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Grammys 2017: The 7 performances worth watching

The Grammys were nearly four hours long. Here are the seven best performances.

59th GRAMMY Awards -  Show
Sturgill Simpson, winner of Best Country Album, performs at the 2017 Grammys.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS

While the Grammys are undoubtedly an awards show, the live telecast of the awards ceremony is really just about the music. Only nine actual awards were doled out during Sunday’s event, with the other 75 distributed earlier in the day off-camera. What else happened in the three-and-a-half-hour broadcast, might you ask? Sixteen (yes, 16,) full musical performances, not counting any extra musical interludes, of which there were a few.

The performances spanned all genres. Some were good, some were great, and some were plain forgettable. Here are the seven worth watching.

1) Beyoncé

Without a doubt, this year’s best performance was by the indomitable creative genius that is Beyoncé. Even though the performer didn’t take home any of the major awards for which she was nominated (Adele beat her out for Album of the Year and Record of the Year), Beyoncé’s performance was the high point of the entire broadcast, especially on a visual level.

In a beautiful and highly produced performance, Beyoncé sang “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” from her Grammy-nominated album Lemonade — complete with a gorgeous intro video and incredible, goddess-inspired headpieces. As Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos wrote, “The two songs showcased a different dimension of her vocal abilities — both are much softer, and more vulnerable, than what we hear in ‘Formation.’”

This incredible production came at the end of a week full of intense Beyoncé news, after she announced her pregnancy on Instagram and followed up with a lush photo essay online. Her Grammys style and performance echoed a lot of the same iconographic references as her photo essay, including Mimi Wata, Oshun, and the Last Supper, as Vox’s Constance Grady notes.

2) A Tribe Called Quest, Anderson .Paak, and Busta Rhymes

This collab performance between Anderson .Paak, a 2017 nominee for Best New Artist, and A Tribe Called Quest, the iconic hip hop group that this year released their first album since 1998, was a high point of the night. Tribe came out of the gate with a tribute to the late, great Phife Dawg (“Can I Kick It?”) and Anderson .Paak showed off his killer drumming and singing abilities.

But the standout moment of the performance hit when Busta Rhymes came out with a brand new nickname for Donald Trump: President Agent Orange. “I wanna thank President Agent Orange for your unsuccessful attempt at the Muslim ban. Now we come together!” the rapper said, as the group launched into their fiery protest song “We The People.”

After Rhymes’s statement, performers onstage knocked down a giant wall and were joined by others of “all shapes, sizes, and colors,” Abad-Santos wrote. The performance ended with a chant of “resist” — by far the most overtly political statement of the night, and a well-executed one at that.

3) Katy Perry

In the other semi-political song of the night, Katy Perry presented a very non-Katy Perry performance. With blonde hair, and without an in-your-face costume a la the one she wore at the 2015 Super Bowl, Perry debuted her new song “Chained to the Rhythm” — which is all about being stuck in our own little bubbles and not being able to break free.

Wearing an armband that read “Persist,” (seemingly in reference to the message Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave Sen. Elizabeth Warren earlier this week, when Warren was silenced while trying to speak during Jeff Sessions’s attorney general confirmation hearing), Perry kicked off the number by dancing behind a white picket fence while wearing very pointed rose-colored glasses. But as the song progressed, she slowly broke down the fence to reveal people carrying lots of different moving parts and dancing in unison.

Though the performance might sound slightly forced when you’re reading about, it was surprisingly effective to watch, with mirrors and an all-white set creating impressive visual effects. The song ended with Perry standing in front of a white background with a giant projection of the Constitution behind it — you can make of that what you will.

4) Chance the Rapper and Kirk Franklin

Watching Best New Artist Chance the Rapper perform is always a treat: His lyrics are intentional and complicated and full of great references that are tough to keep up with, but rewarding if you catch them. This performance featured the songs “How Great” and “All We Got” from Chance’s streaming-only, Best Rap Album-winning Coloring Book release, and also nodded to a little snippet of the song “No Problems,” which won Best Rap Performance.

Chance’s performance also featured legendary gospel musician Kirk Franklin, plus Francis and the Lights and Tamela Mann, and was energetic, beautiful, and heartfelt. Everyone onstage looked like they were having a great time, and once you add in the gospel choir and Chance’s energy-filled jumping and striding across the stage, this one was tough to beat.

5) George Michael tribute by Adele

In 2016, Adele’s Grammy performance was infamously wrecked by poor sound quality and a flat tone. And even though she’d already redeemed herself by opening 2017’s show with a flawless rendition of “Hello,” which would go on to win Record of the Year and Song of the Year, the singer wasn’t going to let anything trip her up for the rest of the show.

In her tribute to the late George Michael, Adele performed a slowed down rendition of “Fastlove.” But after a start that felt off to the pop star, she completely stopped her performance, halting the music, swearing on live TV, and saying, “I can’t mess this up for him.”

Anytime a performer grinds a live performance to a screeching halt, the world looks up. But Adele didn’t want a repeat of last year, especially not during a solemn tribute for a stellar pop star gone too soon. When she began again, she seemed strong and determined, and finished the tribute powerfully, in the way we know Adele is capable of. The song itself might have been a little slow and unremarkable, but it’s worth watching for the unusual spectacle — as well as for Adele’s unmatched pipes.

6) Sturgill Simpson with the Dap Kings

One of the jokes in Grammys host James Corden’s opening monologue was about the relative obscurity of Sturgill Simpson, who was nominated for Album of the Year and won Best Country Album. The camera cut to a sly grin on Simpson’s face during Corden’s quip — maybe because he knew he was about to prove the show’s host wrong.

Even if Simpson didn’t win Album of the Year (and let’s be real, he was never going to beat Beyoncé or Adele), his performance with the Dap Kings hopefully solidified his standing in the running.

Simpson is an excellent country singer and performer, known for his sweet and truthful Americana songs delivered with grit and an acoustic guitar. The Dap Kings were the backing band to Sharon Jones, the neo-soul singer who died in late 2016, and the studio band for Amy Winehouse’s iconic Back to Black album. The combination of Simpson and the Dap Kings made the performance next-level, as only a super-extended saxophone solo can.

7) Prince tribute by The Time and Bruno Mars

What are the Grammys without a few tribute performances? This year, Prince, who died in April 2016, got the full treatment, with songs delivered by Bruno Mars and The Time (a band of Prince associates who produced music with him in Minneapolis in the ’80s). The Time came out clad in full-on glitter, ready to get the crowd on their feet — “You got about 10 seconds to get up off of your asses, and I do mean everybody! — and delivered a rendition of “Jungle Love” (made famous by the movie Purple Rain) full of killer onstage dance moves.

Part two of the tribute featured Bruno Mars — in a complete Prince getup of purple suit, flowy shirt, and white guitar. Mars crushed the vocals of “Let’s Go Crazy” after we heard Prince’s voiceover from the song’s classic opening: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” Then Mars finished off with a guitar solo worthy of the outfit he was paying homage to.

Bonus: Carpool Karaoke feat. Blue Ivy

When Corden started up a rousing rendition of “Sweet Caroline” with Neil Diamond and other famous faces from the Grammys audience (JLo, John Legend, Tim McGraw, and Jason Derulo, to name a few), it seemed like just another cheesy gag to propel us through a long night. But just as the extended joke was wrapping up, Blue Ivy, the beloved daughter of Beyoncé and Jay Z, ran into the shot from her front row seat, eager to join in on the pretend car action. Good on you, Blue Ivy, for livening up what would have been another otherwise forgettable bit.

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