SZA is in the foreground of what the Grammys has dubbed “Progressive R&B” — R&B with deep and palpable influence from other genres, including rap, rock, and electronic music. (Many people have called this subgenre “alternative R&B.”) The Best Progressive R&B Album Grammy replaced Best Urban Contemporary Album in 2020; racial justice advocacy following the murder of George Floyd encouraged the Recording Academy to nix the term “urban,” a longstanding and inaccurate catchall term for Black music.
If not for SZA’s clear dominance this year, this category could boast a tight race. It’s had its share of blockbusters in the past, from Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange (which won in 2013) to Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2017’s winner), but as of late, less-established artists have made their mark. “[Last year] Steve Lacy was undeniably instrumental in elevating the subgenre to unprecedented heights,” says Yan Snead, music programmer for R&B, African, and Caribbean formats with Pandora. “Jordan Ward, Q, Leon Thomas, Chiiild, Jean Deaux, Amindi, Flwr Chyld, and countless others [are] killing it right now.” Spotify’s head of R&B, Alaysia Sierra, agrees. “This category is so healthy,” they say.
But as artists free themselves from distinct genres, category submissions can be a game of strategy. Sierra notes that Amaarae’s Fountain Baby could be a good fit, but might also fare well in Best Global Music Album for its international influences and her Ghanaian background. The predictably unpredictable nature of the Grammys — particularly with Black art — makes it tricky. “The Grammys always throw us a curveball,” says Sierra. “Sometimes it’s good, like, ‘I didn’t expect that — good for them. I love that album.’ Sometimes it’s like, ‘OK, that was … interesting.’” Here are our predictions for the nominees — and the winner. —M.C.
The Likely Nominees: SZA, Janelle Monáe, Daniel Caesar, Kali Uchis, Diddy
Should Win: SZA, SOS
Will Win: SZA, SOS
Read the complete breakdown for the Best Progressive R&B Album category prediction here.