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New Grammy categories soften the sting of losing others

The new award for urban contemporary album replaces several R&B categories. It may be the most relevant shift in a game-changing year for the genre.

December 06, 2012|By Gerrick D. Kennedy, Los Angeles Times
  • Frank Ocean, left, and Miguel head a new R&B class of artists.
Frank Ocean, left, and Miguel head a new R&B class of artists. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty…)

When the Recording Academy scaled back 31 Grammy categories last year, protests arose from many corners of the music world.

Perhaps as a consolation, this year three new categories — classical compendium, Latin jazz album and urban contemporary album — have been added to the previously scaled-back field.

The new award for urban contemporary album takes the place of several more R&B-related categories that were previously cut, and is perhaps the most relevant in a year that proved game-changing for the genre.

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As marquee acts such as Usher, Chris Brown and Ne-Yo have continued to mine hip-hop and club beats for hits, a crop of fresh faces such as Frank Ocean and Miguel have aggressively pulled away from the conventional boundaries of R&B by championing edgier, genre-blending productions.

Now Ocean and Miguel —- both at the forefront of a movement of unconventional R&B — are among the front-runners for Grammy wins in 2013. Both L.A.-based acts logged multiple nominations Wednesday (six for Ocean and five for Miguel), including entrees in major categories.

Ocean's breakthrough, "Channel Orange," is up for album of the year, while the 25-year-old is up for record of the year and new artist.

Released earlier this year, Ocean's Def Jam debut was celebrated for its eccentricities, confessional storytelling and disregard for the trends scoring radio play. His simmering single "Thinkin' Bout You," wasn't a mainstay on radio dials, but the track is up for record of the year alongside smashes from Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, Gotye and Fun..

"Frank Ocean's album was an example — he wasn't making music for radio," said Fuzzy Fantabulous, producer for Big Boy's KPWR-FM (105.9) morning show and director of talent relations for Stampede Management. "It seems like everybody was trying to do the four-to-the-floor, Pitbull-type music."

PHOTOS: Top nominees | Snubs & surprises | Nominations concert | Complete list | Full coverage

Miguel, 26, is up for R&B performance, R&B song and song of the year for "Adorn," the self-produced, left-of-center slow burner that's spent the last eight months on Billboard's R&B chart, including four weeks at No. 1.

The track, with its subdued groove and emotive croons, is so different from urban radio offerings of late that it seemed destined to be swallowed by bigger records from better-known acts. Its hit status came as a surprise for the singer whose 2010 debut garnered him a cult following, but was largely overlooked (including at last year's Grammys).

"There's a lot of moving parts that [determine] who gets nominated, and removing categories added another moving part," said Miguel of his snub last year. "And me being this obscure, new artist — all of that added to me not being nominated."

It's a whole year — and musical shift — later, and now Miguel and Ocean will vie for the urban contemporary album category prize. It's a field intended for artists whose music includes elements of R&B with other contemporary production techniques found in genres such as electronic music, Euro-pop and rock. Curiously, Rihanna and Usher didn't make the cut.


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