Black Is The New Black is R29Unbothered’s celebration of Black trailblazers who are changing the game. Black trailblazers who are reminding the world that we are not a trend or 'a moment.' We’re here — and we’ve been here.
No matter how chaotic and confusing the world gets, one thing we can count on to keep us grounded is music, and the projects released in 2021 were no exception. This year delivered a number of truly incredible tunes across genres, many of them coming from the minds of some of our favourite Black women in music. From chilled alté and stirring R&B to indie pop-punk, Black women staked their claims and made their mark.
In the 2021 edition of Black Is the New Black, we’re giving Jazmine Sullivan, Willow Smith, and Tems their flowers and our thanks for keeping us moving and grooving. What would our personal playlists be without them?
After the release of her celebrated full-length album Reality Show in 2015, Jazmine Sullivan all but disappeared without a trace, leaving a palpable void in the music space. It would take six years for her to resurface, and although music had suffered without her, Sullivan’s comeback was well worth the wait. Her 2021 EP Heaux Tales, an intimate yet wholly relatable exploration of dating and sexuality from a Black woman’s perspective, showcased the full breadth of Sullivan’s talent. The project hit us right in the feels, tackling various aspects of modern dating with vulnerability and finesse. As if she had ripped a page out of her journal (and ours, if we’re being honest), each song and interlude in Heaux Tales tapped into real, raw emotions like jealousy and insecurity (“Girl Like Me”), unbridled lust (“On It”), regret (“Lost One”), and more. With every how-did-she-do-that? run, every angelic three-part harmony, and every earnest lyric, Sullivan spoke for all the lovers still looking — even begrudgingly so — for the proverbial “one.”
The impact of the EP on the culture is obvious; the R&B release has been called one of the best albums of the year, and it’s already racked up big wins at the 2021 BET Awards and at the 2021 Soul Train Awards. Heaux Tales is also nominated for Grammys across three major categories. With or without mainstream recognition, we’re all winners because we get to listen to Sullivan sing the house down on repeat.
You can’t put Willow Smith in a box. From her aesthetic to her sexuality to her music, the only accurate word that Smith could possibly be defined by is “boundless.” Icon status has always been in her destiny — we’ve known it from the moment she burst on the scene with the empowerment anthem “Whip My Hair” at just nine years old before stepping away from music. When she returned from her early retirement, Smith emerged a changed person, and that perpetual evolution is reflected in each chapter of her genre-bending discography.
The release of her 2021 album lately I feel EVERYTHING further cements Smith’s reputation as a cultural chameleon. Boasting a tracklist that takes us back in time to the glory days of early 2000s pop-punk, Black girls who grew up raging to the sounds of Fefe Dobson and Avril Lavigne suddenly have a new project to obsess over. As Smith alternates between quiet introspection and rock-out-loud personal protest against the powers that be, she reminds the world that Black musicians can literally dominate any and every genre. Rock on, Willow!
Whether you’re downing mimosas at bottomless brunch or scrolling TikTok late at night, there’s simply no escaping the certified banger that is “Essence” (even a whole year after the release of Wizkid’s Grammy-nominated Made in Lagos). While it’s impossible to put into words just why the single still has the culture in a chokehold, a delicious feature from breakout Afrobeats star Tems might be the most important ingredient in the song’s secret sauce. Blessed with a rich, buttery smooth timbre, the Nigerian singer takes the tune to a whole new level. “You don’t need no other body,” she sings in breezy pidgin on the hook. “Only you fi hold my body.”
Teaming up with Wizkid may have put her on the map, but Tems has been paving her own path since the song went global. In addition to performing at various music festivals, starring on her own NPR Tiny Desk, and headlining her own tour, the singer has also padded her resume with collaborations with other mega-artists like Davido, Drake, and Khalid. Her work as a solo artist is just as noteworthy; If Orange was a Place, Tems’ sonically diverse second EP, sees the songstress move to the forefront of the budding alté genre. Vibey and free-flowing throughout, the EP is true self-expression and the first of many layers we predict Tems will be peeling back through her music in projects to come.
“Essence” was just the start. It's Tems’ world, and we're just happily living in it.