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Handicapping Grammy's top prizes

Diers: OutKast, 50 Cent, Beyoncé likely to walk away winners
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

It takes a nation of millions of iPod addicts to render the album format obsolete. OK, maybe long-players aren’t a dead medium just yet, but it certainly puts the pressure on artists to create an all-original play list that attention-deficient listeners won’t hack to bits.

Which one will grab a Grammy for 2003’s Album of the Year?

Opinions flew fast and furious (even Oval Office hopeful Wesley Clark weighed in) on OutKast’s rubbernecking double-album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. While there’s nothing inherently revolutionary about the album’s push-me-pull-you configuration, its overstuffed satchel of distinctive hooks and oddball interludes are an apt reflection of our species’ fragile duality. Plus, it’s an uncommon Billboard chart-topper that’ll eulogize Daniel Pearl on one disc and persuade party people to shake their backsides like Polaroids on the other. Duo-chromatic rock pair the White Stripes offer a more unified front, but wonderboy Justin Timberlake’s Justified may be the only real end-run threat to Dre and Big Boi’s willfully uneven head trip. Likely winner: Speakerboxx/The Love Below, OutKast

Among Record of the Year contenders, don’t be swayed by the Marvin Gaye redux of the Black-Eyed Peas & Justin Timberlake’s “Where Is the Love”. Well-meaning as it might be, the musically docile track fails to inspire much beyond a reflective pause or two. At least Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” manifests the sweet instability of the ongoing fling between hip-hop and R&B, assisted by retiring (?) rap giant Jay-Z. But look for Coldplay to score this award for “Clocks,” the chimey piano-pop delight that effectively sells not only the tuneful British quartet itself, but also sports highlights, pivotal encounters on prime-time soaps, and introspective mix CDs from the West End to West Hollywood. Hell, even Timberlake himself would vote for these guys. Likely winner: "Clocks," Coldplay

Odds are harder to figure for Song of the Year. Continually slagged as she is by nearly every fashionista on the planet, it would be nice to believe that Christina Aguilera could leave a more lasting mark with “Beautiful,” a genuinely lovely ode to inner strength penned by hit-sculptor-for-hire Linda Perry. Yet even the relatively banal “I’m With You” from Avril Lavigne and production partners the Matrix managed to sink its talons deep into 2003’s inscrutable Top 40 psyche. And while it’s been almost a year since Eminem won an Oscar for his 8 Mile anthem “Lose Yourself,” that doesn’t mean the song’s monotonously magnetic wiles have worn off altogether. Ever the dark horse, the dearly departed Warren Zevon could conceivably nab a posthumous prize for “Keep Me In Your Heart,” while Luther Vandross and co-writer Richard Marx’s “Dance With My Father” may be the longest shot amidst a mildly perplexing set of contenders. Likely winner: "Beautiful," Christina Aguilera

Vying for Best New Artist honors, Evanescence and Fountains of Wayne may have had big hits (“Bring Me to Life” and “Stacy’s Mom,” respectively), but neither band made the kind of consummate cultural splash that 50 Cent and, to a lesser extent, Sean Paul did in 2003. It’s basically down to those two proven dance-floor instigators -- one a sexy super-thug with Kevlar accessories and Eminem’s private number, the other a multi-ethnic dancehall kingpin in killer cornrows. In any case, don’t count on the comparatively quaint songbird Heather Headley to trouble the competition, sturdy as her voice and debut album may be. Likely winner: 50 Cent

If Missy Elliott prevails in the Best Rap Song category for the tweaky hit single “Work It” -- and she ought to -- it’ll be a Grammy three-peat, following wins for 2001’s “Get Ur Freak On” and 2002’s “Scream a.k.a. Itchin’” in separate categories. It’s not that Missy’s lyrics are particularly ingenious or even insightful. Rather, she and longtime cohort Timbaland hold fast to their winningly audacious and influential formula, lacing the most basic hip-hop sentiments with unorthodox sounds and samples, creating supremely danceable dispatches from some rogue satellite with a subwoofer in the trunk. Besides, when’s the last time Grammy honored a song with a backwards chorus hook? Meanwhile, fans of 50 Cent’s formidable “In Da Club” and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” may wind up splitting their own votes; likewise for lovers of Pharrell Williams, who’s featured in both Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” and Jay-Z’s “Excuse Me Miss.” Likely winner: "Get Ur Freak On," Missy Elliott

In the run for Best Rock Song, voters have another opportunity to honor the late Warren Zevon, whose “Disorder in the House” (with Bruce Springsteen) reads like a final rollicking lamentation for America’s political ills. Yet in its own way, the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” is just as brazen, reaching out to would-be rock malcontents with woozy slide-guitar phrasing and an insolently simple, straight-outta-the-garage rhythm track. But it’ll be tough to beat out Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life,” which benefits from a year’s worth of cross-media ubiquity, a memorably brawny vocal performance from singer Amy Lee, and a more direct appeal to disaffected, emo-leaning music consumers who get their kicks at Wal-Mart. Likely winner: "Bring Me to Life," Evanescence

The Best Country Song nominees present a slightly tighter race. As usual, Shania Twain outslicks the field with a song that’s equally palatable across radio formats, even though she’ll always have a place to crash in Nashville. “Forever and For Always,” co-written with her producer/husband Robert “Mutt” Lange, may or may not be a staple at wedding chapels and karaoke bars in the 22nd century, but it’s notable for making the most treacly of love-song rudiments sound somehow fresh in 2003. Still, don’t write off “Beer for My Horses,” which not only offers an anachronistic rally cry for Old West justice, but also unites pro-Bush superstar Toby Keith with pro-weed pacifist Willie Nelson. And if voters are in a lighter mood, Brad Paisley’s self-penned and self-reflective “Celebrity” offers a cheeky, tuneful alternative. Likely winner: "Forever and For Always," Shania Twain

There’s no denying Anthony Hamilton’s mettle as one of R&B’s most compelling new voices. But he doesn’t yet have the juice to outshine the other name-brands in the Best R&B Song category -- especially Beyoncé, whose “Crazy In Love” offered everything you could ask for in a single: crackling musical hooks, a coyly athletic lead vocal, wicked production values, and a cameo from one of hip-hop’s most vaunted all-time players. That said, both Ashanti’s “Rock Wit U (Awww Baby)” and Erykah Badu’s “Danger” make for worthy contenders, while certain traditionalists may rally effectively around Luther Vandross for the less sensual, more sentimental “Dance With My Father.” Likely winner: "Crazy in Love," Beyoncé.