iLoveMakonnen - “Tuesday”
While many people know him for his Drake-featuring 2014 club hit “Tuesday,” iLoveMakonnen has been crafting amazing music in a variety of genres for years since. He sings in a soulful croon over a colorful trap beat on “Side to Side,” has a head-banging rock song with Rae Sremmurd and Mike WiLL Made-It called “Love,” and did a breathtaking acoustic piano set for Original Tracks last October. When he came out on Twitter at the beginning of last year, Migos made homophobic comments, saying “this world is not right.” Makonnen’s response was golden: "[But] they ain't got no problem with gay people! They f––in' song is 'Versace'! Like, the f––! [Gianni] Versace is the gayest. They ain't got issues with him, why they got issues with me?" Don’t be mistaken, “Tuesday” is a great song, but iLoveMakonnen has a lot more to him than just one hit.
Janelle Monáe - “Django Jane”
Rapper, singer, songwriter, actress, model, movie director, Janelle Monáe is a visionary through-and-through. Her latest work Dirty Computer is a masterful concept album accompanied by a 45-minute movie with a mind-bending plot and extraordinary visuals. While much of the album combines glossy funk, pop and rock sounds, don’t think for a second that Janelle doesn’t have bars. “Box office numbers, and they doin' outstanding,” she raps on Django Jane, “Runnin' outta space in my damn bandwagon / Remember when they used to say I look too mannish.” Janelle elaborated on those lyrics in an interview with Genius, “A lot of guys would say that. I even got a comment like, ‘You take off them dumbass suits, you might be fine,’ or whatever. And I’m just like, ‘Be quiet. I’m not for male consumption.’” As a queer black woman with incredible talent and versatility, Janelle Monáe is an important figure in pop culture today.
Tyler the Creator & Estelle - “Garden Shed”
On the beautifully cathartic “Garden Shed,” Tyler the Creator pours out his feelings about being in the closet. “Garden shed, garden shed, garden shed / Garden shed for the garçons / Them feelings I was guardin' / Heavy on my mind / All my friends lost / They couldn't read the signs.” His voice carries a tone of sincerity that may surprise people who only know him as a comedic rapper. Estelle, who has spoken out about her own sexuality and struggles with not fitting into the clichés pushed onto queer artists, accompanies Tyler, singing “Don't kill the rose / Boy, it could move / Love every flower / Out the cocoon.” Flower Boy marks a clear point of maturation for Tyler the Creator.
Big Freedia - “Rent”
Even if you don’t think you know who Big Freedia is, you already know who Big Freedia is. “The Queen Diva” is a founder of New Orleans Bounce music, which has been making a major comeback with N.E.R.D & Rihanna’s “Lemon,” Drake’s “Nice For What,” and Beyonce’s “Formation.” Freedia’s been rocking ever since her 1999 hit “Gin N My System,” and just released a new EP called 3rd Ward Bounce. In that time, mainstream culture has absorbed the sound of Big Freedia, but has yet to give proper visibility to her, a self-identifying gay man who crossdresses. “I've worked tremendously hard to make things happen for New Orleans culture,” Freedia said in a recent interview with The Fader, “I just want us to get the proper recognition and the proper credit that we deserve.” As great as it is that Big Freedia’s voice is being featured in these popular music videos, her face remains absent. She was not invited to appear in the celebrity-packed Nice For What music video, which instead featured a cisgendered blonde white woman on screen during Freedia’s lines. "You know, my voice be on a lot of different stuff and people want to use bounce music as a part of their music,” Freedia said, “but when it comes to the proper recognition of me being in the video, that's something that we're steady working towards to make it happen.”
Young M.A. - “OOOUUU”
Brooklyn-bred rapper Young M.A. brings all the grit and hardness that the New York scene is known for. Her 2016 single “Ooouuu” reached number 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, a landmark moment in hip hop for a song that discusses queer sexuality so bluntly. “Baby gave me head, that’s a low blow,” she gloats, “And she make me weak when she deepthroat.” To anybody confused about these lines, she commented on Genius, “It ain’t for a guy to understand. If you don’t understand, you don’t gotta understand it.” Unapologetic and bold, Young M.A. never compromises on what her name stands for – “Me, Always.”
Kaytranada & Syd - “YOU’RE THE ONE”
“They put you in a box,” Kaytranada said on Sway in the Morning about being labelled as an artist exclusively for queer people, “I don’t think it’s right. I want my music to reach out to everybody.” Thankfully, the 23-year-old producer hailing from Montreal has withstood the media’s attempts to push him into a niche. His debut album 99% defies labels with a unique blend of hip hop, house and funk music, and features artists including from Goldlink, Anderson Paak, and Syd. Syd brings a stellar performance to “YOU’RE THE ONE,” her voice sounding right-at-home with the song’s groovy electro-funk beat. Openly queer herself, Syd shares similar sentiments to Kaytranada about being boxed into a corner by the media. In an interview with GQ, she spoke out against marginalizing comments like ‘Syd is like the gay [insert straight R&B singer here].’ “I don’t wanna be gay-anything,” Syd said, “I just wanna be. I wanna be appreciated for my music, whether I’m gay or not.”
Mykki Blanco & Princess Nokia - “Wish You Would”
Two fashion icons and legends of the New York underground pair up on this banger off of Mykki’s Spring/Summer 2014 EP. Both outspoken advocates of the queer community, Mykki Blanco and Princess Nokia use their art as a platform to address issues and experiences faced by LGBT+ people. Last year, Mykki released a powerful video titled Hideaway discussing the harmful stigma surrounding HIV. In 2016, Princess Nokia’s single Tomboy shook the earth with the jaw-droppingly subversive lyrics “MY LITTLE TITTIES AND MY FAT BELLY / MY LITTLE TITTIES AND MY FAT BELLY (that girl is a Tomboy!).” Both artists are making some of the most exciting and important hip hop music right now.
Le1f - “Wut”
Another champion of the New York underground, Le1f is an openly gay rapper and producer whose collaborations include songs with Dev Hynes, Junglepussy, and Lunice. A self-described “avant-garde rapper,” his sound is off-the-wall experimental, a head-spinning combination of trap, EDM and house. Most MC’s would fall behind the beats Le1f hops on, but he tackles them with a fierce, relentless flow that few others could manage. Check out his breathtakingly fast second verse on Wut as a case-in-point.
Kevin Abstract - “Miserable America”
“My boyfriend saved me / My mother's homophobic / I'm stuck in the closet / I'm so claustrophobic,” Kevin Abstract sings on his 2016 song “Miserable America.” As the leader of self-described “boyband” BROCKHAMPTON, Kevin defends the importance of LGBT+ visibility in music. His lyrics and videos discuss difficulties coming out to his parents, discrimination and violence against LGBT people, and pride in who he is. On the song “JUNKY,” Kevin raps “he gave me good head” with the swagger of T.I. mixed with Lil Wayne, challenging the narrative that the style and attitude of hip hop is synonymous with masculinity and straightness.
Kodie Shane - “Bounce Back”
At only 19 years old, Kodie Shane has already made a name for herself as an incredibly skilled rapper and singer. The only female member of Lil Yachty’s “Sailing Team,” she broke out into the mainstream with the song Sad, a collaboration with Yachty that she wrote when she was only 14. Many of her songs center around themes of love and relationships, using “she” pronouns to refer to her love interests, without explicitly talking about the fact that she is queer. Kodie Shane speaks on her queerness in many interviews, but the conscious decision she makes in her music to make songs about love, with people who happen to be girls as well, rather than songs about queer love per se, goes a long way for normalizing queer relationships in popular music.
Quay Dash & SOPHIE - “Queen of this Shit”
“‘I’m black, I’m trans, and I can actually rap. Plus, I’m pretty,” Quay Dash told Dazed last September, “When you have beauty, brains, and talent, that’s some shit they can’t take.” As far as popular music has come in terms of LGBT+ visibility, transgender artists are still not given anywhere near the credit they deserve for the work they make. Quay Dash is here to change that. With a deadly Lil' Kim-inspired flow and sharp Bronx attitude, Quay is one of the hardest rappers coming out of New York right now. Her latest single “Queen of this Shit” is a gritty, distorted club banger produced by trans artist SOPHIE, who has also made music for Vince Staples, Madonna and Charli XCX. SOPHIE’s head-spinning beat provides the perfect foundation for Quay Dash’s cold-blooded bars.
Frank Ocean - “Forrest Gump”
This song was a big deal when it was released in 2012 on the album Channel Orange, and remains a big deal today. The tender chorus “Forrest Gump, you’re on my mind, boy / Running on my mind, boy” captured the hearts of listeners and challenged some to rethink their heteronormative conceptions of love. The popularity of the song and album was a milestone for inclusive lyrics in popular music. Years later, Frank sang about his sexuality again with his 2017 single Chanel. “My guy pretty like a girl / And he got fight stories to tell / I see both sides like Chanel / See on both sides like Chanel." Few opening lines are as unforgettable as those. Frank Ocean’s beautifully-written lyrics about his experiences as bisexual have proved to be valuable messages in popular music today.