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?”
Oftentimes, when attempts are made to bestow prestige on the genre of comedy, a through-line is drawn directly to tragedy—with the cross-section of both (represented by the famous masked Greek deities “Thalia and Melpomene”) representing the fine art of the stage. Actress and comedienne Jessica Williams, however, has never been one to confine herself to the tedium of convention.
A disruptive force since her arrival on The Daily Show when she was just 22 years old, Williams has chosen to dance between the genres of comedy and romance, interrogating the crevices of each category in unexpected and enthralling ways. “They’re all shades of each other,” Williams, now 32, says in between bites of her Sweetgreen salad. “I think a lot of couples actually do all these weird, funny inside jokes with each other, and that’s, like, the huge garden in the relationship.”
Few couples typify this dynamic as acutely as the fictive Mia and Marcus of Love Lifeseason 2, played by Williams and the charmingly neurotic William Jackson Harper. Under the guidance of showrunners Rachelle Williams and Sam Boyd, the duo masterfully create a universe replete with humor, accountability, pain and growth—where love is explored as a series of choices, as opposed to a folly of fate. Their conflicts, even at their most fraught, are grounded and tangible; the lexicon of their community is immediately established, with nary a didacticism. The chemistry between the two crackles during their first interaction, when Mia enters unmoored book publisher Marcus’s life as a statuesque hybrid of femme fatale and manic pixie dream girl.
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.
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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.
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 achildlike grace with matureclarity: “That’s right, I’m Janet Jackson, and nothing goes until I say go.” Just 7 years old, she had no idea of her prescience: Tracesof 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 awalking 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.