The upcoming Labor Day weekend marks the first in-person West Indian Day parade in three years, and longtime residents of Little Caribbean in Flatbush and neighboring Crown Heights find themselves facing a drastically different Brooklyn than the one they have come to call home.
Rapid gentrification has shifted the natural rhythm of a bustling working-class community in Flatbush and its slow buildup into parade season. The parade is an export of Caribbean carnival culture that has been preserved by their multigenerational immigrant communities since the early 1900s, and ultimately integrated into an indelible part of Brooklyn’s Black infrastructure. What was once a universally anticipated culmination of a magical Brooklyn summer in the community is now the source of ongoing anxiety. Noise complaints have been on the rise in the last decade and violent incidents on Labor Day tend to lead stories about the weekend’s events, which residents say stigmatizes the long-standing celebrations and dampens excitement around one of the biggest parades in the city.
Given where she’s been lately, it should come as no surprise that Megan Thee Stallion has chosen to dispense with pleasantries on her new album. The ferocity of Traumazine begins with its cover, which shows her visage in an emotive triplicate reminiscent of Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound of Greek mythology. In Dante’s Inferno, Cerberus resides in the Third Circle of Hell with the gluttons, where he “rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.” As an executioner, Megan is more precise. On the Rico Nasty collaboration “Scary,” she renders both her lyrical and physical form as a foreboding omen for her detractors: “Say my name like Candyman, and bitch, you know I’m there / These hoes wish they saw me when they lookin’ in the mirror.”
Megan is also used to being the life of every party. Her bawdy, unabashed 5’10” presence quickly won her devoted followers, and as her star rose she engaged in rowdy revelry with these loyal supporters at famed roving spaces called “Hottie Parties.” She was so eager to please that base — the fans who helped elevate the carnal slow-burn “Big Ole Freak,” from her 2018 EP Tina Snow, into her first bona fide hit — that she continued to perform as the good-time gal they had come to love even as she entered what would be the most traumatizing years of her life. Where her debut studio album, 2020’s Good News, clanged against the public awareness of that turmoil, Traumazine leans into it: making space for ruminations and grief, managing the swirling emotions produced by years of acrimony and cathartically letting them rise to the surface. In reaching for a more confessional mode, she reaffirms her commitment to talking her talk.
To call Beyoncé’s latest album, Renaissance, just a “dance record” would be akin to calling Celine Dion a fairly popular singer.Across 16 tracks, Beyoncé not only pays homage to a soundscape borne from Chicago’s and Detroit’s queer communities (and her Uncle Jonny who introduced her to that world), she also incorporates references from a bevy of Black musical subgenres and subcultures, showcasing one of her most underrated musical skills: archiving and curation.
Take the opening track, “I’m That Girl,” for example. Beyoncé opens the song with the same type of stacked harmonies she perfected during her Destiny’s Child era, employing the airy vocal register she first used in 2013’s “Mine.” Toward the end of the song, a looped lyric from Princess Loko (“B— please, motherf—ers ain’t stopping me“) is set atop a sample of Tommy Wright III’s “Still Pimpin.” Wright’s slow bassline is then layered with a mild house beat that follows a dembow riddim used in reggaeton music, courtesy of Dominican producer Kelman Duran. “You know, all these songs sound good, ’cause I’m on that, ho,” Beyoncé boasts during the opener, later singing about knocking Basquiats off the wall.
A lot has changed since Beyonce’s last project, The Lion King: The Gift dropped in the summer of 2019. House music has been in a resurgence of its own recently. The popularity of DJs such as Kaytranada, the proliferation of Philadelphia and New Jersey club artists on TikTok, and the rise of South African amapiano’s popularity in the United States were a harbinger for the current explosion. We’ve been in a pandemic for over two years, anxious for the day that COVID-19 will finally be over and allow us to experience music the way artists intended. Renaissance speaks to those who are striving for that moment. It captures our desires, transforming them into an album that’s a heady and densely layered mix of house music and club beats intermingled with au courant trends and homages to Black queer creativity. The album is also a reminder of the power and release that can be found among like-minded people in the brief escape of a booming sound system and a dance floor.
The narrative of Afrobeats has often been at the mercy of its most preeminent target audience: the perceived holy grail of crossing over to the United States mainstream music market, its corresponding consumers, and labels who can offer global infrastructure support. It’s an extractive dynamic between a global power that seeks to be the fulcrum of pop culture, and international artists who feel that their best chance at success lies in seeking Western approval. In service of this pipeline to the American music industry’s colonial plantation model, many stories have gotten smudged, erased, or reduced to urban legend.
In Netflix’s new acquisition, Afrobeats: the Backstory — directed by filmmaker, manager, and lawyer Ayo Shonaiya — the legacy of the booming music industry on the African continent gets a lengthy and industrious reframing through the lens of its pioneers and change agents, who contextualize the recent explosion of Afrobeats as less of a phenomenon and marketing push and more of a decades-long labor of love. The series curates an extensive archive of legends past and present, as well as the harbingers of Afrobeats’ evolution to chart out the intercontinental journey of West African popular music from the turn of the century to present-day. This provides time to clarify commonly held misconceptions and introduce nuanced sonic relationships that have been established, both consciously and subconsciously, throughout the diaspora as West Africa has risen to the forefront of the global market.
Love, Damini opens with the vocal harmonies of the reverent South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, gently murmuring, “This is my story.” Burna Boy certainly has a phenomenal tale to share: The Nigerian artist’s rise has been meteoric in the three years since releasing the sonic triumph that was his fourth studio album, African Giant, in July 2019. The prince of Port Harcourt followed the album’s critical acclaim with multiple BET awards and a World Music Grammy for his subsequent record, Twice As Tall, which was boosted by a (hotly-debated) executive production assist from P. Diddy. The titanic collaborations continued: A feature on South African artist Master KG’s “Jerusalema” with a stunning verse in Zulu took over the summer of 2020, and the self-declared father of Afro-fusion was the only artist to have a solo track on Beyonce’s The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack album. His guest spots were elevated by a seemingly endless string of shows and a world tour, including an unprecedented and transcendent night of magic at Madison Square Garden as the mecca’s first Nigerian headliner.
Burna Boy promised that his sixth album — titled after his birth name, Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu, and arriving on the heels of his 31st birthday — would be his most personal. It would presumably be a reflection on Burna’s momentous journey, replete with all the musical flourishes that have earned him his global reach and fanbase. True to his word, the record does have a more intimate touch, butit falls short of the cohesion one would expect from an artist at such a transformative point in their career; poor sequencing, shoddy skits, and unambitious choices belabor Love, Damini’s 19-track runtime.
In 2018, it was nearly impossible to escape the infectious, syrupy-sweet sentimentality of Ella Mai’s Grammy-winning hit, “Boo’d Up,” from her eponymous debut album. The brainchild of songwriter Joelle James – while a bit of a slow burn from its initial release in February 2017 – was a serendipitous harmony of the nostalgic ‘90s R&B piano melodies, lyrical romantic overtures to unrequited crushes, and a chorus charmingly composed almost entirely of enchanting scatting, almost as if to resemble the stutter-step of a heartbeat caught in one’s throat. The earnestness behind the lyricism and vocals quickly took hold across demographics and gender, the likes of which had last been comparably seen with Fantasia Barrino’s 2007 hit “When I See U” – gaining approval from everyone from Quavo and Chris Brown to Nicki Minaj, who hopped on a remix.
It comes as little surprise, then, that Mai’s sophomore offering, Heart on My Sleeve, is a return to the intergenerational formula of love songs that landed her a double-platinum debut album and a prime spot on Ariana Grande’s world tour. While many of her contemporaries have been parsing apart toxic dynamics, both past and present, in their lyrics, the 27-year-old Brit has chosen to continue to forego that lane, diving headfirst into amorous waters with a sustained brightness and sanguine energy; it seems almost anachronous to the sustained malaise that has seemed to take hold over the general stratosphere since mid-2020. Just in time for the transition from spring to summer, the crooner aims to capture the kinetic crackle of young lovers on a beachside stroll on the boardwalk, caressing one another on a Ferris-wheel ride with only the aroma of funnel cakes and backlighting of carnival rides and late-night fireworks illuminating their intimate embrace — the storyboard of endless videos and romantic comedies, from Grease, to Ashanti and Ja Rule’s “Mesmerize” and Beyonce’s “XO,” to The Notebook and Insecure.
In the most literal sense, the moniker blue water road refers to a stretch of pavement in Malibu where Kehlani worked alongside their team to record their new studio album. Water itself, however, is a transformative source of renewal, cleansing, and turmoil, all interwoven amongst each other in a healing practice – as Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti said in 1975, “water no get enemy.” If there is anyone who is aware of this immutable truth it is Kehlani Parrish, who has been fighting the tide of public scrutiny over two studio albums and three mixtapes; in their latest offering, the 27-year-old Oakland native aims to not only ride the wave but find liberation, restoration, and rebirth, musically and corporeally.
Three decades before anyone had ever heard of a Cactus Jack or an Astroworld, everyone wanted to Be Like Mike, and the endorsements for basketball supernova Michael Jordan came swift and heavy. The six-time NBA champion became one of the most marketed sports figures in history — starring in nearly 100 commercials by 2003 — with product deals ranging from his eponymous Air Jordan at Nike to Gatorade.
Jordan’s business choices had long been a massive cultural presence, but his 1990 partnership with McDonald’s brought in a new vanguard during a time when basketball and Black culture were becoming increasingly intertwined. En route to his first NBA championship, Jordan had established a reputation for dining at the eatery every morning for breakfast, and so the chain fashioned a burger named the McJordan after him, the first custom-issue branded meal of its kind: a Quarter Pounder with cheese, smoked bacon, and barbecue sauce. Initially, the sandwich was intended to be a monthlong limited release in select Chicago franchises, appealing to hometown Bulls fans. The overwhelmingly positive response, however, prompted an extension of the offering, branching out to Jordan’s home state and college stomping grounds of North Carolina and a few other states; the promotion ultimately ran from March 1991 to 1993.
As we moved deeper into the ’90s, the dominant cultural cache arguably turned away from sports stars and more toward musicians, particularly those connected tohip-hop and R&B. After the success of cultural curators such as Fab 5 Freddy in connecting uptown hip-hop and graffiti culture with the downtown club kids and tastemakers, and the capitalist triumph of Run-DMC’s Adidas endorsement in the ’80s helping to launch the group into the mainstream, it quickly became clear that the hip-hop industry was a ripe demographic for marketing and collaboration. Music executive Steve Stoute affirmed this trajectory in his book The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. “If really smart corporate executives had wanted to save money on all that market research about what the next new thing was going to be,” Stoute wrote, “they would only have had to turn to the hip-hop community — who were doing the research anyway, selecting trends that looked promising, creating overnight word-of-mouth promotion, and even adding their own product development ideas.”
Ever since Syd arrived on the Southern California scene with the avant-garde “Flashlight” at just 16 years old, it’s been clear that the multi-hyphenate artist has a unique capability to sink her teeth into the tender flesh of intimacy and capture lightning-in-a-bottle moments through her music. Her lyricism is both erotic and emotional, a sublime counterpunch to the understated, sapphic sensuality of her production — the combination has shaped a contemporary remix of the Quiet Storm era of R&B. With the 29-year-old artist’s latest album, however, she planned to introduce the world to something new, something deeper: a journey of her love in song.
It’s impossible to discuss the last 25 years of Black popular music criticism without invoking the name Danyel Smith—the first woman to serve as Vibe magazine’s editor in chief. Between her career as a writer, helping capture and document the musical soundscapes that reflect different facets of Black life, to her personal journey, anchored by the ebbs and flows of Black popular culture—Smith’s frame of reference is deeply informed by an innate understanding of the transformative power of music history and its integral role in the definition of cultural identity and belonging. Now, with Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop, Smith expertly places herself in the canon of Black writers and de facto archivists such as Greg Tate, Cheryl Wall, and Saidiya Hartman. It’s part history, part memoir, and along the way, it also reclaims Black women’s rightful place in pop music.
Shamira Ibrahim: One thing I’ve always liked about your writing is the way you make these intricate connections. You start with connecting “Queen of Disco” Donna Summer to the 18th-century poet Phyllis Wheatley. How have you honed the ability to draw these connections for people who may not immediately see the through-lines that go from antebellum slavery through generations of pop music?
Danyel Smith: I appreciate the close attention to the text—that always matters to me very much. At this point in my career, it’s just the way I think, and frankly, I decided to stop fighting it. I have training as a journalist – years of on-the-job training, some training from school, some me training myself, and a lot of that has to do with getting things right. Getting the dates right, getting the moments right, getting the details right. For me, a big part of my work is resisting summary; I feel like so often, Black women’s lives are written about in summary. It is a privilege to have the time, honestly, to just actually think.
I really do adore and admire and often engage with Phyllis Wheatley and her work; the same for Donna Summer. I don’t know that I thought about them both being Boston girls until I was getting close to maybe the midpoint of this book. You’re just writing Boston a million times, and you’re checking your spelling of Massachusetts a million times, and something shakes out; you hear the Boston inflection again in Donna Summers’ voice. It came to me because I had time to think and then had the confidence to stop fighting that negative voice in my head that says, “does that really matter?”