Not just any two females.
These happen to be two black women who, by hitting the top ten in the same year, have accomplished in 2018 what hasn’t been done by black women not named Beyoncé, Rihanna or Nicki in a long time on the American pop music charts.
The two acts are SZA – the critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated singer whose birth name is Solána Imani Rowe, and Ella Mai, the young British singer/songwriter whose current hit “Boo’d Up” is at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and climbing.
Your first reaction – and understandably so – might be: why in a post-Aretha/ Diana/ Gladys/ Janet/ Whitney/ Mariah world is this such a big deal?
The socially unconscious among us might even ask, why does race and gender matter – especially with something so trivial as music popularity charts?
Well, unless their names are Rihanna, Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj, black women just haven’t fared very well on the Billboard Hot 100 in the past eight years (quick: name another besides those three who’s had a top-10 hit since 2010). Even those three – particularly Beyoncé – are not as automatic when it comes to generating chart-topping singles as they once were.
We’re living in an era when there are several factors still working against black women succeeding in popular music, so when two up-and-coming artists achieve top ten hits in 2018, it is somewhat of a big deal.
In the span of three months this year, SZA and Ella Mai have done just that – one in a duet with rapper Kendrick Lamar and the other as a true soloist, and both for the first time as lead artists.
By now we all know SZA. She’s the more established of the two who hails from New Jersey by way of St. Louis, Mo, and has blown up the scene the past couple years. She actually hit the top ten for the first time on the Hot 100 in 2017 as a featured act on Maroon 5’s “What Lovers Do” and her 2017 début set Ctrl reached No. 3 on the album chart, generated five Grammy nominations (none of which she won, btw) and was certified platinum in the U.S.
But it wasn’t until the Black Panther soundtrack and her big hit “All The Stars,” which was featured in the movie’s closing credits and on which she shared co-lead billing with Lamar, that Top Dog Entertainment’s leading lady made the top ten on the singles chart as a lead artist. “All The Stars” peaked at No. 7 back in March before making a quick Hot 100 chart exit last month.
Ella Mai’s rise is even more impressive because it came without the two major assists that SZA’s did – being featured in a huge Marvel Studios action film and being teamed with the reigning king of hip-hop. And Mai’s “Boo’d Up” is also noteworthy because it’s a traditional R&B groove – an infectious mid-tempo ode to love and infatuation that has late-‘90s/early-‘00s throwback written all over it.
In fact, Mai’s “Boo’d Up” is from an EP the singer released more than a year ago, which makes the song’s recent emergence – presumably on its own merits – all the more impressive. You can hear the EP (entitled Ready) below.
The odds were stacked against both SZA and Ella Mai – two young R&B singers in their 20s – having any mainstream success this decade. As a music form, R&B (including its various sub-genres like neo soul and alternative R&B, which SZA favors) hasn’t been a viable crossover source in eons. Its last heyday was arguably more than a decade ago when it was nothing to have R&B women (and men) crossing over to the Hot 100’s top ten on the regular.
Then there’s the gender factor.
During the past several years, only a handful of women of any races have been able to top the charts. And newer female artists have had an even tougher go at it.
Since 2015, and aside from veterans like Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Adele and Beyoncé, the only women to hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 (all for the first and so far only time) are Sia, Cardi B and Camila Cabello – one in each of the past three years. While other newer artists have had top-ten success without reaching No. 1, none of those have been black women.
Also, the dominance of hip-hop has had something to do with both the decline of R&B and the under-representation of women in the upper reaches of the charts. This week alone, seven of the songs in the Hot 100’s top ten are hip-hop/rap tunes, with an eighth – Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” featuring a rapper (Cardi B).
Which means Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” is one of only two songs in the current top ten not associated in any way with hip-hop – traditionally a male-dominated genre. And at No. 6, it’s ranked the highest of those two (Zedd’s “The Middle,” which falls to No. 10, is the other).
That’s great news for Mai, who has seemingly beaten the odds and might still have an outside shot of becoming the first new R&B female to top the Hot 100 chart in eons (she’s already No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart).
Mai, who is British and only 23, likely doesn’t realize the significance or historical context of her accomplishment here in America, and unless it is pointed out to her, she probably doesn’t even know about her singular representation on this week’s chart.
But at a time when people are asked to naïvely believe that race and gender (and genre) don’t matter and that music should just be music, without color and genre lines dividing it, today’s reality sends an entirely different message.
That’s why Ella Mai’s and SZA’s collective accomplishment is so significant… because black women have been so underrepresented in popular music during the millennium’s second decade, unless they’re the established artists whose names I’ve already mentioned.
The fact that both of these two newer artists reached the top ten with great songs hopefully bodes well for their futures (we hope SZA’s recent tweets about permanent damage to her vocal chords is an exaggeration) as well as the futures of other women like them.
Their mere presence in the chart’s upper reaches certainly means something to the thousands of little girls who look up to them and whose lives they’ve no doubt already impacted.
Here’s the video for “Boo’d Up.” Give it a look/listen and see what you think:
Now here’s SZA’s recent top-10 “All The Stars” with Kendrick Lamar (we’re wishing her vocal chords a speedy recovery and that this won’t be her last top ten):
Congrats to SZA and Ella Mai!