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Drake has five noms, but on outside looking in at major Grammy categories

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TORONTO - As strange as it is to say that one of the top nominees at the Grammys is also one of its most prominent snubs, a case could be made for Drake.

Sure, the Toronto rapper has five nominations at this Sunday's gala — trailing leader Jay Z as well as Justin Timberlake, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell Williams and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis — but once again, the 27-year-old star was left out of the show's three marquee categories: record, song and album of the year. (Drake did technically receive a nod for album of the year, but only as a featured performer on Lamar's "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.")

This despite the fact that his nuanced, forward-thinking "Nothing Was the Same" was the year's seventh-bestselling album in the U.S. after moving 1.34 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The album was hailed by critics too, receiving high placement on lists of the best albums of the year by Billboard, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. His singles were just as broadly acclaimed — either the hypnotic origin tale "Started From the Bottom" or power-puff stunner "Hold On, We're Going Home" placed on the year-end Top 10 lists by Billboard, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine and Pitchfork.

He's thus now been nominated for his own music 15 times but only once outside of the rap categories, when he ceded best new artist to Esperanza Spalding in 2011. (He has one win, for best rap album at last year's bash.)

If his spotty record at the awards soiree bothers the perennially melancholic songwriter, he didn't let on during a recent interview in Toronto.

"To be recognized in any capacity for the music that we make is great, (but) I don't think the Grammys make or break any artist," he said. "I don't think anybody should live or die by the Grammys — that's my opinion. I think it's a great organization and obviously (has a) deep-rooted history in music, but at the same time, if I go home with no Grammys I still feel great about what we did.

"I think anybody should feel that way."

Well, perhaps it helps that the slate of nominations for the 56th Grammy Awards was in many ways the most surprising in recent years — and it's left pundits unsure of what to expect.

This was, apparently, to be a Grammys show dominated by Justin Timberlake, whose sleekly high-end (if exhaustingly overlong) "The 20/20 Experience" reigned as the year's highest-selling album and was preceded by a ubiquitous marketing campaign that included a coronation at last year's Grammy show.

But despite his seven nominations, Timberlake was, like Drake, completely left out of the Grammys' trio of major categories.

"This does seem to be one of the hardest years to predict," said Daniel Montgomery, senior editor at GoldDerby, a website devoted to tracking and predicting the top show business awards.

"The narrative seemed to be going in would have favoured Justin Timberlake, who didn't end up nominated in the top categories. Without him there, we're scrambling to figure out who fills that void. I think it's probably the hardest year to predict. I mean, a couple years ago, we had Adele, who was obviously going to win most of the top categories. And there's usually someone who stands out as the probable favourite — last year Mumford & Sons seemed like a probable choice.

"This year there doesn't seem to be that obvious logical choice."

For album of the year, Lamar's masterful street-level opus will compete with Daft Punk's visionary "Random Access Memories," Sara Bareilles's "The Blessed Unrest," Macklemore & Lewis's poppy "The Heist" and Taylor Swift's "Red."

It's hard to pin down a favourite. Swift has won the category before — for 2008's "Fearless" — but hasn't won in a major category since.

Lamar's gritty record is critically beloved but was a surprise inclusion in the Grammys' marquee category — Montgomery thought Drake might have a better shot at landing a nomination, noting the Canadian has "been on such an upswing in terms of his career, it just keeps building ... I'm sort of surprised they went with Kendrick Lamar" — and might not be poppy enough to persuade Grammy voters who haven't crowned a rap record album of the year since Outkast's smash "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" in 2004.

Bareilles, a pianist who has quietly built a solid following, could be a worthy underdog choice, but Montgomery believes the category's other two nominees might have the best chance.

"'The Heist' could do it, but the Grammys have traditionally not liked rap for album of the year or any of the general field categories," he said. "I think Daft Punk could also do it — those two are the ones I'm looking at as the ones to beat."

A Daft Punk win would be momentous, because even though "Random Access Memories" finds the French duo embracing radio-friendly pop and live instrumentation, no dance act has ever won the Grammys' key category.

Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales — who's named on Daft Punk's album of the year nomination after contributing spine-tingling keys to "Within" — would obviously welcome a win in the category, but stresses that even the nomination was meaningful.

"I think (Daft Punk) made a calculated decision to really try to touch the mainstream," he said over the phone from Cologne, Germany. "Whether it's my acupuncturist or my older sister, certain people who Daft Punk wouldn't be on their radar are suddenly mentioning it to me, it shows they really penetrated and saturated something they hadn't previously and no artist like that had. For the Grammys to recognize it is just another benchmark of them having done that.

"This is yet another rubber stamp that proves that the gamble did pay off."

In a way, Montgomery says Daft Punk could win the category because they have a lengthier legacy than their competition.

"They're sort of the veterans of the category, which isn't saying much because the members of Daft Punk aren't even 40. But relative to this crowd, they're the elders," he said. "They sometimes like to reward veterans and give them their due as a career achievement."

The other marquee categories are seen as just as difficult to call.

Robin Thicke — who has Canadian citizenship by virtue of his father, actor Alan — landed a record of the year nomination for his sleazy smash "Blurred Lines." It's a category that also features Daft Punk's undeniable "Get Lucky," Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive," Lorde's "Royals" and Bruno Mars' "Locked Out of Heaven."

The Lorde and Mars tunes are also up for song of the year — the distinction between the two confusingly named categories is that the "record" award is based on performance while "song" is given for songwriting — along with Pink's "Just Give Me a Reason," Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's "Same Love" and Katy Perry's "Roar."

So Montgomery is cautiously calling those two songs the favourites in both categories, pointing out that Thicke's tune is an underdog because "those uptempo dance songs don't really tend to win record of the year even when they're big megahits."

"Most of the time, if you're nominated for both record and song of the year, that's an advantage," he said. "Not always, but usually it helps."

In such a scattershot year, no predictions are being hazarded with much confidence or certainty. And thus, it seems increasingly unlikely that the annual awards bash — airing this year in Canada on Citytv — will be carried by one breakout star.

"Macklemore & Ryan Lewis could be the breakout stars, but they sort of already are — it's not like the Grammys would be announcing (it)," Montgomery said. "If they're going to do that, it might be for Lorde. That could be a big story. Or even Kacey Musgraves — not many country artists have won best new artist.

"But really, this could be one of those subdued years. There may not be a big news story coming out of it."

———

Follow @CP_Patch on Twitter.

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