The program started with Barry Manilow singing standards before Luis Fonsi took to the stage with modern mega-hit “Despacito,” Migos then stormed on with “Bad and Boujee” while Offset’s fiancee Cardi B danced in the audience, shooting video of his performance on her phone.
“Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom Jr. and “Dear Evan Hanson” star Ben Platt added some Broadway polish, before Gladys Knight performed “Stand by Me” and “Midnight Train to Georgia,” getting the entire room to its feet, including a clearly reverential Beyoncé.
Man of the moment Khaled rushed from a sell out concert at MSG to perform “Young Dumb and Broke,” before Jennifer Hudson closed out the night with a tribute to Aretha Franklin, who Davis revealed the legendary diva had personally picked to play her in next year’s biopic.
Davis played host, amiably announcing all the big names in the room, where music titans like Knight, Quincy Jones, and Andrew Lloyd Webber – who was overheard saying he couldn’t believe how many people in the hip-hop world know his music – mixed with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, John Oliver, Hoda Kotb, new Yankees superstar Giancarlo Stanton, CC Sabathia, Ivana Trump, Tommy Mottola, Martha Stewart – who busted some moves to hip hop trio Migos – and Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who was seen chatting intensely to CBS honcho Les Moonves.
Davis even poked fun at coy couple Katie Holmes and Jamie Foxx – still pretending not to be together by sitting at separate tables – by saying, “If you’re going to sit together what better night than tonight,” to laughs from the audience.
But the night truly belonged to Jay-Z, who arrived with Beyoncé moments before the show started. Every table they passed stood up to congratulate Jay, who was honored with the Recording Academy Industry Icon Award. Meanwhile Bey – who Davis later declared as ‘the first lady of music’ – was trailed by an enormous security guard shining a torch on her train. She was seen congratulating a pregnant and glowing Chrissy Tiegen, seated with John Legend, before chatting to Jennifer Hudson.
Jay was serenaded by Keys who said he was “one of the greatest that’s ever done it” and then performed a masterful medley of his hits on piano, including songs he sampled, then closing with their epic collaboration “Empire State of Mind,” paying tribute to the enduring influence of his music. She said “Before anything else I was a true fan of your music Jay, and still am. I will walk down the streets with my headphones on and my Tims and baggy jeans and your music was my soundtrack.”
Hova himself made a short, humble acceptance speech, noting he boycotted the Grammy’s for six years to protest DMX getting shut out of the nominations in 1998. He returned in 2004 “when a beautiful young lady whom I love dearly” was nominated for “Crazy in Love: “the beautiful Ms. Beyoncé,” Jay said, motioning to his wife.
Noting that the Recording Academy hasn’t always elevated rap and hip hop artists as it does now, his tone was conciliatory, encouraging artist to lobby the Grammys to recognize more genres, “Art is super subjective, everyone’s doing their best, and the Academy are human like we are.”
Jay added of the Grammys, “We can pretend that we don’t care but we really care — we care ’cause we’ve seen the most incredible artists stand on that stage and we’re inspired to be that, so I was like, ’I have to be here,’” he added. “That is the idea for all of us to get involved and to push this thing further no matter what happens at the Grammys, it’s going to be what it is. Bob Marley is going to be Bob Marley, whether he’s nominated for a Grammy or not. Tupac is going to be Tupac, Biggie is going to be Biggie.”
As Khaled then took to the stage to perform “Young, Dumb, and Broke,” Mariah Carey swept in – late as ever – dripping in diamonds and leaning on her dancer boyfriend Bryan Tanaka in a dress so tight and plunging that one staffer remarked, “It must have taken her four hours to squeeze into that.” At least Carey arrived in time to catch Jennifer Hudson’s tribute to Aretha Franklin.
And as guests left after midnight, Cardi B posed for photos with Offset, Puffy led girlfriend Cassie by hand through the crowd, and Ivana Trump fumed by the front door in a ridiculous blue fur coat and blonde bouffant, yelling, “Where’s my goddamn Uber!”