“This is special man. I got a lot of guys in this building that I still idolize today,” said Lamar, naming Jay-Z, Nas and Diddy as inspirations.
At the end, Lamar closed with: “Jay for president.”
In the pre-telecast, Lamar won best rap song, best rap performance and best music video for “HUMBLE.”
Lamar, nominated for seven awards, kicked off the Grammys with a powerful and poignant performance featuring video screens displaying a waving American flag behind him, as background dancers dressed as army soldiers marched and moved behind. He was joined Sunday by U2’s Bono and The Edge, and also Dave Chappelle — who told jokes in between Lamar’s performance.
At one point, Lamar’s background dancers, dressed in red, were shot down as he rapped lyrics, later coming back to life as fire burst to end the six-minute performance.
Lamar and Mars walked into Grammy Awards with multiple wins, putting them as favorites for top awards like album and record of the year.
Mars won best R&B album, best R&B performance and best R&B song in the pre-telecast. Posthumous Grammys were also handed out to actress Carrie Fisher, singer Leonard Cohen and engineer Tom Coyne, who worked on Mars’ “24K Magic” album.
A shaking Alessia Cara won best new artist, winning over SZA, Julia Michaels, Khalid and Lil Uzi Vert.
“Thank you to my parents and my brother for believing in me,” she said, also urging the crowd to “support real music and real artists because everyone deserves the same shot.”
Double winners included Jason Isbell, Justin Hurwitz, CeCe Winans and Chris Stapleton.
“This is unbelievable,” Stapleton said onstage.
The Rolling Stones picked up the third Grammy of their career — for best traditional blues album for “Blue & Lonesome,” while Ed Sheeran won best pop vocal album. Emmy and Golden Globe winner Childish Gambino, who picked up best traditional R&B performance, gave a smooth and sultry performance in all-white featuring screeching high notes. Gambino was joined by a young teen who matched his vocals.
Little Big Town, who sang their Taylor Swift-penned No. 1 hit “Better Man,” also won best country duo/group performance with the song. Lady Gaga won over the audience with a rousing performance of the songs “Joanne” and “Million Reasons,” while Sam Smith gave a powerful performance of the song “Pray
The Weeknd, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Reba McEntire, LCD Soundsystem, Portugal the Man and Shakira also won early awards. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, both Oscar and Tony winners, won best musical theater album for “Dear Evan Hansen,” shared with Tony winner Ben Platt.
Lamar beat out Jay-Z for the five awards he won. Either artist could make history and become the first rapper to win record of the year and the third to win album of the year. And the Grammys are almost guaranteeing that this year will be historic: Four of the five album of the year nominees are rap and R&B-based albums from black or Latino artists. The other big awards of the night — song and record of the year — also are dominated by hip-hop, R&B and Latin music.
It comes a year after The Recording Academy was heavily criticized when Adele won album of the year over Beyonce. “Lemonade” was seen as an album that moved the needle and dominated pop culture in different ways than Adele’s colossal sales. Critics felt the Academy failed to recognize the creative and artistic elements of an R&B-based album, in the same ways they have passed over albums by Kanye West, Eminem and Mariah Carey over the years for projects by rock, country and jazz artists.
Jay-Z is the star of Sunday’s show, leading with eight nominations, including album for the year for his revealing “4:44,” song of the year for the title track and record of the year for “The Story of O.J.” Mars also is nominated for the big three; “Despacito,” by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber, is up for record and song of the year; and both Lamar and Gambino are nominated for album and record of the year.
“What you see in nominations is a reflection of the voting membership of the Academy. You have to remember that this is a peer award and it’s unique in that way. It’s not about sales or charts or popularity or fan votes or whatever, it’s the professionals in the industry who are making the judgment,” Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow said in an interview with The Associated Press. “So when you look at the work that’s been done, and Jay would be one example, and there’s that level of excellence, we have a very sophisticated voting membership that is able to recognize that. And that’s how we want it to be.”
However, Lorde’s critically acclaimed sophomore album, “Melodrama,” still has a strong chance in the album of the year category. And Julia Michaels, a talented songwriter who has written hits for Bieber and Selena Gomez, is nominated for song of the year for her single, “Issues.”
Performers include Mars with Cardi B, Lady Gaga, Pink, Gambino, Emmylou Harris and Chris Stapleton, Elton John and Miley Cyrus, Rihanna with DJ Khaled and Bryson Tiller, Sting and SZA, the most nominated female act with five.
The night also will feature some serious moments. Earlier this week, key music executives called on artists and employees to wear a white rose at the Grammys in support of Time’s Up and #MeToo, the movements against sexual abuse and harassment. Singers Halsey and Dua Lipa, as well as Grammy-nominated rapper Rapsody, were some of the first to say they would wear white roses.
Kesha, who earned her first pair of Grammy nominations for an album reflecting her battle with former producer and mentor Dr. Luke, will honor victims during her performance. Maren Morris, Eric Church and Brothers Osborne, who were performers at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas where a gunman opened fire on fans, killing 58 and injuring hundreds more, will honor victims killed at live music events this past year onstage. And Patti LuPone and Ben Platt will pay tribute to Broadway as the Grammys return to New York City after 15 years for its 60th anniversary.
The Grammys is airing live from Madison Square Garden at 8 p.m. EST on CBS.