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Curtis Mayfield, “Freddie’s Dead” (Super Fly, 1972)
The first single from Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly soundtrack was a hit that helped define the sound of the early 1970s. Its distinctive bass line and wah-wah-infused guitar lament the death of a key character and exemplify the spirit of machismo that echoed through many Blaxploitation films. It’s one of the greatest examples of Mayfield’s gift for writing songs for the big screen.
Gladys Knight & the Pips, “The Makings of You” (Claudine, 1974)
“Add a little sugar, honeysuckle, and a great big expression of happiness/Boy, you couldn’t miss with a dozen roses.” The soundtrack for Claudine — a film starring Diahann Carroll as a mother of six who will do anything for her children — features Gladys Knight & the Pips performing songs written and produced by Mayfield, who was continuing his run as one of the decade’s top artists. For one of the soundtrack’s highlights, Knight reached for this classic expression of gratitude in the form of a love letter, originally recorded for Mayfield’s debut four years earlier.
Aretha Franklin, “Something He Can Feel” (Sparkle, 1976)
Sparkle, set in late-1950s Harlem, follows the rise of a girl group inspired by the Supremes. The soundtrack was another Curtis Mayfield production, this time with Aretha Franklin in the starring vocal role for what became one of her best albums. “Something He Can Feel” was the film’s breakout Chicago soul-style love song, and it became so enduringly popular that it hit Number One on Billboard‘s R&B singles chart twice: first with Aretha’s version the year of the film’s release, and again in 1992 when En Vogue covered it.
Experience Unlimited, “Da Butt” (School Daze, 1988)
Originally released as part of the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s film about an HBCU in the 1970s, this feelgood anthem took on a life of its own as one of the most popular songs to emerge from Washington, D.C.’s go-go music scene. The music video, also directed by Lee, features E.U. leading a party through empty school halls.
Christopher Williams, “I’m Dreamin’” (New Jack City, 1991)
The opening harmonies on “Don’t wake me, I’m dreaming” are fitting for an action-crime film about a drug gang’s fast rise to the high life. Performed by Christopher Williams, a member of the movie’s supporting cast, the song also became a chart-topping R&B hit.
Whitney Houston, “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” (Waiting to Exhale, 1995)
Waiting to Exhale was a first for black women. In contrast with the many struggle-ridden narratives of violence and suffering that preceded it, director Forest Whitaker gave us a star-studded cast of black women living, loving, and leaning on their friendship to get through it all. The soundtrack, written and produced by Babyface, was a similarly all-star affair, and this Grammy-winning platinum hit, performed by Whitney Houston at the height of her career, was one of the highlights.
Boyz II Men, “A Song For Mama” (Soul Food, 1997)
Boyz II Men’s “A Song For Mama” was the lead single from the soundtrack to director George Tillman Jr.’s heartwarming 1997 film about a black family’s ups and downs. Written and produced by Babyface, who worked on several major soundtracks that decade, the song became a big hit — and a Mother’s Day anthem for years to come.
Maxwell, “This Woman’s Work” (Love & Basketball, 2000)
Love & Basketball, written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps, is an essential love story for black millennials. The soundtrack featured tracks like MC Lyte’s 1988 song “Lyte as a Rock” (used to evoke Lathan’s character’s game) and Me’Shell NdegéOcello’s “Fool of Me” (paired with an epic one-on-one battle). But the film’s most intimate and memorable music moment employed Maxwell’s tender Kate Bush cover. While the song didn’t make the soundtrack, it’s an unforgettable part of the movie.
Erykah Badu and Common, “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)” (Brown Sugar, 2002)
Brown Sugar, a tale of a relationship built on a shared devotion to hip-hop, is a must-see black rom-com. The film explores the evolution of the genre in tandem with the story of main characters Sidney (Sanaa Lathan) and Dre (Taye Diggs). relationship. The soundtrack is full of great hip-hop and neo-soul songs by Mos Def, the Roots, and more, and this song from real-life couple Erykah Badu and Common became its biggest hit.
Mary J. Blige, “Family Affair” (Friday After Next, 2002)
Ice Cube’s third installment of the Friday series not only closed the chapter but also became an essential Christmas film for black culture. Friday After Next features a star-studded cast of comedians/actors like Terry Crews, Katt Williams, and Mike Epps playing out another day full of hysterical scenarios. While the soundtrack includes holiday cuts like Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” and Cube’s own Westside Connection performing “It’s the Holidaze,” the best musical moment might have been the epic Christmas party with this Dr. Dre-produced hit playing in the background.
Kendrick Lamar and SZA, “All the Stars” (Black Panther, 2018)
The adaption of the Marvel comic book Black Panther made history when it hit theaters in 2018 with the late Chadwick Boseman in the starring role. The soundtrack was a similarly major pop-culture event, featuring new tracks from Kendrick Lamar and a select group of artists like Khalid, Swae Lee, Travis Scott and more, teaming up for an innovative, genre-bending album that fuses Afrobeats with hip-hop and soul music. On “All The Stars,” Kendrick and his fellow TDE labelmate SZA give a heartening anthem that feels timeless.
Lil Baby, “Catch the Sun” (Queen and Slim 2019)
Queen and Slim, written by Lena Waithe, provided an unapologetically black Bonnie and Clyde story for modern times. Director Melina Matsoukas, who previously worked on some of the past two decades’ biggest music videos (from Beyonce’s “Formation” to Rihanna’s “We Found Love”), expressed how important it was for both of the film’s leads to be dark-skinned in an interview last year with the Guardian. “I didn’t really feel like I grew up seeing two dark-skinned people fall in love on screen,” she said. “I had never really seen that connection between two people who looked like our Queen and Slim, like Jodie and Daniel. I really wanted to be part of redefining what black beauty – well, beauty – means.” While the idea of the movie itself was militant and groundbreaking in many ways, the music and soundtrack mirrored that spirit with music from top hip-hop and R&B artists like Lil Baby’s “Catch the Sun” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Ride or Die.”