listen to the rising artists singing about queer romance
From Brockhampton's Kevin Abstract to Bronx rapper Quay Dash, meet the musicians defining what love and heartbreak sound like in 2017.
warren wolfe. image courtesy the artist.
Twitter lost it when Frank Ocean released Chanel earlier this month. The hypnotic track opens with the standout (and virally tweeted) lyric "My guy pretty like a girl." When Ocean goes on to sing about seeing "both sides like Chanel," it becomes hard to deny the song is about bisexuality. It was an important moment for Ocean (who is becoming increasingly specific about his queer experiences) and for pop music: a melodic middle-finger to ambiguity.
The music industry has a tendency to muffle the voices of its LGBTQ musicians. Artists have often reported being pressured to steer clear of using gay pronouns in order to maintain "universal appeal." However, the rise of streaming services and platforms like Soundcloud and Bandcamp have allowed LGBTQ artists to create music on their own terms, making their experiences crystal clear to listeners. These artists refuse to be labeled and are achieving mainstream popularity with straight and queer audiences. BROCKHAMPTON member Kevin Abstract frequently uses the words "he" and "boyfriend" in his songs. And Syd, who creates boundary-pushing R&B, recently released a music video in which she gets her heart broken by a female love interest. The need to parse tracks for hidden meanings and double entendres is fast disappearing. Here are five up-and-coming LGBTQ artists who refuse to be subtle about their sexuality.
New York-based singer Warren Wolfe's subdued, angelic songs overflow with emotion. On the track Thought, the 21-year-old croons about a crush opening up new doors inside him."This is so new and I've never felt this way," Wolfe sings, the looping falsetto in the background making his awakening sound like a near-religious experience. His vulnerable lyrics have rare gravity in an age where apps and screens often stand stubbornly in the way of real feeling.
"Coming to terms with my queerness has given me such a unique perspective when it comes to self-discovery, relationships, and the complexity of growing up," Wolfe says. After achieving popularity on Soundcloud and plenty of internet buzz, he is hard at work on his first EP. And he's growing more confident in his specificity each day. "My music has become an outlet for me to convey elements of myself that I used to hide," he says. "I no longer feel limited to stay within the constructs of masculinity or femininity and I can comfortably express myself as a vocalist and producer without boundaries."
In his cinematic visual for Empty (inspired by P.T. Anderson's Boogie Nights), 20-year-old rapper and artist Kevin Abstract sits back and receives sexual favors from the high-school quarterback. Of course, the quarterback's girlfriend walks in and discovers the two boys, a look of disgust and betrayal on her face. Overlaid with Abstract's angsty punk voice, the video captures the plethora of eye-rolls and sighs that being a queer teen trapped in suburbia can produce. The video concludes with the quarterback sitting on the edge of a diving board in heavy contemplation then jumping into the pool. The final frame is a grainy headshot of the football player captioned "In loving memory of Summer LaBeouf."
With his sophomore album American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story, Abstract has made it his personal mission to depict the highs and lows of sexual awakenings, first loves, and fitting in. In the song "Seventeen," he sings about being a guy's secret side-fling and maintaining a fake smile through it all. "His mom in the dining room, we're in his bedroom, his girl too," Abstract sings, "Had to pretend like I didn't mind that bitch, just so I could see his face."
While Syd is hesitant to speak about her sexuality in interviews (are straight male rappers consistently grilled about their sexualities?), she isn't afraid to sing about it. Syd initially entered the public eye as a DJ in Odd Future, a role which garnered some criticism from the queer community. "They thought Odd Future was homophobic because they tend to use homophobic slang, and they were like: 'How can you work for and support homophobes?'" Syd told the New York Times last year.
Syd left Odd Future in 2015 to form genre-hopping group The Internet. And earlier this year, she released her first solo album, Fin. She turns her sensuality up to full blast on songs like Body, singing: "What's my name?/Girl, I swear I can hear your body." As with any good pop song, it's easy to immerse yourself in Syd's fantasties. You get lost in the things that matter, like the production or Syd's velvet vocals — not the pronouns. With slinky beats and lyrics about hair pulling and biting, Syd creates effortless, club-friendly sex anthems that stand up to those of say Rihanna or Britney Spears. With Fin, Syd proves that queer music can be mainstream music.
Serepentwithfeet's operatic voice feels tinged with lessons learned — about overcoming insecurities and walking away from complicated, distant lovers. Late last year the NYC-based singer (birth name Josiah Wise) released blisters, a five-track EP with biblical song titles like Redemption and Penance. In the album's title track, he bubbles into a hell-like fury as he begs a lover to let their guard down. "Baby, it's cool with me that you like to lie," he sings, "cause I see the depression filling up your eyes." While some of the artists on this list concern themselves with the highs of queer love, Serpentwithfeet wails on the low points: alienation, insecurity, and internalised self-hate. The songs are a perfect reminder that even though great advances have been made in LGBTQ rights and representation, the scars of homophobia are still in evidence inside the LGBTQ community.
Trans rapper Quay Dash drips confidence. Taking inspiration from Lil' Kim, the Bronx native boasts about cash, success, and always being in control of her men. Dash has also kickstarted important conversations around the unique struggles trans women of color. Last year, she spoke to the Guardian about 2016 being the deadliest year on record for trans woman (22 murders in the U.S.). "They look down on a black trans woman like me," Dash said. "They don't want to take the time out to get to know people like me and it's really saddening."
As part of one the most underrepresented intersectional identities in the LGBTQ community, Dash takes her disenfranchisement and turns it into fuel for powerful self-love and empowerment. Last year she released Transphobic, an EP of certified bangers in which she raps about being fabulous, being rich, and loving life. Her tracks revel in being the best, most authentic version of herself — to almost gluttonous levels — and inspire others to do the same.
Text André-Naquian Wheeler