This essay is running as part of the 2019 Uproxx Music Critics Poll. Explore the results here.
In September, Brittany Howard told The Independent that the impetus behind “Georgia,” a favorite from her Jaime album, was that, ”I had never heard a song, much less an R&B song or in Black music, where a woman was singing a love song to another woman, so I decided to write one.”
Hal Horowitz wrote in American Songwriter that Jaime, which ranks 18th on our Uproxx Music Critics Poll, “is a brave, introspective and almost wincingly revealing album most artists wouldn’t attempt.” Indeed, Jaime is a brave album. But it’s also just Howard’s story. The statement is lauding mere honesty.
In 2013, Howard told BET that “I don’t think about color and I think that’s awesome. My dad’s my dad, my mom’s my mom. My friends are my friends.” And in theory, talented musicians are just talented musicians. Storytellers are storytellers.
But even in a relatively progressive cultural climate, too many people make it difficult for Black people, women, and queer people. Imagine being all three like Howard. That oppression is reflected in the music world, where it’s still too difficult for artists, especially Black women, to be their most honest selves without some form of criticism.
Lizzo, whose Cuz I Love You album ranked 15th on the poll, has been ridiculed for taking provocative photos and dressing how she wants. Rapsody and her incredible Eve album (which ranked 40th) are continuously weaponized against envelope-pushing artists like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, whose summer-defining Fever album just missed the Top 50 of the list. In August, Megan said of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj that, “I feel like we need to stop trying to compare them. They’re two different people, two different rappers. It’s not even the same.”
And that’s a beautiful thing. This year’s Uproxx poll reflects the dynamism of Black womanhood. No one entrant is doing the same thing as the others. Artists of all genres and artistic aesthetics showed out this year, telling their stories and shattering pop culture’s cookie-cutter notions of Black femininity. Critics poll entries like Lizzo, FKA Twigs, Solange Knowles, Jamila Woods, and Little Simz affirmed that identity is who you are, but it’s not what you are.
FKA Twigs’ Magdalene album came in at 10 on the poll. Her second studio album was collectively lauded her boundary-pushing, deeply personal work from fans and critics alike. Uproxx pop expert Caitlin White has said that Twigs “manages to find distance from the subjects and specifics, even while she engages in painful and intimate emotional excavation of difficult experiences and personal failure.”
And while White notes that Twigs shied away from crafting a “brash, showy pop album,” Lizzo’s Grammy-nominated Cuz I Love You aimed to do just that — and the charismatic beacon of body positivity succeeded. The 15th-ranked album on the poll shot for the sky, and landed on top of the charts with tracks like “Tempo,” “Exactly How I Feel,” and, of course, “Juice.” Lizzo showed off the extent of her musical range on the 11-track album, meshing pop, R&B, and hip-hop elements on a project that reflects her vibrant nature.
Solange also executed some ambitious genre-bending on When I Get Home, a tribute to her hometown of Houston with a soundscape that married Houston’s iconic chopped and screwed sound with psychedelic soul, free jazz, and funk. And while Uproxx hip-hop editor Aaron Williams wasn’t initially a fan of the ambitious project, enough critics loved it for it to wind up at 14 on the poll.
In 2019, a slew of women made their mark in the hip-hop game, releasing music at a rate that makes archaic terms like “female rap” and “femcees” sound sillier than ever. It’s all just rap. Little Simz’s 44th-ranked album Grey Matter proved as much. On the UK artist’s third album, she explores gun violence (on “Wounds”) and her mental health struggles in riveting fashion. On “Therapy,” she tells a fictional therapist that “I see the way you look at me like I’m some sort of charity / Only reason I come here is so I can get some clarity / And it didn’t work.” There’s an increased cultural conversation around mental health and going to therapy, but Simz incisively illustrates that it simply doesn’t work for everyone. She also gets honest on “Venom,” where she puts forth the sad truth about modern rap: “They would never wanna admit I’m the best here / From the mere fact that I’ve got ovaries.”
Rapsody may agree with Simz’s sentiment. She’s been going toe-to-toe with rap stalwarts like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole for years and released another well-regarded album in Eve, yet didn’t receive a Grammy nomination, despite many observers’ expectations she would. Her stellar album has thematic dovetail with Jamila Woods’ Legacy! Legacy!, which showed up at 24 on the poll. While Rapsody delivered deft lyricism and Woods expressed herself through rich vocals, both albums celebrated the Black women who came before them via song titles like Legacy‘s “Eartha,” “Zora,” and “Octavia,” and Eve’s “Ibtihaj,” “Nina,” and “Serena.”
The Bandcamp description for Legacy! Legacy! says that the album, “stakes itself on the uncompromising nature of its creator, and the histories honored within its many layers.” That summation extends to explain the power of Black women in music. Whether it’s Howard’s or Rapsody’s party-rockin’ rhymes, the diversity of poll selections from Black women is a statement on the undefinability of Blackness and femininity. Sometimes it’s belting “I’m 100% that b*tch” to the top of your lungs, while other times it may be crooning vulnerabilities like Twigs or Brittany Howard. It’s vital that these layers, projects, and progenitors continue to receive space to just be without any boundaries or constricting paradigms.