Iman Mekonen, Spectrum Editor
One of the best things about music is its ability to bring you back to a moment in time or a specific period of your life.
It could be the album you listened to during freshman move-in, songs you overheard while riding in the car with your parents as a child or a study playlist that got you through a tough finals week.
For Black History Month, I’ve compiled a list of four albums that have had that effect on me, all made by extremely talented black women. They perfectly explain the duality of what it means to be a black woman through themes of love, heartbreak and growing up.
All of these albums have different meanings and interpretations, depending on who you ask. But isolated, each is a great piece of art that has shaped the black community as well as the music industry.
‘The Diary of Alicia Keys’ by Alicia Keys (2003)
Alicia Keys showed the world just how powerful and soulful her voice is with “The Diary of Alicia Keys,” paired with her memorizing piano skills.
Written when she was 22, Keys was well ahead of her time with her mature and wise writing perspective, shown in the monumental soulful vocals of “If I Ain’t Got You” and “Diary.”
Longtime listeners such as myself most likely have the phone dialogue from “You Don’t Know My Name” memorized. The song gives the listener butterflies in their stomach as Keys navigates love at first sight.
This album doesn’t structurally sound like any other. “The Diary of Alicia Keys” has defined how layered the R&B genre can be by using sharp horns and drum beats in “Karma” contrasted with the soft guitar strums in “Samsonite Man.”
‘Anti’ by Rihanna (2016)
Since its release in 2016, “Anti” is still one of Rihanna’s best albums.
Rihanna pours her heart out while experimenting with sounds throughout the album. This playful and fun record diverges from Rihanna’s previous dance-heavy material with a collection of different genres ranging from soul, folk and Carribean-inspired dance beats.
Her stripped-down vocals in “Love on the Brain” and “Higher” flood the listener with emotion to the point where one might feel compelled to sing with the same level of passion — or at least make a valiant attempt.
These songs completely contrast with the familiar dance energy in “Work” and “Needed Me.”
Rihanna’s successful music career along with her business endeavors almost makes me forgive the drought that has proceeded the release of this album. Until then, I’ll continue listening to “Anti” in hopes of an upcoming album.
‘Lemonade’ by Beyonce Knowles (2016)
“Lemonade,” and its accompanying short film, is an honest portrayal of the waves of emotion that come with heartbreak. Beyonce Knowles finds a way to emotionally connect to her audience from a vulnerable state by showing different emotions. She shows self-empowerment on “Hold Up” and “Sorry,” resentment on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and heartbreak on “Love Drought.”
When Adele won over Knowles for album of the year at the 59th Grammy Awards, Adele said in her acceptance speech “The Lemonade album is just … so monumental to me. And so well thought out and so beautiful and soul bearing, and we got to see another side to you that you don’t let us see, and we appreciate that. … The way you make me and my friends feel and the way you make my black friends feel is empowering, and you make them stand up for themselves.”
Adele’s words perfectly encapsulate what it’s like to listen to this album.
‘Ctrl’ by SZA (2017)
The storytelling aspect highlighted in a lot of these albums is especially strong in “Ctrl.” Each song literally connects with the next, seamlessly flowing together throughout the record.
“Ctrl” focuses thematically on the concept of control in different parts of life. Some of the songs include phone conversations at the beginning or end of them with words of advice from her mom and grandmother.
In the opening track, “Supermodel,” the mom says “That is my greatest fear / That if, if I lost control / Or did not have control, things would just, you know / I would be … fatal.”
Overall, the album feels like a book, with more of the character’s story unfolding. Each song is a different life experience following a girl growing up in her mid-20s and making mistakes.
“Ctrl” is Sza’s only album to date, but it remains such a powerful use of storytelling in an overall well-crafted piece of work.