Black women are incredible and are responsible for some of the most amazing music that the world has ever known. There could be books written on how Nina Simone impacted the civil rights movement, or how Tina Turner changed how America thought about black women during her career.
Beyonce is one of the most influential artists on the planet, and Rihanna showed us that she was more than a hitmaker — she is a brilliant entrepreneur. The list goes on.
In 2020, the music industry is a lot different from decades ago. Now, some white women want desperately to be black (or, more accurately, appropriate a “black aesthetic”). Hip-hop, a genre dominated by black artists, is now the most popular genre in the United States. However, there are still some incredible songs from black women that are insanely underrated.
The following songs are not chart-toppers. None of them are lead singles. Many of the artists on this list haven’t created an album that has won a Grammy, or gone platinum — but I do feel like all of these songs are incredibly underrated. They were all also created in the past decade. Here are nine incredible songs by black women.
Che Noir, “Money Orientated” (2020)
If you are a lifelong hip-hop fan, you may know that the title of this song is a nod to AZ’s classic verse on “Life’s A Bitch”, where he arguably outshined one of the greatest rappers of all time on his most celebrated album (Illmatic).
The exact bars he says are: My mentality is money orientated / I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it. Che Noir does an incredible job of taking this exact concept and creating a song out of it, and this is evident from the jump.
Che Noir has one of the best pens in hip-hop right now, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s from a city that is getting international acclaim for its lyrics. That city is Buffalo, New York — thanks to the incredible albums created by the Griselda collective, but Che Noir appears determined to make a name for her own, regardless.
Her pen is as active as ever over the welcoming piano keys, with observations like: That’s when I realized jail or death is where this money don’t matter / can’t buy my way into heaven when he judging me after.”
I highly recommend checking out her album As God Intended, which is produced entirely by Apollo Brown. Few female emcees are as lyrical as Che Noir (Rapsody is an obvious mention), but she is only getting better, and there’s a good chance that you will be hearing more of her music sometime soon.
Jamila Woods, “Basquiat” (2019)
Some artists are more concerned with history than others, and it’s clear that Chicago-based Jamila Woods understands the importance of paying homage. The song title makes it clear that she is celebrating the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who remains one of the most-discussed modern artists today (even if he isn’t alive).
If you’re looking for modern mentions of Basquiat, you don’t have to look far. Jay-Z mentions him in multiple songs, The Strokes used his art as an album cover, and Leonardo Dicaprio is a collector of his work. This particular song references a Basquiat interview, where he takes a long pause after being asked: “What are you angry about?” He considers the question deeply before responding, “I don’t remember.”:
The song directly addresses the “angry black woman” stereotype, but it also seems to be about what artists allow in terms of access. Woods declares that her “smile is not employed” and that “you can’t police my joy.” The bassline is mesmerizing, the vocals are immaculate, and the writing is layered. It also features a verse from the incredible Saba.
This song does an incredible job of exploring what it means to be angry, and how it is perceived. Woods also confirms that she was thinking about anger on social media while writing the song. The song is featured on her 2019 album, Legacy! Legacy!.
Little Simz, “101 FM” (2019)
There is a very cool Eastern influence in the production here, and it genuinely sounds like a very “happy” and dreamy instrumental. I might just listen to the beat repeatedly if it was an interlude on another project or a standout track from a producer’s EP — but then it wouldn’t be the incredible song that it is! The “101 FM” beat already exudes a pleasant nostalgia, and Little Simz matches it perfectly. The British rapper/singer/actress takes the opportunity to reminisce on simpler times when her path to success wasn’t so clear.
She pays homage to other grime rappers that paved the way for her (“mastered my flow like Luda and Kano”) and also mentions video games that she played before becoming an internationally-renowned artist. While Grey Area was one of the most critically acclaimed projects of 2019, I do feel like “101 FM” — the project’s third single — still never got the credit that it deserved. The album was also nominated for a Mercury Prize, and Little Simz is not the only nominee on this list.
There are very few rap songs that are as unique as this one, and the fact that Little Simz doesn’t mind getting a bit experimental is one of the reasons that she is so refreshing. You can watch the cinematic music video below:
Laura Mvula, “Green Garden” (2013)
First things first — if you are a Nina Simone fan, you will hear the clear influence here. This is refreshing to many music fans who are tired of hearing singers chase after a predictable trap R&b hit, or a pop and there is an “earthy” quality to this song — and Mvula’s music in general — that renders it undeniable.
Mvula, who is classically trained, doesn’t go out of her way vocally here. However, the instrumentation and the childlike quality of the music and lyrics here — I’ll fly on the wings of a butterfly, high as a treetop — makes it so different from other songs of the past decade.
The drums pick up, and things get a bit more intense. She speaks about dancing in the garden “like we used to”, which indicates that she is reminiscing about a specific time in her life. That idea is confirmed by Mvula, who states that the song celebrates when she moved into a new home with trees, offering the chance for dances, waterfights, and more.
When I first heard this song, I thought that it was the kind of song that someone might play as soon as they wake up somewhere that they appreciate — whether it was an exotic villa on vacation, or a childhood home that they missed dearly. While I may not share any of his musical talent, I am tempted to say that “great minds think alike”, as Prince himself apparently tweeted that he listens to the song every morning.
The late legend stated that he listened to Laur Mvula’s album before AND after his shows — and it’s unfortunate to note that Mvula hasn’t been able to top her 2013 album Sing To The Moon yet. Hopefully, that changes soon. Then again, it was evident from the beginning that fame was never one of Mvula’s goals.
NoName, “Casket Pretty” (2016)
When you listen to this beat, you might think about a summer barbecue. However, Noname explains that she “finds the melancholy” in beats that other people might consider “happy”. However, the song addresses violence towards people of color, illuminating topics like police brutality that have only gotten more relevant since the song’s creation in 2016. The beginning of the song samples a baby laughing, something that she plays on later.
She wastes no time getting to the point — that black men are dying in Chicago at a very young age. The very first two bars are “all of my n*ggas is casket pretty/ain’t no one safe in this happy city”, as she aims to reclaim the “happy” instrumental as an opportunity to reflect on death, violence, and personal tragedy. “Badges and pistols rejoice in the night” is an apparent reference to law enforcement abusing their authority, and she laments that there are “too many babies in suits”.
This is a clear double entendre — as she is not only saying that there are too many young men dying (and presented in suits at their casket), but that their friends of a similar age are also forced to dress up for their funerals at the same age.
Noname also does an incredible job of connecting back to the cohesive theme of the telephone, stating that she hopes that “her tele’ don’t ring”, meaning that it might mean that another friend of hers might have been murdered. Noname was only 25 when she created the album, but was already interested in discussing social justice issues. She also paints quite an incredible picture here, with lines like: Roses in the road, teddy bear outside, bullet there on the right.” Noname also started a book club last year, which focuses on authors of color, and you can find out more about it here.
Nao, “Get To Know Ya” (2016)
For those that are unaware, Nao is a British singer/songwriter that is easily one of the most underrated black women in music right now (in my opinion). Her music effortlessly blends electronic, soul, funk, and R&B without the end product ever feeling forced or derivative.
Her song “Get To Know Ya” is the perfect example of someone who understands the music out there and chooses to inject something a bit more unique into the mainstream. As if Nao already couldn’t get any cooler, she also worked as a music teacher in South London before she pursued her own career in music.
She rose to prominence thanks to a song with Disclosure, but studied vocal jazz from an early age. She also acknowledges a heavy 1990s influence behind her album, For All We Know, released in 2016. To be fair to music critics — this was a popular pick for many “Top Albums of 2016” lists — but I do feel like this particular song was never properly appreciated (or “marketed/curated/pushed by the record label”).
Why is “Get To Know Ya” incredible? Nao’s vocals shine over Jungle’s funk guitars, as she creates a mesmerizing song about an initial attraction to a particular someone — which makes it as relatable as any pop hit out there. While it’s incredibly catchy — the sound is also unique enough for Nao to create her own lane, whether you’re a fan of the soulful bridges, the rich instrumentation, or how she switches her cadences and octaves over cloudy synths. Nao is so polished that you wonder why you haven’t already heard her churn out hits for a decade.
While this song might be underappreciated, you don’t have to worry about Nao not getting credit anytime soon — her latest album Saturn garnered a Mercury Prize nomination. Earlier this year, she also announced that she was expecting her first child.
Mereba, “Kinfolk”, 2019
Mereba is absolutely incredible, and “Kinfolk” is easily one of her best songs. That’s probably one of the reasons I have written about this song before, and I still find myself returning to it. I don’t know many artists that have the kind of voice that she has, and there’s a comfort in this song that is hard to describe. She sings about finding peace and “hidden treasures”, while also acknowledging that she’s been “puffing on the blunt smoke.”
Call me crazy, but there’s a timeless quality to this one. The production is absolutely flawless, and there is JUST the right amount of instrumentation. One of the reasons that Mereba is so unique might be the fact that the Ethiopian-born singer cites a range of musical influences, including Jay-Z, Alanis Morissette, and Nirvana.
There is something about the way that this song builds up to the chorus that will always impact me, for whatever reason. I also highly recommend that you check out the entire album, The Jungle Is The Only Way Out, released in 2019.
Chika, “Songs About You”, 2020
Chika first went viral for calling out Kanye West. However, it is now clear that the Alabama-born emcee is destined for greatness. She opens “Songs About You” by speaking about how she now rubs shoulders with hip-hop royalty like Jay-Z and Diddy. However, the song is about much more than that, as she delivers haymakers like: I know ain’t got no hourglass figure / but I can get smaller while my pockets get bigger.
Chika can do much more than rap, and some of the melodies that she creates celebrate the fact that she is more versatile than you may have thought. The chorus reminds me of an early Drake hook, but Chika proves that she can lyrically go toe-to-toe with the best of them. Her perspective is beyond her years: Apologize if I’m talking shit, I earned it/ this industry shit, I kept low and learned it/ I claimed it and then affirmed it.”
The fact that the song is a bit funky makes it so that her confidence is complimented well with some groovy flourishes. She also doesn’t mind throwing in a bit of wordplay here and there — These bitches think that I’m playin / they doing shit I ain’t fond of (Fonda), it’s like my name isn’t Jane. Chika’s name is actually Jane.
It was clear from the first time that I saw her viral video that Chika was creative, but this debut definitely solidifies her spot as a respected emcee that is a force to be reckoned with.
Mariah The Scientist, “Reminders” (2019)
One of the reasons that I am always drawn back to music from the 1980s is because it was a period where songs could be dark but also poppy. The haunting “Reminder” from Mariah The Scientist is easily one of her best songs, and it’s a “love song” that screams more “murder scene” than “lock eyes drunkenly at a nightclub.” That might be one of the reasons that I appreciate the song so much (I listen to more true crime podcasts than I should).
I’m not even exaggerating — this is the kind of song that would play over the end credits about a woman who ended up murdering her husband. Mariah The Scientist talks about things that her toxic lover does that “reminds me I should kill him”, as she sings about an unknown “bad man.” If you think I’m reading too much into it, consider the lyrics: Every home decor and hardware store / reminds me more of blood on your marble floors.”
The instrumental here reminds me of a SURVIVE track, and if you aren’t familiar with them, they are the electronic band responsible for the Stranger Things theme song (and much more). The jazzy outro is the perfect way to end this haunting song about a “bittersweet” murder that had to take place, even though Mariah “knows you didn’t mean it.” It’s the kind of haunting song that certainly would have been a bigger song if Mariah The Scientist had a bit more marketing dollars at her disposal. Regardless, fans did get a great music video:
Some of these artists are further along in their career than others, but these songs certainly didn’t get the attention that they deserved. Of course, the beauty of artists is that the best of them evolve, and hopefully we will be hearing more from these women sometime soon.
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