Black Pumas, J.P. Saxe, Chika: Lesser-Known Big Grammy Nominees

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Since the Big Four Grammy categories expanded from five nominees to eight in 2019, the list of finalists has gotten more far-reaching and far more unpredictable. As when the Oscars expanded their categories several years ago, the objective is to give shine to artists and recordings less-known by the masses — and sure enough, this year’s nominations for the big awards find some much less familiar faces amid the Beyonces and Taylors and Stallions.

One artist that has seen its profile rise in the months since the nominations were announced is the Black Pumas are an Austin, Texas-based duo whose retro-rock-soul sound has apparently hit the same Grammy sweet spot as the Black Keys and Alabama Shakes a few years back. A best new artist nominee last year, they’ve got two big 2021 nods, for Record and Album of the Year (although the latter is a bit of a technicality, as it’s for the deluxe edition of their self-titled debut, released in June of 2019). “Colors,” the Record of the Year nominee, is the kind of song you may not know you know — the duo performed it at President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ inauguration in January.

On a similar note, Best Album nominee Jacob Collier may be the least-known 26-year-old four-time Grammy winner on Earth (the wins are for Best Arrangement, and the fact that he’s signed to all-time nominee leader Quincy Jones’ management company may not hurt). The London native rose to fame via YouTube for his innovative, split-screen solo covers of popular hits, and soon parlayed that approach into original songs and albums. His latest album “Djesse Vol. 3” — pronounced “jay-see,” like his initials — is a wide-ranging R&B mashup, influenced by Prince and D’Angelo and written, produced and performed almost entirely Collier himself — except for his stellar list of guests: Jessie Reyez, Ty Dolla $ign, Daniel Caesar, and more.

Like many of today’s artists, Alabama native Chika first rose to fame via social media, first with an “#EgoChallenge” promoting body positivity and self-love, and then with a fiery freestyle aimed at Kanye West. The 23-year-old is an outspoken activist who has also starred as the face of a Calvin Klein advertising campaign, but  she’s proven the depth of her own artistry via a series of EPs — her major label debut, “Industry Games,” made Barack Obama’s Spotify playlist — including the surprise “Once Upon a Time” EP, which dropped on Friday.

Finally, singer-songwriter JP Saxe has friends in high places as well, with hit songwriter Julia Michaels as his duet partner (and real-life partner), who has written songs for Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and others. In fact, the couple met during the writing session for their nominated song, “If the World Was Ending” — which, despite its ominous title, was written before the pandemic. The Toronto native released “Line by Line,” a duet with Maren Morris in January, and is expected to drop his debut album this spring.