In honor of Black History Month, Billboard takes a look at a few albums that exude blackness and black excellence. These albums explore the trials and tribulations of the black community while also offering a sense of awareness that leads to these artists teaching the black community about their excellence and how standing together is the answer to all the problems. Take a look at the list below.
Honorable Mentions: Common – Like Water for Chocolate, Nas – Untitled, Poor Righteous Teachers – Holy Intellect, X Clan – To the East, Blackwards, Boogie Down Productions – Edutainment
Brand Nubian – One for All
Brand Nubian’s influence on the culture will always be considered one of the game-changing impacts in hip-hop history, and One for All is evidence of that. The early ‘90s were awash with socially conscious and politically charged rap. The style of that time was a representation of the black culture. The colorful clothing paired with necklaces and emblems representing African culture was a perfect depiction of the beauty that is Africa. There were all types of rappers and groups channeling their inner activists to present messages of black self-love, justice and peace. Brand Nubian was one of those groups in this golden age of hip-hop, and their debut album, One for All, became a staple of the conscious hip-hop that dominated the era.
Brand Nubian adopted the teachings of the Five-Percent Nation in their lyrical content and music, especially on their album One for All. The album introduced a number of young black individuals to the idea of black excellence. Many artists of that time preached the same ideas, but the difference with Brand Nubian was the fun, good-humored tone of the album. Production was handled by not only Brand Nubian, but Skeff Anslem, Dante Ross, Stimulated Dummies and Dave “Jam” Hall. Grand Puba, Sadat X and Lord Jamar Allah released one of the most influential debut albums in hip-hop history.
Messages of black knowledge and living as black kings and queens were found all over the album. Records like “Concerto in X Minor,” which promoted black consciousness, and “Slow Down,” a record dedicated to black women upholding their beauty, showed the group’s creativity and ability to discuss serious topics while adding a sense of playfulness to the conversation. It was a sharp difference from the record-selling gangsta rap of the early ‘90s, but it wasn’t as overbearing as other Afrocentric releases of that time.
Mos Def & Talib Kweli – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Lyrical wordsmiths Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def) released one of the most intelligent and extensive examinations of black culture with their collaborative album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Released in 1998, Black Star was a major turnaround from the big-time production that dominated rap in the late ‘90s. The album featured minimal yet uncompromising production from Hi-Tek, 88-Keys, J. Rawls, Da Beatminerz and more. The lyrical content, however, was far from sparse, as the duo spit some of the most complex, thought-provoking lyrics of that time. Keep in mind that both Kweli and Bey were fairly new MCs who didn’t release a full-length project before the release of Black Star.
The chemistry between the two MCs is on full display on this album. Kweli and Bey never miss a beat as they address the issues that plagued the black community while also teaching the importance of black history and culture to their listeners. Records like “Brown-Skin Lady” on which the duo encourages women of color to embrace their beauty, and “Definition,” where the topic of violence in hip-hop is discussed, Kweli and Bey filled the immediate void that 2Pac and Biggie Smalls left after their untimely passing. Right from the start, on the opening song “Astronomy (8th Light),” Kweli and Bey explore the meaning of the word “black” in a positive light as opposed to the negative connotations surrounding the color. Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey’s influence on black culture runs deep, and Black Star is their introduction into that role.
dead prez – Let’s Get Free
The debut album by dead prez, Let’s Get Free, is direct and confrontational. No stones were left unturned as M-1 and stic.man criticized the media, politicians, society and the music industry as a whole. The ideas of socialism and black power are discussed with a sense of urgency that hadn’t been seen since the days of Public Enemy. The production is sparse and at times difficult to take in, but it truly captures the raw emotion of the entire project.
The opening track features Chairman Omali Yeshitela, of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, giving a speech about a method of hunting used by African tribes that lures wolves to suicide. The speech is then compared to the crack epidemic and its relevance to the black community. From that point on, listeners are taken on an uncensored, unfiltered ride through what it means to be black.
The album can be seen as a revolutionary cry to black liberation and socialism. “I’m a African” is a moving tribute to the Pan-Africanism movement. “They Schools” is a response to the power that white people have in the public education system in the United States, while “Police State” and “Behind Enemy Lines” discuss the systematic oppression of black Americans by law enforcement and the government.
Despite the radical, uncensored mood of the album, M-1 and stic.man offer requests for self-respect, love and happiness. “Be Healthy” is an ode to eating natural foods and exercise. “Mind Sex” is about appreciating your significant other mentally as opposed to physically and “Happiness” is a reminder that even though there are transgressions, the black community can still be happy.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a masterful look into Kendrick’s thoughts on personal and political subjects related to race, culture and discrimination. The album showcases Kendrick’s transition from his outlook of Compton to his outlook on being black in America. The album has elements of jazz, funk, soul and conscious rap spread throughout as Kendrick released an album fitting of the renewed black activism at the time.
“Wesley’s Theory” takes a look at the idea that black men aren’t taught money management, while “These Walls” tackles sex, prison and the human psyche all at once. “King Kunta,” “i” and “Alright” offer strong messages of empowerment and hope. Kendrick Lamar, being the prophet that he is, understands his place in not only hip-hop, but in society as well. Kendrick explains it perfectly on the album’s closer, “Mortal Man,” on which he aligns himself with leaders in the black community like Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and Tupac Shakur. Just like the leaders he mentions, Kendrick has to reach out and inspire those to change the world for the better with the time he has left on earth.
JAY-Z – 4:44
When word got out that JAY-Z would be releasing his 13th studio album, very few people knew it would be this open and “black.” 4:44 is a personal, emotional ride of redemption, forgiveness, race and family lineage. With contributions from JAY-Z, the entire album is produced by No I.D., a move unfamiliar for Jay, as he’s worked with numerous producers on previous albums. No I.D. provides JAY-Z with a raw, unfiltered sound that allows him to enter a state of vulnerability he’s unfamiliar with but masters gracefully.
When JAY-Z speaks, people listen -- and 4:44 is no different. The album features the God MC touching on a variety of topics, such as the culture of hip-hop and his relationships and family life. Most importantly, Jay speaks on the issues of black stereotypes and racism while giving his views on how black ownership and capitalism can free the black community. “The Story of OJ” references these ideas along with the experience of being black in America and how the black community should use their money.
“Family Feud” is a call to action against separation among the black community, and “Legacy” promotes black capitalism. Jay has always been the voice in hip-hop for the modern black community, so for him to admit his mistakes and try to change for the better, Jay is giving the blueprint to the community in order to do the same.
Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet
With their first two albums, Public Enemy became the leaders of a hip-hop movement that promoted a new sense of black awareness. Their previous album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, was critically acclaimed and found itself on many year-end top albums lists for its production and heavy sociopolitical lyrics. The follow-up would have huge shoes to fill, but that was quickly dismissed as Fear of a Black Planet shattered expectations. The album would change the landscape of hip-hop forever with its effects still felt to this day.
Dealing with the controversy of Professor Griff’s anti-Semitic comments and the resulting backlash, Public Enemy used that as a fuel for the writing behind Fear of a Black Planet. What Public Enemy was able to do with their third album was create a heavy project that channeled upstanding anger and incandescent avidity. The chaotic blend of sounds ranging from countless samples to shifting rhythms created a masterpiece that fit the conflicted tone of the album.
The lyrical content Public Enemy preached on the album focuses on the sociopolitical issues impacting the black community and the liberation and organization of African-Americans. Fear of a Black Planet became the quintessential conscious rap album. It took hip-hop to astronomical heights and shook up the foundations of the music industry with their use of heavy sampling and their blunt, unfiltered attitude toward white America.
“Fight the Power,” “Power to the People” and “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” are just some of the records that present a retort for the black community to the issues that plague them. “Revolutionary Generation” praises the enduring resilience of black women, while “Pollywanacracka” examines the idea that white is good and black is bad within the black community while asking the community to love each other. If there’s an album that should be played every year for Black History Month, Fear of a Black Planet is it.