Then & Now: Socially Conscious Soul Albums

Courtney Fields

For Black History Month, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite genres: soul music. Specifically the fact that soul albums are some of the most politically charged music of all. It may be easy to get lost in the soothing hymns of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, and more. Far too often, when mentioning artists that were “for the people,” soul artists are left out of the mix. Most listeners my age may have been unknowingly dancing and cleaning to their parent’s version of To Pimp a Butterfly. No need to feel ashamed, today let us give a few of the greats their flowers, and even highlight some newer socially conscious albums. Before you say it, yes rap and soul music are synonymous… read the article!

1. What’s Going On - Marvin Gaye

The year is 1971, and Marvin Gaye has just released his album What’s Going On. In the project Marvin speaks on the plight of black people in America; he touched on subjects such as police brutality, poverty, and environmental justice. In 1970 Marvin Gaye went through his version of a hellscape. His close friend Tammi Terrell passed away, his marriage was falling apart, and America was enduring essentially the same racial and political friction it is towards Black people today. Gaye took a step back from the fame and took a deep look into the type of music he was writing. Gaye has been cited saying, “What mattered was the message. For the first time, I felt like I had something to say.”

2. Curtis - Curtis Mayfield

Leaving the days of “The Impressions” behind; days in which he already proved his brilliance – Curtis was Curtis Mayfield’s debut album as a solo performer. Pre-dating Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, 1970 was the year Curtis may have surprised listeners with his views of black radicalism, white guilt, and the hippiefied Woodstock ideologies of most Americans in the 70s.

3. Pieces of a Man - Gil Scott-Heron

“You hear that? What Gil Scott was ‘Heron’" – Kanye West. Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of a Man is a musical and political masterpiece. Often recounted as the “Godfather of Rap”, Heron’s 1971 album serves as one of the most important concept albums from one of the most extraordinary perspectives ever. Pieces of a Man is a story about the Black Experience, one of misfortune and inequity. During the beginning of the album, the man appears very put together. But as the album progresses and Scott-Heron’s wails build up to be more and more distressing; we see our once solidly put together protagonist fall apart ever-so-slowly due to the everlasting strife the Black population faces in America. In an interview for Vibe, Scott-Heron described why he listens to Pieces of a Man almost every day, “Everywhere I’ve traveled, [people outside the U.S.] are concerned about Black Americans cause we’re still not welcome in the U.S. and we’re still here—standing,” said Heron.

4. To Pimp A Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar

The 21st century’s version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Lamar may have directly taken effects from the soul area by using George Clinton, Bilal, Anna Wise, and James Fauntleroy’s vocals to spawn a formidable blend between the 1970s soul era and modern-day hip-hop.

5. Still Brazy - YG

YG’s Still Brazy might have been the last project you expected to see on this list. Chances are you didn’t fully grasp the conscious parts of this album since YG is such a fun rapper to listen to. YG delivers listeners with protest music, destruction of the black-on-black crime ploy, sexual politics, and the classism and racism of the place he calls home. YG’s unique take on these topics from such a troubling perspective is so enlightening to take in. It also completely debunks the claim that trap artists don’t have a message to convey when they quite literally have the most authentic perspective of all.

6. Pieces of a Man - Mick Jenkins

Mick Jenkins’ Pieces of a Man acts as a perfect “modern” rendition of Gil Scott-Heron’s album of the same name. Like Scott-Heron’s album, Jenkins’s project follows the same personalized viewpoint. It’s as if both artists were narrating someone’s life. Throughout the album Jenkins describes many emotions most city kids feel. Jenkins finds himself pondering how much having “faith” in a supreme being has on his everyday life. Jenkins thanks God a lot during the album, but also has enough clarity to note that more spiritual folks like his grandmother think he’s not “Christian-ing right”. Jenkins even speaks on how important consensual sex is in response to the “#MeToo” movement.

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