The 80s brought us some of the most unforgettable hits from the world’s most influential black musicians. Their genres span from classic rock to soul, jazz, and everything in between. Let’s take a look at some of the most outstanding 80s black songs.
“Beat It” by Michael Jackson (1982)
Thriller is the most award-winning masterpiece album of black pop sensation Michael Jackson. The album broke the record for the most top singles with seven of its ten songs topping the charts.
Among those was “Beat It,” a song about putting up a fight in the face of adversity. It has an energizing beat, a killer bassline, and plenty of Jackson’s signature ad-libs. You haven’t truly heard the 80s until you’ve heard this song.
“Purple Rain” by Prince (1984)
Prince’s single “Purple Rain” from the album with the same name was his first hit to reach number one on the Billboard 200 list. It stayed there for 24 straight weeks.
“Purple Rain” is perhaps Prince’s most iconic song, carrying a mellow melancholy that contrasts with his other top songs. In the lyrics, Prince bemoans the pain he caused to his lover. The melody is heavily inspired by gospel, soul, and blues elements. With Prince’s recent passing in 2016, there’s no better time to reverently listen and enjoy this beautiful, soulful single.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by Whitney Houston (1987)
Houston’s 1987 album Whitney is among the best-selling albums of all time. Many critics consider “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” to be the song that rocketed her to international stardom. Today she is known as one of the world’s most influential black female singers and actresses.
Her hit single is an energetic and heart-filled plea for somebody to love and dance with. It features signature 80s instrumentals and a driving beat that is a perfect pair to any dance floor, even in the present day. Few songs fill you with the rush of youthful romance quite like this one.
“Escapade” by Janet Jackson (1989)
Towards the end of the decade, Michael Jackson’s sister Janet released “Escapade,” a peppy single that’s hard not to sing along to. She would go on to become even more of an icon for black women in the music industry in the 90s and 2000s, but her music in the 80s has its own merits.
“Escapade” is about getting away from your troubles and going on a love-filled adventure, just like the song title. It has a catchy rhythm and elements of funk and disco that keep your feet tapping to the beat. Just like Whitney Houston’s hit, this song is perfect for dancing.
“Do I Do” by Stevie Wonder (1982)
In this funk hit, Stevie Wonder teams up with jazz sensation Dizzy Gillespie. Each of the four new songs on his 1982 retrospective album, Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium,became an instant classic. This blind musical genius has a knack for creating soulful albums, each infused with his black childhood Motown roots.
With nearly a ten-minute runtime, this jazzy funk song keeps on jamming. The poetic lyrics are about a tantalizing love that fills your mind with thoughts of sugar and kisses. Only the legendary Stevie Wonder could create a track this smooth.
“Let’s Groove” by Earth, Wind, and Fire (1981)
After the successes of “September” and “Boogie Wonderland,” among others, this jazzy group brought us “Let’s Groove” at the turn of the decade. Earth, Wind, and Fire is a black mega-group of eight talented musicians that deliver the sounds of funk and disco to your home record player.
This track comes from the album Raise! which was ranked the number one Billboard R&B album of 1981. It’s impossible to stay still when the full force of the song’s electronic instrumentals kick in. Coupled with the multi-layered serenade of vocals, you’ll find yourself grooving in no time.
“Nightshift” by Commodores (1986)
“Nightshift” is a groovy but somber song from Commodores, the band that produced hits such as “Brick House” and “Three Times A Lady.” Many of the band’s chart-toppers were ballads about serious events, and this one is no different. The lyrics talk about the afterlife following the unfortunate deaths of black musicians Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson in 1984.
Even though it has a serious subject, the instrumentals remain smooth as guitars and heartfelt vocals reach your ears. This track might not be as funky as the others on this list, but it pays a much-needed homage to black musicians in the past and present.
“All of My Love” by Gap Band (1989)
This song was ranked as the number one R&B hit of 1989. Gap Band had a legacy of producing strong funk hits like “You Dropped A Bomb On Me,” but this track features jazzy instrumentals and fun vocal layering that stands out from the band’s other tracks.
The lyrics tell a classic story of wanting a woman more than anything else. The musical style combined with the sweet-talking lyrics creates the atmosphere of a romance brewing in an 80s dance club.
“Freeway of Love” by Aretha Franklin (1985)
Aretha had a legendary career in the 60s and 70s, but she turned to a more youthful musical style to resurge in the 80s, resulting in this track. Accompanied by black singer Jeanie Tracy, “Freeway Of Love” became one of Aretha’s best-selling tracks of all time.
It’s a funky electro-pop song as slick as the pink Cadillac on the album’s cover. The lyrics mention the joys of cruising on the freeway with the one you love, which is much sweeter when accompanied by Aretha’s impressive vocals.
Top 80s Black Music, Final Thoughts
Now you know some of the most influential songs in 80s black music by both male and female musicians. Each of these timeless hits only grows in value and exposure as time marches on. If you’ve got a moment and want to dance to that perpetual 80s sound, cue up your favorites and get your toes tapping.