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The beautiful mosaic of Black art and music: Prospect recommendations

Prospect recommendations for Black History Month — and beyond

<h6>Payton Croskey / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Payton Croskey / The Daily Princetonian

In honor of Black History Month, Prospect writers share their favorite works of literature, music, and art created by Black artists, from Nikki Giovanni to Kanye West. The Daily Princetonian also created a playlist of songs recommended by Prospect staff, which you can listen to here.


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Ctrl. by SZA
Recommended by: Head Prospect Editor Auhjanae McGee

If you have not yet encountered the beauty of this four-time Grammy nominated album, I highly recommend that you give it a listen. SZA’s captivating vulnerability shines through her lyricism and storytelling. Throughout the work, she crafts a complex narrative about her insecurities, past relationships, past mistakes, and past mistakes in said relationships. She is a complicated protagonist (multiple tracks are told from her perspective as the “other woman”), but the genuine inner turmoil she faces in the quest to receive her lover’s affection is something that everyone can relate to on a fundamental level. 

The musicality is also mesmerizing, with most of the songs featuring spacey beats, lilting piano melodies, and SZA’s expressive vocals at the forefront. Her voice often takes on a subtle static-y effect, as if recorded on a voicemail machine, or as though you were listening to her sing through an old television, which speaks to the album’s overall themes of memory and nostalgia. It’s honestly an album you can turn on and just vibe to while you’re working on a p-set or doing laundry. Additionally, the recognition and accolades SZA earned for this album as a dark-skinned, Muslim, Black woman are incredible and cannot be overstated. The entire album is masterful, but my personal highlights of “Ctrl.” include: “Drew Barrymore,” because the lines “I’m sorry I’m not more attractive / I’m sorry I’m not more ladylike / I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night” speak to me in a way very few lines have been able to; “Broken Clocks,” because it epitomizes the album’s theme of nostalgia; and “Love Galore,” because the music video features SZA adorned in butterflies, and that, I believe, is an image that everyone should see at least once in their lives.

“Friday Black” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Recommended by: Head Prospect Editor Emerita Paige Allen

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Reading “Friday Black” this past summer, I was unsettled and chilled, caught at the end of each story between a drive to keep reading and a need to pause and process. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s 12 short stories make up an unflinching and urgent collection that explores the space speculative fiction opens for reflecting on our disturbing realities. Rooted in the experience of Blackness, the stories engage with racial injustice, addictive violence, and mass consumerism with biting humor and insight. Through a world of extremes, Adjei-Brenyah draws attention to our own everyday dystopias.

The Laws of Motion” by Nikki Giovanni
Recommended by: Senior Writer Aditi Desai

Eight nonfiction books, 10 spoken word albums, and 12 children’s books — Nikki Giovanni has explored numerous genres over her extraordinary 52-year writing career. Yet, the writing to which audiences continually return is her poetry. As a Black woman in America seeking outlets for self-expression, Giovanni first emerged as a writer during the Black Arts Movement, an American Literary Movement which took place in the 1960s and 70s and challenged the norms of writing as a medium for Black activism. 

Giovanni, alongside Black poets Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, naturally and powerfully embedded themes of Black autonomy and culture into her poems — many of which weave together nostalgic themes like breakfast foods and family affection. One of her most notable poems, “The Laws of Motion,” crisply pivots from the laws of nature to Black joy and struggle, tying science together with dichotomies of love and oppression. In this piece, her thoughts are structured with a kind of logic that offers an interesting rigidity, while still enabling words to melt into each other as if they naturally belong together:

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“Laws of motion tell us an inert object is more difficult to  
propel than an object heading in the wrong direction is to  
turn around. Motion being energy — inertia — apathy.  
Apathy equals hostility. Hostility — violence. Violence  
being energy is its own virtue. Laws of motion teach us
Black people are no less confused because of our  
Blackness than we are diffused because of our
powerlessness.”

Blues Music
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Kristiana Filipov

Do you love Peggy Lee’s “Fever” as featured in “The Queen’s Gambit”? “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley? “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin? So do I, but shamefully, I didn’t know until recently that these songs were originally performed by black artists. Little Willie John’s “Fever” received little recognition before Peggy Lee recorded her career-making cover. Big Mama Thornton released her version of “Hound Dog” four years before Elvis, and Led Zeppelin took significant (and unattributed) inspiration from Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love.” The influences of the blues in modern rock and pop music are nearly infinite, but with the exception of stars like Nina Simone and B.B. King, many of these artists are overshadowed by the white artists who appropriate and profit from the sounds of the blues. For this reason, I’ve been delving into the rich musical world of original blues songs, and I’ve curated a playlist of blues classics by both big names and more obscure artists. I hope you enjoy this vivid slice of musical history as much as I do! 

Listen to Kristiana’s playlist of blues songs here.

Photography by Deana Lawson
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Zoya Amir Gauhar

In thinking of Black creators, one immediate talent comes to mind, and that is Deana Lawson. Lawson, who is a professor of visual arts at the University, became the first photographer to be awarded the Hugo Boss Prize in October of last year. She uses a combination of mediums in her work, including both digital and analog photography, documentary, and old photos borrowed from her subjects to highlight everyday life, social and political structures, and many other themes. In engaging closely with her subjects, many of which she approaches on the streets, Lawson’s work provides a small window into everyday life, and in doing so, leaves an impact on her viewers.  

After taking VIS 213: Digital Photography with her my freshman year, her work, advice, and teaching remain a great inspiration in my own photography. 

A video including some images and Lawson’s acceptance of the 2020 Hugo Boss Prize can be found here.

Ten Terrific Songs by Black Artists and Their Samples
Recommended by: Contributing Writers Etiosa Omeike and Obinna Uzosike

Music transcends individual cultures, backgrounds, heritages, and most importantly, time. As the decades pass, songs and albums that have had a significant impact on hip hop and rap culture become timeless gems utilized by future upcoming artists for inspiration, manipulation, and most importantly, sampling. Sampling is a process through which artists, with permission, can borrow the sounds of a previous song and incorporate them into a new song in hopes of achieving an entirely new sound or throwing a new spin on a familiar tune. Over the years, sampling has generated multiple gems — so why not take a listen to some of them? Let’s examine ten terrific songs by Black artists and their music samples.

“Know Yourself” by Drake
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Etiosa Omeike
Sample: “Tinted Glass” by Network 

Drake, the winner of four Grammy and 27 Billboard Music Awards, is without a doubt one of the most widely known contemporary rappers and hip-hop artists. “If You’re Reading This It's Too Late” is, along with “Take Care,” arguably one of the best albums in his discography. The former album shows that Drake is a master of alternating between high-energy tracks like “Energy” and sulky ones like “Jungle,” but “Know Yourself” is, in my opinion, one of the best songs off the entire album. Producers Boi-1da, Vinylz and Syk Sense take a back-seat in the first half of this song, using muffled bass hits and a light snare drum to allow Drake’s lyricism and introspection to shine through. Then, towards the middle of the song, the energy completely shifts. A brilliant sample of “Tinted Glass” by Network, with heavy hitting snares and 808s gives energy to Drake’s iconic refrain — “I was running through the 6 with my woes / You know how that shit go” and other braggadocious lyrics — topping off of the most popular songs of 2015.

“Purity” by A$AP Rocky, ft. Frank Ocean
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Etiosa Omeike
Sample: “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” by Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill is an absolute icon in the world of music. Her diamond selling album “Miseducation of Ms. Lauryn Hill” is, put simply, absolute perfection. But what producers Rocky, Dean Blunt, FnZ, and Hector Delgado accomplish with a snippet of her song “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind,” a nine minute performance on “MTV Unplugged,” is absolutely ingenious. Transforming her slightly melancholic, hopeful singing and guitar playing into a drowned out, deepened variant, they completely change the mood of her song. All traces of hope in her opening lines, “see this what that voice in your head says / when you try to find peace of mind” disappear, instead becoming almost entirely woeful. Frank Ocean starts “Purity” with a rapid stream-of-conscious rap filled with some of my favorite couplets (“You're tweakin' or somethin', you're  reachin' / for somethin' / You're speakin', speak up then, you're thinkin', / you’re overthinkin’”). As impressive as Frank’s verse is though, the subsequent beat switch and ASAP Rocky’s verse really take the cake. The beat switches back to Lauryn Hill’s original melancholic hope as ASAP Rocky reflects on drug addiction, depression, and his lost relationships, using a deepened version of Lauryn Hill saying “I’m undone because” to cap off his lyrics. 

“Be (Intro)” by Common, produced by Kanye West
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Etiosa Omeike
Sample: “Mother Nature” by Albert Jones

Kanye West is many things: disagreeable, controversial, but also among the most artistically and musically gifted people to touch the Earth. On “Be (Intro),” the intro to Common’s album “Be,” Kanye West does more than just modulate down or speed up a song to create a sample — he effectively reconstructs the original song, “Mother Nature” by Albert Jones, to create the iconic beat on “Be (Intro).” Starting off with a simple bass line, Kanye gradually picks up the tempo, adding a video game-like synthesizer, piano, and a drum line. Even though the violin line is an exact replica, Kanye makes it feel like an entirely new song, aiding some of Common’s best lyrics. Kanye cuts back the violin during the song’s climax: “Waiting for the Lord to rise / I look into my daughter's eyes / And realize that I'ma learn through her / The Messiah, might even return through her / If I'ma do it, I gotta change the world through her.” Before you know it, the song has ended with a gorgeous piano line, and you’re left wanting to listen again on repeat.

“One Beer” by MF DOOM
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Etiosa Omeike
Sample:  “Huit Octobre 1971” by Cortex

It’s simply sacrilege to construct a list of beats without a single mention of Madlib, one of the best producers, if not the best. Madlib’s creative ear is simply unparalleled. He’s sampled songs from countless genres of music and countries, but nothing can top what he does with the late MF Doom on “One Beer.” For one, the opening bass and synthesized version of Cortex’s groove on “Huit Octobre 1971” with MF Doom drunk-rapping about his alcohol tolerance is hilarious, but the three bass kicks into a second sample of “Huit Octobre 1971” is what has sealed this song's legacy. The jarring, high-pitch singing sounds like it would be from a completely different song, but Madlib showcases how a single song can be used to make two wildly different beats. The resulting mix is a testament to his talent. MF Doom’s eccentric rhyme scheme and never-ending food references (“Eat up all they emcees and drink 'em under the table / Like, ‘It's on me — put it on my tab, kid,’” / … / “Getting money, DT's be getting no new leads / It's like he eating watermelon, stay spitting new seeds”) only add to the song’s irresistible appeal. But the sudden switch back to the starting beat, this time with a completely different MF Doom flow, seals the deal, solidifying Madlib’s technical mastery.

“EL TORO COMBO MEAL” by Earl Sweatshirt, ft. Mavi, produced by Ovrkast
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Etiosa Omeike
Sample:  “Your Kiss of Fire” by The Hopkins Bros

Earl Sweatshirt and Mavi are both without a doubt two of the best lyricists in the rap game right now. Their verses are packed to the brim with wordplay, witty rhymes, and complex meter, and the duo come together on “EL TORO COMBO MEAL” as they reflect over everything from the American criminal justice system to their own careers.  A brilliant, pitched down sample of The Hopkins Bros’ “Your Kiss of Fire” carries both artists and their stellar verses. Lining up major moments with aggressive bongos and snares, Mavi and Earl are free to take liberties with their flows, creating a sonic masterpiece. 

“N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Obinna Uzosike
Sample:  “Mind Rain” by Joe Chambers

Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, professionally known as Nas, resides as one of the all time greats in the hip hop arena. At the top of his discography sits “Illmatic,” flaunted by some as the greatest rap album of all time — and rightfully so. The album gained merit as not only a pure body of art but also as a groundbreaking and revolutionary album. From breaking norms regarding production and delivery, to the raw talent Nas demonstrated as an unsigned 19 year old, “Illmatic” pushed hip hop to new heights. Every track on the piece is incredible and riveting, though one track stands out: “N.Y. State of Mind.”

“I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin /… / Gave another squeeze, heard it click, ‘yo, my sh*t is stuck’ / Try to cock it, it wouldn't shoot, now I'm in danger.” In “N.Y. State of Mind,” “Nasty Nas” takes us through his experiences as a young child growing up in the ghettos of New York. Nas masterfully raps over an incredible Jazz sample from Joe Chambers’s “Mind Rain.” 

DJ Premier adds his own twist to the sample, incorporating more pronounced piano strokes, percussion, and a slightly faster tempo. The sample, a beat that sounds like the theme song for a cop show, gives off a chilling, yet enlivening vibe with a simple repeating rhythm that lulls the listener. The hypnotic sample is juxtaposed with Nas’s furious rapping and intense lyrics which Nas wastes absolutely no time getting into. It is this ability to masterfully rap while conveying in-depth stories that draws in listeners and makes this song, as well as Nas’s entire discography, so incredible. Stream Nas!

“Mo Money Mo Problems” by The Notorious B.I.G
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Obinna Uzosike
Sample:  “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross

“Biggie Biggie Biggie can't you see / Sometimes your words just hypnotize me.” If you don’t know that iconic phrase, you really should look into Biggie Hypnotization! How about we start from one of the most iconic hip hop singles of all time, “Mo Money Mo Problems”?

Close your eyes, play this song, and vibe. “Mo Money Mo Problems” is an absolute bop. From the upbeat tempo, riveting vocals, and excellent features from Mase and Puff Daddy, “Mo Money Mo Problems” from The Notorious B.I.G is a classic that I assure you will never be forgotten.

Here, Biggie and producer Sean "Puffy" Combs, also known as Diddy or Puff Daddy, sampled Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” another historical gem, actually using her vocals, along with those of Kelly Price, quite extensively. In the song, Biggie’s deep, pronounced rapping style and tone are juxtaposed with Diana’s soothing vocals, providing an interesting contrast for listeners. Often, mixing various tones, as done in this song, adds flavor, character, and richness to a song which makes it extremely pleasing to the ear. However, Ross and Price’s vocals not only serve as independent vocals (in some portions of the song) but also as backdrops layered beneath Biggie, Puff Daddy’s, and Mase’s vocals, adding an unparalleled richness to the song. 

All in all, there is a reason “Mo Money Mo Problems” is one of most acclaimed singles of all time— Grammy nominated and five-time Platinum certified. The components discussed only constitute the mere surface of the song’s beauty and Biggie's incredible discography!

“Money Trees” by Kendrick Lamar ft. Jay Rock
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Obinna Uzosike
Sample:  “Silver Soul” by Beach House

Moving on to one of the greatest rappers of our generation, we have Kendrick Lamar. Lamar, a Compton, Calif. native and my personal favorite rapper, has pushed the limits of rap to heavenly levels. In fact, Lamar’s name has become synonymous with greatness, art, and eloquence, and his musical projects are nothing short of incredible. “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” a triple Platinum album, is one of Lamar’s premier projects. Featuring songs such as “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Backseat Freestyle,” “Poetic Justice,” “The Art of Peer Pressure,” and so much more, GKMC is an album for the ages, and it is often touted as the album of the decade. However, among these songs, one stands out, having gone Platinum multiple times: the iconic “Money Trees.”

“Money Trees” begins with an eerie melody filled with echoing vocals beautifully sampled from Beach House’s “Silver Soul” and hypnotic hi-hat beats employed and produced by Dj Dahi. 26 seconds later, Lamar emphatically pounces on the beat, flowing effortlessly while lulling the listener with a slow, methodical delivery, overlain on top of Beach House’s soothing instrumental. As the song progresses, Lamar’s message intensifies as he weighs the value of the human “dollar” and the effects wealth has had on his life, happiness, and success. Minutes later, Jay Rock enters to deliver arguably the greatest verse of his entire career, emotionally depicting the struggles of those who are financially unstable in providing for their families while oppressed by poverty, government bondage, and drug violence.

As Jay Rock and Lamar make profound statements, throwing out verbal haymakers left and right, the eerie “Silver Soul” sample draws listeners further into the emotional core of the song, enabling them to feel the raw pain in Lamar’s voice until the tape ends abruptly, almost comically. 

“Blood On The Leaves” by Kanye West
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Obinna Uzosike
Sample:  “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone

Could we compose a list of beats without mentioning Kanye West twice? I didn’t think so. As mentioned previously, Kanye West is one of the greatest individuals to grace the microphone, keyboard, MIDI — you name it, he can play it. It is only through trial and error that an artist can develop the aptitude and skill to produce masterpieces, and Kanye’s “Yeezus” is his premier experimental project, pushing the traditions of rap. In the album Kanye and co-producer Lunice sample Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” in track “Blood on the Leaves,” with Kanye masterfully rapping over Simone’s erratic vocals.

As the song begins, Simone sets the scene describing fruit hanging from a tree with “blood on the leaves,” alluding to American slavery and lynching. Simultaneously, Kanye raps with intensifying volume as he becomes more impassioned, asserting that he needs more time and doesn’t have the money on him.

“Would be lost without me / We could've been somebody,” Kanye explodes with intensity and volume on top of the vocals, erratic percussion, and ear-piercing instrumentals from “Strange Fruit.” If experimentation could be embodied in a song, this would be it. 

“Can’t Get Enough” by J. Cole ft. Trey Songz
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Obinna Uzosike
Sample: “Paulette” by Balla et ses Balladins

Jermaine?!
Cole?
Jermaine Cole?
J. Cole?

Like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole has established himself as one of the greatest rappers to grace the microphone. From his intellectual content to extraordinary rhyming and delivery skills, J. Cole has a sound that has been associated with greatness for the past decade.

Since the beginning of his rap career, J. Cole has produced a multitude of classics on every single album he has ever released — “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” “Cole World: The Sideline Story,” “Born Sinner,” “4 Your Eyez Only,” to name a few. Much like other artists, sampling is a key component of J. Cole’s discography, enabling him to manipulate established sounds and add his own twist using his musical genius and external producing. One of his greatest sampled songs comes from the album “Cole World: The Sideline Story,” “Can’t Get Enough.”

On this track J. Cole samples “Paulette,” a 1980s track produced by a Guinean dance-music orchestra called Balla et ses Balladins. The sample remains relatively unchanged by J. Cole’s producer Brian Kidd, as the pair utilizes the vocals, instrumentals, and audio effects as a backdrop beneath small alterations incorporated by Kidd. “Paulette” is an incredibly fast song and poses a formidable challenge for rappers to rap over. On “Can’t Get Enough,” however, J. Cole rises to the challenge delivering line after line at an incredibly brisk pace.

Cole begins the song with a small buildup, chanting “Cole World!” and then shortly begins to rap feverishly over the beat. Simply put, the beat is beautiful. With hints of Latin and African music, J. Cole raps flawlessly over a beat filled with immaculate flavor and richness. This song is an absolute bop and 10 years later it still resides levels above many of the songs present in today’s hip hop and rap scenes. 

Blues music by Franklin Montague
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Angela M. De Santis

Plato once wrote about music moving the human soul through experience. I never fully grasped the meaning and depth of this statement before learning of Franklin Lee Montague, a Jamaican blues singer, who ended up in Italy after traveling the world. In the boot-shaped borders of my country, Italy, resides the soul of the blues for me. I met the singer this past winter while preparing dinner with my mom, in the freezing mountain-weather of my village. He participated in a singing TV competition for people over the age of 60 called “The Voice Senior: Italy,” performing his cover of “Could You Be Loved” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. That night Franklin gave form and meaning to Plato’s words for me with his contagious enthusiasm for life and passion through music. Singing Bob Marley’s lyrics, “Only the fittest of the fittest shall survive / Stay alive!” he deeply touched my soul and really made me want to ‘stay alive!’ Later on, I discovered Franklin grew up with Bob Marley and sang with him multiple times. He has also performed with other world-famous musicians like The Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder. Additionally, he created a new music genre named “Classic-dub,” although he never received the recognition he deserved. If you want to feel your body come to life through music, listen to his performance on “The Voice.” I hope it brings you as much warmth as it brought me that winter night, because for a couple of minutes, he really made it feel like it was summertime. 

Dreams of A New Day by Will Liverman
Recommended by: Contributing Writer Sophia Zheng

“Dreams of A New Day" by Will Liverman is an inspiring and beautiful art song. Will Liverman includes a song cycle, “Five Songs of Laurence,” by Henry Burleigh, which is one of my favorites. Burleigh framed Negro spirituals in a classical perspective, providing the space for African American classical singers to make an appearance in a different musical landscape. Many African American opera singers and musicians were able to have solo recitals and solo careers through the expansion of the African American musical canon. The deep, full sound of the soloist is full of melancholy and soul that I love.

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