Latin Grammys Sticks to Past Winners, But Shines in World-Traversing Telecast

Since the start of the pandemic, awards shows have attempted to strike a balance between necessary Covid-19 precautions and the awkwardness of virtual formats. On Thursday night, the Latin Recording Academy tried to forge its own path with its “reimagined telecast,” which bounced between a live show with limited guests in Miami and taped performances that took place around the world.

Overall, during a night that meant wins for artists the Latin Grammys has honored frequently before (J Balvin, Residente, Alejandro Sanz, and Natalia Lafourcade), the setup had surprisingly more movement than simply watching artists parade across the same stage back-to-back. Certain moments, such as Anitta singing showgirl-style in front of the Arcos da Lapa in Rio de Janeiro and Bad Bunny rapping from an ice-white Bugatti in San Juan, Puerto Rico, communicated a sense of geography and offered a broader peek at the places represented in the awards ceremony.

This year’s festivities were also meant, in some ways, to serve as a correction of how much the Latin Recording Academy has sidelined reggaeton and hip hop in the past. The organization announced in April that it would be adding two categories — Best Reggaeton Performance and Best Rap/Hip Hop Song — under its “urbano” umbrella to address criticism leveled against what many perceived to be genre snubs last year. (“With all due respect, reggaeton is part of Latin culture, and we represent, just like lots of other music genres, Latinos around the world,” Bad Bunny said during his 2019 acceptance speech for Best Urban Album.)

However, most of the urbano winners were announced before the official telecast began — a missed opportunity to highlight up-and-comers in the category. Bad Bunny took the Best Reggaeton Performance award for “Yo Perreo Sola,” while Residente’s “Antes Que El Mundo Se Acabe” won for Best Rap/Hip Hop Song. But it was Rosalia and Ozuna’s dembow-tinged collaboration, “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi” that scored big, winning Best Urban Fusion/Performance and Best Urban Song and serving as a reminder that despite new efforts, the Academy still has a preference for lighter strains of reggaeton and urbano performed by big names. While the expanded categories did mean nominations for artists such as Sech and Myke Towers, they came up empty-handed, continuing to leave questions about how much visibility is afforded to emerging Afro-Latin artists in the industry.

During the ceremony, the Academy largely embraced pop acts and focused on uplifting viewers amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. The three co-hosts — Oscar-nominated actress Yalitza Aparicio, actress/singer Ana Brenda Contreras, and salsa singer Victor Manuelle — repeated messages of unity and started things off with a splash of salsa as Manuelle joined Ricardo Montaner and Jesus Navarro to sing “El Cantante” in tribute to Puerto Rican salsero Héctor Lavoe. Partway through, reggaeton pioneer Ivy Queen and newcomer Rauw Alejandro came bursting through the arrangement. Ivy Queen is no stranger to salsa; she’s experimented with the genre before and reminded the world of her impressive versatility and belting power next to the guys.

The first award of the night followed: J Balvin won the Best Urban Album category for his Crayola-bright concept record Colores, a surprising upset in a category shared with Bad Bunny’s YHLQMDLG. Still, it was the only award Balvin landed, even though he’d set a Guinness World Record for most Latin Grammy nominations in a single year. After musical performances that included Lupita Infante paying homage to her grandfather, the legendary Mexican actor and ranchera singer Pedro Infante, salsa got a brief spotlight again when Best Tropical Song went to Rubén Blades and Carlos Vives for their collaboration “Canción Para Rubén.”

After Puerto Rico’s Kany García secured the award for Best Singer-Songwriter Album, the attention turned to the coveted Best New Artist category. This year’s nominations represented a miscellany of artists at different stages of their careers: Puerto Rican rapper Anuel Aa and the Argentinean trapera Cazzu have had a pretty established presence in the industry for a few years, while people like Nicki Nicole began making moves much more recently. Nicki Nicole, WOS, Cazzu, and, to a degree, Nathy Peluso also represent artists from small, burgeoning scenes in Argentina that the industry has had its eye on, despite tensions and questions of appropriations that have emerged as its lighter-skinned artists dive into rap and hip hop. Although Rauw Alejandro seemed like a possible contender for Best New Artist given his performances at the pre-show and at the ceremony, the award was ultimately bestowed upon singer Mike Bahía, who started his career as a contestant on Colombia’s version of The Voice.

Between awards, the performances easily could have grown clunky. Yet somehow, the mix of live acts and pre-recorded segments ended up working well together. On the Miami stage, Karol G sang “Tusa” on a candy-colored set inspired by the song’s Grecian goddess-themed video, J Balvin gave a literal bleeding-heart rendition of “Rojo,” and Sebastián Yatra and Guaynaa joined forces for “Chica Ideal.” Ricky Martin, who won Best Pop Vocal Album for his EP Pausa, sang alongside the gauzy-voiced Mexican artist Carla Morrison.

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The telecast, meanwhile, floated back and forth to other corners of the globe. On a rooftop stage in Madrid, the Spanish singer José Luis Perales
 launched into several classics, among them his 1982 song, “Y Cómo Es Él?” In Guadalajara, Alejandro Fernández teamed up with Cristian Nodal and Calibre 50
 for a tribute to Mexican ranchera/regional music. (Fernández also won this year’s Best Ranchero/Mariachi Album for Hecho En Mexico.) In Buenos Aires, Argentines Fito Páez and Nathy Peluso combined balladry and flamenco.

But as optimistic a tone as the show tried to strike, the grim issues facing the U.S. and Latin America never seemed too distant. The ceremony came on a day in which the U.S. hit 250,000 deaths as a result of the coronavirus, a number that has surpassed worst-case estimates the White House predicted back in April. Pitbull acknowledged those who have worked on the frontlines to fight the virtue by performing “I Believe That We Will Win (World Anthem)” alongside a band comprised of first responders. There was also a brief mention and call of support for Central Americans dealing with the aftermath of Tropical Storm Eta and Hurricane Iota, back-to-back storms that have resulted in widespread destruction and nearly 30 deaths. And, while introducing Los Tigres Del Norte to the stage, co-host Ana Brenda Contreras hoped for families separated through unjust immigration policies to one day reunite and urged DREAMERS to stay hopeful.

Record Of The Year went to the Spanish balladeer Alejandro Sanz for his emotional cut “Contigo.” That category had included “Vete” by Bad Bunny, who provided a show standout by taking the audience to Puerto Rico’s Teodoro Moscoso bridge, where he rapped his hit “Bichiyal” from a Bugatti surrounded by a small army of roaring ATVs and motorbikes. Always inclined to show off his softer side, he transitioned into a heavily acoustic, hippied-out version of “Si Veo a Tu Mamá,” performed by the women-led band Las Atípicas.

The mustachioed crooner Camilo, who had performed with Kany Garcia earlier in the night, won Best Pop Vocal for his Pedro Capó-assisted “Tutu;” Anitta’s performance followed, along with the night’s Living Legends tributes to Spanish singer Julio Iglesias, Brazil’s “King Of Latin Music” Roberto Carlos, and the Dominican artist and bachata luminary Juan Luis Guerra.

The last two categories offered a few chances for surprises. Song Of The Year included two tracks by Sanz, as well as Karol G and Nicki Minaj’s “Tusa.” Ultimately, it went to Residente for the confessional “René.” Counting his work with his brother Eduardo “Vistante” Cabra as part of Calle 13, Residente continues to have the most Latin Grammy wins in history. During a short video acceptance speech, he urged fellow artists “not to have fear” in their art.

Anuel Aa hit the stage next with a medley of deep cuts from his latest album Emmanuel; despite snagging six nominations this year, the reggaetonero didn’t take anything home. The final award, Album Of The Year, was given to Natalia Lafourcade for Un Canto Por Mexico, her ode to the folk sounds of her country. The award makes her the third woman ever to win a Latin Grammy for Album Of The Year, after Shakira’s 2005 album Fijación Oral, Vol. 1 and Rosalia’s 2018 album, El Mal Querer. Lafourcade didn’t attend the ceremony and two other awards she received weren’t featured in the telecast, but she was given three in total, tying Rosalia and Carlos Vives for most wins this year.

None are new to Latin Grammy awards, an indicator that the Academy played it pretty safe again in terms of its winners. The co-hosts accepted the award for Lafourcade, then closed the night by thanking workers around the world who helped put together the event. Manuelle implored people to keep finding reasons to “celebrate music” before the show’s house band shut things down with one last song.

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