Beyoncé is the Meryl Streep of the Grammys — and she’s the Glenn Close, too. Like Streep, she’s the woman with the most nominations in her field (66, including her work with Destiny’s Child, her husband Jay Z and various collaborators), pretty much guaranteed multiple nods every time she opens her mouth. And as with Close, a seven-time Oscar loser, one grand prize continues to elude Beyoncé, despite her merit and respect. For the 38-year-old singer, that would be the album of the year Grammy.
Even if her 2019 release “Homecoming: The Live Album” doesn’t finally get her the top reward when the 2020 winners are announced Jan. 27, Beyoncé could still become the Grammys’ Katharine Hepburn: the lady with the most hardware. Hepburn scored four acting Oscars throughout her 62-year film career, more than any other actress, including Streep, who has a mere three. Beyoncé has won 23 collective Grammys so far, making her second only to Alison Krauss, whose total tally stands at 27.
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Krauss sat out the October 1, 2018-to-August 31, 2019 eligibility period for the 2020 Grammys, so she won’t be extending her lead this time. Beyoncé, meanwhile, has four contenders to pad her collection of Grammy nominations and wins: her 2019 Netflix concert documentary “Homecoming”; its live de facto soundtrack; her work on the soundtrack to the 2019 remake of “The Lion King”; and her curated companion album to that movie, “The Lion King: The Gift.”
When nominations are announced Nov. 20, Beyoncé could conceivably be up for recognition in more than enough categories to push her over the line: best R&B performance, best traditional R&B performance, best R&B album, best rap/sung performance, best song written for visual media, best music film and, of course, album of the year.
Can she break both the women’s Grammy record and her album of the year losing streak in one night? She’s been nominated for the top prize three times before, and she’s batting 0 for 3. The last time she was up for it, with 2016’s “Lemonade,” Adele’s “25” won in a stunning upset. Naturally, the Beyhive cried foul. Even Adele, who was on her second album of the year triumph for her third effort, said the award should have gone to Beyoncé.
A win this year for “Homecoming” wouldn’t be just a belated consolation prize. The collection was a legitimate critical and commercial hit, earning an almost-perfect 98 rating on Metacritic and, like “Lemonade,” being praised as not just an album but a cultural event.
That, however, might not be enough to offset the Academy’s historical resistance to live recordings in the album of the year category. Grammy voters only occasionally have warmed up to them since the early ’60s, when Bob Newhart, Judy Garland and Vaughn Meader all won for works recorded before a live audience. In the ’70s, Johnny Cash and Peter Frampton earned nominations for live releases (respectively, “At San Quentin” and “Frampton Comes Alive!”), while George Harrison’s “The Concert for Bangladesh,” a triple album featuring assorted A-list talent, including an entire side of Bob Dylan, took the top prize in 1973.
In recent decades, the Academy has preferred live albums unplugged: Eric Clapton won for “Unplugged” in 1993, and two years later, Tony Bennett became a first-time winner with “MTV Unplugged.” If “Homecoming” makes the album of the year shortlist, it’d actually be the first traditional live album to do so since 1995, when “The Three Tenors in Concert 1994” was nominated alongside Bennett. With that modern prejudice against the form, even a nomination would seem like a near-impossible dream if it were any other artist, but we’re talking about Beyoncé, who rarely comes up short on them, however much the big prize eludes her.
Of course, it’s possible they’ll dismiss “Homecoming” as a glorified best-of collection, which might partly explain why the Academy has historically overlooked so many live albums, including landmark ones like “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The Rolling Stones in Concert,” “Cheap Trick at Budokan” and Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged in New York.” “Homecoming,” though, isn’t just a retread of Beyoncé’s greatest hits. It actually has more in common with Unplugged albums, in that it presents the star in a unique setting, singing assorted album tracks and previously unrecorded songs (including a cover of Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go,” which was a modest R&B hit) along with the big singles. Also, pop and R&B singers aren’t generally known for releasing acclaimed live albums, so Beyoncé’s masterful negotiation of the format might seem that much more impressive to voters.
Another hurdle standing in the way of a “Homecoming” album coronation could be mainstream radio, which in recent years has all but ignored Beyoncé. The Grammy-nominated live albums by Cash, Frampton and Clapton all spawned massive pop singles, and Harrison’s directly followed his greatest solo success, most notably “My Sweet Lord,” the first number one by an ex-Beatle. The Bennett and Three Tenors albums didn’t launch any radio hits, but both acts were working in genres where chart singles aren’t a measure of success.
Despite her current lack of radio clout, “Homecoming” offers a not-so-gentle reminder of Beyoncé’s past prowess at producing huge inescapable hits while underscoring her recent refusal to cater to mainstream expectations. That could work in her favor. Giving it album of the year would be like honoring Beyoncé not only for an acclaimed album and career achievement but also for challenging status quo tastes with uncompromising music. Like the Netflix special, it represents both a celebration and culmination of her solo career, which reached one of many zeniths with the 2018 Coachella performance it documents.
At this point, the album Grammy is pretty much the only accolade that has remained out of Beyoncé’s reach. It’s a miss made all the more surprising by the fact that Taylor Swift and Adele, both of whom hit the music scene well after Queen Bey, already have bookend album of the year Grammys. Yet Beyoncé could well become the Academy’s most-awarded woman in January and still miss out on that grail.
It‘s going to be a tough sell, especially with Billie Eilish and Lizzo providing such competitive heat… but if any woman in music is poised to become the first one to win album of the year for a live album since Judy Garland nearly 60 years ago, Beyoncé is probably the best bet yet.
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