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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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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Aya Nakamura – AYA

This album review was originally published for Pitchfork on December 4, 2020.


Since catapulting to the top of the French charts, multi-platinum Malian-born artist Aya Danioko has been given countless labels. In one breath, she is abbreviated as an Afro-pop artist, the next bundled into France’s robust and increasingly populous rap scene, teeming with talent from Paris to Marseille.

Her success has frequently been minimized as a novelty act, despite being the most listened-to contemporary French act in the world. Her international smash hit “Djadja”—from her sublime second album, 2018’s Nakamura—placed her on a feminist pedestal she was reluctant to embrace. Her detractors looked at her unflappable demeanor as a tall dark-skinned woman, churning out hit after hit in France’s cis-male dominated music industry, and pegged her as overly cocksure.

The clearest signal in the noise, however, lies in the labels she gives herself, indicating her creative essence long before she became a mainstay on Spotify. Her performing surname, Nakamura, comes from the character Hiro Nakamura of the superhero series Heroes; a warrior who, through sheer force of will, can bend space and time, transporting himself to different worlds. This has been Aya’s superpower since the days of her 2017 debut Journal Intime—playing with the universes of not just Afrobeats, but zouk, R&B, and pop to layer in her penetrating musings on life, love, and freedom.

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Sil Lai Abrams Talks Russell Simmons & ‘On the Record’ Doc

This originally published on July 16th 2020 in The Cut.


For years, Sil Lai Abrams has maintained that she was sexually assaulted by one of the music industry’s elite in 1994 when she was a young model during a visit to New York. The writer and domestic-violence activist first wrote about it in her 2007 book No More Drama, but didn’t she name hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons directly until two years ago in a piece for the Hollywood ReporterAbrams and Simmons’s yearslong friendship — which included a fleeting intimate relationship and Abrams’s brief stint as an executive assistant at Def Jam — came careening to a halt after the alleged rape.Abrams says that thetrauma of such a harrowing event triggered a suicide attempt that she almost didn’t survive. But people are finally listening.

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Your Guide to New York Rap’s Next Generation

Originally published for Vulture on September 18th, 2020.


2020 commenced with a great loss in New York’s robust contemporary hip-hop scene: the murder of Canarsie’s prodigal son and prince of Brooklyn drill, Pop Smoke, at just 20 years old. His sudden passing left an indelible vacancy in the city. The loss of one of the booming voices of the New York rap community — whose meteoric career was cut short by a violent end — cratered the community and felt like an overwhelming defeat for one of rap’s newest waves in the city.

However, even a cursory look at the current musical landscape in New York would reveal that there is no dearth of emerging talent across the five boroughs — and not all of it is concentrated in drill. Several niches have developed over the past few years, each with their own distinctive sound. Young talented artists are branching out and blazing trails within the new school, as much of the rest of the country dismissively boxes them in as simply trying to duplicate the sounds of the South. From the small empires being built out of Highbridge to the mantles being passed down in Canarsie, artists are beginning to redefine the soundscapes of New York City — and they are as robust as ever.

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The 100 Songs That Define New York Rap, Ranked

Originally published for Vulture on September 14, 2020.



85. Jay-Z ft. UGK, “Big Pimpin’” (1999)

The ’90s ushered in both the rise of the South, which demanded acknowledgment of its contributions to hip-hop, and the emergence of the video vixen. It was only natural, then, that the Roc-A-Fella duo of Dame Dash and Jay-Z would extend an olive branch to UGK, one of the fastest-rising duos from Texas at the time, to collaborate on the biggest single of Jay-Z’s fourth album, Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter. The song almost didn’t happen, however: Reluctant to collaborate with Jay, Pimp C didn’t submit his verse until the 11th hour, even delaying participating in his now-infamous music-video scene with Gloria Velez. (He ultimately had to film in Miami in lieu of Trinidad’s Carnival, the backdrop for the rest of the crew.) —Shamira Ibrahim

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We Insist: A Timeline Of Protest Music In 2020

Originally published for NPR on September 2, 2020


From Despondent To Defiant, Dua Saleh’s ‘body cast’ Stomps On Everyday Injustice

May 30, 2020

Dua Saleh — Black, nonbinary, Sudanese and Minnesotan — is driven by the generative work within their communities. They released “body cast” at the close of May, stating that they “intended to save it for a project in the future, but I can’t wait that long with what is happening in my city of Minneapolis.” Over sparse production, they pack in dense couplets, wailing, “Lately I’ve had plaster on my mind / County ain’t on s*** they got bodies on the line / Lately I’ve been analyzing time / Y’all been dodging cameras like they bullets over crime.” In the course of two and half minutes, they veer from despondent to defiant, sinking into angst only to rise back up in rage. The final moments include audio from a viral video of Angela Whitehead asserting her right to refuse the police entry into her property — a vignette that is breathtaking for its utter recalcitrance and almost mythic in its seeming implausibility.

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How Megan Thee Stallion, Flo Milli, and Saweetie Dominated 2020

Originally published for Teen Vogue on August 18, 2020.


On March 6, Megan Thee Stallion released Suga, her third extended play project packed with nine bass-heavy tracks about rough sex, making money, and self-love. Anchored by the standout tracks “Savage” and “Captain Hook,” Megan delivered a tongue-in-cheek ode to unrepentant sexual pleasure while switching between rhyme schemes fast enough to give you whiplash.

What would follow was a year filled with women rapping about sexual agency and ensuring that they remain on the foreground of the conversation around hip-hop culture. City Girls, Saweetie, Flo Milli, Doja Cat, and Mulatto all released new music within a four-month span in 2020 as well. Megan’s two major hit songs: “Savage Remix” with Beyoncé and “WAP” with Cardi B broke records. When taking account of 2020’s music distinctiveness, it should be heralded as a year when female rappers took laps around their contemporaries, one hit song after another.

Make no mistake: The power construct in music is still heavily informed by the cishet male gatekeepers of the hip-hop industry. As a genre that historically has served as a magnifying glass for the surrounding environment, patriarchy — and misogynoir in turn — has always received a platform.

But artists like Megan and Cardi B are leveraging their varied skills with a forceful reconstruction of the lascivious Jezebel stereotype that has long been affixed to Black women — removing the shame and immorality from sexual desire and highlighting the transactional power that has always existed. There is a wide range of women’s skill and talent to choose from who are centering their own pleasure and autonomy in a genre that has used the strip club as a litmus test for marketing viability of new songs for the better part of the current millennium.

Doja Cat quickly rose from her novelty single “Moo” off her debut album Amala into a bonafide international star, with singles such as “Juicy,” “Rules,” and “CyberSex,” exploring body positivity, sexual pleasure, and female agency — landing her a coveted feature from Nicki Minaj on the remix Billboard charting single “Say So” in May. Rapper Saweetie, for her part, has navigated the sweet spot of harnessing early 2000s nostalgia while still centering her agency in the song, flipping Petey Pablo’s classic crunk hit “Freek-A-Leek,” “My Type,” and more recently “Tap In.”

Simultaneously, Alabama rapper Flo Milli has quickly risen to relevance, being welcomed into the new vanguard of rappers — with co-signs from The City Girls and Missy Elliott — with her irreverent new project, aptly titled Ho, Why is You Here. Leaning into a brash, bratty timbre with lines that thrust you right into her unrepentant aesthetic, the 20-year-old’s music is as enjoyable as it is clever. “In the Party” and “Beef Flomix” respectively, and have become such cult hits that they can have been found as backing tracks in “fancams” within stan culture; her standout single “Weak” transposes the homonymous SWV track, repurposing it into a dismissive anthem about the failings of men. Her album follows suit accordingly, as each track grows more insolent and cocksure than the last.

The women’s posse is making a comeback too: the Thot Box (Remix) is a collective of up and coming women emcees (Chinese Kitty, Dream Doll, Young MA, Dreezy, and Mulatto) flexing their muscles in response to misogynoir. Cardi B, for her part, has alluded to working on a Ladies’ Night inspired song for her upcoming album.

But how does this moment in rap fit into the greater canon of women’s place in hip-hop history?

The conversation around female artists having agency and sermonizing the power of their sexuality is nothing new. At just 20 years old, a young Kimberly Jones stood alongside her childhood friends Notorious B.I.G. and other label mates in Junior M.A.F.I.A. In a taut 4’11 package, the video for the single “Get Money” off of the group’s debut album, Conspiracy, panned over to a brown-skinned Lil’ Kim, reclining in a salon chair donning a fur, gold chain, and a strapless red dress, while she delivers line after line of erotic haymakers, flexing her sexual power and agency under a mind-blowing flow. Not long after, Lil’ Kim’s career shot into the next gear, with her own debut album, Hardcore, serving as a cultural anchor and template for a new era of women in rap.

As Kim said in the Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution, “I was supposed to be the girl that was cute and made the guys look good, but I liked being vulgar and explicit sometimes because it made me feel free.”

This disruption was not without significant backlash — as the infamous quote goes, “well-behaved women rarely make history.” Coming out of the era dominated by of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah and the graphic language reserved for the Biggies and the Jay-Zs of the world, many viewed Kim’s content as oversexed, lewd, and anti-feminist, as opposed to a complement to the content that the other women were producing, similarly to how the Rapsodys and Nonames of the contemporary era are positioned.

Fast forward to present day and the raunchiness that shocked the charts with Lil’ Kim’s Hardcore, Foxy Brown’s Ill Na NaMissy and Trina’s “One Minute Man,” or Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” is still just as subversive — but far less uncommon. A whole new class of young women are rising to the occasion of inverting the norms of male objectification for their benefit in their music. As scholar and authority of hip-hop feminism, Joan Morgan writes in When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, “most women possess an almost intuitive understanding of the role sex, money, and power play in our intimate relationships — and we accommodate accordingly.”

In the 90s, Lil’ Kim redefined the “alpha” role in hip hop music — and in contemporary times, we see an ascendance of that same perspective, to an overwhelmingly positive reception by the artists’ receptive fanbases, which is a welcome change of circumstances from decades ago. That re-centering of erotic power through women going bar for bar with each other or standing on their own, far from eradicates the industry-standard hip-hop misogyny that still runs rampant, but it allows for having a choice in your relationship with intimacy in hip-hop and power dynamics that is far more expansive than just the cishet male’s perspective.