50 great albums by queer artists of color

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July 13, 2021
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50 great albums by queer artists of color

Mainstream music is often a good indicator for the cultural zeitgeist of the era in which it was released, and the trajectory of queer musicians of color in music history tells a story of the growing acceptance and success of marginalized artists. Queer artists of color experience systemic racism and bigotry, whether it be through studios or consumers. Civil rights and gay rights movements have pushed back and helped to change these issues, while also putting marginalized artists at the forefront.

It was also common for the music industry to exploit the work and culture of artists of color, until the industry began recognizing and compensating these artists properly. And in more recent years, queer musicians have been openly expressing their queerness through their art, with many of them finding mainstream success. Recent examples like Lil Nas X, who came out at the height of his enormous breakout success “Old Town Road,” builds on the work done by previous queer artists of color while showing the continuing challenges faced by these artists. (Lil Nas X doesn’t appear on this list because he has yet to release his first studio album.) Despite any societal and historical opposition, these queer artists of color have broken the mold and delivered music that remains influential and loved to this day.

Stacker dug into music history and chose 50 great albums by queer artists of color. These albums range from blues to rock to rap and span time from the 1940s to the present. Read on to see what to add to your next playlists.

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Bessie Smith: ‘Empress of the Blues’ (1940)

One of the earliest and most influential blues singers was Bessie Smith, who started off performing in the streets and eventually became part of a troupe that included famed singer Ma Rainey. Smith found success as a solo artist, and her lyrics emphasized independence and freedom of expression from women. Despite what some studios deemed to be a “rough voice,” Smith earned the moniker of the “Empress of the Blues,” which became the name of a compilation album that was released three years after her untimely 1937 death at 43 in a car crash.

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Josephine Baker: ‘Chansons Américaines’ (1951)

Entertainer Josephine Baker wore many hats, as she was known as a singer, dancer, civil rights activist, and even a member of the French Resistance during World War II. As an eccentric jazz singer, Baker became a hit in France, but after her participation in World War II, her work and subject matter became more serious, and she adamantly refused to perform in front of segregated audiences. Her album titled “Chansons Américaines” was composed of French-language versions of American songs; by then, Baker had since long renounced her American citizenship to become a French citizen.

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Bayard Rustin: ‘Bayard Rustin Sings a Program of Spirituals’ (1952)

As a civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin not only advocated for nonviolence and equality, but also for gay rights. Rustin isn’t necessarily known as a musician, but he had recorded “Bayard Rustin Sings a Program of Spirituals,” in which he sang a number of spirituals a cappella. Long after his death in 1987, then-President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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Billie Holiday: ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ (1956)

Jazz singer Billie Holiday’s career began with her singing in Harlem nightclubs before breaking through with several hits in the 1930s and 1940s. Despite her success, the use of drugs and alcohol had negatively impacted her voice, and it showed in later albums such as “Lady Sings the Blues.” Regardless, “Lady Sings the Blues” was still highly praised, and it was released the same day as her autobiography of the same name.

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe: ‘Gospel Train’ (1956)

A significant and early example of a Black gospel record was “Gospel Train” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who combined spiritual and worship music with a rock ’n’ roll sound. “Gospel Train” carried a distinct R&B style, acting as a precursor to much of the rock ’n’ roll music that would come in the 1960s. Her work ended up influencing some of the most famous rock musicians still remembered today, such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard.

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Little Richard: ‘Here’s Little Richard’ (1957)

Performing for several decades, Little Richard would have a lasting impact on musicians and the music industry as a whole. His first album, “Here’s Little Richard,” came after the release of several hit singles that included the raunchy “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally.” Little Richard’s music crossed racial barriers and came during a time when audiences began to integrate, and he would keep performing at shows until the 2010s before his death in 2020.

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Johnny Mathis: ‘Open Fire, Two Guitars’ (1959)

Inspired by artists including Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, the work of Johnny Mathis has spanned a number of different genres, including pop, soul, and blues. Mathis skyrocketed in popularity after a 1957 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and his album “Open Fire, Two Guitars” two years later would impress listeners with its production quality. The pop album was full of covers and a couple of new pop songs as well.

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Billy Strayhorn: ‘The Peaceful Side’ (1963)

While Billy Strayhorn was primarily associated with musician Duke Ellington, Strayhorn was also a recorded artist of his own merit. Strayhorn received recognition for composing songs such as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” but in some cases, credit for many of Ellington’s band’s songs went to Ellington alone. Strayhorn’s album “The Peaceful Side” would provide pure access to his piano compositions.

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Little Richard: ‘Little Richard Is Back (And There’s A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On!)’ (1964)

Little Richard had an interesting trajectory as an artist, initially known as a rock ’n’ roll artist before transitioning into gospel music. With the explicitly titled “Little Richard Is Back (And There’s A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On!’)” the artist would return to the rock genre in an album that included a cover of “Hound Dog.” Marketed as a comeback album, the release and subsequent other ones were overshadowed by other artists like The Beatles and James Brown.

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Jackie Shane: ‘Jackie Shane Live’ (1967)

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, and later a hit in Canada, Jackie Shane was a trailblazer as a transgender performer. Often mischaracterized as a drag queen or a cross-dresser, Shane had difficulties expressing her proper gender identity throughout her career. “Jackie Shane Live” was a successful live album that Shane recorded in the Sapphire Tavern in Toronto, with the album getting a reissue in 2015.

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Labi Siffre: ‘Remember My Song’ (1975)

Poet and musician Labi Siffre began playing jazz guitar at a young age, and by the 1970s, he had recorded and released several albums. These albums include the self-titled “Labi Siffre,” “The Singer and the Song,” and “Crying Laughing Loving Lying,” with a significant hit single being “It Must Be Love.” “Remember My Song” was Siffre’s fifth album, and it offered a mix of funky and “folksy” music that would even be sampled by modern hip-hop artists like Eminem.

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Sylvester: ‘Step II’ (1978)

Disco artist Sylvester was born into a Pentecostal Christian family, but as a gay man, he was met with disapproval from his congregation—he would then find a home among Black transgender and queer women. Influenced by singers like Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker, Sylvester developed his falsetto singing voice and his flamboyant stage persona while performing with the Cockettes. During his solo career, one of his most acclaimed albums was “Step II,” his second album, and it included hits such as “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat).”

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Luther Vandross: ‘Never Too Much’ (1981)

Initially a background singer for artists like Diana Ross, Luther Vandross would become the lead singer of the music group Change before embarking on his own solo career. His debut album was titled “Never Too Much” and included a song of the same name that reached the top of the R&B charts. Vandross would continue collaborating with several artists like Whitney Houston and even Ross again.

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Sylvester: ‘All I Need’ (1982)

Singer-songwriter Sylvester openly expressed his queerness throughout his career, often performing for gay communities and at gay events and parades. His album titled “All I Need” was specifically catered for gay clubs, containing new wave songs meant to be danced to, one hit song being “Do Ya Want to Funk.”

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Jermaine Stewart: ‘The Word Is Out’ (1984)

Beginning his career as a background vocalist and a dancer for the show “Soul Train,” Jermaine Stewart would eventually land a recording contract after a successful demo tape. “The Word Is Out” was Stewart’s debut album, with the song of the same name becoming the album’s biggest single. Stewart would later have other hits like “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off,” but he succumbed to AIDS-related liver cancer in 1997.

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Tracy Chapman: ‘Tracy Chapman’ (1988)

Thanks to a well-received demo tape of the song “Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution,” singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman received an opportunity to record her first album. Upon its release, the acoustic-focused album succeeded in the charts and won praise from critics for the musical simplicity and lyrical depth of the album, with “Fast Car” being the most successful single out of the release.

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King’s X: ‘Gretchen Goes To Nebraska’ (1989)

The “progressive metal” genre found some success in the late 1980s and early ’90s thanks to King’s X, a band that often mixes in and references a number of genres. The eccentrically named “Gretchen Goes To Nebraska” combines progressive metal and hard rock sounds and won critical praise for its variety. Bassist and vocalist Doug Pinnick identifies as gay, combating negativity against queers in the metal and Christian communities.

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Saffire: ‘The Uppity Blues Women’ (1990)

Ann Rabson, Gaye Adegbalola, and Earlene Lewis founded Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women, a three-woman blues ensemble that performed both comedic and serious songs. While a significant amount of their work consisted of covers, some of their original songs like “Middle Aged Blue Boogies” won awards and became hits. Although Saffire eventually disbanded, Adegbalola, who identities as a lesbian, is still active.

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Frankie Knuckles: ‘Beyond the Mix’ (1991)

Known as the “Godfather of House Music,” Frankie Knuckles frequented discos in the 1970s and began DJing for clubs, including the Warehouse, where Black gay men often frequented. Knuckles developed his own original sound, combining disco, soul, and rock into what would eventually be called house music. His first album “Beyond the Mix” contained “The Whistle Song,” which became one of his first #1 hits.

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RuPaul: ‘Supermodel of the World’ (1993)

Quite possibly the world’s most famous drag queen is RuPaul, best known today for his reality competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” However, much earlier in his career, RuPaul found recognition and visibility with “Supermodel of the World,” an album full of house music and RuPaul’s vocals. The songs titled “Supermodel (You Better Work)” and “Back to My Roots” were the biggest successes from the album.

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Meshell Ndegeocello: ‘Plantation Lullabies’ (1993)

Funk singer-songwriter and activist Meshell Ndegeocello debuted with an album called “Plantation Lullabies,” a neo-soul record that explored gender, race, and sexuality from an Afrocentric perspective. The acclaimed album would also help to establish Ndegeocello’s androgynous persona while performing. The album was considered to be strong and unapologetic in tackling issues such as racism and sexism.

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Tracy Chapman: ‘New Beginning’ (1995)

The aptly named “New Beginning” was the fourth album from Tracy Chapman, and it was a significant success for the artist. Containing Chapman’s signature acoustic music, “New Beginning” also featured some more upbeat songs, a blues track, and background vocals. Adding to the album’s commercial success was a Grammy for the song “Give Me One Reason.”

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Frankie Knuckles: ‘Welcome to the Real World’ (1995)

After the release of his first album “Beyond the Mix,” DJ Frankie Knuckles continued work as a remixer until releasing a second album through Virgin Records. “Welcome to the Real World” was a collaboration with Adeva and contained a song called “Too Many Fish,” which debuted at the top of the U.S. dance charts.

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Meshell Ndegeocello: ‘Bitter’ (1999)

The third album from artist and activist Meshell Ndegeocello very much conveyed the album’s title of “Bitter,” essentially serving as a release of negative emotions stemming from an unhealthy relationship. What results is an album full of slow and moody songs that some listeners had difficulty digesting—regardless, the quality of Ndegeocello’s music still received high marks.

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Gaye Adegbalola: ‘Bittersweet Blues’ (1999)

Forming one-third of the group Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women, Gaye Adegbalola also released several blues albums on her own. After several years of working in the blues music industry as a teacher and music reporter, Adegbalola released “Bittersweet Blues,” an album that contained covers of songs from artists including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Nina Simone.

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Big Freedia: ‘Queen Diva’ (2003)

Rapper Big Freedia usually self-identifies as a gay man while also going by she/her female pronouns and referring to herself as the “queen of diva.” Fittingly, her first album is titled “Queen Diva,” and it came after she released a handful of singles and performed multiple shows in New Orleans. Big Freedia’s lyrics are mainly known for being aggressive and sexual, and she remains active in the music scene today.

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Tonéx: ‘Out the Box’ (2004)

Now known as B.Slade, Anthony Charles Williams II went by Tonéx during his career as a gospel singer, although he has covered a countless number of music genres across his several albums. “Out the Box” was during his time as Tonéx, capturing a live recording that had a crowd overcapacity. With 36 tracks, this two-disc set easily became a number one hit on the charts.

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Tori Fixx: ‘Marry Me’ (2005)

Hip-hop artist Tori Fixx is one of the first openly gay artists in his genre, and his album “Marry Me” was a very pointed reference to the struggle for gay marriage during a time when it was not legal in the entire country. Along with his own work, Tori Fixx has also produced albums for other queer artists, and he remains a gay rights activist and musician.

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Shaun J. Wright: ‘Hercules and Love Affair’ (2008)

“Hercules and Love Affair” is a project led by DJ Andrew Butler and features a rotating lineup of house music and techno artists. One such artist is Shaun J. Wright, a male non-conforming artist who got his start in dance companies and the ballroom scene. After meeting Butler, Wright became a part of the project and its second album “Blue Songs.”

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Yo Majesty: ‘Futuristically Speaking … Never Be Afraid’ (2008)

Singers and rappers that go by Jwl B, Shunda K, and Shon B form the group known as Yo Majesty—all three identify as lesbian and Christian. Even with the latter label, their work is known for being dirty and explicit, with their third album “Futuristically Speaking … Never Be Afraid” certainly having that characteristic. The sound is noticeably electro-funk and punk, a fitting combination for the lyrical content.

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Frank Ocean: ‘Channel Orange’ (2012)

Popular R&B singer-songwriter Frank Ocean is one of the most acclaimed names in modern music, and his debut album “Channel Orange” was particularly innovative. Coming after a number of mixtapes, “Channel Orange” had an unorthodox musical style, combining soul, electro-funk, jazz, and psychedelic music to great success, according to critics and listeners. The album is thought to be one of the best albums of the 2010s, and even of all time.

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Azealia Banks: ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’ (2014)

Beginning work on the album without being signed to a record label, rapper Azealia Banks crafted an album that combined a number of different musical genres, including house, punk, and R&B. Before the album’s release, Banks primarily shared her work through Myspace. In the present day, Banks has released several albums, mixtapes, and at this point even has her own record label and online store.

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Kevin Abstract: ‘MTV1987’ (2014)

After releasing an EP, rapper and singer Kevin Abstract began work on “MTV1987,” his debut album that attempted to combine pop culture and musical elements from the past and present to make a statement on today’s digital age. Abstract has since released several albums after the critically lauded “MTV1987,” and much of his work makes references to his sexuality as a gay man.

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Angel Haze: ‘Back to the Woods’ (2015)

Identifying as pansexual and agender, rapper Angel Haze includes many of her deeply personal experiences in her work. Haze has released several mixtapes and a few albums including “Back to the Woods.” Her lyrics refer to homophobia, sexual assault, and racism, and she uses her music to try to reach out to struggling youth and push back against violence.

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Shirlette Ammons: ‘Language Barrier’ (2015)

Based in Durham, North Carolina, Shirlette Ammons is a musician and poet who primarily produces and performs hip-hop music. Her second album “Language Barrier” features a number of guest appearances from other artists, although it is still decidedly her album, as she forms the connective tissue to all of the individual songs, and the compositions are certainly her own.

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Frank Ocean: ‘Blonde’ (2016)

Fans of Frank Ocean and his first album “Channel Orange” had to wait more than four years until the singer’s next major release. “Blonde” was hotly anticipated and speculated about, suffering from delays—upon its actual release, critics and fans praised it for its experimental nature and overall innovation, giving patient fans something worth waiting for. The album contained themes of masculinity, sexuality, heartbreak, and trauma, finding the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson for musical inspiration.

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Cakes Da Killa: ‘Hedonism’ (2016)

Rashard Bradshaw, who goes by the stage name Cakes Da Killa, is part of a growing trend of queer artists breaking through in a more tolerant landscape in the hip-hop community. Bradshaw frequently and openly talks about his experience as a gay man, and his album “Hedonism,” which came after a number of mixtapes, is a reflection of that experience.

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Mykki Blanco: ‘Mykki’ (2016)

After releasing a few EPs, rapper and poet Mykki Blanco released her self-titled album “Mykki,” influenced by the queercore subgenre and the riot grrrl movement. Mykki is also an activist, identifying as transgender and using she and they pronouns. Mykki Blanco is a persona to her in a sense, and her work reflects her shifting identity.

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Brockhampton: ‘Saturation’ (2017)

Hip-hop band Brockhampton is led by Kevin Abstract, who identifies as gay and often references his sexuality in his lyrics. Brockhampton’s album “Saturation” is the band’s first and also began a trilogy that concluded at the end of 2017. Initially called AliveSinceForever, Brockhampton came about after the release of Kevin Abstract’s “MTV1987” and after members recruited other musicians from a Kanye West fan forum.

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Syd: ‘Fin’ (2017)

Gaining visibility as a member of the Odd Future group, Syd would later found her own band simply called The Internet. The group would then go on hiatus so members could pursue solo projects and Syd would release her debut album called “Fin.” The album had a more pop-sounding feel to it compared to her previous work, but despite the departure, the album received critical acclaim.

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Honey Dijon: ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ (2017)

Artist and trans rights advocate Honey Dijon is openly transgender and often speaks about her experience as a Black trans woman DJ. Dijon’s debut album is titled “The Best of Both Worlds,” and it makes a push for a more inclusive nightlife in dance clubs and the like. Along with her activism and DJing, Dijon also attends art and fashion shows.

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Janelle Monae: ‘Dirty Computer’ (2018)

After completing her Metropolis narrative with her albums “The ArchAndroid” and “The Electric Lady,” queer artist Janelle Monae expanded her musical palette by departing from the psychedelic nature of her previous albums and delving into a more pop and R&B sound. “Dirty Computer” came after Monae’s forays as a Hollywood actress, and the album explored “the spectrum of sexual identities.” With a number of guest artists, “Dirty Computer” was praised for its range and production value.

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MNEK: ‘Language’ (2018)

Getting his start on music through releasing his work on Myspace, singer-songwriter MNEK got his start as a professional songwriter in the mid-2010s before releasing an EP. After his EP “Small Talk,” “Language” was his first full studio album. Along with his usual work as a musical artist, MNEK also hosts songwriting camps for queer songwriters.

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Kodie Shane: ‘Young Heartthrob’ (2018)

Kodie Shane began rapping at 14, and released a breakout single titled “Sad” in 2016 when she was 18. Shane later joined rap group Sailing Team, but her first solo album “Young Heartthrob” became a showcase for her vocal talent and range. Shane identifies as queer and mentions herself as so in the album.

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Tyler, the Creator: ‘Igor’ (2019)

Rapper Tyler, the Creator was initially known for being a part of the Odd Future group and releasing several solo mixtapes and albums before his fifth album, titled “Igor.” Tyler is openly gay or bisexual, and many of his songs, including those in “Igor,” stem from his personal experiences with love and heartbreak. “Igor” was a huge critical success, even winning Best Rap Album at the 2020 Grammys.

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Kaytranada: ‘Bubba’ (2019)

The first solo studio album from producer and DJ Kaytranada was “99.9%,” which featured a number of collaborations and guest appearances, and the follow-up album “Bubba” received a similar degree of success. Inheriting elements of several genres without committing to one, “Bubba” was highly acclaimed and even won a Grammy Award for best dance/electronic album.

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Brittany Howard: ‘Jaime’ (2019)

As the lead singer and guitarist for Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard already had a well-established career over a decade. After Alabama Shakes went on hiatus, Howard released her first album “Jaime,” naming it after her late sister. This eclectic album also referenced her and her family’s struggles as interracial and the prejudice that they faced.

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Kehlani: ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn't’ (2020)

Breaking out from the group PopLyfe, which finished in fourth place on season six of “America's Got Talent,” Kehlani embarked on a number of projects and collaborations on her own. Her second studio album, “It Was Good Until It Wasn't,” debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 chart. A sonically mature album full of tight tracks, “It Was Good Until It Wasn't” also sees Kehlani referring to her pansexuality in lyrics like “I’ve got bodies I want to take to the grave / I’ve got girls I want to give my last name.”

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Siena Liggins: ‘Ms. Out Tonight’ (2021)

Pop musician Siena Liggins often writes music about her own personal experiences, as evidenced by her debut single “Flowerbomb.” Her first full album “Ms. Out Tonight” is themed around her relationships and sexual experiences with other women, and the album also came with a visualizer.

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Serpentwithfeet: ‘Deacon’ (2021)

Josiah Wise is best known as Serpentwithfeet, an experimental musician primarily based out of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Wise’s first album was titled “Soil,” and he gained prominence afterward by collaborating with Ty Dolla Sign. His second album “Deacon” received universal acclaim for its depiction of Black, gay love and its overall optimism.

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