Black History Month is an incredible opportunity for everyone living in America to celebrate the achievements of Black people and to learn about key figures and events in Black history. Popular music is undoubtedly a realm in which Black artists have made enormous contributions. Black musicians have revolutionized music and created some of the most brilliant, moving and innovative songs in history.
Several writers in the Music Beat (Grace Adebogun ’24, Kamilah Arteaga ’22, Nadia Jo ’23, Jared Klegar ’24, Peyton Lee ’24, Young Fenimore Lee ’21, Nicholas Sligh ’23) collaborated to write a two-part series highlighting our favorite works by Black musicians. As young music lovers, we wanted to write about the music we know most intimately: albums released in the 2010s. They are arranged in chronological order by release date.
Most of all, this article is a celebration. We want to express admiration for artists who have touched the lives of countless listeners through their songs. It is very likely that you already enjoy works by many Black musicians. We encourage you to reflect on how their creativity has added joy and depth to your lives, and we also encourage you to learn how their identities inform their work.
Check out the Spotify playlist of our favorite songs from these albums.
ANTI (2016) – Rihanna (Nadia Jo ’23)
Most people remember cracking jokes over Rihanna’s slurred pronunciation on “Work,” but “ANTI” packs so much more than fuel for humor. “ANTI” sounds like a steamy summer night — from the maximalist “Kiss It Better,” which recalls the expansive 2000s pop hits that first threw Rihanna into stardom, to the husky getaway fantasy “Desperado.” Rihanna’s Caribbean roots are on full display throughout the tracklist, as foreshadowed by the album cover: a childhood photo of Rihanna when she grew up in Barbados. Rihanna takes full advantage of her signature velvet-smooth enunciations and newfound freedom to write her own lyrics. This album is more gritty and sultry than her previous singles-driven projects; Rihanna ditches melodic, easy-to-remember loops for more experimental and narrative tracks. A standout song is the old-school R&B lament “Love On The Brain”: her voice soars, but her words speak of lasting trauma and battered memories. “It beats me black and blue but it f*cks me so good,” she sings. This song has brought me to tears multiple times, and it is a true testament to her survivorship and evolution as an artist. Rihanna continues a fantastic vocal performance in “Higher,” a cathartic “drunk voicemail,” as described by the artist herself. “ANTI” enjoyed immense commercial and critical success in 2016, and it continues to receive praise from major music publications which place the album in their “best albums of the 2010s” or “best albums of all time” lists. Through “ANTI,” Rihanna proved once again that Black women consistently produce phenomenal pop and R&B albums.
A Seat at the Table (2016) – Solange (Kamilah Arteaga ’22)
Solange’s arguably best album is not only a musical masterpiece but a testament to Black womanhood and Black existence. It’s historical, modern and personal: her euphoric-soul sounds are timeless and powerful, though they are soft and casual in feeling. Co-produced by both Solange and Rapahel Saadiq, “A Seat at the Table” is a self reflection, but it simultaneously turns the mirror outwards to the listener and the world – particularly Black women, of whose experiences she is primarily speaking. Static beats, angelic vocals and the twinkling piano make up the sound of “a highly honest, disruptive, angsty record with all of the nuances that I wanted to express,” as Solange says herself.
Telefone (2016) – Noname (Grace Adebogun ’24)
“Telefone” is a beautiful amalgamation of pain and hope artistically presented in the form of poetic rap. In this debut album, Noname skillfully addresses the plight of the Black woman, from unfulfilled dreams to silenced voices and everything in between: “She dream in technicolor, live black and white.” Noname notes the stark difference between dreams and reality in “Reality Check.” In her dreams, and the dreams of many Black women, there is a vibrant world of opportunity and life, but in reality, they are often held back by a world dedicated to boxing them in and breaking them down. Though she makes certain to shed light on the somber reality of being a Black woman in America, Noname also brings attention to the alluring beauty of Blackness. “My honeybee red, black and green / Majestic queen / This for my homies; my umi say love.” With references to the Pan-African flag, the power and influence of the Black Woman, and familial love, Noname uses “All I Need” to create a safe space for Black women to bask in their greatness while critically examining her own person from an outside perspective. The release of this neo-soul album in 2016 stands as an essential addition to Noname’s already-budding career as an exemplary lyricist and vocal activist. “I think this is a song about redemption… I know this is a song for overcoming,” she raps. Songs like “Freedom Interlude” and the other tracks in “Telefone” exemplify Noname’s ability to create the melodic masterpieces and raw rhythms that beautifully sum up the binding freedom of the Black Woman.
Lemonade (2016) – Beyoncé (Jared Klegar ’24)
In the music video for “Love Drought,” “Lemonade”’s seventh track, Beyoncé leads a procession of Black women into the water. Joining hands, they raise their arms to the sky, as the sun slowly descends into the horizon. Not only is the scene a striking visual in itself, but it pays remembrance to the Igbo Landing, where, in 1803, a captive group of Igbo people committed mass suicide. Forcibly removed from what is now Nigeria and transported to the Georgia coast, the Igbo people rebelled against their captors and grounded their cargo ship on a nearby island. In chains, the Igbo people sang as they walked into Dunbar Creek, choosing death over the horrors of bondage and chattel labor. They drowned — but they were never slaves. With “Lemonade,” Beyoncé used her platform to honor Black liberation and Black womanhood. And by exposing and confronting the fissures in her marriage, she channeled newfound anger, grief and love into her music. The result was an instant classic — an intensely personal, unflinchingly political, new high point in an already staggering discography. The video for “Formation,” the album’s finale, encapsulates this expression of emotion and Black pride. In one shot, Beyoncé stands atop a police car as it sinks underwater. In another, she dances, in a group of Black women, at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. Their movements are perfectly synchronized, their formations pristine. The cop car drowns amidst the floods above ground. But the women, in the face of an oppressive world, are thriving. Though they are several feet deep, they are not drowning. There’s no water.
“4:44” (2017) – Jay-Z (Nick Sligh ’23)
“4:44” is one of the most mature and inspiring albums ever created in rap. Jay-Z’s 13th studio album showed a truly graceful aging as an artist. Jay has become an undeniable legend in every sense. He is one of the largest figures in all of global pop culture, and he has dominated music, culture, and business for multiple decades now. However, what makes “4:44” so special is not the glaring aura or prestige, but actually the contrary. Jay’s 13th album provided a more heartfelt and humble approach than any of his prior work, and presented himself as a flawed and emotional figure, despite the god-like perception that is sometimes held of him within the rap community. Jay-Z masterfully touched on deep concepts and topics throughout the album, with tracks about infidelity in marriage, systemic racism, his mother’s sexual orientation and the future he envisions for his family. “Smile,” the album’s third track, is without a doubt one of the best songs in Jay-Z’s discography and also one of the best songs in modern rap. Over a looped sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” Jay reflects on hardships and bad memories and how they have made him the person he is today, while also publicly revealing his mother’s homosexuality, showing support, love and grace. On a sample of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” “The Story of O.J.” addresses systemic racism in America and encourages others to turn Black musical success into financial progress and advancement. The album’s title track, “4:44,” is an open apology and love letter to Jay’s wife, Beyoncé, addressing his guilt for being a bad husband and his past affairs. With his skills as sharp as ever, Hov simply gave by far his most open and vulnerable work. Even for a rapper who has always been wise, “4:44” far eclipsed the wisdom of any of Jay’s previous work. The great ones are able to adapt to the times while still retaining what makes them special, and “4:44” is proof that Jay-Z not only has the ability to adapt, but to thrive and to still be one of the best rappers in the world.
Ctrl (2017) – SZA (Peyton Lee ’24)
With four Grammy nominations and widespread praise, “Ctrl” quickly cemented itself as a classic of modern music; even the album cover (of SZA lounging with an array of defunct, retro computers) has a cult following of its own. SZA separates herself from other artists by making music that defies genres yet remains accessible. Jazz-like, improvisational vocals aren’t usually mixed over pop/R&B beats, but SZA makes the combination an easy-listening experience. The instrumentals are relatively minimal, but vibrant and effective. “Ctrl” is refreshingly personal, peppered with samples of SZA’s family members speaking on various topics. In truth, one of my favorite aspects of SZA’s music is how conversational it feels, as if she were sitting and singing right next to you. I recommend “Drew Barrymore,” “Broken Clocks” and “Love Galore,” if you somehow haven’t already listened to this album.
CARE FOR ME (2018) – Saba (Peyton Lee ’24)
“CARE FOR ME” is an extremely polished progression of heartfelt hip-hop, dedicated to the memory of Saba’s cousin and best friend, Walter, who was murdered in 2017. The monochrome cover establishes the tone well: the album is homegrown, but serious in its content. “CARE FOR ME” is a masterclass on flow, with Saba riding effortlessly over clean beats and comfortable acoustic basslines. Lyrically, Saba champions the old-school, truth-to-power, voice-for-the-voiceless mentality of rapping. This album, however, brings that old-school spirit into the present day by discussing mental health openly: depression (“BUSY / SIRENS”), societal pressures (“GREY”) and codependency (“BROKEN GIRLS”), among other issues. No one tells stories through rap quite like Saba, and in my opinion, he has the rest of lo-fi hip-hop beat.
Some Rap Songs (2018) – Earl Sweatshirt (Young Fenimore Lee ’21)
In the winter of 2018, we were informed that the rap wunderkind Earl Sweatshirt was about to release a new album, and soon, we were given an eerie, intensely blurred photograph of a wide-grinned face, teeth blazing, light glare dragging up across the frame, and told that it was the album cover to a 24-minute long album called “Some Rap Songs.” The album dropped into our laps, we pressed play, and the words floated into the oxygen in the air. In a submerged droll, we were told that we roam tundras – “imprecise words” – bend, we don’t break – sugar in my gas tank – “to have a home is not a favor” – and an instrumental closed everything out; the gates to a distant sonic shadowland opened briefly, and closed shut just as quickly. Just as well: We listeners quickly became privy to an elusive and nebulous personal universe, and it feels appropriate that such an intimate tale be tempered and preserved in a foreshortened portrait rather than a landscape. In the January before the release of “Some Rap Songs,” Earl’s father, the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, passed away, and Earl had made it no secret to the world that his father was a complex figure in his life: someone whose absence left a void that was to be filled with personal reckonings and, most relevantly for us, music, where he would mourn, in the form of relentlessly complex bars, a lean-filled tumultuous life of displacement and contemplation under the watchful eye of rolling samples and his parents’ voices. On “Playing Possum,” the disembodied voices of Cheryl Harris and Keorapetse Kgositsile are pitted against each other, and whether or not this accomplishes conciliation or manifests resentment, the dichotomy of the attentive mother and the absent father fills a tension that cannot explode in “Some Rap Songs.” Instead, it seeps into the production, the microphonic quality of Earl’s voice, and the psyches of guest artists Gio Escobar (Standing on the Corner) and Navy Blue as they come together to support the once and future lonely king of experimental hip-hop, Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, AKA Earl Sweatshirt.
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