Last week Grande went public with her beef with the Grammys' executive producer, Ken Ehrlich, over what she said was his lack of respect for a performance she'd planned to give. (As a result, she sat out Sunday's ceremony.)
And though he was nominated for album of the year with his soundtrack to the Marvel blockbuster "Black Panther," Kendrick Lamar also opted not to appear. Also notably absent was Childish Gambino, who had several important wins for "This Is America," his viral rap hit about gun violence and racial terror.
Along with the awards, Sunday's performances -- the vast majority by women and people of color -- at times seemed to scream, "Hey, we get it!" But the night, hosted by Keys with low-key warmth and enthusiasm, never felt cynical. It simply seemed more in line with pop as it exists today than the ceremony has for years.
Camila Cabello opened the show with a colorful rendition of her song "Havana" that featured cameos by Ricky Martin, Young Thug, Arturo Sandoval and J Balvin (the last of whom held a newspaper headlined "Build bridges not walls").
Janelle Monae did a medley of songs from her "Dirty Computer" -- a futuristic account of love defined as broadly as possible -- while accompanied by dancers wearing anatomically inspired outfits.
"Let the vagina have a monologue," she said.
H.E.R., shredding on an electric guitar, did a beautiful rendition of her song "Hard Place" that felt suffused with confidence in her own vision. She wasn't hurrying for anyone.
And then there was Cardi B, who rapped "Money" while dressed as an evil queen amid a boudoir dreamscape.
Onstage later to accept her rap album trophy, the outspoken and verbally dexterous hip-hop star was speechless for once and admitted that her nerves were getting the best of her. With a grin, she added, "Maybe I need to start smoking weed" -- a line that exemplified the authentic goofball charm that's endeared her to so many over the last two years.
Another sign of progress for the Grammys: The awards for record and song of the year went to Childish Gambino -- also known as the actor Donald Glover -- for his searing track "This Is America." The latter represented the first time a hip-hop track has won song of the year -- an absurdity, given how long rap has dominated the Top 40, but a welcome achievement nonetheless.