Black History Month: UNSUNG – The Vocalists

A genre-spanning survey of extraordinary — albeit underrated — singers and emcees.

by
Lizz Wright performs in 2019. Credit: Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns via Getty

Welcome to week two of UNSUNG, a four-part series of articles celebrating Black History Month at TIDAL Read. In this roundup we highlight some of our favorite current vocalists of color — all of them successful and brilliant singers or emcees, though still sometimes overlooked by the broader music-appreciating public. In other pieces we’ll explore producers and songwriters/composers, and in our first offering we underscored musicians– Ed.

Ab-Soul

A member of the supergroup Black Hippy alongside Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock and ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul digs deep as a lyricist, offering up philosophical raps on religion, government and overall consciousness. Born and raised in Carson, Calif., he released his first project, Longterm, in 2009. Its follow-upLongterm 2: Lifestyles of the Broke and Almost Famous, came out the following year and received wide critical plaudits. His next landmark project, Control System, was released in 2012 and proved to be his most vulnerable statement to date. During the production of the project, his longtime love, singer Alori Joh, committed suicide. The late singer’s vocals can be heard on the tracks “A Rebellion” and “Empathy,” but her legacy is also honored on the melancholic “The Book of Soul.” On the track, Ab-Soul pours his heart out over jazzy piano keys sampled from Ahmad Jamal’s “Swahililand.” He unfolds the story of their romance and offers a glimpse into his childhood, when he suffered with Stevens-Johnson syndrome.

AZ

Born Anthony Cruz, AZ came of age in the hip-hop world alongside the legends, hailing from Brooklyn, the hometown of seemingly countless great emcees. He first appeared on Nas’ critically acclaimed album Illmatic, on the song “Life’s a Bitch,” and rubbed elbows with Biggie and JAY-Z, appearing in the music video for the latter’s “Dead Presidents.” His well-reviewed, bestselling 1995 debut, Doe or Die, yielded the single “Sugar Hill.” Shortly thereafter he joined forces with Nas, Foxy Brown and Nature to form the supergroup the Firm.

On his 2002 album, Aziatic, the emcee linked up with his frequent collaborator Nas for the song “The Essence.” On the track, the two rhyme back and forth, reminiscing about the past and discussing the finer things in life. Nominated for a Grammy, the cut serves as a follow-up check-in with one of hip-hop’s beloved unofficial duos. It’s also another example of AZ’s effortless ability to go toe-to-toe with Nas, solidifying why Anthony Cruz should be considered hip-hop royalty as well.

Bilal

A charter member of the innovative class of neo-soul singers that rejuvenated R&B in the late ’90s (alongside Erykah Badu, Maxwell and D’Angelo), Philadelphia native Bilal Oliver decidedly stresses the “neo” in his music. His stunningly diverse 2001 debut, 1st Born Second, showcased an adventurous imagination that earned apt comparisons to such funky eccentrics as Prince, George Clinton and Sly Stone. His follow-up fell victim to an online leak, leading to a near-decade-long release hiatus. In the meantime, Bilal cemented his status as everyone’s favorite virtuoso guest star. He has graced dozens of cuts by the likes of the Roots, Robert Glasper and Common, and was a crucial component of Kendrick Lamar’s renowned To Pimp a Butterfly.

Mick Collins

Mick Collins grew up absorbing a balanced diet of Stax, Philadelphia soul, early rock pioneers like Little Richard and the requisite Motown sounds emanating from his hometown of Detroit. You can hear all those influences throughout his own sprawling catalog, from the gnarly funk of the Voltaire Brothers to the punk-blues hybrid explored with the Gories. The latter band became a central figure in the Detroit Rock renaissance of the late ’80s and early ’90s, influencing future giants like the White Stripes. But Collins refined that approach even further with the Dirtbombs, his singing having matured into a magnetic hybrid of soul swagger and garage-rock snarl. A classic vocal showcase is the band's charmingly ragged 2001 record, Ultraglide in Black. It’s like hearing a Motown frontman hold court at a cramped, sweaty basement gig.

Raheem DeVaughn

The release of Decade of a Love King in 2018 shaved a few years off of Raheem DeVaughn’s reign. The neo-soul singer had already taken to sporting a gold crown by the time of his 2005 debut, The Love Experience. That knack for self-promoting showmanship has carried the prolific crooner from his independent early days, when he made his name on the underground D.C. scene, through three Grammy nominations. While his voice traverses a staggering range, he wields it for a singular purpose. There’s a reason the “L” word pops up in the title of every one of DeVaughn’s albums — each of which provides a sultry soundtrack for those moments when the lights are low.

Franklin James Fisher

Franklin James Fisher, the dynamic frontman for experimental rock act Algiers, has a style as freewheeling as the band itself. The Atlanta-raised multi-instrumentalist, who co-founded the project in 2012, is equal parts soul belter, gospel preacher and post-punk noisemaker — as comfortable screaming himself hoarse as he is soothing with a slinky croon. It’s a perfect vehicle for the group’s largely political lyrics, igniting every snarl and murmur with uncontainable urgency. For the purest distillation of that approach, check out Algiers’ second LP, 2017’s The Underside of Power, which finds Fisher raving about “self-genocide” and a “crypto-fascist contagion” over strangled distortion and rumbling electronics.

AJ Haynes

From the outset, most critics have labeled Seratones as a meeting ground for vintage soul and garage-rock, but the Louisiana quintet — and their scene-stealing frontwoman — dig even deeper than that description implies. With her robust, cinematic belting, AJ Haynes commands every second of the band’s second LP, 2019’s Power. She adds a candy-coated twang to the R&B sparkle of “Fear,” soars like an eagle over the psych-pop throb of “Power,” flaunts a flickering vibrato atop the doo-wop groove of “Lie to My Face” and channels a suave funk attitude on “Sad Boi.”

Pharoahe Monch

Recognized for his remarkable wordplay and labyrinthine approach to rhythm, Pharoahe Monch has been a mainstay of underground hip-hop for over two decades. The South Jamaica, Queens, native first captivated listeners as one half of the duo Organized Konfusion, with Prince Po. After both artists went solo, Monch signed to Rawkus Records and released his critically lauded album Internal Affairs in 1999. That project yielded the Billboard Hot 100-charting single “Simon Says,” which went on to become a quintessential ’90s hip-hop anthem. Gliding over a loop of a major riff from a Godzilla theme, Monch showcases his signature wordplay, and his demanding “Get the fuck up” refrain makes it impossible not to get hype.

Catherine Russell

Hearing Catherine Russell sing vintage jazz songs is akin to stepping into a musical time machine. Reviving tunes from the first half of the 20th century on albums like the Grammy-nominated Harlem on My Mind, she connects vibrantly with the spirit of the times while expressing the emotions with a thoroughly modern spirit. Perhaps it’s simply in her blood: Russell’s father, Luis Russell, was a legendary pianist and bandleader who served as Louis Armstrong’s longtime music director; her mother, Carline Ray, was a multi-instrumentalist and singer who worked with Mary Lou Williams and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Russell herself spent years singing back-up for superstars like Steely Dan and David Bowie before enjoying a mid-career renaissance as a revered interpreter of early jazz and R&B.

Lizz Wright

Raised in the small town of Hahira, Georgia, by her minister father, Lizz Wright had an upbringing you might call sheltered. TV viewing was strictly limited, while music was a vehicle for spiritual communion. Wright’s horizons have expanded vastly since then — she’s explored the work of songwriters from Ray Charles to Nick Drake to Allen Toussaint, and collaborated with Meshell Ndegeocello, Calexico and Jakob Dylan — but a divine glow pervades her lustrous voice, whether the subject of a song is reverent or sensual. Her 2010 album, Fellowship, brought her full circle, stirring the soul with gospel favorites and faith-oriented songs by Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, while 2015’s stunning Freedom & Surrender was more intimate. In either case, Wright’s rich jazz interpretations are redolent of her rural upbringing and her beatific outlook.

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