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Grammy countdown: Which newcomer gets the R&B nod?

November 29, 2008 |  6:21 pm

Alicia Keys' campaign to win nominations for best album and best R&B album began last year, when the artist opened the Grammy telecast. She probably could have been penciled in as one of the five best R&B album contenders as soon as "As I Am" was given a release date, as long as it wasn't a complete disaster.

But that still leaves nine R&B album slots, split between best R&B album and best contemporary R&B album. The difference isn't always clearly defined, and submissions may often be based simply on where an artist has a better shot of winning.

For instance, Mary J. Blige won best R&B album in 2006 for "The Breakthrough," but consensus has her going in the contemporary field this year, staying clear of Keys and Al Green, who will likely score a nod for his "Lay It Down."

But the R&B field is also one that readily acknowledges new artists. Last year, for instance, saw a contemporary R&B album nod awarded to Emily King, a young, largely unknown New York soul singer. This year shouldn't be any different.

Look for both Estelle and Jazmine Sullivan to snare some nominations on Dec. 3, when the Grammys unveil the 2008 contenders in prime time. Both could go in contemporary R&B, although that may be a long shot.

Estelle's "American Boy" featuring Kanye West was one of the summer's biggest hits, and her "Shine" has racked-up close to 30 weeks on the U.S. album chart. Like many of today's young R&B stars, Estelle is versatile, and her brand of R&B spans genres, from the reggae bump of "Come Over" to the jazzy inflections of "Wait a Minute (Just a Touch)" to the retro timelessness of "No Substitute Love."

In fact, on paper, it's not too unlike the multi-genre approach employed by Sullivan on her debut, "Fearless." Whereas Estelle has a nonchalant slyness to her singing, Sullivan has a bigger, more emotional voice, and a bit more of a love for vintage sounds. On "Bust Your Windows," she cops a smokey nightclub vibe that would make Amy Winehouse proud (the song was produced by Winehouse's collaborator Salaam Remi), and "Switch" has her appropriating a swinging, girl-group bounce.

But Sullivan comfortably veers into glossy mainstream territory as well. On hit single "Need U Bad," Sullivan slides from easy-listening R&B to a more clubby reggae beat, which opens up to allow for a guest shot from Missy Elliott. And the centerpiece of the album is the powerful, call-and-response anthem "One Night Stand."

Sullivan's album was released in September and was a top-10 debut. She may benefit from being a little bit more on the forefront of voter's minds than Estelle. If Pop & Hiss had to pick one, it would lean toward Estelle, but this blog is (wrongly?) going out on a limb and including both in our contemporary R&B album best bets:

Estelle's "Shine"
Jazmine Sullivan's "Fearless"
Mary J. Blige's "Growing Pains"
Chris Brown's "Exclusive"
Erykah Badu's "New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)"

Now that leaves out Ne-Yo's "Year of the Gentleman," perhaps a crazy move because his "Because of You" won the Grammy at this year's ceremony. That also doesn't leave a slot for Usher's "Here I Stand." So perhaps this needs some revising, but both Estelle and Sullivan deserve the nods over the Grammy vets.

And here are the best bets for best R&B album, a category slightly less exciting this year because of the powerhouse release that was Keys' "As I Am."

Alicia Keys' "As I Am"
Al Green's "Lay It Down"
Raphael Saadiq's "The Way I See It"
Robin Thicke's "Something Else"
Raheem DeVaughn's "Love Behind the Melody"

But don't count out Jennifer Hudson from the above list. Though the showcase on her self-titled debut went to her producers, not her voice, and she should be left out because of it. 

--Todd Martens

Photo: Jazmine Sullivan. Credit: J Records