10 Blackest Songs: Embracing esoteric Blackness

OPINION: For Black Music Month, theGrio is featuring a weekly series in which our writers name the songs they believe best represent the Black experience. Matthew Allen offers his list, leaning into more abstract examples of Blackness in connection to regions and generations.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

For Black Music Month, Panama Jackson, Toure and I were tasked to each come up with a playlist of 10 songs that we each categorized as the 10 Blackest. It’s an intriguing experiment to see what each of us would come up with, not only in terms of choosing songs but our criteria of what Blackness means to us. 

For me, I decided to take a different approach.

My criteria for curating my playlist was defined by something I call “esoteric Blackness,” using a more nuanced niche technique. Blackness is not a monolith; however, there are several aspects of Black life that, while they vary in tone & emotion, unite us.

If you don’t recognize some of these songs, don’t worry, because that’s the point. What means something to one group or generation of Black Americans may not mean as much to another. 

Songs from this playlist are Black niche because many of them are held dear by a very particular group, region and/or generation of Black people. This means some may not get it, but those who do will get it right away. In other words, this is a playlist of the ultimate “you had to be there” joints.

“Living For The Weekend,” The O’Jays

This song encapsulates the mindset of the Black everyman and everywoman. Whether you’re a teacher, a social worker or a customer service rep, many of us are working hard all week just to earn that little slice of heaven known as Friday and Saturday night. The O’Jays, and writers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, were able to communicate what the eye of the storm is like in this vicious circle of the mundane.

HONORABLE MENTION: “A Rolling Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’,” De La Soul featuring Q-Tip

“My Boo,” Ghost Town DJs

So much of Black music’s innovation leaned heavily on the sound of its region. “My Boo” is an example of how southern hip-hop infiltrated the mainstream with its scattershot hi-hats and kick drums. There’s also the unique dialect that Black Americans create. The term “boo,” a slang term of endearment for a significant other or love interest, much like the term “beau” is, took hold of the community for years and years. 

HONORABLE MENTION: “Shorty Swing My Way,” KP & Envyi

“Patches,” Clarence Carter

Carter’s poignant story of a sharecropper’s son needing to become the man of the house at 13 after his father dies. “Patches, I’m depending on you, son/I’ve tried to do my best/It’s up to you to do the rest.” This speaks to the epidemic of Black children needing to grow up faster to pick up the slack stemming from living in a single-parent household or having impoverished parents. It showed how Patches’ dad’s dying words put pressure on a child, but it served as encouragement that got him through tough times. 

HONORABLE MENTION: “All That I Got is You,” Ghostface Killah

“Fairy Tales,” Anita Baker

Before being “woke” became a weapon for white people to use against us, it was a term used to speak of those who recognize what is real when others cannot. “Fairy Tales” features Baker singing about seeing through the fantasies about life and love that get fed to us as children, only to find out the truth is much more somber.

HONORABLE MENTION: “Compared to What,” Eugene McDaniels

“Zoom,” The Commodores

In the face of insurmountable obstacles and turmoil that Black Americans have endured since being brought to this country, one of the purest elements that contribute to our endurance is hope. “Zoom” is the personification of daring to dream, despite all the pain, to “fly away” to a place where a mind “can be fresh and clear.” 

HONORABLE MENTION: “Visions,” Stevie Wonder

“Sugar Honey Ice Tea,” Goodfellaz

One of the hallmarks of Black American life is the formation of coded language. Since the days of slavery, we’ve used language and dialect to deliver messages to one another that the masses wouldn’t understand. What the Goodfellaz did with “Sugar Honey Ice Tea” was an example of that tradition. The title is an acronym for “sh-t,” and with the lyric of “sh-t, I love you,” you see it’s the communication of the youthful expression of love and infatuation.

HONORABLE MENTION: “Blackberry Molasses,” Mista

“Full of Smoke,” Christión

For many decades, the depiction of the anti-hero has been glorified throughout Black art. It’s been done in films and music. Christión’s “Full of Smoke” may not be as well known as a song like Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” but it’s well known to fans of a Black TV institution, Fox’s New York Undercover. Its atmospheric instrumentation enhances Christión’s sinuous vocal about embracing the mystery of dangerous activity and settings. 

HONORABLE MENTION: “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” Jay-Z

“Candy Licker,” Marvin Sease

Some art can be considered crude, but sometimes the truth is crude. The Black community has often had to buy explicit records from stores that used to be hidden behind the cash register. The brightly bluesy “Candy Licker” is one such record, often played after hours at gatherings where brown liquor is served. It’s a first-person account from a man named Jodie. The legend of Jodie goes back generations in the Black community as a man who pleases another man’s wife when the husband is too busy working to fulfill her needs. 

HONORABLE MENTION: “F U Symphony,” Millie Jackson

“The After Party,” Koffee Brown

The selection of his one-hit wonder from the turn of the 21st century is a representation of the exuberance that comes with celebrating life. Since this is the only hit that Koffee Brown had, what makes this song so Black is that it represented a time in Black music that sticks with the listener. There are few phrases more Black than “Ooooh! I almost forgot this jam,” right before the dancing begins.  

HONORABLE MENTION: “Here We Go Again,” Portrait

“Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call),” Stevie Wonder

There’s nothing like the power of nostalgia. The act of looking back and reflecting on the events and feelings of your past is something that links all human beings. For the Black community, nostalgia is deeply linked to simpler times of childhood; when you took for granted just how innocent things used to be once. Wonder’s lush harmonica-led instrumental paints a vivid picture of kids playing in the street at dusk, just before your mother sticks her head out of the window to tell you it’s time to come home.

HONORABLE MENTION: “Back in the Day,” Ahmad

Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based TV producer, director and award-winning music journalist. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and .BRIC TV.

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