Music has long been a way for me to escape and take a break from reality. It also lets me express emotions I can’t quite articulate. I grew up listening to music on an old black and green portable stereo my mom gave me, and I’d sit next to it while completing homework every night. Music has been my comfort through my 26-year roller coaster ride of a life. There’s a song for everything, and each discography leads to a new discovery. But for me, the best thing is finding a new musical touchstone. While my tastes are layered—I’m not confined by genre—there are musical elements that peak my interest whether it’s an emotional ballad or a good uptempo beat that makes me want to dance: quality songwriting, singing (I LOVE singers), harmonies, basslines, guitar strings and piano keys. These elements show up again and again in the songs that make up the soundtrack to my life.
“I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—Whitney Houston
Thanks to my mom and grandma, my earliest exposure to music was Whitney Houston. This 1987 track would play in the background while I baked peanut butter cookies with my grandma. Weekend chore days would turn into dance parties. It was like joy bottled up in one song.
“Dance with my Father”—Luther Vandross
The late Luther Vandross was a genuine talent. With “Dance with my Father,” from the 2003 album of the same name, Vandross offered a vulnerable perspective on young Black boy adolescence, where he explored themes of comfort—whether it’s the bond with one’s father or having an emotional connection not affected by outdated ideals of masculinity.
“Thinkin’ Bout You”—Frank Ocean
The lead single from Frank Ocean’s debut, Channel Orange, is possibly the most perfect song ever made. The 2012 track captures the longing and affectionate aura of a first love. At the time, it was the theme song for my queer awakening and the first time I ever kissed a boy. Ocean’s music not only guided me through my queer journey, it helped popularize the alternative R&B sound that’s much more common today.
Fefe Dobson was the Black pop-punk icon for me when I was younger, capturing all the angst I felt as a 14-year-old. Her music is tremendous, and Dobson sings with all the right emotion and vocal control. The 2010 album Joy had terrific variety, from pop-heavy hits like “Ghost” to rock ballads like “Can’t Breathe.”
I can’t discuss the music that influenced my tastes without mentioning the “Vocal Bible” Brandy. “Full Moon” from 2002 is my favourite track from the songstress because its production leans into alternative and contemporary styles that anticipated today’s R&B and pop landscape.
Beyoncé is a well-known ally of the LGBTQ2S+ community, and her music has been a haven for many of us. With this relatable breakup anthem from 2006, Queen Bey eloquently reminds a lover that she is the prize; she can easily replace him after he cheats on her. This acoustic guitar-heavy track uses uptempo bass to compliment Beyoncé’s smooth melodic vocals. The song, penned by a team led by Ne-Yo, was a success and demonstrated the power of artists collaborating with songwriters. Creating a hit requires the perfect recipe.
“Sun Goes Down”—Lil Nas X
The second single from Lil Nas X’s debut album, “Sun Goes Down” is a melodic musing about the internal battle of accepting oneself in a world that isn’t so accepting. In the sole verse, he raps about being picked on for being Black and gay, and turning to social media to find community among strangers. The track resonates with me so much it’s as if it was ripped from my teenage diary.
A rapper with a great pen game, Chika gave me much comfort in my early twenties. On the surface, “Balencies” seems like a simple flex track about luxury sneakers, but it’s so much more. The production isn’t too complex, but the elements used create a sense of suspense that Chika amplifies, from the background choir vocals to the building climax of keyboard keys. Chika flips this fun bop on its head using it as a way to vent about life-changing events and the emotions and thoughts that come with them.
“Tightrope”—Janelle Monaé featuring Big Boi
This breakout hit from 2010 is an infectious dance track that blends soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop, new wave and more. It pays homage to Monaé’s musical influences such as James Brown, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Nona Hendryx and Lauryn Hill, to name a few. The timeless anthem is about the continuous struggle to stay balanced in life.
“Promise Ring”—Tiffany Evans featuring Ciara
Tiffany Evans was a major obsession during my early teenage years, with her cool swag, angelic vocals and fly dance moves. Black girls in pop hold a special place in my heart, and when she collaborated with Ciara, my simplest teenage dreams came true.
“Dance Alone”—Tayla Parx
Tayla Parx is a multi-hyphenate artist who bottles nostalgia into timeless music, like the disco-inspired “Dance Alone” from 2020. The beat and lyrics come together to create an effortless disco ball euphoria. Parx’ silky vocals glide along the bassline as she sings about the night she met her partner Shirlene Quigley while touring with Lizzo.
“Good Day”—Kidd Kenn
I’m always intrigued by lighthearted songs with some bounce to it because of the escapism they provide. “Good Day” does just that with Kidd Kenn’s fun, catchy lyrics about living his best life and not letting outside factors affect him.
Check out Daric L. Cottingham’s music column “Playlist Q.”