Critic’s Notebook: Cardi B Gives Sleepy Grammys a Much-Needed Jolt

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Cardi B performs at the 2019 Grammy Awards.

The telecast was mostly antiseptic, but Cardi B gave it a shot of personality with a compelling performance, historic win and funny speech.

The focus of the 61st edition of the Grammys was on women, a point the show’s producers hammered again and again to the audience over the nearly four-hour telecast. The other throughline was that everyone was wearing hats for some reason, from Jennifer Lopez’s Carmen San Diego headwear to Jimmy Jam’s Blues Brothers fedora.

The evening began with Camila Cabello performing “Havana” with Young Thug — an odd opening note given that the song, which came out in 2017, feels ancient by now. Ricky Martin joined in on the proceedings, which prompted a question that would recur throughout the night: “What year is this taking place in?”

Alicia Keys seemed comfortable as host, helping move things along and at one point playing dueling pianos in a weird talent-show style moment. What the Grammys seem to have going for them is that they're less formal and sanctimonious than, say, the Oscars. At times they can get bombastic, but the Grammys often feel more like a big-budget high-school assembly than the loftier, more “prestigious” awards shows, and tonight was no different.

Early in the program, Jada Pinkett Smith (a member of nu metal band Wicked Wisdom), Lady Gaga, J.Lo and Michelle Obama took the stage. Women also won many of the higher-profile awards, from Kacey Musgraves taking home album of the year for her work on Golden Hour to Cardi B snagging her first trophy for best rap album for Invasion of Privacy (the first time a solo woman artist has ever received the prize). Cardi B’s victory felt like the highlight of the evening.

As she struggled to get her speech out, she said, “The nerves are so bad. Maybe I need to start smoking weed,” to a wave of laughs. Her striking peacock-esque performance of “Money” was also one of the most compelling stretches of the night. Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin both received deserving tributes, which featured the likes of Maren Morris, Miley Cyrus, Fantasia, Yolanda Adams and Andra Day.

Janelle Monae performed “Make Me Feel” with echoes of Klaus Nomi and Prince but twisted in her own idiosyncratic style. Brandi Carlile turned in a stirring rendition of “The Joke.” Lady Gaga sang “Shallow” from A Star Is Born, which also took home the award for best duo/group recording. St. Vincent and Dua Lipa teamed up to play “Masseducation,” in one of the evening’s rockier moments. Shortly after, Lipa won best new artist, a distinction that still seems to carry a curse. Rising star H.E.R. played “Hard Place” and also took home the award for best R&B album.

The evening had its fair share of questionable moments. For one, J.Lo’s tribute to Motown seemed misplaced. Does anyone associate J.Lo with Motown or want to hear her version of Motown classics? Also why was Ne-Yo there? It seems like Chloe x Halle, who performed Roberta Flack’s “Where Is the Love,” would have made more sense in this slot. Diana Ross celebrated her 75th birthday with a somewhat boring but perhaps appropriate version of “The Best Years of My Life,” one of the lesser-remembered hits from her catalog.

The most truly bizarre and 2019 moment was without a doubt the Post Malone medley. It started off with Post Malone playing “Stay” and then “Beerbongs & Bentleys,” and then joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers on “Dark Necessities,” a song that is neither dark nor necessary. The Chili Peppers veered into self-parody long ago, and teaming up with a goofy muppet like Post Malone made for the night’s most unintentionally humorous passage.

Then, of course, there is the fact that 21 Savage was originally slated to join Malone in the performance of “Beerbongs.” But the Atlanta-based artist was detained by ICE on Super Bowl Sunday; 21 Savage’s name was only mentioned once on the program by producer Ludwig Goransson, who said, “21 Savage, you should be here tonight.” Otherwise, Malone (wearing a 21 Savage shirt) and everyone else was sadly mum on the rapper’s situation. It was unfortunate to see the recording industry turn its back on an artist at such a critical time, but the theme of the night is selling records, not getting political.

Overall and, again, unlike at the Oscars, there was no political speechifying at all. Politics were indeed not on the agenda, yet the idea that “you can do whatever you want,” along with other cliches, riddled the acceptance speeches. The night was anticlimactic and antiseptic. If remembered at all, it will be for Cardi’s rise.