old rapper with an honorary key.
“Through all the pain and hardship — losing family members, losing homeboys — for some reason we always still love Compton because we have faith,” he told students who danced to his songs.
The gala, which will be broadcast live from Los Angeles, will notably include a performance by British ballad singer Adele, whose record-shattering album “25” came out too late for this year’s Grammys.
Lady Gaga will honor late rock icon David Bowie in a “multisensory” show designed with chip-maker Intel that Grammy producers have billed as one of the awards’ most ambitious ever.
While Lamar leads in nominations, many pundits are betting on a successful night for Swift, whose “1989” was by far the top-selling album in the qualifying period.
“1989” marked the full metamorphosis of the teenage country prodigy into pop, with production by the Swedish hit machine Max Martin.
Swift, 26, also made waves in the rapidly evolving music industry by becoming the pre-eminent critic of leading streaming site Spotify, objecting to its free tier.
Singles on “1989” include “Blank Space”, a dark pop song that plays on gossip about Swift’s dating life and whose video, in which the star brawls in a castle, is the second most watched clip ever on YouTube.
“Blank Space” is nominated both for Record of the Year, which recognizes singles, and Song of the Year, which awards songwriters.
Also in the running in both categories is English singer Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” a love ballad backed by acoustic guitar that has quickly become a favorite at weddings.
But a leading contender for Record of the Year is “Uptown Funk”, the breakthrough single by veteran British producer Mark Ronson with vocals by Bruno Mars.
The instantly danceable song, which is reminiscent of the funky Minneapolis Sound popularized by Prince in the 1980s, spent 14 weeks at the top of the US singles chart, tying for second place on the all-time list.
Swift and The Weeknd each have seven nominations, tying for second place after Lamar.
The Weeknd, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye and was born in Toronto to Ethiopian immigrants, has enjoyed a rapid career rise since his start uploading songs on the Internet in near anonymity in 2010.
The 25-year-old, whose falsetto voice and pop R&B sound have invited comparisons to Michael Jackson, is nominated for Record of the Year for chart-topping single “Can’t Feel My Face”.
Stephan Moccio, a producer who co-wrote several songs on the album, “Beauty Behind the Madness,” said he was hopeful for The Weeknd’s prospects but also praised Lamar and Alabama Shakes.
“Obviously I’m excited for The Weeknd. I’m also hugely excited for Kendrick Lamar and what his album means to us for the cultural value,” he told AFP.
“You can’t really say one is better than the other. They are all different and they all deserve to win,” he said.