Ohio native Tracy Chapman was born into poverty, and her early struggles shaped what would become an authoritative body of musical work that is on par with even the most iconic folk figures. While hits like ‘Give Me One Reason’ put her on the map, her highly perceptive lyrics and refusal to forsake her roots for mainstream fame made her a beloved star among listeners of all genres, from pop and folk to blues and rock.
Truly a songwriter who can’t be caged, Chapman’s vast body of work featuring tender ballads and socially-conscious singles remains to be both timeless and deeply moving. Go behind the scenes of Tracy Chapman’s best songs with this empowering playlist.
With a feel similar to that of 1960s protest songs, songwriter Tracy Chapman showcases one of her sweet spots with ‘Subcity.’ With minimal production featuring acoustic guitar, backing drums, and her soulful, gentle voice, Chapman highlights the plight of those deemed less fortunate by society. Despite their hardships, she keeps a romanticist approach to the story and says, “I guess I’m lucky to be alive.” Included on her album Crossroads, it was the first project she got to co-produce. The theme of struggle is a pillar of the album, and the overall tone is set by songs like ‘Subcity’ and another important work, ‘Freedom Now,’ which was written in honor of Nelson Mandela.
10. The Promise
A soft strings section brings ‘The Promise’ to life. Often referred to by fans as ‘If You Wait for Me’ due to the song’s title not actually showing up in the lyrics, Chapman’s songwriting skill gives weight to an otherwise oversaturated subject, true love. Romantic numbers can often turn sappy really fast, but Tracy has a seriousness about her, an edge that allows her to tackle any subject with authority. While she’s known as an expert blues interpreter and hit pop songwriter, this tender addition shows even the simplest of life’s pleasures have grand meaning.
9. You’re The One
This minor chord heavy track is moody and groovy. The blues-soul tune is classic Chapman, with her haunting vocal performance undergirded by lyrics focusing on standing by her lover no matter what others say about their relationship. Tracy carved out a unique place in the music industry. Her songwriting and production can be viewed as minimalist and understated, but that is exactly what listeners get when an artist possesses enough strength and steadiness to take a Bruce Lee approach to music: Hack away at the excess, keep what is necessary, mix in your own. This surprising method has produced some of music’s most beloved original work, and Chapman’s is definitely included in that bunch. ‘You’re the One’ is another splendid example of Tracy’s artistic duality, and appears on her sixth album, which she also had a hand in producing, Let It Rain.
8. Across the Lines
In the late ’80s, Tracy was a busy college student attending Tufts University in Massachusetts. In between classes, she picked up gigs at local coffee houses and became a known musical figure in the small, collegiate community. Another Tufts student, Brian Koppelman, was intrigued by her and decided to shop her music around with his father who was in the music business. Despite Tracy’s initial skepticism, they ultimately helped her get signed to Elektra Records where she recorded her debut, self-titled album. Featured on that initial record, ‘Across the Lines’ is reminiscent of her coffee house days when she’d fill her sets singing protest music that greatly influenced her own writing. This tune in particular deals with the notion of the “American Dream,” and if it’s still alive today.
7. For My Lover
Chapman’s folk background is front and center with ‘For My Lover,’ another haunting piece that echoes as if she’s singing it from the penitentiary we find her in during the first few lines of the song. “The things we won’t do for love.” This lyric is a common hook running throughout the song. We soon find there isn’t much the protagonist won’t do for her lover, who seems to get her in a lot of trouble. But Tracy isn’t singing about any ordinary romance, the person she fights for so fiercely is deserving of her dedication. She makes full use of her acoustic, providing southern gothic instrumentation via somber, single-string licks and light percussive hits on the flat top. This bluesy, folk ballad is one of her most chilling, masterfully delivered compositions.
A nod to one of the blues’ most iconic figures, delta legend Robert Johnson, kicks off this stream of consciousness style original from our folk troubador with the mention of the devilish “crossroads” lore. During a time when pop music centered around having fun and not taking life too seriously, Tracy managed to release some of contemporary, mainstream music’s most thought-provoking compositions. Released in ’89, ‘Crossroads’ is one of them. It’s more a declaration than a confession, and it stands as one of Chapman’s anthems in opposition to both the music industry and society. No matter what they say or do, our humble poet will not compromise. Some of her most timeless, spiritually reinvigorating lyrics can be found in this number, including, “All you folks think you run my life. Say I should be willing to compromise. I say all you demons go back to hell. I’ll save my soul, save myself.”
5. All That You Have is Your Soul
People often remark that in order to succeed you have to sell your soul, which is one of life’s most difficult realities. But what if that’s not the case. What if the hardest thing in life is the daily act of keeping your soul while chasing your dreams and reaching your fullest potential? This dichotomy has been discussed by artists over hundreds of years, and Chapman offers her commentary on the matter with ‘All That You Have Is Your Soul.’ The song starts with a lesson her mother taught her: “…don’t give or sell your soul away,” because in the end, that’s all you’ve got (Smart woman!). As Tracy explores lessons and hardships further via achingly poetic lines, none other than the folk hero himself, Neil Young, accompanies her with light acoustic guitar picking and easy piano work that really lifts the song. This poem in song form is one of the ’90s star’s most honest, telling masterpieces.
4. Give Me One Reason
A multi-Grammy award winning single, ‘Give Me One Reason’ is featured on one of Tracy’s most popular albums, New Beginning. The ’96 release went all the way to number 4 on the Billboard “200 Albums” chart. The single itself went platinum. The song marked a transformation for Tracy, which documented her artistic graduation from protest songwriter to blues-rock sensation. Subsequent performances after the song’s release were with the likes of Eric Clapton and B.B. King, bonafide blues rock royalty. The smash hit single also put her in the spotlight like never before, and cemented her as one of the ’90s defining voices in music.
3. Talkin’ Bout a Revolution
The tune that Koppelman used to help secure Chapman a record deal, ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’ was one of the songwriter’s first impactful compositions dating all the way back to her coffee house days. She wrote it when she was only 16, and experiencing what it was like to feel like an outsider at school while surrounded by fellow teenagers who came from well-to-do families. Despite her writing it at such a young age, the lyrics are astoundingly mature. The official video for the single was recorded at a tribute performance for freedom icon Nelson Mandela at the iconic Wembley Stadium. Chapman was only supposed to perform once, but fellow musician Stevie Wonder experienced a set-ending equipment malfunction and couldn’t go on. Chapman stepped in for one more performance, and the magical moment was captured on video.
2. Baby Can I Hold You
A favorite among the Champan faithful and a common set list addition, ‘Baby Can I Hold You’ creatively tackles the common problem of a lack of communication in relationships. “I’m sorry” and “Forgive me,” are phrases uttered by the troubadour as she laments that in her relationship these are words her partner can’t seem to muster up the courage to say. Appearing on her debut album, the tune did surprisingly well for the then-relatively unknown performer. That all changed after her unexpected double set at a heavily attended and publicized Nelson Mandela tribute.
1. Fast Car
Perhaps her most enduring track, the song-poet uses the stream-of-consciousness technique along with a confessionalist slant to drive home a moving story with impactful messaging. The ‘Fast Car’ at hand is both a symbol and metaphor that represents freedom. Told from the perspective of a woman struggling to get by, her relationship with her lover from its budding days to bitter end is chronicled as the determined woman tries to raise her children and give them a stable home. With an instantly recognizable acoustic guitar lick and a dynamic song structure, ‘Fast Car’ was not only a career-defining hit for Chapman, it earned her a Grammy, and went on to become one of her tracks fans relate to the most.