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The Best Pop Music Owes Its Sound to Black Artists

Writer: Matthew Cox

There is no denying that 2020 has been a bad year. The global pandemic disrupted almost every aspect of everyday life, and the Black Lives Matter movement continues to shine a spotlight on the harsh, everyday realities of what it means to be Black in America. Although 2020 has been a painful year, one thing has excelled this year: pop music. Much of the acclaimed and popular pop music of this year owes it’s sounds to Black and Latinx creators from the late 1900’s.

Personally, I think pop music has been unimpressive the last few years. Rap has taken over as the dominant and most creative genre while a lot of Pop music became too structured and quite frankly, boring. In my opinion, Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish propelled pop music forward in 2019. Grande’s “Thank U, Next” and Eilish’s “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” are both heavily influenced by music created by Black artists, drawing upon samples and beats from rap, r&b, and trap music. Many of the acclaimed pop artists of 2020 have followed Grande and Eilish’s example of taking inspiration from Black artists.

Instead of drawing upon recent trends, acclaimed artists like Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa, and Jessie Ware have taken inspiration from music of the 70s, 80s, and 90s

House music, an offshoot of disco popularized by Black DJs in Chicago, is at the forefront of Lady Gaga’s sixth studio album, Chromatica. The 43 minute, energetic dance pop record was released on May 29th, 2020 to almost universal acclaim. Many of the sounds popularized by Black DJs and artists can be found woven throughout the record. As Rolling Stone points out, songs like “Replay'' bridge disco and deep house with time-warping beats.” The influence of black DJs is most noticeable on the over-the-top closing track “Babylon'', a song extremely reminiscent of Madonna's “Vogue”. “Babylon'' might as well be plucked straight out of the New York City ball scene of the late 80s and early 90s. The New York ball scene was a community built of mostly Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ artists, drag queens, and creatives who would throw elegant balls in an attempt to find a sense of community in a world that rejected not only the expression of LGBT individuals, but especially of LGBT black and latinx individuals. From the house beat, to the gospel choir joyfully singing “That’s gossip”, “Babylon'' sounds like a song the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race or FX’s POSE would strut the runway to.

While much of Gaga’s Chromatica feels as if it was plucked straight out of the 90’s, Dua Lipa took a similar yet different approach on her sophomore album Future Nostalgia. Dua’s second album harkens back to the disco era of the 1970s while still making the music feel relevant and new. In the 1970s, disco was dominated by black artists, in fact, 26 of the songs on Billboard’s “The 35 Best Disco Songs Ever” were made by black artists. “Don’t Start Now”, the album's lead single, is packed full of musical and lyrical references to the disco era. As Vox’s Switched On Pop points out, “Don’t Start Now” features a cowbell sound that is similar to that of many latin disco songs, and Lipa references disco legend Gloria Gaynor’s song “I will survive” when she sings “Though it took some time to survive you.” Throughout the album Dua Lipa weaves disco sounds with 80’s synthpop to create a sound that feels new.

While big names like Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa have explored the sounds of black artists this year, no one has done it more fully than Jessie Ware. Ware, a british pop artist, released her fourth album, What’s Your Pleasure, this past June to universal acclaim. With Vogue calling it “the best pop album of 2020”, it is almost a guarantee for Best Pop Album at next year's Grammys. While Dua Lipa took the basic sounds of disco and made them feel new, Jessie Ware takes a different approach; she deep dives into the genre to create an authentic disco album that might as well have come out in 1975. This album sounds like the kind of music our parents grew up listening to - its fun, sexy, and easy to dance to. In the title track “What’s Your Pleasure” and in “Soul Control” Ware’s voice and singing style is reminiscent of the queen of disco Donna Summer.

2020 has opened up a new era for pop music, with the disco and house sounds that were cultivated by black artists coming to the forefront of pop, a new door has been opened into what pop music will look like this decade. Perhaps in a different reality, one where these albums would have regular promotional cycles that were not hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic, these artists would be praising their Black and Latin influences on talk shows, radio, or at concerts, but that is currently not the case and there remains a lack of recognition to the Black artists who created and shaped the sounds that have come to define pop music.

Click the image to listen to a playlist that Matthew Curated:


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