NEW YORK: Jay-Z, who rose from a broken home to become a multimillionaire tycoon, was hailed Saturday by the music industry’s power brokers ahead of the Grammy Awards in which he leads nominations.
The rapper was the guest of honor at an annual pre-Grammy gala thrown by 85-year-old veteran music executive Clive Davis, with a who’s who of stars performing before Jay-Z and his wife Beyonce.
Gladys Knight sang her classic “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Luis Fonsi danced his way through viral hit “Despacito” and trap trio Migos put on their breakthrough song “Bad and Boujee” at a sprawling ballroom in New York’s Times Square.
Alicia Keys weaved Jay-Z’s songs from “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” to “Holy Grail” to their collaboration “Empire State of Mind” into a piano medley, in which she raised her hands and led a chant of the rapper’s nickname Hov.
“Before anything else, I am a true fan of your music, Jay, and still am,” Keys said, describing his music as “my soundtrack” as she was growing up.
Jay-Z is in the running for eight awards at Sunday’s Grammys including Album of the Year for “4:44,” a strikingly introspective work in which the rapper apologizes for infidelity to Beyonce and supports his mother as she comes out as lesbian.
The music industry’s premier awards gala — which has returned to New York after 15 years in Los Angeles — is shaping up to be a big night for hip-hop, which for the first time accounts for a majority of nominations in the top categories.
Entrepreneurship as power
Jay-Z, who grew up fatherless in Brooklyn and became a small-time drug dealer, is now worth an estimated US$1 billion with Beyonce after amassing a business empire that includes fashion, entertainment and the Tidal streaming service.
At 48, Jay-Z has been increasingly taciturn in public. Barring a last-minute surprise, he is not scheduled to perform at the Grammys.
But he gave a lengthy interview aired Saturday on CNN for a new show of Van Jones, the community activist and former aide to president Barack Obama, in which Jay-Z urged African American entrepreneurship.
“Until we come to the table with our own… power base, nothing will change,” he said.
Jay-Z is nominated for Record of the Year, which recognizes the top song, for “The Story of O.J.,” which explores the persistence of racism with his own success as a backdrop.
Major night for rap
Jay-Z is already one of the most accoladed artists in Grammy history with 21 awards. But until this year he had always been passed over for the main categories.
While Jay-Z is ahead for Sunday, music industry prognosticators see fewer clear-cut favorites compared with previous years.
West Coast rapper Kendrick Lamar closely trails Jay-Z with seven nominations amid acclaim for his album “DAMN.,” a return to a classic hip-hop sound by an artist known for his experimentation.
Lamar’s previous album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” offered an unofficial musical soundtrack for the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality — but, to the disappointment of many music industry watchers, was denied Album of the Year two years ago.
Album of the Year contenders also include two high-selling pop albums — “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars, who has revived fun-loving retro funk, and “Melodrama” by Lorde, the 21-year-old pop prodigy from New Zealand.
A dark horse in the category is “‘Awaken, My Love!’,” the psychedelic, R&B-infused album of Childish Gambino, the rap alter ego of actor and comedian Donald Glover.
Lorde is the only woman nominated in one of the two top categories — despite the growing attention to gender discrimination in the entertainment industry following revelations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
In a show of support for the #MeToo movement, performers selected for the televised Grammy show include Kesha, who has taken on sexism in the industry after accusing her producer of raping her.
A group set up by female entertainment executives plans to hand out white roses as a show of solidarity with women fighting abuse.