Covering the Rise of Tracy Chapman

Tracy Chapman’s ascent to the pop stratosphere in 1988 was not in any way guaranteed. She was making folk music in a time of stadium rock and hip-hop. She was orienting her songs around social concerns. And yet, after a few fortuitous turns in the summer of that year, Chapman’s “Fast Car” became a global anthem. And its success landed her on the cover of Rolling Stone.

For a young Black woman on her first album, it was a startling achievement. The magazine was relatively cloistered in its coverage, but Chapman proved a force to reckon with. The story, written by Steve Pond, is a crucial document — but it is also prophetic, capturing how Chapman was skeptical of the spotlight, and even of the reasons people had embraced her so assiduously.

On this week’s Popcast, a conversation about Chapman’s rapid rise to pop royalty, how her music figured into the broader musical conversation of the late 1980s, and the ways in which she’s changed little over the decades.

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