In honor of Black History Month, The Daily’s music beat writers share their recommendations on the most influential Black musicians since 2000. You can read the first installment of this listicle here.
Kendrick Lamar – Sofia Gonzalez-Rodriguez
Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar has made a name for himself with his incredible vocal versatility and lyrical storytelling. Among other hallmarks, Lamar sets himself apart with his ability to manipulate tone and inflection to channel different characters and emotions. His music has been hailed as defying the borders of genre; his third studio album “To Pimp a Butterfly” uses live music instrumentals to boldly synthesize jazz, hip-hop, funk and soul influences.
From his first project “Section.80” to “DAMN” — which was the first rap album to win a Pulitzer Prize — Lamar has largely focused on the experience of Black folks in the United States. Lamar’s work has lent its radical voice to calls for national change — “Alright” from “To Pimp a Butterfly” has served as a protest song in past Black Lives Matter demonstrations. His widespread recognition and cultural influence have garnered comparisons to late West Coast rap icon Tupac Shakur, whom Lamar has cited as an inspiration and role model. The “HUMBLE” musician has reaped the payoff of his artistic risks and will continue to be hailed as a creative force to be reckoned with.
Pharrell Williams – Nick Sligh
Few artists have matched the impact of Pharrell Williams, who has received 38 Grammy award nominations and 13 wins. But these accolades only begin to represent the artist’s influence on music and pop culture. Ever since Pharrell met Chad Hugo at a middle school band camp, his trajectory towards success has never faltered. After connecting with Clipse (rap-duo and brothers Pusha T and Malice) and The Neptunes (Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s production and songwriting duo), Pharrell’s solo career as an artist took off, and Pharrell never looked back.
Williams’ greatest impact has come through his production, through which he has touched and influenced so many aspects of modern music. An entire book could be written about Pharrell’s production discography; some of his best works include: “Pink + White” by Frank Ocean, “Paperwork” by T.I., “Allure” by Jay-Z, “Hell Hath No Fury” by Clipse, “Juggernaut” by Tyler, The Creator, “Freak” by Doja Cat, “Move That Dope” by Future, “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar and “Are We Still Friends?” by Tyler, The Creator.
Whether as a producer, singer, rapper, songwriter, fashion icon or entrepreneur, Pharrell’s impact has been undeniable, and it’s magnitude often overlooked.
Nicki Minaj – Lydia Wei
“Pull up in the monster, automobile gangsta” — with this first line from her unforgettable verse in Kanye West’s song “Monster”, Nicki Minaj burst onto the pop culture landscape in 2010. Minaj brought an explosive, dynamic presence to hip-hop with her animated flow, witty lyricism, accents and alter egos, serving as one of the most significant female rappers of the 2010s.
Her debut album, “Pink Friday” (2010), was acclaimed for its energetic, bubbly mixture of rap and pop, as exemplified in the popular single “Super Bass.” Her second album, “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” (2012) continued this dance-pop trend. Many songs from the album are instantly recognizable; “Starships”, “Pound the Alarm”, “Turn Me On” and “Va Va Voom” dominated radio stations the summer after the album’s release.
“Anaconda”, the single from her third album “The Pinkprint” (2014), also made huge waves; a precursor to “WAP,” it served as an anthem for women championing their sexuality. The iconic music video for the single, featuring a cameo from Canadian rapper Drake, became the first solo female rap video to reach one billion views on YouTube. Minaj’s fourth album, “Queen” (2018) marked a return to her hip-hop roots. Ultimately, Minaj will be remembered for the incredible ways in which she paved the way for female rappers during the 2010s, both in her embrace of idiosyncratic music trends and her frank, bold portrayals of sexuality.
Tyler, the Creator – Nick Sligh
If we could go back in time to 2011 and show listeners this list, I think that many people would be shocked to see Tyler, The Creator’s name present. Tyler Okonma has come a long way since he was a 19 year-old eating a cockroach in the iconic video for his breakout song “Yonkers.”
Founded by Tyler, The Creator, the young Odd Future collective shook up music and pop culture and deeply affected the way that artists, comedians and entertainers utilized the internet to build brands and generate a dedicated following. The Odd Future imprint has left its mark on the internet era at large, but Tyler’s impact miraculously goes so far beyond that.
2009’s “Bastard” and 2011’s “Goblin” had shock value and made Tyler, The Creator a controversial figure, but the real development of his artistry began with “Wolf” in 2013. This often overlooked album is one of the first great looks into the personal struggles and internal conflicts that Tyler has battled as a person and an emerging artist. In “Cherry Bomb,” he continued his artistic exploration and refinement of a wide variety of sounds, setting the stage for his current three-album run of success.
“Flower Boy” firmly cemented Tyler as an artist deserving of respect and acclaim, with an incredibly personal, thoughtful, well-composed and effortless compilation of sounds. The 2020 Grammy Awards finally gave Tyler an award that he had long desired: “Igor” (2019) won the award for Best Hip-Hop Album of the Year and received mass acclaim as an experimental and diverse sonic exploration highlighting his prowess as a creative visionary. “Call Me If You Get Lost” was essentially a victory lap of Tyler’s modern excellence, with the concept album leaving no doubt that Tyler is one of the most prominent rappers and artists of the 21st century. Tyler is a true leader of the modern generation of the internet, music and pop culture, and his impact cannot be overstated.
Kid Cudi – Chloe Anne Walsh
When Kid Cudi dropped “Man on the Moon: The End of Day” in 2009, he had little idea that his debut album would revolutionize the modern hip-hop industry. But with unprecedentedly vulnerable lyrics and sonically experimental soundscapes, that’s exactly what it did. While other rappers in the late 2000s centered songs on themes of money, sex and power, Cudi chose to base entire projects on his open struggles with depression and anxiety — a pioneering decision that resonated with fans worldwide.
Amongst all of his releases, the brilliance of Cudi’s artistry is best showcased in his “Man on the Moon Trilogy,” a crowning achievement of concept albums that mirrors as a contemporary “The Dark Side of the Moon.” Cudi’s lyrical honesty has been noted as an inspiration to many, with Saturday Night Live castmember Pete Davidson thanking Cudi’s albums for “saving his life” and rapper Travis Scott taking his stage name after Cudi. Although Kid Cudi may not have the solution to the struggles he lyricizes, the healing sound of his infamous hums reassures listeners that they aren’t alone in facing even the darkest of their problems.
Alicia Keys – Bhumikorn Kongtaveelert
Alicia Augello Cook, or Alicia Keys as we have grown to love her, is a powerhouse in contemporary R&B and soul music. Prior to her breakout debut album “Songs In A Minor,” Keys was a classically trained pianist; her transition and influences from classical to R&B and soul figures mirrors her predecessors like Nina Simone and Ray Charles. Her debut album featured decade-defining tracks like “Fallin’” — which neatly carves out Keys’ unique sound of pop-R&B during the early 2000s. Records like “If I Ain’t Got You,” “Empire State of Mind” and “Girl On Fire” solidified her streak of crafting R&B anthems that powered the late 2000s and early 2010s. Even when I was growing up in Thailand, half a world away, her music continued to fuel optimism and preach love for people from diverse backgrounds. Throughout her extensive career, Keys has showcased delicate lyrical prowess and soulful and youthful rhythms and chords, as well as a unique vocal performance style that has touched the hearts of her listeners: slightly gravelly, yet soothing.
20 years after her initial debut, Keys continues to release and experiment with her music. In 2021, her double LP “KEYS” with Disc 1 “Originals” featured Keys’ return to stripped-back piano ballads, delivering touching vocal performance and a nostalgic spin on her reflections. The song “Old Memories” found itself repackaged by Mike Will Made It (stylized as Mike WiLL Made-It) on the Disk 2 counterpart, a more produced Side B with uniquely stylish percussions and synthesizers. This version flavorfully built upon Keys’ already outstanding performances.
André 3000 (Outkast) – Brandon Rupp
André 3000 is best known as the eccentric foil to Big Boi in the rap duo Outkast — one of music’s finest pairings. André 3000’s wide-ranging influence goes far beyond rap: the larger-than-life icon’s genre-bending approach has graced some of the best pop (“Hey Ya”) and funk (“SpottieOttieDopaliscious”) tracks of the past few decades. No track represents his unique approach better than “Ms. Jackson” — brilliant pop melodies, hard-hitting lyrics and stylized production all made the track one of the 21st century’s first smash hit singles. While Big Boi’s work cannot be understated in Outkast, it is André’s relentlessly eccentric nature that has led the group into their most interesting pursuits, such as the jazz, electronic and psychedelic-tinged “The Love Below.” While his output these days is limited to guest appearances on a track or two every few years, his impact on modern music is as persistent as ever.
Lil Nas X – Brandon Rupp
When Montero Lamar Hill hit big in early 2019 under the name Lil Nas X, he unknowingly planted the seeds that would change contemporary pop forever. With a beat that samples Nine Inch Nails and quirky lyrics about living it up as a hedonistic cowboy, “Old Town Road” remains a one-off like nothing else in the realm of music. While staying light on his feet and keeping his tongue planted firmly in cheek, Lil Nas X has been able to maintain one of the 21st century’s more eventful pop careers. With major media attention from stories ranging from a controversy regarding “satanic” shoes to his continued advocacy for the LGBTQIA+ community, he has found the perfect way to subvert power structures in contemporary society by delivering genuine, heartfelt messages in an accessible and undeniably charming way. With only one (admittedly great) album behind his belt, he still has a long, trailblazing career ahead of him.
Future – Peyton Lee
Though he’s lost some mainstream attention since the early 2010s, Future is universally attributed as one of the pioneers in trap music. He’s often credited with the invention of mumble rap, a loosely defined genre that’s produced hip-hop superstars like Migos, Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti. Beyond the bounds of genre classification, his continued use of Auto-Tune and other vocal effects has been widely mimicked by newer artists. And with eight studio albums, nearly two dozen mixtapes (including fan favorites like “Monster” and “Beast Mode”) and a laundry list of hit singles like “Fuck up Some Commas” and “Mask Off,” Future’s discography further cements him as a valued contributor to the ever-changing sound of modern hip-hop. Even Kanye agrees!
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.