A lot can be said about 2017, but one thing can’t be denied: black women are absolutely killing it. Between winning historic elections, breaking barriers in comedy, and securing the ultimate bag, as a collective, we’ve decided to show up, and music is no exception. The steady stream of new releases has given black women the rare pleasure of having our personal soundtracks updated by artists speaking directly to us. From experimental R&B to Afrobeat to trap, it’s all here—these are the six best albums by black women in 2017.
This is technically a re-release of rapper Princess Nokia’s 2016 mixtape, but the eight new songs and reworked production make it an almost entirely new project. It’s creative light years away from “Bitch, I’m Posh,” the 90s house-inspired single that spurred Nokia’s career in 2012, but the foray into a grittier sounds suits her—and 2017, where kick drums and repetitive choruses are dominating rap.
The standout tracks are the wonderfully irreverent “Tomboy,” (the bridge has Nokia chanting “my little titties and my fat belly” like a battle cry) and “Brujas,” a hypnotic song celebrating a distinctly feminine power stretching back generations and across the African diaspora. In simpler terms, “Brujas” slaps—and it alone (with or without its dreamy, defiant visuals) would secure 1992 Deluxe a spot on our list.
Despite the implications of Queen Elizabitch’s amazing cover, the album isn’t fluffy cotton candy or bubblegum pop: it moves between raunchy lyrics (the lead single is called “Cumshot”) and reflective rhymes about poverty over drill beats, calling to mind fellow Chicagoan Chief Keef. Queen Elizabitch is a fearless album, covering sex work, body positivity, and getting it when you want it (and not giving it when you don’t). It’s a shame that Queen Elizabitch never hit the way it should’ve over the summer—tropical house-influenced bops “33rd” and “Cpr” are perfect party songs. Overall, the album is a reminder to do you—and don’t we all need one of those every once in a while?
We’ve known Syd is an immense talent for a minute—from her early days in Odd Future to her work as The Internet’s frontwoman, she’s been showing her versatility as an artist since 2009. Fin is Syd’s first work as a solo artist, and the album is so complete, it has us wishing she’d gone at it alone much earlier. The last couple years have been rife with hits that emulate the sound and vibe of 90s hip hop and R&B (see: Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” pretty much every song from Bruno Mars’s 24K Magic), but maybe no one does it better than Syd on Fin, where each song would sound right at home wedged between “Waterfalls” and “4 Page Letter” on a mixtape (like, one that’s on an actual cassette). Singles “All About Me” and “Body” are good examples of Syd’s neo-soul sound, but halfway point “Smile More” is perfect. Sensual but not lewd, silky but roughened by distorted ad libs, it’s the song of the album for sure.
In a 2013 FACT interview, Kelela perfectly described her spacey, ambient sound: “Brandy but weirder.” Her soft, sometimes jazzy vocals are reminiscent of the R&B icon at her peak, but the futuristic, bass-heavy production oozes in a way, sliding between genres the same way the narrative in the songs—a breakup and its aftermath—moves between emotions. Opening track “Frontline’s” lyrics are the stuff of a classic leave-your-man anthem (“Gettin’ on this plane, making moves / Cry and talk about it, baby, but it ain’t no use / I ain’t gonna sit here with your rules”) but the staccato synth keeps it from sounding tired and predictable. It’s a good proxy for the rest of the album, which is filled with surprises in the best possible way.
Laila’s Wisdom is a quiet surprise of album, a tremendous exercise in storytelling that more than deserves its Grammy nomination. Seventies funk influences pair well with Rapsody’s strongly pro-black, pro-self love subject matter (“A black man left the oval/ Keep that style you got soulful/The best of the best gon fear you” are among the first lines in the opening track with which the album shares its name), and carefully chosen features from Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, and BJ the Kid show further evidence of what’s clear from the intro track: Rapsody is working.
The album is, in many ways, a love letter to black women artists of all kinds: it opens with a sample from the Aretha Franklin version of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and black,” itself an homage to legendary playwright Lorraine Hansberry. “Power,” with its deeply impressive Kendrick feature is an obvious critic darling, but our favorite tracks are “Sassy, a feelin’ yourself song that needs to find its way into your weekend getting ready playlist (“Diamonds ‘tween my knees/Oil wells in my thighs
Does my sassiness upset you?”) and “Knock on My Door,” a croony, soulful celebration of thirst that gives Alicia Keys’s “You Don’t Know My Name” a run for its money. Best Rap Album a stacked category this year, but we’d like to see Rapsody take home the gold—Laila’s Wisdom is the kind of work that deserves it.
SZA’s debut lands because it’s so raw, in multiple senses of the word—fiercely vulnerable (“Why am I so easy to forget like that / It can’t be that easy for you to get like that,” “Supermodel”) and just straight up grimy (Let me tell you a secret / I been secretly banging your homeboy/ While you were in Vegas? All up on Valentine’s Day,” also “Supermodel.) That she’s hitting so many different emotions in the album’s opening track is a testament to SZA’s talent.
Ctrl is deft as it moves between the personal and implicitly political, shirking the respectability politics plaguing conversations about black women’s sexuality (most obviously in unapologetic side chick anthem “The Weekend”), exploring body insecurities, and chronicling the lingering sadness that accompanies a failed relationship—even if your partner was trash. Breezy, nostalgic, and sometimes painfully close to home, Ctrl pairs emotional lyrics with expansive, smooth production, giving us clear hits— “Love Galore,” “Go Gina,” “Drew Barrymore.” But more impressive is the album’s ability to seemingly be all things, mostly because of sleepier tracks that grow on you after a second, third, eighth listen—it’s indulgent-bubble-bath-and-incense music, sunset-road-trip-with-your-girls music, and this-life-thing-is-weird-as-hell music. Closing track “20 Something’s” understated production perfectly encapsulates the awkward, fleeting feeling of being in your twenties—of being nostalgic for something as you’re living it—and something else that’s so 2017, it almost makes you glad for the album’s many delays.
Ready – Ella Mai (EP): London-based singer Ella Mai’s Ready, the third work in her EP trilogy, is just as strong as its predecessors Time and Change. Mai is a compelling singer and her voice has more staying power than some of her musical peers, but the DJ Mustard-only production–the artist signed to his 10 Summers label after being discovered on Instagram–grows repetitive, and the spoken outros on a few tracks veer toward corny. Still, bouncy Oakland-inspired beats and Mustard’s signature hand claps make Ready a great EP (try listening to anti-fuckboy anthem “My Way” without singing along, we dare you), and certainly enough to keep us on the lookout for Mai’s upcoming debut album.
The Two of Us – Chloe x Halle: This 2017 follow up to Chloe x Halle’s Sugar Symphony is, according to the sisters, not a mixtape or album, but the sixteen-track collection of songs is definitely something. Beyonce’s influence on the project is clear—and not surprising, considering that the duo is signed to Bey’s label Parkwood Entertainment. The pair works with different genres, adopt a husky semi-rapping cadence, and spend a lot of time in their lower registers, all evident in Beyonce’s most recent efforts, self-titled and Lemonade. We’d love to see them break away from their mentor and get a little more experimental, but until then, add the hazy, slightly haunted “Upset Stomach” and “Up All Night” to your rotation—you won’t be disappointed.
Black Magic – Yemi Alade: Okay, so this is cheating a little bit—Afrobeat artist Yemi Alade’s third album doesn’t officially drop until mid-December, but the singles that have been released have us more than excited. “Single & Searching” takes a cue from Alade’s most known song, 2014’s “Johnny,” with its danceable beat; “Heart Robber” is a swooning almost-ballad, combining classic Afrobeat with Spanish guitar. With features from popular Nigerian rappers Falz and Olamide and production from Sarz (behind Wizkid’s mega-hits “Come Closer” and “African Bad Gyal”), Black Magic is sure to be amazing.