With the country in disarray over the justified protests against the wrongful deaths of innocent black men, the catalyst being George Floyd, there has never been a more important time to recognize the importance of the Black community and Black culture in America. Systemic racism has plagued our country for too long, and if 2020 has signaled anything to us, it is that our way of life must change from here on out.
With my platform as a music journalist, I thought it’d be best to shed light on some of the best work I’ve heard from Black musicians during my lifetime. I’ve grown a lot thanks to the music I’ve discovered the past ten years, much of it coming from Black artists, so to showcase the albums of the 2010s that have taught me the most valuable lessons is an honor to say the least. Some of these projects have helped shape the person I am today, and have driven me to achieve many of the accolades I hold dear to my heart. Without them, I believe I’d be extremely different; a lesser person.
There are obvious choices to fill in for this category, such as the transcendent albums “To Pimp a Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar and “Blonde” by Frank Ocean that took the world by storm upon their release. But with so many modern Black-fronted acts spanning genres such as jazz, British rap, neo-soul, and even experimental emo, I found myself giddy to compile a list of my personal favorites to share with my readers. So, without further ado:
The Good Fight
“There’s a lot of sky and underneath it a lot of pie
And you don’t need a bigger plate, just a smaller stomach”
This is my personal pick for the most underrated rap album of the 2010s. Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, also known as Oddisee, put forward his best efforts on “The Good Fight.” Traditionally known for being a producer and instrumentalist, Khalifa’s work behind the mic is purely charismatic, especially on tracks like “That’s Love” and “Belong to the World.” Khalifa is a Black American with Sudanese roots, and much of his lyricism reflects his thoughts of feeling like an outsider no matter where he goes.
Khalifa’s songs are covered head to toe with incredibly thoughtful and introspective lyrics. The project deals with strong messages of discovering identity, discrimination in America, grappling with unreciprocated love, and missing a feeling of belonging throughout its 46-minute run time. Coupled with classy, jazz-infused instrumentals, Oddisee gave the industry one of the most accessible, inoffensive, and catchy rap albums ever recorded with his tenth studio record.
Moon Shoes EP
Ravyn Lenae (2016)
“I run out of stuff so I don’t know what to do
You walk until you find the things you thought you knew”
While Lenae’s lyrics are spare on her debut EP, they certainly pack a poetic punch. Lenae’s perfect articulation on the feeling of growing out of your teenage years alongside the dread that there’s no progression in sight makes for a compelling collection of songs. Released when she was just 17 years old, Lenae’s first effort landed her a deal with Atlantic Records, and this project remains a favorite to neo-soul fans everywhere. “Moon Shoes EP” is Lenae’s love letter to the feeling of her melancholy days as a teenager on the South Side of Chicago. It’s a bittersweet commentary on romance and living at home, conveyed through intoxicatingly sweet vocal delivery and dreamy instrumentals. Her efforts on the project garnered the interest of guitar connoisseur Steve Lacy, who would go on to produce her sophomore EP, “Crush.” Two years after her initial EP, Lenae returned home to Chicago to perform a full set at the 2018 Pitchfork Music Festival. It’s definitely worth a listen:
P.S. I know, I know. It’s an EP. But it’s also ten songs, 32 minutes long, and not to mention, it’s really good. I’m going to break the rules this one time. Don’t tell my supervisor.
bLAck pARty (2016)
“I hope you reach all your dreams
I hope that that’s what you need”
Hailing from Los Angeles, singer-songwriter Malik Flint was catapulted into the R&B spotlight with this 2016 LP. Lead singles “Bloom” and “Summer Love” resonated heavily with alternative listeners, thanks in part to Flint’s sharp and smooth vocal delivery and extremely catchy yet simplistic hooks. Flint describes his unique sound as “tropical funk,” and characterizes his passion for his musical pursuits through a header quote on his Spotify: “Black encompasses all of the colors on the visible spectrum.” Flint has been operating and producing under Donald Glover’s Royalty Collective, and even earned a Grammy nod for his help on Childish Gambino’s 2017 album “Awaken, My Love!”
“An angel by her side, all of the times I knew we couldn’t cope
They said that it’s her time, no tears in sight, I kept the feelings close”
Sometimes the only thing more musically powerful than the lyrics we express is the way we convey them through instrumentation. Sampha’s 2017 LP “Process” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of art I’ve ever encountered, and is likely my favorite from this entire list. The piano has been part of Sampha Sisay’s life since he was just three years old, and “Process” deals with the trials of his life—his piano being right beside him every step of the way. Sisay deals with self-reflection heavily on this meditative album, speaking on his mother’s cancer diagnosis and his general sense of detachment from life, punctuated by his heart-wrenching piano instrumentation. This is characterized best by the song “No One Knows Me Like the Piano,” where Sisay sits in his childhood home beside his first piano and pens a love letter to his mother for raising him to be the man he is today.
“Blood On Me” changes tone completely, as Sisay’s instrumentation grows wider than just his piano and his lyricism turns more guilt-ridden and frantic. Despite an array of different sounds between songs, the album maintains a seamless flow from beginning to end. His efforts on this album were a huge success, leading him to write the lead single, “Treasure,” for 2018 movie “Beautiful Boy,” starring Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet.
Sleepy Dog (2018)
“Long time, long time,
I’ve been thinking bout you everyday, everyday”
Crafted by the mind of Xavier Hall, “Sleepy Dog” is a project that takes on the challenge of blending together of melancholy, self-aware lyrics alongside meticulously crafted math-rock guitar riffs and punchy drums. Songs on this album frequently mix tempo and tone, providing a chaotic and unpredictable sound to drive the narrative of Hall’s confusion toward his feelings of separation from home and his concept of love. The North Carolina native does this in a seamless way with increasingly relatable lyrics backed by blaring guitars and hazy, muffled lyrics. His psychedelic sound separates his music from the pack of other gloomy, emo bands. Themes of heartache, which come frequently on “Amor Fati,” are often characterized by the scratchiness of his tone on many lead vocal tracks. Since this LP, Hall has released two new EPs.
Little Simz (2019)
“You don’t have prove you got it when you know it’s yours
I don’t wanna feel disloyal for wanting to do me”
At age 26, Simbiatu ‘Simbi’ Abisola Abiola Ajikawo, also known as Little Simz, has carved herself out as one of the most influential voices in rap music. Hailing from the UK, Ajikawo’s third album, “GREY Area” crossed the sea and blew up charts in the United States. Praised for its upfront and honest lyricism and youthful wit, Ajikawo’s writing is more of a commentary than it is a narrative, which seemed to exist as a detriment to her previous works according to critics. The album peaked at #1 on the UK R&B Charts in 2019, and featured my favorite song from last year, “Selfish,” which delivers thoughtful lyrics, smooth flows, and irresistibly catchy yet simplistic looping piano. Her episode on Like A Feature sees her covering the Gorillaz’ mega-hit, “Feel Good Inc.” Check it out below:
Heaven to a Tortured Mind
Yves Tumor (2020)
“Like they said I was supposed to, supposed to
Sometime, maybe another day”
Widely regarded as an early front-runner for album of the year, Yves Tumor’s third studio album is their most polished to date. Sean Bowie, a non-binary Black American, has become renowned for their hypnotic instrumentation and undoubtedly provocative lyricism. As stated in an interview with Pitchfork, Bowie claims that their electronic experimental sound has been driven by their desire to “create a mood as if lost in a strange urban landscape.” Their latest work is a breath of fresh air in the predictable landscape of modern art rock, with Bowie bouncing between sounds of funk, rock, pop, R&B and Lo-Fi all in a coherent fashion. Despite the plethora of unique instrumentation that are normally considered to not mix well, The Guardian describes Bowie’s efforts in their review of the album as “extraordinary: experimental, capable of any genre, with an internal logic powering its shifts in mood.”
It Is What It Is
“When the gold becomes dough and the magic starts to fade,
When it all comes to an end, when there’s nothing left to say
It is what it is”
Steven “Thundercat” Bruner is an instrumental extraordinaire, frequently considered to be the best bassist in the industry. His fourth album is a star-studded project with thoughtful commentary on the loss in Bruner’s life, most notably the passing of famous musician and close friend Mac Miller. This project comes three years after his third album, “Drunk,” which catapulted him into the commercial spotlight and earned him Grammy considerations. This album is a collaborative effort, with Bruner working closely with other famed Black musicians and psychedelic-minded titans of the industry Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus.
Bruner’s collection of songs certainly comes across narrative-based. His lyrics don’t confront the tougher messages of the album as a whole until the end, with the last four songs dealing with existentialism and heartbreak, each ending in Bruner’s titular phrase: “it is what it is.” The project attracted an array of talented guests including Childish Gambino, Steve Lacy, Ty Dolla $ign, and Steve Arrington to name a few. Bruner shares credit for the Rap Album of the Year Grammy Award earned by Kendrick Lamar for “To Pimp A Butterfly.”
Cover photo courtesy of Antoine Lyers.