Black women shifted and altered how we as a society listen to music. We asked three cultural critics to gather the 10 bodies of work by Black women that defined the 2010s.
It’s easy to look at ten years of music and make assumptions. But it’s difficult perhaps to look at a decade of Black cultural work that reflects the cultural qualms that persist. In a decade of hip-hop and R&B, Black women shifted and altered how we, as a society, listen to music. Black women in this time did what many would call world-building. They expanded how we show emotion through their work and demanded space in a world that refused to see them.
This is the decade of #BlackGirlMagic — where Black women were able to lay the groundwork for what is to come.
Okayplayer asked three Black women cultural critics (Clarissa Brooks, Najma Sharif, Wanna Thompson) to come together to gather the best bodies of work by Black women artists throughout the decade. These are works that demand us to feel deeper than before. And it’s only right that this begins with the examining of three very pivotal projects that were all released in 2016: Solange’s A Seat at the Table, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Rihanna’s Anti.
Written By Clarissa Brooks, Najma Sharif, and Wanna Thompson
Solange — A Seat at the Table (2016)
Najma: I’d like to begin with A Seat at the Table. I saw that after When I Get Home dropped, everyone talked about how A Seat at the Table was a balm during a hyper-violent era, but When I Get Home didn’t measure up for people (I’d like to believe that it had a different function then ASAT). The year 2016 wasn’t only defining for music. It was an election year and the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, and everyone responded to our sociopolitical realities at the time with projects that reacted to that reality. I listened to A Seat at the Table at work, I played it through the speakers on loop when I was a barista — it was an album that I needed at the time.
Wanna: When I think of A Seat At The Table, I think about Solange addressing a multitude of issues that have plagued the Black community for generations. The interludes from her parents, Matthew Knowles and Tina Lawson, paint an introspective picture that unveils that the present and the past share similar struggles and hardships, despite the rest of the world thinking otherwise. Solange delicately singing, “All my niggas in the whole wide world” on “F.U.B.U” was deliberate and we all felt that message. The album addresses Black pain, Black rage and everything in between, but it also reaffirms Black beauty and Black brilliance. The narration at the end of “F.U.B.U,” by Master P, acts as manifestations and affirmations for me. “The glory is in you” is not only a phrase but it’s a call to action.
Solange crafted a space where honesty, pride, and rage were able to co-exist. Funk, blues, and more genre-fluid instrumentals guide the listener through a familiar journey that confronts the sorrows of our past, and the brilliance and magic that is waiting for us in our future. It is a hope that this album is passed down to younger generations and functions like an audible heirloom, for it is equipped with so many necessary lessons on the Black experience.
Clarissa: A Seat At The Table is an album that soothes me in so many ways. I remember the release of it in 2016. I was in Charlotte during the uprising against the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott. I’ve talked about how this album is evergreen because it speaks to the things Black women stifle with every day. I also think seeing Solange make music for Black people, and do so with a level of skill and genre manipulation, felt so refreshing in a year that was heavy and dark. The first time I heard Solange say, “I’m gonna look for my body, yeah,” on “Weary,” I lost it. This album speaks to the embodied ways that racial capitalism and oppression affects our psyches and leaves us overwhelmed. It felt like Solange was speaking to me in ways I didn’t know I needed.
Lemonade — Beyoncé (2016)
Clarissa: In what ways did Lemonade ask you to think through how Beyoncé moves as a storyteller? Specifically thinking about how the lyrical and visual aspects of Lemonade move in unison with each other.
Najma: Lemonade is a reminder that the body doesn’t forget. It’s an instruction guide on healing with 11 steps from intuition to redemption. Beyoncé plunges into the water, cradles us from the depths of despair into the height of orgasm. She sets the world aflame in denial and hurls threats in a fit of unbridled rage. She cares too much (“Hold Up“), she doesn’t care at all (“Sorry”). She fasts, abstains, drinks, and communes with Black women to twerk and break bread, because healing isn’t supposed to be an individualistic act — it’s supposed to be communal. We invoke those of us that were here before us, the women that raised us, and the women that raised them because we can’t unpack intergenerational trauma alone.
When I first watched Lemonade, I had yet to experience the kind of heartache and betrayal Beyoncé was singing about. Years and a lot of ain’t-shit niggas later, I sort of understood an iota of the kind of strength it takes to choose to heal over revenge. Warsan Shire’s poetry helmed the film, which makes sense because Lemonade is rarely direct, as is Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. Both bodies of work require an exegetical reading from the audience. Lemonade is only explicit in its imagery, and Black women are at the center. Perhaps it’s Beyoncé’s way of showing, instead of, telling us what she really wanted to say, because even with Beyoncé’s vocals and Shire’s poetry, we’re left to decipher what they both mean. It reminds me of what poet Momtaza Mehri says: “Besides, poetry is only ever a means to an end. Some of us would like it to be an end by all means, but we don’t all get what we want, or know what we want when we get it?” Yes, Lemonade spoke to us. But what else did we expect it to do?
Wanna: For some, Lemonade is just an album and for others, it’s a source of healing. Lemonade wasn’t Beyoncé’s first visual album but it’s the most impactful. Down to the poetic lyrics and the striking, lush imagery, Lemonade is effortless. It’s Beyoncé at her worst but also her best. She walks in her truth and vulnerability, leading the listener through her ups and downs in her life, and we were on the edge of our seats when it was released. Stripped and uncensored, she commands attention and we love her for it. After Lemonade, I feel like Beyoncé fully tapped into who she is and doesn’t plan on leaving any stones unturned.
Rihanna — ANTI (2016)
Najma: Lemonade was definitely Beyoncé tapping into who she is despite our projections onto the project — and the same thing could be said about ANTI. Between those three projects, I feel like ANTI is the least political, but we can all agree that it’s a classic. Rihanna is the epitome of cool and the embodiment of carefree Black girl, and with ANTI she gave us the project that we didn’t know we needed. What resonated with both of you about ANTI?
Wanna: Without Rihanna, music in the last decade would’ve sounded different. Rihanna’s extensive discography is made up of hundreds of songs that explore various facets of the entertainer’s musical DNA, in which no genre goes untouched. ANTI, her eighth album, deviates from her previous album frameworks. Rihanna thrives when she takes chances on herself and this album proves why it’s her best with every listen. Sonically, it will inspire the approach many women in R&B will take in years to come. The way in which the SZA-featuring “Consideration” transitions into “James Joint” followed by “Kiss It Better,” sets up the listener for a rollercoaster of moods and textures.
Clarissa: I think ANTI is the full embodiment of the new age R&B that Rihanna has mastered. ANTI is most definitely Rihanna’s magnum opus in the sense that this album gave us the sonics for a longing and emotional strain that wasn’t political but still rooted in a call for healing. Even thinking about songs like “Needed Me” and “Never Ending” that are just cries for love and affection. I think the genius of Rihanna is that her music and politics have always been self-indulgent in a way that we haven’t seen before. There is no man pulling the strings, and no brand that Rihanna hasn’t created herself. ANTI was truly the first album that propelled us into the empire that she’s built.
Janelle Monáe — The ArchAndroid (2010)
Najma: The ArchAndroid is a thesis on Black feminism and Afrofuturism. This saga began in 2003’s The Audition and continued in 2007’s Metropolis: The Chase Suite. Janelle Monáe continues to write the history of the future by creating mythology consisting of alien identities in an alien future. Similar to Afrofuturists before her, Monáe blends current social realities and historic temporalities to project Black people into the future. In The ArchAndroid, the world Monáe was creating becomes clearer. The dissonance between maintaining your sanity and fighting depravity is dizzying, but she addresses us directly in “Cold War,” her declaration “You better know what you’re fighting for” articulating that her androids are not alone. Together we can do more than imagine a future for ourselves — we can build one.
Noname — Telefone (2016)
Clarissa: The release of Noname’s debut mixtape, Telefone, dropped at the top of one of the hardest years of the BLM movement. The year following was met with the death of countless Black people at the hands of police, and this mixtape became the solemn soundtrack to a year that I try to forget. Noname’s ability to name and create worlds in her music is a rarity. This mixtape, which is crafted better than most debut albums, gives light to an artist aware of the ways of the world, and unafraid to ask the questions we don’t say out loud. Songs such as “Diddy Bop” and “Casket Pretty,” featuring some of the best rapping of the decade, are the prodigal tracks that embody Noname’s melodic, sharp and clear stylistic sound that we see reverberating through the industry now.
SZA — Ctrl (2017)
Clarissa: In the summer of 2017, I was struggling — and so was SZA. SZA’s 2017 debut, Ctrl, was a look at how R&B was moving in the last part of this decade — where women artists are no longer interested in a characterization that was simply about love and loss. SZA’s songwriting and visual clarity led the charge for a new type of feminine resilience that no longer allowed men to be the center point. “20 Something” and “Normal Girl” are the tracks that will be the bread and butter of SZA’s legacy — of a woman figuring things out in front of a world that is always telling us to sit down.
Rico Nasty — Nasty (2018)
Clarissa: An ex sent me a link to “iCarly” by Rico Nasty in 2016, hoping I would laugh with him about how the song wasn’t “hip-hop.” Thankfully, I don’t date morons anymore and, most importantly, I became a Rico Nasty stan ever since. From “Smack A Bitch” to “Poppin,” Rico has, and continues, to solidify the need for Black women who rage in ways we’ve been taught to ignore. Nasty, Rico’s debut album, Nasty, is a celebration of Black women’s rage. Songs like “Rage” and “Trust Issues” showcase Rico’s mastery of punk rock and grunge sounds, while tracks like “Life Back” and “Hockey” highlight her storytelling abilities.
Jhené Aiko — Sail Out (2013)
Wanna: Jhené Aiko, the artist who wholly encapsulates the description of a “quiet storm” has wooed audiences since her arrival on the music scene with 2011’s Sailing Soul(s). However, it was Sail Out that solidified Jhené’s place in the music industry, and we’ve come to see her influence play out years after its debut. Delivered during a time where R&B shifted from powerhouse ballads to more alternative sounds, Jhené’s project is a soothing escape riddled with worthwhile features from notable artists, including Vince Staples, Childish Gambino, and Kendrick Lamar, the latter of which spits one of his best verses on “Stay Ready (What A Life).”
Nicki Minaj — Pinkprint (2014)
Wanna: Nicki Minaj has been at the epicenter of female rap for nearly a decade. The sharp, trendsetting MC has broken several musical records, and is equally known for her trailblazing beauty and hair looks which single-handedly influenced a generation of artists that follow her lead. Pink Friday (2010) and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (2012) both set Minaj apart with career-defining singles including “Moment 4 Life” and “Super Bass.” But Pinkprint was the perfect culmination of Minaj’s artistic range. Featuring a rare guest appearance from Beyoncé on “Feeling Myself” and delivering a stacked tracklist that dives into every facet of her artistic lens, the rapper was in a league of her own.
Azealia Banks — Broke With Expensive Taste (2014)
Najma: On Broke With Expensive Taste, Azealia Banks is metamorphic. She shapeshifts between genres, she raps and sings in both English and Spanish, her wordplay just as exacting as it is intricate. Name one artist that did this with the same gusto and charisma despite an unsavory public image? The public can’t seem to decide if Ms. Banks was anointed or summoned, but I’d like to ask: why not both?
Najma Sharif is a writer living in NY.
Clarissa Brooks, is a writer, cultural critic and community organizer based in Atlanta,GA. She is trying her best and writing about it along the way.
At the moment, Wanna Thompson is a Freelance Writer navigating U.S and Canadian media. In the past year, Thompson has written about music and popular culture for The FADER, PAPER Mag and several other publications.