From Bessie Smith to Cardi B: 25 essential songs by Black women that rocked the world
Game changing pop, rock, jazz, blues and hip-hop recordings by Black women, from Bessie Smith to Cardi B.
Destined to make history as the biggest single of 2020, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s rap hit “WAP” is smart, vulgar, provocative, highly entertaining, and, like so many influential hit songs before it, divisive.
It’s the sound of two gifted artists rocking the music business, a traditionally white male-dominated industry that Black women have been successfully infiltrating for the past century.
From the beginning of blues and jazz in the 1920s to where funk transitioned into disco in the ’70s to any number of significant changes in hip-hop and pop from the ’80s onward, you will find one common denominator: Black women leading the way.
In celebration of the myriad contributions they've made to popular music, we've compiled a list of 25 songs by Black women that have influenced the music world as well as popular culture in general. These are essential recordings by recording artists who each have had long, successful careers well worth a deeper examination.
Songs are presented in chronological order. Each composition – just like each recording artist – stands on its own merits as one of the most important works from the past 100 years.
‘Downhearted Blues’ (1922) by Bessie Smith
Less than two years after the adoption of the 19th Amendment ensuring women the right to vote, Bessie Smith entered a New York City recording studio on a winter day in 1922 and recorded her debut single, an achingly beautiful rendition of the unrequited love ballad “Downhearted Blues.” It would go on to sell a couple million copies and launch Smith’s illustrious career as “Empress of the Blues.”
‘See See Rider’ (1924) by Ma Rainey
Long before “See See Rider” became a folk-rock favorite covered by Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Elvis Presley and the Grateful Dead, “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey made the first, and best, recording of the song in 1924. Backed by her Georgia Jazz Band featuring future legends Fletcher Henderson on piano and Louis Armstrong on cornet, Rainey gives the song about love, sex and deceit a deep, emotional interpretation. She progresses from sad to mad as she moans “you made me love you” before warning of purchasing “a pistol just as long as I am tall.”
‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ (1938) by Ella Fitzgerald
Not long removed from her teenage days spent singing on the streets of Harlem, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald shot to stardom in 1938 with her stunning performance of “A Tisket, A Tasket.” Based on an old nursery rhyme, Fitzgerald co-composed the song that went on to become a standard and put Fitzgerald on her way to being crowned the "Queen of Jazz."
‘Strange Fruit’ (1939) by Billie Holiday
Before most of the best-known protest singers of ’60s were even born, Billie Holiday risked her career as a rising jazz star to jump labels and record perhaps the most powerful protest song of them all, “Strange Fruit.” A devastating ballad about the lynching of Blacks in the South, Holiday’s rich, harrowing vocal made the song her biggest hit to date while offering listeners around the world a harsh snapshot of the horrors being perpetrated down in Dixie.
‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’ (1944) by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s distinctive singing and stylish lead guitar playing on this rollicking 1944 rendition of the Black spiritual make it one of the best examples of primal rock ’n’ roll. Credited as the first gospel single to cross over to the mainstream, Tharpe’s recording reached No. 2 on the Billboard “race” chart, later renamed the R&B chart.
‘At Last’ (1960) by Etta James
A nice enough show tune recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra and others throughout the 1940s and ’50s, “At Last” became a juggernaut when commanded by Etta James, who forever altered the way popular recording artists approached not just that song but, in many ways, singing in general. Polished yet highly emotive, sexy and eternally cool, James’ title track to her dazzling 1960 debut album launched her long, storied career and would go on to be successfully covered in James’ distinctive style by Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé.
‘Where Did Our Love Go’ (1964) by The Supremes
The Supremes released a handful of singles between 1961 and ’63 that all bricked before they issued the impossibly dulcet breakup song “Where Did Our Love Go” featuring the cooing vocals of Diana Ross. The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and The Supremes followed it with four more No. 1 hits on their way to becoming one of the most popular acts on the planet, right up there with The Beatles, before launching the solo career of Ross.
‘Mississippi Goddam’ (1964) by Nina Simone
A singer, songwriter and pianist who excelled at everything from jazz and classical to blues and pop, Nina Simone penned the rousing “Mississippi Goddam” as a reaction to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a Black Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. The most striking protest song of the ’60s, the bouncy ditty with a booming vocal first appeared on her 1964 album “Nina Simone in Concert” recorded at Carnegie Hall. “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ ” Simone tells the crowd by way of introduction. “And I mean every word of it.”
‘Respect’ (1967) by Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin’s milestone debut album for Atlantic, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” opens with the greatest cover in the history of popular music. Franklin perfected her ownership of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – adding key elements like the “sock-it-to-me” call and response – and the song became a feminist anthem for the ages.
‘Nutbush City Limits’ (1973) by Tina Turner
Before Tina Turner established herself as a superstar in the 1980s with hits like “What's Love Got to Do with It,” “Private Dancer” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome),” she had to break free of husband, musical partner and personal tormentor Ike Turner. One of the last singles issued by Ike & Tina Turner, “Nutbush City Limits” is a forceful rocker penned by Tina about her upbringing in rural Tennessee. It became a multi-genre hit, paving the way for her solo career and famously covered by Bob Seger as the opening cut on his multi-platinum ’76 album “Live Bullet.”
‘Lady Marmalade’ (1974) by Labelle
A quarter century before Christina Aguilera, Mýa, Pink and Lil’ Kim recorded it on the “Moulin Rouge!” soundtrack, funk-rock girl group Labelle featuring future solo star Patti LaBelle were the first to have a No. 1 hit with “Lady Marmalade” – shocking and elating listeners in 1974 when they sang “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” (Folks soon figured out that was French for “Do you want to sleep with me, tonight?”) More than just totally owning that sexy chorus, though, there’s that propulsive rhythm Labelle is rocking, which ushered in the disco era.
‘Love to Love You Baby’ (1975) by Donna Summer
Donna Summer’s ascent to the “Queen of Disco” throne began with her 17-minute epic “Love to Love You Baby” that consumed the entire first side of her 1975 album of the same name. Co-written by Summer and issued as a 3-minute single, the song finds her moaning and groaning in a state of sexual ecstasy never really heard before on record, leading many radio stations to refuse to play it. Regardless, the song hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 – with the full-length version heating up nightclubs across the U.S. and Europe – and then was heard again in 2003 as part of Beyoncé’s top five hit “Naughty Girl.”
‘I’m So Excited’ (1984) by The Pointer Sisters
Co-written and performed by The Pointer Sisters, “I’m So Excited” captures the thrill of finding love, perhaps only for a few red-hot hours on a Saturday night, as well as any song in pop history. Originally issued on the group’s 1982 “So Excited!” LP, a remixed version would be included on their blockbuster ’84 album “Break Out” that produced four top 10 singles: “I’m So Excited,” “Jump (For My Love),” “Automatic” and “Neutron Dance.”
‘Nasty’ (1986) by Janet Jackson
Freed from her controlling father/manager Joseph Jackson and husband James DeBarge, Janet Jackson made her breakthrough 1986 album “Control” that would produce five top five singles including the showstopper “Nasty.” With lyrics that only Jackson could have written and delivered with such aplomb, the song contains one memorable line after another including the pop culture touchstone: “My first name ain’t baby, it’s Janet; Miss Jackson, if you’re nasty.”
‘Ladies First’ (1989) by Queen Latifah
Before becoming an Oscar-nominated movie star (2002’s “Chicago”) and gifted singer of soul/jazz standards (2004’s Grammy-nominated “The Dana Owens Album”), Queen Latifah ranked among the most important and successful rappers of her generation. While “U.N.I.T.Y.” would be her big, breakout hit in ’93, it all started with her 1989 debut album “All Hail the Queen,” featuring the formidable feminist anthem “Ladies First.”
‘Vision of Love’ (1990) by Mariah Carey
The most influential pop song of the past 30 years, Mariah Carey’s 1990 debut single, which she co-wrote, is a simple enough love ditty until the vocal acrobatics come through the speakers like a some kind of new sonic superpower. Singing lead and background, Carey popularized the use of awe-inspiring vocal runs (melisma) and equally amazing high notes (the whistle register), which basically every pop singer and “American Idol” contestant has emulated since.
‘I Will Always Love You’ (1992) by Whitney Houston
No entertainer has ever had been more successful than Whitney Houston in 1992. Her star vehicle “The Bodyguard” became the highest-grossing live action film of the year and its soundtrack topped the pop chart on its way to becoming one of the best-selling albums of all time. Both these feats were largely propelled by the single “I Will Always Love You,” Houston’s soaring and heartbreaking R&B makeover of Dolly Parton’s country hit from the 1970s.
‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ (1998) by Lauryn Hill
Hip-hop became a mainstream phenomenon like never before when singer, rapper and musical genius Lauryn Hill left the Fugees and issued “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the song of the summer of ’98 and the first single off her solo masterpiece “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Written and produced by Hill, the chart-topping, Grammy-winning smash incorporates elements of R&B, soul and hip-hop; offering clever lines, catchy beats, and a message of mutual love and respect that sounds as fresh today as it did when first heard pouring out of car stereos 22 years ago.
‘Get Ur Freak On’ (2001) by Missy Elliott
Co-written with her childhood friend and longtime producer Timbaland, rapper extraordinaire Missy Elliott became an international star in 2001 with “Get Ur Freak On.” Over a bhangra-style beat that sounds at once exotic and erotic, Elliott works in witty, often hilarious, rhymes informed by equal parts feminism and freakiness; sending the single to the top 10 in the U.S. and U.K., with it also charting in numerous other countries.
‘Crazy in Love’ (2003) by Beyoncé
Already famous for Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé cemented her superstar status by executive producing and co-writing most of the material for her 2003 solo debut “Dangerously in Love,” including the lead single/first track “Crazy in Love” that became one the year’s top hits. An effervescent love song, featuring an intro and cameo by then-boyfriend Jay-Z, “Crazy in Love” deftly melds pop, R&B and hip-hop with Beyoncé’s expressive vocals front and center.
‘No One’ (2007) by Alicia Keys
“No One” finds pianist Alicia Keys at the top of her game as singer, songwriter and co-producer with the 2007 song staying at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for five straight weeks. Keys would later explain, during a recording of “VH1 Storytellers,” that she wrote “No One” as an afterthought while completing her “As I Am” album on which it appears. She says that the song, one of the most beautiful love songs of all time, just came to her, and that she doesn’t know from where the song came. “It’s a rare occasion that this happens,” she says. Yes indeed.
‘Super Bass’ (2011) by Nicki Minaj
Rapper and singer Nicki Minaj’s distinctive vocal stylings, often incorporating various accents from both sides of the Atlantic, finally went mainstream in 2010 with the release of her debut album “Pink Friday” and its multitude of hit singles. None, though, were quite as impactful as the fifth single, the electronic-informed “Super Bass” that Minaj co-wrote about the thrills of flirting on her own terms. The song became an international smash with Minaj’s historic run of hits continuing right into 2020 with the No. 1 singles “Say So” and “Trollz.”
‘We Found Love’ (2011) by Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris
Possessing a warmly textured voice with a light West Indian lilt, Rihanna hit new pop highs with her sixth studio album “Talk That Talk,” which she executive produced. Strong throughout, the album’s lead single “We Found Love,” featuring Scottish DJ Calvin Harris’ thumping electro house and a blast of old school techno, gives Rihanna the perfect platform to sell the world on her vision of finding “love in a hopeless place.”
‘Truth Hurts’ (2017) by Lizzo
The most electrifying entertainer of 2019, Lizzo arrived on the scene with her rock-solid third studio album “Cuz I Love You” boasting a pair of hits – “Juice” and “Tempo” featuring Missy Elliott – that sounded smarter, fresher and often wickedly funnier than anything else released that year. But singer, rapper, songwriter and flutist Lizzo had an even bigger smash tucked away. After going viral via TikTok and being heard in the Netflix movie “Someone Great,” Lizzo’s wildly catchy and clever “Truth Hurts,” originally released in 2017, became her first No. 1 hit in 2019.
‘WAP’ (2020) by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion
The NSFW anthem of 2020, “WAP” features some of the raunchiest, most detailed and quotable lyrics of any hip-hop song ever recorded. A sex-positive masterstroke, albeit not for all tastes (its full title can't be repeated here), the song's rapper/lyricists deliver one supercharged sexual innuendo after another over sledgehammer bass and little else, their rhymes front and center: “I don’t cook, I don’t clean, but let me tell you how I got this ring.”
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