Bruno Mars, Eminem Clean House On Grammy Nominations

The Grammy Awards aren't until February, but newcomer Bruno Mars has received a staggering seven nominations. And veteran rapper Eminem is up for 10 Grammys. Host Michel Martin speaks with music critic Althea Legaspi about what to expect from one of music's biggest nights.

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(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRUNO MARS (Musician): (Singing) When I see your face, there's not a thing that I would change 'cause you're amazing just the way you are.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now let's talk about music. That was newcomer Bruno Mars. He was nominated for seven awards when Grammy nominations were announced last week. Joining him at the top of the nominations list is the comeback kid, rapper Eminem, with 10 Grammy nods, most for his new album, "Recovery."

We wanted to know more about what to expect at music's biggest night, so we've called Althea Legaspi. She is a music critic from member station WBEZ's 848 program in Chicago. She's also a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. ALTHEA LEGASPI (Music Critic, Writer): Hi, thank you.

MARTIN: Now, you know, I just said that the Grammys are musics biggest night. But is that still true? There are so many other awards programs now, but do people still look at the Grammys as the big one?

Ms. LEGASPI: I think, you know, in terms of artists, they definitely want to get a Grammy. I know viewership was up last year - up 35 percent - with the last decade or so, people kind of tuning out to the Grammys. And I think now, with the diversity of artists that are there, its maybe become more relevant again.

MARTIN: Well, thats good to hear. So well another reason to tune in. So tell us about Bruno Mars. Who is this guy? I mean, forgive me, I know Im not an insider like you. But it does seem as though he kind of came out of nowhere.

Ms. LEGASPI: He really did. I mean, he had been sort of he was a producer for a few years, working with people like Flo Rida and Brandy. And this year, he just popped up everywhere. He is taking - as you mentioned earlier - seven nominations, the second largest - underneath Eminem.

MARTIN: And Bruno Mars also has an interesting back story. Tell us a little bit about that. I know he's from Hawaii, like our current president.

Ms. LEGASPI: Yes. And his mom is Filipina, and his dad is Puerto Rican descent. So he's just - I have not, in my lifetime, seen very many Filipinos getting nominated. The only one I know of is Apl.de.ap, from Black Eyed Peas. So it's good to see - you know, I went to one of his shows, and it was all Filipinos in there. And that's when I finally made the connection 'cause that's really rare for me to actually have that opportunity - as a Filipina myself. And I think Bruno Mars sort of has that triple threat of being both a really good producer, a great singer as well as knowing how to write hits.

MARTIN: And, of course, Eminem is the big story. Tell us a little bit more about him.

Ms. LEGASPI: Well, he sort of - as you know - fell off for about five, six years. He had a drug problem, and this is sort of his big comeback. Now, at the end of the Grammys last year, he was the big artist to close out the show. And I think that he's sort of a favorite. I mean, even when he was super controversial, he was still winning Rap Album of the Year. And he's won that numerous times. But this year, you know, Album of the Year, Rap Album of the Year, song and record of the year - I mean, he's dominating this year.

MARTIN: And he's still controversial. I mean, the piece he did with Rihanna, which takes on the question of domestic violence, is something that I think a lot of people are still talking about, you know - what kind of message is being sent there. But it's - well, what do you think of that piece? I think it's a pretty hot song.

Ms. LEGASPI: I love that song. I have to admit that I don't think "Recovery" is his best album that he's done. You know, I think that his earlier work had a little more fire. Yes, this isn't quite as derisive as his early work or maybe quite as controversial. Yes, that one song for sure but overall, it's about recovering; hence the title. And I think he's a Grammy favorite. And I think that comeback stories are always sort of in favor of the voters at the Grammys, too.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're speaking with music critic Althea Legaspi. We're talking about the nominations for the Grammy Awards that were just announced last week. Another Detroit native who received two nods is musician and songwriter Kem, who was on our program earlier this year. I'll just - we're playing favorites; who are we kidding? Who are we kidding? He was on our show; we're going to play his song, one of the nominations for his first solo hit, "Why Would You Stay?" Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Why Would You Stay?")

KEM (Musician): (Singing) Yeah. I'll never hurt you again. Girl, I know you deserve a better man. Girl, I was a fool to ever let you down, but I want you to stay.

MARTIN: You know, I'm interested in - is that he's so easy on the ears. I mean, it's like - kind of classic, old-school R&B, you know, beautifully, you know, written, beautifully sung. But is that the kind of thing that Grammy judges are interested in these days? Are they looking for more edge, or something just a little more out of the box?

Ms. LEGASPI: I think in this category, I think that silky smooth thing is always going to go over very well. He's up for best R&B song and best R&B vocal performance. And every song in there is silky smooth and beautiful. So I think it's tough competition but, you know, Kem's from Detroit. He's, as you know, has a great story - overcoming addiction and being homeless and now, he's sort of a hero for a lot of people. But he's up against El DeBarge, who's been out for 15 years for similar things.

And both of these guys are from Michigan, too. So I think it's going to be tough competition with both of them. I think they're both well-deserving. We'll see which way the Grammy people vote.

MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask you about the large numbers of independent label artists that have been nominated this year. According to the American Association of Independent Music, 273 of the 542 possible Grammy nominees were with independent labels. Now, that's interesting. Why do you think that is?

Ms. LEGASPI: Well, I think with the proliferation of the Internet, I think that there is just - it's more wide open for people who maybe weren't traditionally mainstream to become quote-unquote mainstream to ears outside of radio, or outside of traditional means that people were discovering music before. So I think that's one thing.

I also think that, you know, as many people know, the major-label industry has had its struggle. So I think that there's more independent labels and artists coming out, trying to make waves. And I think that it's nice to see that the Grammys are acknowledging that in some way.

MARTIN: And just give us a couple of - we don't have time, obviously, for all 273 of the people, but if you could just tell us about one or two of them.

Ms. LEGASPI: Well, Arcade Fire is nominated for Album of the Year, which is one of the big-four categories. Now, they're on Merge Records, which is 21 years old, an independent label in the truest sense. And this is the only band that they've had in the 21 years, that's been nominated. They were nominated before on other albums, but this one is Album of the Year, which is huge. And also, Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, for "Ready to Start."

MARTIN: OK. I think we have that. Let's play a little bit of it just so people know what we're talking about. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Ready to Start")

ARCADE FIRE (Band): (Singing) Then I guess I'll just begin again. You say, can we still be friends? If I was scared, I would. And if I was bored, you know I would.

MARTIN: OK. There's that. And anybody else?

Ms. LEGASPI: You know, in the Best New Artist, there have been independent artists in the past. And one of the ones that I'd really like to mention is Esperanza Spalding. She's on Heads Up International. It is her third album, and that Best New Artist is always sort of a funny one for the Grammys because they say it's when it's first publicly acknowledged - whatever that means.

MARTIN: What does that mean? It's like, when we noticed you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEGASPI: Exactly.

MARTIN: When we decided to speak to you at the party, then you can be - what is that?

Ms. LEGASPI: I know. It's interesting 'cause they say it has nothing to do with sales or anything like that. But I do think, you know, once people are really sort of seen by the general public, then they're considered for this. But she's such a talent, started very young. I think at 16 years old she was already going to college. She got her B.A. in three years, was teaching at Berklee - the youngest instructor ever. I can't say enough about her. It's really good to see her in that category.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we will play her as we say goodbye to you. Thank you so much for giving us a heads up. You said Heads Up recording, so we appreciate that. Althea Legaspi is a music critic for Chicago member station WBEZ's 848 program. She's also a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune. And she was with us from Chicago. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. LEGASPI: Thank you.

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