Can Black Divas Rise Again?
Despite the superstardom of Beyoncé and Rihanna, the 2010s have been rough for black female singers.
Once upon a time (circa 2008), black female singers didn’t quite run the world, but they ruled a sizable chunk of it. Beyoncé was already well into her Queen Bey reign, and Rihanna was starting to challenge her for the crown.
Alicia Keys was still a chart superstar, big enough to be entrusted with singing a Bond theme (“Another Way to Die,” a Jack White duet from the 2008 007 film Quantum of Solace). Pop’s hit list also included ’90s holdovers like Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige, who the previous year had sold 629,000 copies of Growing Pains, her eighth studio album, in just one week.
Despite being a superstar for four decades, the Queen of Soul wasn’t resting on her laurels — or her throne. Aretha Franklin was months away from her show-stopping and (natch) jaw-dropping performance at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. And her goddaughter Whitney Houston was one year and two weeks (exactly, as of this article’s publishing date) away from her swan-song/comeback album I Look to You.
Fast forward a decade, and things have changed as dramatically as Houston’s vocal key at the end of “Saving All My Love for You.” With hip hop continuing to scale new peaks of popularity in 2018, black female singers seem to have largely gone out of fashion.
Of the ones who dominated 2008 and the decade before it, only Beyoncé and Rihanna remain vital sales forces, and the former hasn’t had her very own solo radio smash in nearly a decade. Janet Jackson, who hasn’t scored a hit this century, is currently touring the U.S. as a nostalgia act. Carey hasn’t released a platinum album (or a major single) since 2008’s E=MC², and the returns on every new Keys release have diminished to the point that 2016’s Here didn’t even go gold.
Keyshia Cole’s burst of noughties stardom has faded, as has Keri Hilson’s. Recently minted Oscar nominee Blige has enjoyed more 2010s success in movies than in music, and Houston, sadly, is no longer with us.
Because music is cyclical, a change is gonna come — eventually. Right? Maybe one is already on the way. It’s too early to tell if they’ll have staying power, but SZA, Ella Mai and American Idol alumnus Queen Naija are currently building chart reputations. Meanwhile, noughties vet Ciara may be about to have her biggest hit in five years with “Level Up.”
None of them are probably going to challenge Drake, Cardi B, and Post Malone for supremacy on Billboard’s Hot 100, but it’s still a welcome reversal of fortune, following an unfortunate but not particularly surprising dry spell. Women of all colors and genres have always struggled to be heard in music, but black women have historically had an especially difficult time negotiating the brutal industry. As in Hollywood, they often have to work harder and typically end up with less to show for it.
Houston, for a time, was the biggest female star in the world, but she had to whitewash her sound in order to get there. Promising as the aforementioned upstarts may be, no black female singer who has debuted since 2008 would quite qualify as the next Whitney Houston or even as commercial successors to Beyoncé or Rihanna.
Janelle Monae and Beyoncé’s sister Solange have enjoyed some success, but they’re more alternative darlings than hitmakers. Music’s only two bonafide black or biracial female superstars to arrive this decade so far — Nicki Minaj and Cardi B — are both rappers, not singers.
Which brings us to perhaps the best explanation for why black female singers went into decline in the first place: the unprecedented ascendance of hip hop. Like disco did with soul in the late ’70s, it’s upstaged R&B and practically swallowed it up.
According to Nielsen Soundscan, four of the 10 best-selling albums of the first half of 2018 were by black rap acts: Cardi B’s 1.13 million-selling Invasion of Privacy at number three followed by Migos’s Culture II (four, with 1.09 million in sales), J. Cole’s KOD (seven, moving 794,000), and XXXTentacion’s ? (nine, with 769,000 shifted). The Black Panther soundtrack, which was number five with sales of 1.06 million, is a de facto Kendrick Lamar album dominated by black rappers, mostly male. (White rapper Post Malone had two albums in the top 10.)
In comparison, only two of the best-selling albums of 2008 were by rappers (Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III at number one with 2.87 million units sold, according to Nielsen, and T.I.’s Paper Trail at number eight with 1.52 million sold). Taylor Swift had two albums in the year-end Top 10 — Fearless (2.11 million) and Taylor Swift (1.6 million) at numbers three and six, respectively — and Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce was 2008’s 10th-biggest hit, with 1.46 million units sold.
To be completely fair, women in general aren’t dominating pop quite like they were in 2008, when Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Pink, Taylor Swift, and the aforementioned Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Carey were among the ladies putting out the hits and soundly upstaging their male rivals. Still, non-black female singers continue to fare quite nicely. Taylor Swift and Adele are two of the biggest stars in the world, and both have won a pair of Album of the Year Grammys this decade.
The list of ladies who have emerged as viable pop stars since 2010 — Ariana Grande, Bebe Rexha, Camilla Cabello, Demi Lovato, Dua Lipa, Meghan Trainor, Sia, Selena Gomez — is impressively diverse, but it’s short on black.
SZA aside, none of the rising crop of black female singers are quite of the same commercial caliber as their male counterparts: The Weeknd, whose Starboy was 2017’s eighth best-selling album, has quickly amassed a string of big hits. Khalid’s singles haven’t done as well as The Weeknd’s, but he scored the 10th best-selling album of last year with his debut American Teen.
Although Frank Ocean has been fairly quiet lately, he’s enjoyed both critical and commercial success in recent years. Even Chris Brown remains bankable more than a decade into his recording career, as his 2017 platinum-certified Heartbreak on a Full Moon proves. And when Drake sings, people still listen — and buy, download, and stream.
His recent Instagram BFF Sade is working on her first album of new material since 2010’s Soldier of Love, and it will be interesting to see how it fares in the current climate. She’s been defying trends for her entire career, but hopefully, this time, she’ll cement one, a new old-school era where sisters with voices will rise — and rule — once again.