(July 10, 2023).  Since the dawn of the rock-and-roll era in 1955, women have had to push through some significant hurdles to make inroads in popular music. This is particularly true for Black women.

While today it may seem like child’s play for albums by Beyoncé or SZA or Rihanna (if she ever releases another one) to top the Billboard charts, it wasn’t always so easy for women of color to do so.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1966–more than a decade into the rock era—that the first album by a Black female act topped the Billboard album chart: The Supremes A’ Go-Go by Motown’s premier girl group.  Notably, that was the first album by an all-female group of any race to top the Billboard 200 (when it was still a 175-position chart, which changed the following year).

The Supremes had the first album by a Black female act to reach No. 1 during the rock era.

The Supremes would go on to have two more No. 1 albums during the decade and remained the only Black female act to top the chart during the 1960s (and the only all-female group at all to do it until the Go-Gos—ironically—hit No. 1 in 1982 with Beauty and the Beat).

Meanwhile, the brothers would fare only slightly better during the sixties with five Black male acts—Ray Charles, (Little) Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, and the Temptations—all topping the album chart that decade.

Still, they outnumbered the women just as they modestly had during the 1950s when Johnny Mathis was the only Black act to top the album chart between 1955-59.

This trend of the men outnumbering the women at the top of the charts for Black musicians continued during the seventies when only Diana Ross (solo), Roberta Flack and Donna Summer managed to top the Billboard 200.

By contrast, ten male acts of color or majority Black makeup topped the album chart during the 1970s: Isaac Hayes, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, War, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers and George Benson.

So it might surprise readers that the only decade during the modern music era—since the 1950s—where Black women outnumbered their male counterparts at the top of the Billboard album charts was the decade of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Prince: the eighties.

In the decade where blockbuster albums by three of the biggest Black male acts in music history practically dominated the charts, it’s astonishing to note that aside from Jackson, Richie and Prince—who had seven No. 1 albums between them during the ‘80s—only two other Black male acts had No. 1 albums that decade: Bobby Brown and Milli Vanilli (both at the tail-end of the decade, and yes, I’ve verified that the actual singers in Milli Vanilli were indeed Black).

It was a strange turn of events that allowed the brothers to be outnumbered by the sisters during the decade of decadence.

The decade began strongly enough with the very first No. 1 album of 1980 being by Donna Summer: her On The Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II

That may have seemed promising, but disco—which had been good to Summer and a number of other Black female acts over the previous two years—was on its way out.  After On The Radio, it would be another six years before a Black woman returned to the top of the album chart.  

In the meantime, after pushing through some major pop music barriers, iconic albums by Michael Jackson (Thriller), Lionel Richie (Can’t Slow Down) and Prince (Purple Rain) all dominated the Billboard 200 between 1983-85.  

Each man’s followup albums—BadDancing on the Ceiling, and Around the World In a Day, respectively—also hit No. 1.

These five acts had nine No. 1 albums between them in the 1980s: Michael Jackson (2), Lionel Richie (2), Prince (3), Bobby Brown (1) and Milli Vanilli (1)

But this Black Music Renaissance hadn’t yet translated to No. 1 success for the women.  Prior to 1986, the closest they’d come to topping the album chart after Donna Summer during the eighties was Diana Ross’ 1980 No. 2 LP Diana, which featured the huge No. 1 single “Upside Down,” and Tina Turner’s big 1984 comeback album Private Dancer, which was held to a No. 3 peak while competing with Prince’s Purple Rain and Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A.

By the beginning of 1986, with just under four years remaining in the decade, it appeared that Black women would continue to lag behind the men in this significant category.  

But a popular single by Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin around that time–“Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves”—may have proved prescient for women of color.  

The year 1986 turned out to be a banner year for the sisters.  Between February and July 1986, four Black women—Sade, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Patti LaBelle—all topped the Billboard 200.  

Whitney, Janet and Patti did so in immediate succession, marking the first time in the album chart’s history that Black women had replaced each other at the top of the list.

The four No. 1 albums that year by Black women were Sade’s Promise, Houston’s self-titled debut album, Jackson’s Control, and LaBelle’s Winner In You.  In just five months, the total number of Black women acts who’d ever topped the Billboard 200 in the weekly ranking’s 30-year history had doubled from four to eight.  

By the end of 1988, two more females—Tracy Chapman (her self-titled debut album) and Anita Baker (Giving You The Best That I Got)—added their chart-toppers to the list, making it a total of seven Black women who had crowned the Billboard 200 during the ‘80s, versus only five men—the first and, so far, only time this has ever happened in any decade.

It’s not clear what caused this statistical anomaly, other than the fact that pop music playlists had expanded after the success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller to include more Black records and songs by female singers.  Each of the women who contributed to the statistic was of a different vocal and musical styling, so it’s hard to pinpoint one particular trait that the women shared.

Summer, of course, had been disco. Sade was progressive British soul. Whitney was powerhouse pop, Janet was dance/funk/pop.  Patti was powerhouse R&B.  Anita Baker was smooth soul with jazz influences, and Tracy Chapman was folk, which makes their combined achievement all the more interesting. 

The seven Black women who combined to outnumber the men in having reached No. 1 during the ‘80s (clockwise from left): Donna Summer, Sade, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Anita Baker, Tracy Chapman, and Patti LaBelle

As the 1980s gave way to the nineties, Black women continued to have increasing success on the Billboard 200 as albums by Janet and Whitney, plus Mariah Carey, Natalie Cole, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Foxy Brown, Lauryn Hill, TLC and Eve all reigned at the top of the chart.

But with the popularity of hip-hop increasing during the decade, Black men would once again outnumber their female counterparts in this category, a trend that has continued to the present day.  

In the nineties, albums by Milli Vanilli, MC Hammer, N.W.A., Michael Jackson, Kris Kross, Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Snoop Dogg, Boyz II Men, 2Pac, Tha Dogg Pound, R. Kelly, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, New Edition, Scarface, The Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, Puff Daddy, Bone Thugs N Harmony, Master P, The Firm, Mase, DMX, Jay-Z, and Silkk the Shocker, all topped the list—for a total of 26 Black male acts vs. ten females ones.

The average number of Black female acts who’ve topped the Billboard 200 during the 2000s, 2010s and today has peaked and then declined over time with the increased consumption of hip-hop and the diminished popularity of mainstream R&B during the 21st century.

In the 2000s, fifteen Black or mixed-race female acts—Janet, Destiny’s Child, Alicia Keys, Aaliyah, Ashanti, Monica, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, India.Arie, LeToya, Ciara, Leona Lewis, Mariah Carey, Chrisette Michele, and Whitney Houston—all topped the Billboard 200.

In the 2010s, that number dropped significantly to nine: Sade, Nicki Minaj, Jill Scott, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Solange, and Cardi B.

In both those decades, the men far outnumbered the women with totals too large to count as male-dominated hip-hop continued to prosper.

And so far during the 2020s—more than a third of the way through the decade—only three Black women—Summer Walker, Beyoncé and SZA—have topped the Billboard 200.  The current rate puts this decade on pace to have only six by the end of 2029, which would be the lowest since the 1970s.

If you want an idea of how that compares to the men (and how it’s been throughout the millennium so far), here is a list of Black male acts that have had No. 1 albums during the first three-and-a-half years of the 2020s:

JackBoys/Travis Scott, Roddy Rich, Lil Wayne, Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert, The Weeknd, DaBaby, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Future, Gunna, Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD, Big Sean, 21 Savage, Metro Boomin’, Playboi Carti, Rod Wave, Young Thug, Moneybagg Yo, J. Cole, Lil Durk, Polo G, Tyler The Creator, Kanye West, Drake, Pusha T, and Kendrick Lamar.

That’s 27 Black male acts—mostly rappers and already more than the entire ‘90s decade—that have topped the Billboard 200 this decade so far, compared to only three women.

That huge disparity further illustrates just how major the accomplishment was for Black women to outdo the men during the 1980s—a stand-alone decade in this category and an achievement that may never happen again, at least not with the current pace of things.

All of this is ironic considering the names of the Black male artists who emerged during the ‘80s; and it serves as further proof that, although the women may have been overshadowed by the enormous success of men like Prince, Lionel and Michael back then, the sisters really were doing it for themselves.


DJRob (he/him/his), who frequently indulges himself with useless pop music trivia, is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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