Best album nominees for Grammy Awards: episode one

On Feb. 10, the music industry's biggest names will vie for a prized Grammy Award while Alicia Keys host the events.

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On Feb. 10, this year’s edition of “music’s biggest night” will feature dozens of the most popular names in the industry congregated in one place: the 61st Annual Grammy Awards. As the Recording Academy attempts to keep up with the changes in society at large, they have asserted some implicit and explicit changes within the past few years. 

For 2019 in particular, this will be the first year to include eight nominees for three of the biggest awards of the night: Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Album of the Year. 

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing all eight of the nominees in the musically and racially diverse Album of the Year category. For the first episode, we will take a look back at three albums previously reviewed by Daily Cardinal writers.

Black Panther: The Album features some of American hip-hop’s most prominent and acclaimed voices, but the numerous African musicians featured match their efforts.

Black Panther: The Album -- Various Artists

When I first listened to this album, I loved the relentlessness of its first half and smooth combinations of African voices with a contemporary American hip-hop foundation. Soundtrack curator Kendrick Lamar collaborated with “Black Panther” film director Ryan Coogler and many of his labelmates at Top Dawg Entertainment, in addition to bringing in some of the most popular American hip-hop talents and African musicians. 

The result is a blockbuster album to match the blockbuster film. Something that both the film and the soundtrack fall short on, however, is their execution at key moments: the set-up of such diverse foundations, whether it is African art onscreen or Jay Rock spitting a fiery verse on highlight track “King’s Dead,” are held back by lesser moments. 

There are no tracks on Black Panther: The Album that can be classified as truly bad, but a few tracks - particularly at the beginning and the end - are simple and pop-oriented re-dos of tracks that already exist. 

“Pray For Me,” featuring the Weeknd, sounds like B-side from the Weeknd’s previous effort Starboy. “All the Stars,” featuring SZA, has collected a few nominations of its own and has gotten the most media attention, and yet is arguably the weakest track of the entire project. 

On a large scale, however, the upsides strongly outweigh the downsides. Opening track “Black Panther” is a fiery meditation on royalty with a single verse from Lamar himself, SOB X RBE have a standout mainstream debut with “Paramedic!” and Vince Staples, Lamar and South African rapper Yugen Blakrok all play well together on “Opps.” In addition to Blakrok, fellow South African musicians and Saudi and Sjava have notable performances in “X” and “Seasons,” respectively.

Overall, Black Panther: The Album is a good album and worthy of attention, though it may pale to other hip-hop releases from this past year. As a film soundtrack, this is one of the more concise and committed releases amongst a niche of popular music that is usually designed solely to make more money and free advertising for a movie.

Final Grade: B

Cardi B's emotionally complex debut addresses the skepticisms and speculations surrounding her rise to stardom.

Invasion of Privacy -- Cardi B

Cardi B had one hell of a year, including the release of  an album with just as much energy and personality as her own image. Invasion of Privacy bounces through its 48-minute runtime at sprint pace with a handful of helpful features and larger-than-life production, mostly to great effect.

With songs as furious as “Money Bag,” “Bodak Yellow” and “Drip,” Invasion of Privacy refuses to let up, and Cardi B will make sure you know that. “I’m a boss you a worker b*tch/I make bloody moves,” she proclaims on “Bodak Yellow,” her breakthrough track that was and is widely quoted for its flawless braggadocio execution. 

Even when Cardi shows her softer side on tracks like “Be Careful,” she doesn’t let the overall energy dip. The instrumentals, courtesy of over 30 producers across the entire project, are each like individual stars: dense, hot and shining almost too bright to look at. “Bickenhead” is a highlight track with a simple but effective sample as a hi-hat, snare and bass play well with one another.

Cardi’s bars equal her beats in sheer kinetic energy and she holds her own against established feature artists including Migos, Chance the Rapper and Bad Bunny. Her wordplay is short and never very complex, which can grow a bit tiresome after many full-album listens. But her flows are fairly varied to keep things fresh throughout and her delivery is so dynamic that she is impossible to deny.

Final Grade: B

Featuring irresistible beats and optimistic lyrics, Dirty Computer is a groovy record with a lot to say.

Dirty Computer -- Janelle Monae

Dirty Computer checks items off the list of “Things that All Great Albums Have” and makes it look way too easy. Janelle Monae has made her most accessible album yet, but she has not significantly compromised her vision in the pursuit of greatness.

From an irresistible lead single (“Make Me Feel”) to a seamless feature (“Screwed” with Zoe Kravitz) to bold societal statements (“Americans”), Monae does it all. Her greatest weapons are numerous slick transitions in between tracks and a wide range of vocal performances to skillfully balance being both a focused collection of music and filled with variety.

The production on Dirty Computer is big and filled with little musical wonders. Monae utilizes a lot of 808 bass, notably on “Juice” and highlight track “Pynk,” but she goes way beyond relying on a classic drum machine for an entire album. 

Her versatility is incredible as she navigates each track with power and grace. She juxtaposes trap hi-hat with a swaggering laid-back melody in “I Like That” and layers her harmonizing vocals in “Crazy, Classic, Life” to great effect.

While the last act may slow things down for a little too long, lyrically, this is where Monae is at her most vulnerable. She details her fears and insecurities of living in a white heterosexual-dominated society on “Don’t Judge Me” and “So Afraid.” The songs on their own are each good tracks, but the specific ordering of them all together, especially after groupings like the triple punch of “Screwed,” “Django Jane” and “Pynk,” may leave some restless for the last hurrah of “Americans.”

When all is said and done, Dirty Computer is one of the strongest albums of the year, lifting sexuality, race, courage and technology with an optimistic layout that will leave you smiling. 

Final Grade: B+

Past Daily Cardinal reviews can be found clicking a link below:

Black Panther: The Album

Invasion of Privacy

Dirty Computer

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