Is Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ an Unstoppable Frontrunner for the Album of the Year Grammy?

Not very many years come along where we’d be talking about a presumptive winner for the album of the year Grammy 10 months from the date that award is given out. Neither do times come along very often where we would necessarily be considering someone a likely shoo-in for a major award when that person has famously been nominated for it four times and lost every time.

But never before has there been a year that has brought us a “Cowboy Carter,” and so all bets are off, when it comes to placing our bets very, very early. If wagering this far out is never completely safe, it still seems unimaginable — barring totally unforeseen circumstances — that the most talked-about album of Beyoncé’s career will be anything but the front-runner as the months count down to early 2025.

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Prognosticating the Grammys this early is bound to lead to some pearl-clutching. But Oscar-watchers feel no such hesitance when it comes to the calendar, and none would have thought that Academy Awards speculation was beyond the pale when “Barbenheimer” fever struck last summer. Well, guess what? “Oppenheimer” came out when there were still five and a half months left in the Oscars’ calendar year, but obvious is obvious. And since the Grammys’ eligibility period ends earlier than most people realize it does, in September 2024, we’re actually only six months away from the cutoff — about as far away as Christopher Nolan’s movie was from its goalposts when people felt confident about calling it a frontrunner.

The Grammys are usually far less predictable than the Oscars, so it would feel foolish to think about making a call this early unless we had the musical equivalent of an “Oppenheimer” on our hands.

It feels like we do.

If you doubt this, maybe you need to widen your social media circle a bit, if not your reading habits. “Cowboy Carter” has become instantly beloved across the board in music tastemaker circles, in a way rarely seen with any album in recent years or decades. There are exceptions, with some very smart people who have reasonable doubts about the album’s greatness, but even most of these “wait a second” takes generally acknowledge and admire the recordings’s scope and ambition. Most critics, pop fans, people in the industry and even (pointedly) people in insider circles who are partial to country music — Beyoncé’s very loosely targeted genre this time around — are falling over one another with praise. Variety‘s review already called it the most talked-about album of the 21st century, before it came out. If that talk had turned out sour once people got a listen, we’d be having a different discussion, but “Cowboy Carter” has been not just the talk of the town but a rare point of near-unanimity in this day and age. (With room to allow for graceful dissent from Bey-naysayers, we can all hope.)

Before talking any more about the album pulling through in the clinch on the strength of its own greatness, let’s also consider: What could be reasonably standing in its way?

Not much. The most obvious challenger might be seen as the one other album in the remainder of this year that will also stand unmistakably as a major cultural event: Taylor Swift’s “The Tortured Poets Department,” due just three weeks after “Cowboy Carter” came out. And on a purely blockbuster level, Swift will certainly out-stream and out-sell Beyoncé, based on her recent track record of million-unit opening weeks in an era where that is literally unachievable for any other artist. Swift is on a roll with the Grammys, with critics and obviously with the general public. But that could be the thing that allows Beyoncé to finally advance in the album of the year category, after multiple misses. After “Midnights” just won that trophy this year, giving Swift a record number of personal triumphs in the category, “Tortured Poets Department” could turn out to be as strong as that album, “1989” and “Fearless” combined and still even most hardcore Swifties might be saying: “It’s OK if Beyoncé gets it this time. Really.”

Who else is a candidate? When it comes to album projects that are seen as combining commercial strength, critical appeal and water-cooler-chatter essentiality, there aren’t any such trifold competitors that are already out, and none that we know about on the way. Of course, we live in the age of surprise drops, but it’s hard to think of very many artists who might be even holding back a surprise behemoth, just out of view.

Of the album releases that have already come out this year, the artists that stand excellent shots at an album of the year nomination include Ariana Grande and Kacey Musgraves… and not many others. Forthcoming albums from past nominees Dua Lipa and Haim are also likely to enter the conversation. But when we talk about some of the bigger-selling releases of 2024 so far, like the Future/Metro Boomin collaboration, which is selling well but fared modestly with critics, the question is more whether they’ll get a nomination in November, not whether they have a shot at taking the lead. The zeitgeist at large is a hard thing to rattle, and not many musical projects are doing it right now.

As for prospective releases, no one knows for sure yet whether Billie Eilish’s third album will fall before or after the Sept 30 cutoff date. SZA has promised us an all-new album called “Lana”… but also just said that she plans to put out a deluxe version of her last album prior to that, so it’s seeming less and likely she would get around to putting out two major album projects before the end of September. Speaking of Lanas, Lana Del Rey has her own move into country on the way, tentatively set for release just before the eligibility cutoff date. It would be fun to see two putatively country albums by pop superstars compete against one another for the top Grammy, and that could happen… but if it does, it’s not a stretch to predict that Beyoncé will enter the voting with more wind in her sails, no matter how good the Del Rey album is. Someone else could surprise us, but short of an Adele or a Kendrick Lamar dropping a surprise album that happens to be the album of their career, it’s hard to imagine who could usurp what we’re seeing in the current moment.

So, yes, it’s kind of easy to get to forecasting a Beyoncé win in part through a process of elimination. And also through the “if not now for her, when?” question (though, obviously, that one alone has not pushed her over before).

But it still feels better to predict a “Cowboy Carter” gold ribbon on the basis of its own stature, as something everybody has to have a say about in the year of our Lord 2024 — with the chatter among the many people who’ve actually listened to it coming in at about 95% delighted.

How will she fare in other categories? It’s safe to say that Beyoncé will go from being the artist who has won the most Grammys in history to being… well, the artist who has won a bunch more than that. “Cowboy Carter” is being classified as a country album for DSP purposes by her people, so even though she has said “it’s not a country album, it’s a Beyoncé album,” her team will probably enter it in key country categories, since “Beyoncé” remains to be recognized as its own category by the Grammys.

Will it be accepted there, when Grammy committees have previously, contentiously shifted Kacey Musgraves’ “Star Crossed” from country to pop, against her wishes? Almost assuredly; can you imagine the hell to pay if the Recording Academy tells the world that “Cowboy Carter” isn’t really country — even if it is a stylistic omnibus? The album will compete for country album, and win; “Texas Hold ‘Em” will compete for country song, and probably win. But that still leaves room for songs off the album that skew in different directions to be entered in other categories; “Spaghetti” could be entered in hip-hop, her duet with Miley Cyrus could be entered as a pop duo-or-group song, and an R&B field candidate is likely in there somewhere, too. Meanwhile, one of the leading roots-based artists, Allison Russell, has tweeted that this is an Americana album, not a country album — which, in some overall sense, is true, given how huge an umbrella that term encompasses — so it would be completely be within Beyoncé’s rights to enter “16 Carriages” or one of several other possible tracks in that field, on top of her traction everywhere else.

But the general-field big three is where the gold awaits this project, so the only real suspense is which songs out of a dozen or more great choices Beyoncé will enter for record of the year and song of the year. Those are harder to say are shoo-ins, given that this is truly about the dominance of the collection as a whole, not any of its individual pieces. But AOTY? It’s hers to lose.

And it’ll be the Recording Academy’s gain if it finally gets to recognize an album that nearly everyone watching can agree felt like a cultural signpost. “Cowboy Carter” makes even more statements than it’s initially being given credit for — not just about the history of Black women in country, which would be enough, but about the broad expansion and inclusion of being the musical omnivore that Beyoncé is proving herself to be. It’ll be in the tradition of wins like those for “Songs in the Key of Life,” “Graceland,” “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (the last time a Black woman won it, but who’s counting) and others — landmark records that felt culture-shifting, as well as just being grooves a nation could get under.

When it comes to the confluence of circumstances affecting its chances, perhaps screenwriter Larry Karaszewski said it best, in a social media thread, when he said: “I’ve never heard an album more conscientiously designed to win Album of the Year. If there’s such a thing as Grammy Bait, this is it… a little country, R&B, pop, old school, new school… some legends giving their thumbs up, even a Beatles cover.” Lest the reverse-engineering angle sound cynical, he added: “But, that being said — it’s a great friggin’ record that actually deserves to win Album of the Year.”

For Beyoncé herself, these Grammys obviously won’t be her first rodeo, but they’ll likely be her most rewarding.

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