Fast Food Is Using Your Favorite Rapper to Infiltrate Your Mind and Wallet

Originally published for Eater  on May 3 2022.


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 to hip-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.”

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SYD IS OUR PANDEMIC TROUBADOUR

Originally published for Mic on April 15, 2022.


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.

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The Real Story of Black Women in Pop

Originally published for The Meteor Newsletter on April 16, 2022


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 TateCheryl 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 (PHOTO BY DREW ALLYN)

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?”

Is Billboard’s Afrobeats Chart Good for Afrobeats?

Originally published for Vulture on March 30, 2022.


When Angelique Kidjo accepted her 2016 Grammy for Best Global Music Album, she forecasted a future well beyond her own accomplishments. “I want to dedicate this Grammy to all the traditional musicians in Africa in my country, to all the younger generations that knew our music,” the Beninese artist said. “Africa is on the rise.”

It was a bold premonition, and one without much precedent in the United States. For a long time, the Grammys and American music industry at large relegated artists like Kidjo to the nebulous genre of “world music,” which, alongside Latin pop and reggae, remained one of several niches that were stratified not by any technical criteria, but by a vaguely colonial pan-ethnic taxonomy. It’s why salsero Marc Anthony, rocker Juanes, and música urbana artist Bad Bunny could receive the same award, despite having disparate musical skill sets, or why Best Reggae Album frequently featured dancehall artists; adherence to indigeneity is not the standard. Continue reading

Whitney Houston’s Life in Pictures

Originally published in Harper’s Bazaar on February 11th, 2022.


Ten years have passed since Whitney Houston last graced us with her presence on this earth, a globally beloved icon whose gift wasn’t just a testament to the beauty and power of the human voice, but also the resilience of the human spirit. As the best-selling female R&B artist of the 20th century and one of the best-selling singles artists in history, she has acquired numerous accolades over the course of her career: more than 200 million records and singles sold worldwide, multiple blockbuster films and soundtracks, eight Grammy awards. But most critically, to engage with Whitney’s work, both musically and culturally, is to engage in the work of the divine.It is the faith that informs her vocal style and Black American cultural legacy; that same faith would help her persevere through trials and tribulations when many had become more invested in wading through sordid details of her personal life than embracing her humanity.

There was an effortless purity in Whitney’s power; her crescendoing key changes washed over you like a tidal wave while she commanded the stage with her modelesque grace. Her charm and talent were dynamic and irresistible, rendering even the harshest critics helpless, aiding in crafting her as both the darling of pop, as well as the Black American community. She was a woman who—to paraphrase the words of the Houston family pastor—consistently fought to find a bright light in a dark place, wherever that may be.

In the decade since her passing, much may have changed about popular music, but the impact Whitney has left on her ability to bring life to the universal accessibility of the range of human emotions to the pop ballad remains. On this anniversary, let us take a look at some of the more pivotal moments of her life, through the lens of the following select photos.

The Many Lives of Janet Jackson

Originally published for Vulture on Feb 1, 2022


Janet Jackson’s signature timbre is delicate but firm; it has been her calling card since her youthful days performing alongside her brother Randy at the MGM Grand in Vegas. Even then her petulant demeanor, performed for laughs, communicated a childlike grace with mature clarity: “That’s right, I’m Janet Jackson, and nothing goes until say go.” Just 7 years old, she had no idea of her prescience: Traces of Janet Jackson’s musical DNA would eventually be in everyone from Britney Spears to Bruno Mars to BTS. These are far from novel assessments: Over the years, a number of projects have attempted palliative approaches to rectify the rocky narrative that trailed Jackson after her infamous Super Bowl halftime show — including the rare at-length interview — with the New York Times recently producing a special embracing the pop icon’s transcendent, multigenerational impact that was upended by one of the few forces beyond her control. Now, at long last, Damita Jo has given the definitive account of her life and career to add to her oeuvre — and not a moment too soon, as we’ve lost Black legends in rapid succession of late. Aretha Franklin, who was notoriously very hawkish over her memory and legacy as a walking archive of the Black sonic canon, transitioned before she could see her vision realized onscreen, relegating the arbitrage of authenticity over Jennifer Hudson’s and Cynthia Erivo’s portrayals to a mélange of family, friends, and fans, as opposed to engaging with the art itself.

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The Wild Wonders of Biz Markie

Originally published in Vulture on July 23, 2021.

Around the turn of the century, ViacomCBS property VH1 pivoted to its “Music First” era, punctuated by its original programs like The Greatest, a compilation show that purported to count down influential cultural and musical moments — from the “100 Greatest Love Songs” to the “40 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of the ’90s” — from a position of expertise and authority. One episode that aired in 2002, “100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders,” featured ubiquitous flash-in-the-pan classics like Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” (which topped the list) and Deee-Lite’s dance hit “Groove Is in the Heart.” Rounding out the list at No. 81 stood “Just a Friend,” the smash hit from Marcel Theo Hall out of Long Island, better known as the late New York legend Biz Markie. Known for its intentionally scratchy and warbly refrain — a fortuitous result of requested singers failing to show up to the recording session — and simple yet distinct C-major melody, the track, alongside the debut of his album The Biz Never Sleepswent gold in 24 hours.

Much of what informed the popularity of the single was endemic to both the time in which it was released and the persona of Markie himself. The lyrics, depicting a lamentable tale of thwarted affections, are delivered in a deliberate, narrative style that leaves the listener both bemused and curious about the veracity of the sequence of events (Markie, for the record, has always claimed his lyrics to be renditions of real stories: “I didn’t know how to write no other way,” he said). The corresponding video serves as a capsule in time to a specific era in Black American urban history: Markie is resplendent with rope chains and Cuban links, donning a Georgetown sweater that hearkens back to a time when the university’s basketball team felt indelible to the Black cultural fabric of the 1980s, generating stars like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and later Allen Iverson. For nearly half of the video, Markie engages in jocular theatrics, switching into a powdered wig and embodying a character that is equal parts Mozart and James Brown. These dismembered pieces — self-deprecating lyricism, dynamic percussion, and whimsical, referential presentation — boiled together to help establish Markie’s unofficial status as the self-declared Clown Prince of Hip-Hop.

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With All Due Respect, Miss Jennifer Hudson

Originally published in digital and print for InStyle’s August 2021 Issue.

During the third season of American Idol auditions, a young Jennifer Hudson strolls in sporting a black sleeveless dress and a sunny smile. The Chicago native, then 23 years old, announces that she will be singing “Share Your Love with Me,” popularized by Aretha Franklin, to slight skepticism from judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell. (“We’re going to expect something better than a cruise-ship performance, right?” Jackson inquires after it is revealed that Hudson just wrapped up a job on a Disney cruise line.) Not one minute later, the trio are visibly stunned by her moving rendition, which blew the roof off the building. Jackson even goes so far as to declare that she is “absolutely brilliant, the best singer I’ve heard so far,” and they unanimously decide to send her to the next round. The rest, as they say, is history.

The world may have been introduced to Jennifer Hudson through her homage to Aretha Franklin, but not even in her wildest dreams did she expect to be in the presence of the Queen of Soul herself nearly three years later, in 2007, with Franklin requesting that she portray her in Respect, a biopic about her life. But Hudson is no stranger to turning fantasies into reality — during our conversation, her Pomeranian, aptly named Dreamgirl, starts yapping. “Her father was Oscar, and her mother was Grammy. Then they had a puppy, and I named it Dreamgirl,” she explains. “I got the dog Oscar before I won my Oscar for Dreamgirls. And then I said, ‘Oscar needs a wife. So how about I get a dog and name it Grammy, and maybe I’ll win a Grammy.’ And then I got the dog Grammy, and I won the Grammy.”

Jennifer Hudson
CREDIT: CHRISEAN ROSE
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Angélique Kidjo Is Tapping the Next Generation to Speak Truth to Power

Originally published for Rolling Stone on May 21, 2021

One day in 1992, Angélique Kidjo walked into a magazine editor’s office and found herself being introduced over the phone to one of her all-time favorite artists.

“Someone said, ‘Mrs. Kidjo, Mr. Brown wants to talk to you,’” she recalls. In stunned disbelief, she replied, “Yeah, and I’m Mother Teresa.” But it really was James Brown, the Godfather of Soul himself, asking to talk to her.

“I almost dropped the phone,” she continues. “He was speaking, and I couldn’t understand, so I started singing. He picked up the song and I would do the bassline, I would do the guitar, I would do the drums — just like, crazy stuff.”

It’s just one of a sea of stories of Kidjo meeting and collaborating with all-time greats across generations. Over the course of her three-decade long career, Kidjo, 60, has dipped into the vast well of legendary artists and performers across the black diaspora — taking inspiration from South African artist and activist Miriam Makeba, Cuban salsa icon Celia Cruz, Aretha Franklin, and many more. She has collaborated with many of the African continent’s greatest legends, from the bluesy stylings of Boubacar Traoré to Manu Dibango’s Cameroonian jazz saxophone lyricism.

After a storied career of paying her respects through endless innovation within black sonic canons, she has the distinct honor of being exalted on the level of the artists she adores, with young artists throughout the international black community often referring to her as “Ma” or grande soeur. Now, she is paying that respect forward wherever possible — including rounding out her latest album, Mother Nature, with collaborative features from emerging young artistic voices in the African continent and its diaspora, ranging from Nigerian star Burna Boy to Atlanta hip-hop duo Earthgang .

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The Irreplaceable Black Rob, Bad Boy’s First Street Story

Originally published for Vulture on April 19th, 2021.

“I work hard for everything I own, and I deserve this / The hardest thing right about now is staying alive, who’d’ve thought Diddy would part ways with Clive?” 

Black Rob, “Live From the Eastside” (unreleased)

When people think of the dawn of the Bad Boy era in hip-hop in the early to mid-’90s, the focal point is often centered on the Notorious B.I.G. — his meteoric rise and tragic end. Less commonly recognized is the fact that Black Rob, né Robert Ross of Spanish Harlem, was one of the earliest signees to Bad Boy Records — joining the camp, founded by Uptown Records alum and mogul-in-training Sean “Puffy” Combs, soon after Craig Mack’s arrival in 1994 — and helped lay the groundwork for some of the quintessential moments in the label’s legacy for years before his platinum-selling debut album, Life Story, was finally released for public consumption in 2000, resulting in his biggest hit, “Whoa!” A street soldier who might have looked out of place in the Shiny Suit Era of Bad Boy’s glossy music videos but stood strong among some of the era’s greatest artists from Biggie to Mase, Black Rob charted his own critically acclaimed path in a dominant space up until his death at 51 on Saturday, April 17.

Originally under the moniker Bacardi Rob, it was Rob’s ear to the bellicose rhythms that pervaded Harlem’s streets that brought the fellow raucous rapper from the Johnson Houses, G. Dep, into the Bad Boy Entertainment fold in 1998. The two collaborated repeatedly throughout their tenure on the label, most notably on the classic single and video “Let’s Get It.” But even prior to getting G. Dep signed, Rob was essential to establishing the label’s presence. It was mutual friend R.P. who connected Bacardi Rob with Combs, whom he impressed with his skill set; Rob allowed Combs to rename him Black Rob for the stage. He also gained the favor of longtime Bad Boy executive and current president, Harve Pierre, who would ultimately prove critical to Rob’s career trajectory at the label. He’d go on to give a scene-stealing performance on Mase’s 1997 debut, Harlem World, with “24 Hrs. to Live,” alongside DMX; his “I Dare You” collaboration with Pierre, then performing under the stage name Joe Hooker, made the soundtrack to the 1998 film Slam; his rapport with the LOX — Bad Boy’s rap trio of Jadakiss, Styles P, and Sheek Louch — on the 2000 album cut “Can I Live” showcased his ability to hold court with some of the New York area’s biggest heavyweights. Rob was prominently featured on the iconic cover of Puff’s 1997 debut album, No Way Out, with a standout track of his own, “I Love You Baby,” and had features on tracks with Bad Boy’s stable of R&B artists, from 112 to Total. Biggie anointed him on 1998’s “Victory”: “Black Rob joined the mob, it ain’t no replacin’ him.”

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