Valentine’s Day is a polarizing holiday – to put it diplomatically.
Some enjoy the chance to revel in emotion; others find the day to be a corporatized mess, or are grappling with heartbreaks that make Valentine’s Day hard, instead of happy. Plenty fall somewhere between the two extremes. And scores of others don’t feel anything about it at all.
Wherever you land on that list, there’s one thing that’s always true: There are heaps of stellar love, love-lost and lust songs by Black women artists that can, and should, be taken in. Ones that will make you smile, or move, or cry. Ones that create ambience, or pull all of your focus. Ones that have endured for years, or even decades. And all of them featuring knock-out vocals on timeless melodies that stay with you long after Feb. 14 has come and gone.
And, no matter how you feel about V-Day, it’s always a good day for really good music.
(Note: Some of the songs on this playlist contain explicit lyrics.)
“At Last” – Etta James
One simply cannot make a playlist of love songs performed by Black women without including this truly iconic 1960 cover. There’s a reason it was enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 – James’ improvisations and the sweeping orchestration backing her up make this a love anthem for the ages.
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” – Roberta Flack
This easy track – a 1969 cover of a 1957 folk song – is about as tender as a love song can get. Flack’s delivery is smooth as can be, breathing fresh life into the tune’s vivid metaphorical lyrics describing several romantic “firsts.” Plus, it’s the release that put Flack on the musical map – for that reason alone, it deserves a listen.
“Caught Up In the Rapture” – Anita Baker
There are few better feelings than when love is right, steady, and exciting. On this track, Baker sings of magic, and the sensation of flying, and of partners standing together through life’s storms. “Rapture” is, truly, the perfect word to sum all of that up. (It’s also a great word for describing the experience of listening to Baker herself.)
“Come On In” – Lady Wray
This wonderfully groovy track was released just last year, but its splashy drum beat, walking bass line and tight background vocals give it a decidedly retro feel. Wray’s voice dances above it all, adding both brightness, and its own warmth. The result is a perfect song to open a bottle of wine with after inviting a special someone over.
“XO” – Beyonce
As is the case with all prolific, impactful artists, choosing just one Beyonce song for this list was near impossible. (See: The entirety of “Lemonade.”) But this 2013 tune’s infectious beat and intricate composition, not to mention Beyonce’s light, agile vocal performance, make this one too blissful to pass up.
“Real Love” – Mary J. Blige
I’m fairly certain it’s illegal in certain states and municipalities to omit Mary J. Blige’s works from a list of love songs by Black artists. As it should be. Who doesn’t know, and adore, this early 1990s hit asking a partner if they are, in fact, the “real love” we’re seeking? Instantly recognizable and enjoyable, this song will always have listeners dancing – and relating.
“Heart of the Matter” – India Arie
With all due respect to Don Henley, Arie’s cover of his song takes the material to new heights. It’s gentle, yet driving; deep, yet light. Recovery from a lost love is tricky, messy, nonlinear business – this track acknowledges that pain, but offers a pathway to better days by highlighting the importance of forgiveness in that process. And damn, it’s just nice to listen to.
“Smooth Operator” – Sade
The song came out in 1984, but it works any time after that. Arguably the “coolest” track on this list, it’s also one that tells a story about a man who is callous and dismissive of his numerous women lovers. Sade Adu’s silky delivery reflects the way the titular character moves through life – a sadly relatable archetype, which makes listening equal parts enjoyable and cathartic.
“Foolin’ Myself” – Billie Holiday
When working through heartbreak, we’ll often tell ourselves what we want to hear. But as Holiday croons: “I tell myself, ‘I’m through with you, and I’ll have nothing more to do with you.’ I stay away, but every day I’m just foolin’ myself.” Yes, sometimes, we have to be honest with ourselves – or at least let timeless jazz singers tell us the truth.
“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” – Aretha Franklin
We rarely, if ever, get a say in who we love. And as we learn from Franklin’s debut hit, sometimes the person we end up loving is the one who can – and perhaps does – hurt us more than anyone else. Those words, and her voice, have surely endured since its 1967 release.
“Cuz I Love You” – Lizzo
One of our favorite things about Lizzo is that she is so consistently and unrelentingly herself. She’s nuanced and masterful in what she does, but she is also extremely brave, in how she puts herself and her emotions out there. It’s that spirit that has us loving “Cuz I Love You,” a big, bold ballad that asks – as many of us have – how and why we must love someone who offers us uncertainty or instability in return.
“I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston
This breakup song – and, somewhat awkwardly, rather popular wedding song – was originally a Dolly Parton tune. But she happily admits that the late Houston’s door-busting 1992 cover is something truly spectacular, and loved it from first listen. As did we all, thanks in large part to Houston’s absolutely unmatched voice.
“Any Time, Any Place” – Janet Jackson
Sultry and sophisticated – but also delightfully explicit. Jackson has put out numerous sexy tracks during her career, but this 1993 song is one of her best known. She’s not shy about the effect the song’s subject has on her, vacillating between sharing fantasies and expressing her desire through a smart, subtle performance laid over a rhythmic, jazz-inspired backdrop.
“Motivation” – Normani
It’s not just the flirtation and straight-up fun that makes this song work. It’s the feeling of freedom that’s baked into this bop. Her 2019 hit feels like an amazing summer day, captured in music – and it definitely makes us want to dance, as close as possible, to a certain attractive “someone,” whoever they may be.