Pop this year was defined — and redefined — by Black women who’ve been instrumental in transforming the sonic and aesthetic blueprint of the genre
This year has been a masterclass in Black women in pop music reimagining the future — and actively reshaping the present — for themselves in the genre. A space that has long centered whiteness while stealing from Black music, pop has undergone a remarkable shift in recent years with stars like Lizzo, Chloe Bailey, and Lil Nas X taking the charge. But pop this year was really defined — and redefined — by three Black women in particular, who’ve been instrumental in transforming the sonic and aesthetic blueprint of the genre: Tinashe, Normani, and Doja Cat.
Tinashe shows the indie path
At the top of 2019, Tinashe announced her departure from RCA Records, and her next moves were highly anticipated. Although she found considerable commercial success with records like “2 On” and “All Hands On Deck,” RCA’s efforts to force her into their mold of a pop star left Tinashe stranded in a barren middle ground just short of truly securing her spot in the mainstream. Two years later, and her choice to go independent has worked in her favor, as is evident with this year’s 333 album.
Anchored by mystical soundscapes courtesy of producers like KAYTRANADA, Hitmaka, and Wax Motif, 333 takes the eclectic feel of Songs for You (her first post-RCA project) and pushes it to towering new heights, making good on her desire to abolish the concept of genre. Instead of predictable and unimaginative attempts at Top 40 fodder, Tinashe uses these left-of-center producers for transformative records. Wax Motif’s work on “Undo” is a more authentic approach at stuttering synthpop, while the KAYTRANADA-produced “Unconditional” contains a brilliant beat switch from upbeat dance to slow R&B that underscores Tinashe’s vulnerable songwriting.
But 333 also wouldn’t be what it is without Tinashe’s love of dancing, something showcased in the creative and inventive choreography for her “Bouncin” music video. Made alongside famed choreographer Parris Goebel, “Bouncin” is a reminder of Tinashe’s dance prowess, as the artist executes dance routines with a cool precision — all while literally bouncing on a mini trampoline.
“I’ve been doing choreography in my videos since 2014 when it definitely was not cool,” Tinashe said in a 2021 interview with Genius. “I would love for it to be taken seriously again in the way that it was in the past because it’s a great way to celebrate music and art and movement.”
Normani and the power of performance
This is a sentiment fellow pop figure Normani would likely agree with, having released one of the most monumental singles all of the year, “Wild Side.” The Cardi B-featuring track was notable not just for its content (the sensual and sultry homage to Aaliyah’s “One In A Million” a noticeable departure from the bubbly pop of “Motivation“) but for its music video, too. With choreography crafted alongside Sean Bankhead, Normani used her background in dance to bring the song to life, culminating in choreography that, although challenging, helped push the longevity for the hit single.
“With the choreography in particular, I wanted to challenge myself because I knew I’d been gone a long time and hadn’t danced in over a year,” Normani said in a 2021 interview with Dazed. “I was humbled real quick (laughs), but I proved to myself that I still had it. I definitely went home with a lot of back aches and my knees hurting but that’s what I wanted, I wanted to be pushed.”
“Wild Side” earned so much acclaim because it wasn’t just a reintroduction to Normani but an expansion on her artistry. With “Wild Side,” she made the conscious decision to widen her reach as a pop star and place her formative influences at the forefront of her sound, inviting the fans she gained from her time in Fifth Harmony — as well as her features on Top 40 radio hits like “Dancing with a Stranger” and “Love Lies” — into her own pop world.
“I just wanted something really edgy and that felt fairly different from ‘Motivation. I don’t think that anybody would have expected me to put out this sort of record and that’s just an opportunity I think,” Normani said in that same interview. “For everyone to get to know another layer of who Normani really is because it’s always been a part of me but it’s just the first time you guys are able to tap into it. I’ve never created a record that I felt like was more me, you know?”
With one single, Normani made sure to flaunt her versatility as a dancer and performer with “Wild Side,” amping up anticipation for her upcoming solo album debut.
Doja Cat’s ambitious path
This year also saw the release of a highly-anticipated album from an artist who had pop in the palms of her hands — Planet Her by Doja Cat. To say that Planet Her was the defining pop album of 2021 isn’t an overstatement. Underneath its versatile accessibility is a highly conceptual effort, Doja using sci-fi to world build in a way we haven’t seen from a pop star in quite some time. In both sound and sight, Planet Her feels extraterrestrial, futuristic, and otherworldly. There’s the future disco of inescapable hit single “Kiss Me More” and the atmospheric bass-heavy “Need to Know“; the way Doja plays with her voice to where she sounds like a cartoonish baby alien on “Get Into It (Yuh)“; and, of course, the music videos, where Doja plays everything from a seductive alien who captures men in tubes in “Kiss Me More” (which ends with an unexpected plot twist that not even some full-length movies can achieve) to a blue-tinted alien hanging out at an intergalactic club in “Need to Know.” (Doja has continued to play with these themes in her music videos, with the recently-released DojaCode — a video for her song “Woman” made by the nonprofit organization Girls Who Code — allowing viewers to change the video’s code to customize subtle changes throughout.) Through Planet Her, Doja successfully subverts the expectations of the traditional pop star by rejecting the confines of genre (after all, this is the same person who transformed her future funk hit “Say So” into an emo-rock homage to The Ring and Flyleaf for a 2020 MTV EMA performance), reimagining rap, pop, Afrobeats, alternative R&B and more in a way that is distinctly and undeniably her.
But what adds to Doja’s pop star success is how she uses social media. A child of the Internet, Doja uses social media in a way that is more akin to her fans than to a musician of her stature. She’ll randomly change her profile picture to a meme, or change her display name to some variation of a relatively vulgar phrase. Most artists’ timelines and feeds are populated with them promoting their latest projects. As for Doja, she’s more likely to use social media to indulge in some good old-fashioned shitposting or just be goofy, balancing out the seriousness of her artistry with a silliness that grounds her larger than life pop persona.
“I feel like people separate the pop star from the very humane, normal internet teen goofball kind of girl,” Doja said in a 2021 interview with Billboard. “And I feel like they complement each other. There is no separation, in my opinion. I always looked at myself like, ‘I can do it.’ But I feel like people thought I was this goofy girl, and that’s all I could ever really be.”
This approach to social media creates a sense of relatability and shared community that draws fans in, and fosters a relationship that transcends simply consuming the music. It’s this combination of musical versatility and social media literacy that has made Doja a blueprint for pop moving forward.
This year was a transformative one for pop music, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Black women led the charge. Tinashe, Normani, and Doja Cat are verifiable forces in the industry, creating a standard for the genre while simultaneously pushing its boundaries in more ways than one, too.
Banner graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Kyle Denis is a journalist, songwriter, singer, actor, and creative. He loves to cook, listen to music, and just soak in the world. Read more of his work here.