You’ve heard English singer, songwriter and producer MNEK behind the scenes, writing for artists like Madonna and Beyoncé (yes, he co-wrote a Lemonade jam, Bey’s “Hold Up”). But with his Capital Records debut, the 23-year-old UK rapper-singer steps into the spotlight, seeing his own artistic vision through with a 16-track album meant to be heard as a full album, a defiant move in a singles-driven music industry. Black and gay, MNEK knows the struggle to thrive in a majority-rules world, which he writes about on the album’s standout, “Correct,” a call-to-arms for queer people, served through the musical guise of a big party bop. Words to live by: “Yas bitch, stay fabulous, honey.”
As is the case for many aspiring musicians who climb YouTube’s ladder, New Jersey’s Donna Missal stormed the internet first, racking up 11 million combined streams. The demand opened the doors to her first album, the soulful This Time, released in September on Harvest Records. Produced by Tim Anderson, known for helming projects by Solange and Halsey, the sexually fluid LA-based singer-songwriter’s rock-meets-soul sound is as intoxicating as her lyrical content, which she says reflects “taking chances for yourself, figuring out who you are and really standing behind that.”
Sassy, frequently shirtless IG sensation John Duff took his social clout to the next level with the release of his song “Girly,” a frothy pop romp celebrating femme power (“let’s get girly, flip our hair, we don’t care”). Its accompanying video is a tribute to a pantheon of gay icons. In the clip, he delightfully mirrors the precious mannerisms of Mariah in her 1999 “Heartbreaker” video along with her signature look – a midriff halter top, cut-off jeans – while also recreating other iconic music-video scenes from Madonna, Britney, Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera.
Activism is art in Shea Diamond’s case. Performing songs to fellow prisoners while serving time in various Michigan prisons, the trans singer-songwriter and her inspiring narrative soon fell into the nurturing hands of star producer Justin Tranter, who Diamond has called her “fairy godmother.” Tranter produced songs from Diamond’s first EP, released this year. For the album, the artist channels her personal struggles as a trans woman of color living in a time when the trans community is under attack. Now, particularly, her soulful croon is a voice that needs – and demands – to be heard.
Christine and the Queens
Pansexual French pop singer, songwriter, producer and choreographer Hélöise Letissier yearned to break down gender constructs, so she fashioned an androgynous look, started going by “Chris,” and used her new persona (previously, her professional alias was Christine and the Queens) as the title of her sophomore album, released in September. One of the most exciting pop albums of the year, Chris holds a mirror to the artist’s personal journey, boldly framing her newfound identity in assertive retro beats that throb and empower.
Michael Blume, an alumni of Yale University whose future was once academia-bound, almost didn’t pursue music as a career. But after joining an on-campus a capella group that toured the world, performing in 35 countries, the New Jersey-bred, NYC-based has forged a flourishing musical career for himself. Queer and other human rights issues still rest heavy on his mind as illustrated by his latest release. A follow-up to his 2016 debut When I Get It Right called Cynicism & Sincerity, the six-song EP’s musically diverse palette – from trap hip-hop to gospel and electronica – is the conduit for his pointed and passionate activist convictions.
Folk-pop trio Faultlines pulled no punches with their Trump-targeted words on “Rain,” released early this year. The fired-up anthem is in the stomping soul style of 1960s protest songs and blends the earthy voices of band members Todd McCool, Ashley Morgan and John Flanagan, who draw upon urban pop and roots country for the gritty call-to-action. Their lyrics rouse: “There’s a man in a big white house trying to take your voice away,” they sing. “Do nothing and stay silent if you think that it’s OK.”