In honor of Black History Month, below are recommendations from Music beat writers on the most influential Black musicians since 2000. This listicle is written in two parts.
Beyoncé – Sofia Gonzalez-Rodriguez
No discussion of music in the new millennium is complete without an acknowledgement of Beyoncé Knowles’ stardom. The Houston-born singer’s influence transcends the 28 Grammys that have made her the most awarded woman artist in Recording Academy history — she is a cultural icon. Knowles, known to most as Beyoncé, entered the music industry with irresistible smash hits as a member of R&B girl group Destiny’s Child, where she stood out for her velvety yet powerful voice and naturally graceful stage presence. Her reputation for stunning performances persisted and reached dizzying heights with 2018’s Internet-shattering Beychella. Beyoncé’s third studio album “I Am…Sasha Fierce” brought with it several chart-topping tracks, including “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and embodied an empowered, sexual alter-ego.
Such feminist themes have been a hallmark of Beyoncé’s career; look no further than the iconic 2011 Billboard Music Awards performance of “Who Run the World (Girls).” The surprise release of her self-titled fifth studio album shattered the iTunes store and revolutionized the music industry in the process, an impact only fitting for the eponymous title. Blackness has been a rising theme in Beyoncé’s more recent work, namely in the poignant films accompanying both “Lemonade” and “Homecoming.” She has used these projects to develop an alter-ego based on Oshun, the goddess of femininity and love in Yoruba and Afro-diasporic religions. From pop culture phrases like “I woke up like this” to art on Black womanhood, Beyoncé’s profound influence promises to stick around throughout the 21st century.
Kanye West – Nick Sligh
Kanye West is simply one of a kind. Ever since he got his start in music as an up-and-coming Chicago producer, his stardom has been massive. After becoming affiliated with Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records and contributing incredible production to Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” in 2001, West began to make waves and gain credibility throughout the world of hip-hop. In 2004, West (also known as Ye or simply Kanye) released his debut album, “The College Dropout,” which proved to be one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time and set the tone for the multiple waves of impact that Kanye would go on to have in hip-hop and popular culture.
Kanye’s early work revitalized soul sampling in hip-hop, establishing him firmly as one of the leading producers of the modern era with some of the most fantastic recent instrumentals composed. “Late Registration” offered another all-time classic album and possibly Ye’s best work, and “Graduation” wrapped up the initial trilogy with a genre-bending, futuristic, feel-good effort that is simply timeless. Kanye’s next three albums continued to have similar levels of impact and greatness. “808s & Heartbreak” was a complete sonic shift for Ye, revolutionizing the structure, content and sound of many modern hip-hop albums. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was a larger-than-life experience that featured some of the most grand hip-hop music ever created. “Yeezus” effortlessly advanced experimental hip-hop into the mainstream, with all of its diverse elements creating a truly cinematic work.
“Watch The Throne,” Ye’s 2011 collaboration album with Jay-Z, became one of the most iconic joint efforts of the modern era of music. Kanye’s more recent works, including “The Life of Pablo” and “Donda,” continue to dominate pop culture and have lasting impacts on music as a whole. To this day, Kanye continues to grab headlines (for better or for worse) and consistently remains a trending topic. As recently as last year (2021), Kanye kept the world of popular music on its toes for the rollout for “Donda,” which included a multi-stadium series of performances in Atlanta and Chicago. These were not just any performances either, as Kanye converted a locker room in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium into a temporary home that he lived in while finishing up the album. For the majority of the 21st century, Kanye has been a larger-than-life figure, and one whose impact on hip-hop and popular music will never go away.
The Weeknd – Nick Sligh
A modern global icon and superstar in music, Abel Tesfaye, popularly known as The Weeknd, has brought the world of music some of its most wonderful and impactful art of the last 12 years. His debut mixtape “House of Balloons” established him as an underground cult favorite, and his hit “Blinding Lights” is on-pace to become the most streamed song of all time on Spotify. The Weeknd’s legendary status has become cemented and his universal appeal undeniable.
Tesfaye’s initial “Trilogy” of mixtapes (“House of Balloons,” “Thursday” and “Echoes of Silence”) was one of the most foundational collections of modern R&B, creating a dark, ethereal and cinematic sound that revolutionized the genre and highlighted his genius. Songs like “The Knowing,” “The Morning” and “Wicked Games” are timeless and stand out as some of the best songs in contemporary R&B and pop music. “Kiss Land” continued Tesfaye’s push for stardom, offering another dark, mystical collection with intricate thematics, and has become a cult classic in his discography. “Beauty Behind the Madness” was a defining moment, making the world of music fully aware of the star in the making. “The Hills” became his biggest hit to that point, shaking up the billboard charts with a uniquely psychedelic, cynical, horror-infused iconic thriller of a track.
The mass appeal didn’t stop, with “Starboy” cementing his status as a pop star. 2020’s “After Hours” encapsulated the cinematic and creative genius of The Weeknd, with a thematic and cohesive rollout building out a clear vision and character for the new era of his career. Just last month, “Dawn FM” came as a surprise drop, continuing to push sonic boundaries with a modern disco-pop-influenced record. The Weeknd deserves his flowers now and forever. His impact on popular music and the sheer quantity of amazing music that he has provided can be matched by very few artists.
Frank Ocean – Aaliyah Webster
Frank Ocean will go down as one of the defining voices of our generation. With one introspective hit after another, “Blonde” might be the quintessential Gen Z album. The beauty and nostalgia on this 17-track masterpiece followed us through our high school years, and it won’t be leaving us anytime soon. This elusive powerhouse singer has inspired a variety of musicians with both his repertoire of genre-bending hits and his openness with his identity as a queer Black man. Lil Nas X credits Frank Ocean as someone who paved the way for his brand of self expression. Future waves of marginalized artists will surely be sharing a similar sentiment as they navigate the industry.
Kevin Abstract – Chloe Anne Walsh
Kevin Abstract has continued to grow into a powerful force ever since he posted “Anybody wanna make a band?” on a Kanye West forum — a now infamous thread that illustrates his formation of the group BROCKHAMPTON — at age 13. In 2012, a time when queer representation in the rap industry was minimal, Abstract set out to write songs that voiced his intimate struggles and experiences of being a gay Black man.
BROCKHAMPTON achieved mass popularity in 2017 with their back-to-back releases of three successful experimental hip-hop albums, becoming the self-proclaimed “best boy band since One Direction.” In addition to the groundbreaking collective work of BROCKHAMPTON, Abstract has also explored his own journey of self-discovery in the form of two solo projects: “American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story” (2016) and “ARIZONA BABY” (2019). With songs like “Miserable America” and “Papercut,” Abstract has remained boldly unafraid to challenge traditional heteronormativity while lyricizing everything from his euphoric first loves to his painfully strained familial relationships. With the upcoming release of his latest album slated for 2022, fans can trust that Abstract will undoubtedly deliver another collection of anthems for young listeners everywhere.
Rihanna – Aditeya Shukla
The fact that fans and music lovers still crave more from Rihanna even six years after her last release is a testament to her impact and success as an artist. Ever since releasing “Pon De Replay” in 2005, Rihanna has maintained her place at the top of the charts every single year. It is very rare for an artist to start their career with such a hit and maintain that level of quality and individuality through an entire decade. Her signature saccharine vocals make each track a personal representation of her identity and soul. With 61 songs making it onto the Billboard Hot 100, and 14 reaching the number-one spot, Rihanna represents the best pop R&B has to offer.
MF DOOM – Brandon Rupp
In many ways, the multiple aliases of Daniel Dumile, best-known as MF DOOM, represent the apex of underground rap. The quintessential lyrical sorcerer, MF DOOM knew exactly how to play a comic book version of a villain, spitting elaborate verses about various wrongdoings behind his iconic metal mask. With his best release, “Madvillainy,” the 2004 collaboration with famed producer Madlib, bars about “Doritos,” Cheetos” and “Fritos” were backed with beats that sample 1930s movie trailers warning of “America’s two most powerful villains.” In many ways, juxtapositions like these — between lighthearted, dry comedy and gritty, hard-hitting rhymes — define what makes MF DOOM so enigmatic. He was the rappers’ rapper who always experimented with his sound and direction while never ceasing to deliver the goods. Sadly, he was taken from us too soon on Halloween in 2020, but his reign as the supervillain of rap will never be forgotten.
Dr. Dre – Peyton Lee
Even if Dr. Dre had never released a single track or sold a pair of headphones, he’d still have made it onto this list. Before Beats transformed him into a multi-millionaire tech mogul, Dr. Dre saw success in his support of and collaboration with new hip-hop artists. Spanning both Death Row Records in the ’90s and Aftermath Entertainment since, these fresh faces (many of whom have their own spots on this list) define generation after generation of hip-hop’s greatest: Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, 50 Cent, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak, to name a few. A father of careers and Black excellence, Dr. Dre is to hip-hop what Lorne Michaels is to comedy. And that’s not even mentioning “The Chronic” and “2001,” two pre-Y2K pillars of West Coast rap.
Lizzo – Kirsten Mettler
One of the first exercises in my frosh writing and rhetoric class was to analyze Lizzo’s “Tempo” featuring Missy Elliott; clearly, Lizzo has already become a keystone in modern music. At the 2020 Grammy Awards, she swept with eight nominations and three wins. She is an expert in pump-up jams, with songs like “Good As Hell” and “Juice,” that hit listeners with a needed jolt of ego. Lizzo’s music beautifully straddles the line of mainstream pop by being catchy without excessive repetitiveness. Not to mention, her tracks effortlessly pull on her skills as a flautist to mix the light sounds of the instrument with modern lyrics. If anything, it seems like Lizzo’s career is only beginning, with more energized, confidence-inspiring music still to come.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.