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Grime Artist Skepta Overtakes David Bowie In Stunning Mercury Prize Upset

Grime artist Skepta accepts his award after being announced the winner of the Mercury Prize on September 15, 2016 in London, England.
Tim P. Whitby
Getty Images
Grime artist Skepta accepts his award after being announced the winner of the Mercury Prize on September 15, 2016 in London, England.

Just this afternoon, it looked like David Bowie was a shoo-in for this year's Mercury Prize. Even though the prestigious U.K. award had never before been given to an artist posthumously, Blackstar was the final and widely adored album from a British rock god. Even bookies were betting on Bowie as a 4/7 favorite.

Things didn't work out that way, though. Instead, the Mercury went to the stunned 33-year-old independent grime artist Skepta, a.k.a. Joseph Junior Adenuga, for his fourth album, Konnichiwa. Skepta releases his music on his own Boy Better Know imprint — "no record label, nothing," as he reportedly said when accepting the award. (The award telecast was not watchable outside the U.K.)

The 2016 Mercury shortlist comprised both longtime fan and critical favorites and some relative newcomers. The nominees included Anohni, Bat for Lashes, Bowie, Jamie Woon, Kano, Michael Kiwanuka, Laura Mvula, Radiohead, Savages, Skepta, The 1975 and The Comet Is Coming. (This was Radiohead's fifth nomination.)

Though the Mercury can ostensibly be awarded to artists in any genre, the list of nominees this year tipped toward rock (Bowie, The 1975 and Radiohead), soul (Kiwanuka and Mvula) and grime (Skepta and Kano). But there were also a couple of more outlying picks, like The Comet Is Coming, a trio that BBC Six dubbed "purveyors of freak-out space funk," and the post-punk explorations of Savages.

The ceremony was televised live in Great Britain on BBC Four. Half of the shortlist contenders were eliminated during the telecast to create six "finalists" for the prize: Mvula, Skepta, The 1975, Bowie, Radiohead and Kiwanuka.

The Mercury Prize, which carries a £25,000 award, is given by the British Phonographic Industry and British Association of Record Dealers for what the judging panel considers the best album from a British or Irish artist or group in the past year; the prize is something of a counterweight to the more popularly-minded Brit Awards. Absent from this year's shortlist were the two best-selling albums in the U.K. during the current eligibility period: Adele's 25 and Coldplay's A Head Full Of Dreams. Tonight's ceremony marked the 25th edition of the award.

Skepta's song "Numbers," featuring Pharrell — an indictment of the traditional record industry — was included on NPR Music's list of our Favorite Songs of 2016 (So Far); his track "Shutdown" also made our list of our Favorite Songs of 2015.

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