For a second year we’ve been suspended in the air, our lives upended by a global pandemic. Eight hundred thousand Americans are dead from the coronavirus and yet somehow people are still coming to blows inside supermarkets over wearing masks. This was supposed to be the year where we went back outside. Back to the office. Back to our lives. Back to normal after the great lost year that was 2020. I spent much of the year stuck juggling my grief and rage over the state of the world with my desperation to find some semblance of joy amid all this upheaval. I found it in all of the things I realized I had taken for granted in the Before Times; and so I went back to my hometown and did all of the things I was always too busy to get to over the years, and I went to concerts and music festivals and enjoyed nights out with friends without thinking much about that thing that changed everything. I did all of the things, and yet I still spent much of the year in the deepest depression I've ever been in. Much of the music that resonated most with me this year tried to make sense of these bleak times by confronting the chaos and grief of the world—or at least offered enough blissful escapism to make the days and nights inside the house feel less grim.
Jazmine Sullivan’s superpower outside of that otherworldly, Church-raised voice is her ability to create unflinchingly transparent records centering the experiences of everyday Black women.
Sullivan explores the push and pull of romance and the aspirations of young Black women in America the way a literary would, by building her lyrics around a myriad of characters that she inhibits. Like all the great soul singers before her, Sullivan sings with the wholeness of herself. She's got the kind of voice that can bend and shift to whatever style she wants to put down. It works when she floats through the characters that live in her music. She can snarl, she can flutter, she can scream and she can blow the house down if needed. Her voice draws us in, but it's her ability to connect and make us all feel like she's our homegirl that gives Sullivan's tunes their deep relatability. She speaks to and for a generation of women by making music that humanizes so many Black women. Sullivan creates vivid portraits about women that could be our sisters, girlfriends, aunties or homegirls through provocative and bracing soul records.
With Heaux Tales, Sullivan’s fourth project and first in six years, she leans on the women around her for source material. Inspired to create a conceptual project based on the lessons she’s learned from the tribe of women in her life, she recorded loose and lively conversations with her good girlfriends and older relatives. She approached the project like a stage play, using the stories from a chorus of women as characters that she fleshed out through song. Taken together Heaux Tales plays like a group chat between girlfriends turning from tea spilling to therapy over the course of a night. The records here are deeply vulnerable, and at times heart wrenching, confessions on lust, insecurities, betrayal, regret, and the desire for love and security.
A sobering, intimate mediation on Black female desire in the 21st century, Heaux Tales is an invitation to a night of girl talk where the wine—and hard truths—flow endlessly and a reminder why Sullivan is one of the greatest soul singers of her time.
Summer Walker is as straightforward a singer as they come. Her cynical approach to rap-influenced R&B is reminiscent of what made us fall for Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans back in the day. But Summer is a child of the digital age, bordering between a Millennial and Gen Z—generations that came of age while (over)sharing their lives on the Internet. On Still Over It, the exceptional follow-up to her equally beguiling 2019 debut Over It, Walker offers more blunt dispatches on love and heartbreak. Since her shyness pushes her to eschew traditional interviews, the album was largely seen as a direct response to the turmoil of her personal life and the dissolution of her relationship with London on da Track, the father of her child and the producer behind her debut and a chunk of this album (though she debates the merits of that on the scornful diss track “4th Baby Mama.”) Still Over It is both a breakup album full of cathartic missives and an unforgiving look at the toxicity in relationships that often fuels our weaker moments. The records here are vindictive and witty and packed with enough melodrama that you’ll be ready to set your ex’s whip ablaze by the end of it.
Tyler, the Creator’s transition from bratty provocateur to thoughtful confessionalist has been one of the more surprising journeys in contemporary hip-hop. Tyler has always been a bit of an enigma, which has made his music so thrilling. His last album, Igor was essentially a funky soap opera about a boy who loves a boy who loves a girl. But where Igor was heavy on synths and rich neo soul, Call Me If You Get Lost is a classic rap record through and through. The beats are dense. The rhymes are raw and confessional. There’s even DJ Drama narrating the action in the vein of his iconic Gangsta Grillz mixtape series. But beyond the glorious rap nostalgia that made Call Me If You Get Lost the perfect soundtrack to a summer full of cautious pandemic partying is an album celebrating the personal growth of one of hip-hop’s most forward thinking, enigmatic talents by giving him a chance to work through old insecurities and new anxieties while elevating his craft and showing his ambitions as a rap disruptor.
On And Then Life Was Beautiful Nao reckons with the emotional toll of the pandemic and a world fractured by chaos and grief. She sings candidly about the impact of a life interrupted and meditates on the clearness that came from having so much time inside to sit in her feelings. The music might have erupted from a period of melancholy and much brooding, but Nao opts for euphoria over intensity. She unpacks the boredom and dread that filled those lonely days in our respective time loops over dreamy arrangements and even her dispatches on the pleasures and pains of romance rarely deviate from a state of pure bliss.
Halfway through poet-turned-singer-songwriter Mustafa Ahmed’s gorgeous debut is “The Hearse,” a surprisingly tender rumination on revenge that crossed his mind after covering the body of a friend during the Muslim ritual of ghusl. “I didn't wanna risk it all, oh, I know what's at stake,” he sings, “But you made yourself special / I wanna throw my life away for you.” There’s a sense of rage underneath Ahmed’s delicate croons but it’s his way of articulating the profound grief and turbulence that comes with losing too many friends to violence and from watching your community slowly evaporate under gentrification. Ahmed, who used to be known as Mustafa the Poet, channeled that emotional anguish into a searing collection of understated tunes that live somewhere between soft folk and lo-fi rap-soul that was perfect companion to the devastation of a year where we lost so many of our Black men. At a time when we are faced with our mortality nearly every time we see the news, When Smoke Rises was a necessary balm for those moments when it was tougher to muster up the grace required for our survival.
Though Tinashe is a master of creating trippy dance records and shapeshifting R&B primed for getting lost on the dance floor, the heady ecstasy of 333 was often a slick front for serious introspection that felt like the singer's at. Packed with bright, intricate records that shift moods and genres at her whim—with tracks sometimes morphing two of three times before their runtime is over—333 is packed with musings on identity, personal desires, growth, inner peace, liberation and finding joy despite much turmoil.
JoJo exploring the ways in which the pandemic manifested her heaviest depression resulted in an assortment of Sad Girl Anthems ™ that held me closest when thoughts of despair or the daily malaise of pandemic living felt too much. Trying Not To Think About It asks all of the painful questions that have come up for many of us during this time of profound anguish, solitude and doubt—a time when we’ve not only been faced with our own impermanence but forced to navigate new ways of living and working and playing and loving; and a time where we’ve had to constantly adapt and figure out how to just be on any given day. JoJo opting to sit in those moments of darkness and work through the grief, guilt, shame and anxiety that crippled her made for one of the more comforting listens of the year.
There was a good chance that Lil Nas X might have gone down as a one-trick pony. It’s the pitfalls of becoming a superstar with a viral, irreverent tune that succeeded almost solely on the strength of its novelty factor and the rapper’s uncanny ability to speak directly to Gen Z Internet culture. It’s a good thing that Montero, Lil Nas X’s debut album, is full of undeniable bops that made good on the hype surrounding him. For those of us who grew up hoping and praying to one day see a Black gay rapper shoot to stratospheric heights, watching Lil Nas X take on the world—and piss off homophobes—has been the most delicious treat of a hellish year.
Dawn Richard is perhaps the most inventive and visionary voice to come from Puff Daddy’s tutelage. She’s spent much of her career getting the music industry to see her for the genre defying chameleon she is. “I don’t need a genre / Fuck it / I am the genre,” she declares on the opening track to her exhilarating sixth album Second Line, which distills house, soul, New Orleans bounce and electropop through an Afrofuturistic lens to explore her journey as an industry survivor. An artist with boundless ambition and tastes, Richard crafted a richly complex celebration of her beloved New Orleans that’s both a muscular piece of Big Easy musicology and a triumphant realization of her visionary singularity.
Simply put, no one is making grandiose, euphoric pop music like Doja Cat and the universe of coolly assured bangers orbiting her third album transports you to a world free of darkness. It’s escapism at its finest.
Silk Sonic, An Evening With Silk Sonic
H.E.R., Back of My Mind
Charlotte Day Wilson, Alpha
Kanye West, Donda
Snoh Aalegra, Temporary Highs In The Violet Skies
Willow, Lately I Feel Everything
Terrace Martin, DRONES
Justine Skye, Space + Time
Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever
Sevyn, Drunken Wordz Sober Thoughtz
Lucky Daye, Table For Two
Joyce Wrice, Chandler
Alicia Keys, Keys
Cleo Sol, Mother