Illustration: Ryan Melgar
Black hair is love. Black hair is power. Black hair is sacrifice. The seemingly simple choice to shape it as we choose is a daily decision that, in effect, activates and extends Black pride, mystique, and flair — not just for us, but to the outside world as well. Wearing our hair exactly how it grows out of our heads is much more than radical; it’s a conversation piece, a common language, ritual, a physiological understanding.
So in the spirit of celebrating the singularity, fabulousity, and unfuckwittability of Black hair, we dove deep into the barbershop poster, and chose the most timeless 32 — then ranked them all based on longevity, versatility, and flyness. These are the looks we rocked throughout our lives, the styles that loom over indelible memories: that year way back when your boy finally got those waves on swim; the deep laughter the crew let out when homie stepped into the cipher with a wild-ass perm; shitting on someone’s ill-advised ducktail, or secretly coveting your man’s new locs. The Undisputed Ranking of Black Hairstyles showcases the infinite depth of our follicles and artistry … not to mention the fact that Black folks ain’t ever had a style they couldn’t freak. Feast.
32. Finger Waves
Peak Era: Prohibition
Celebrity Endorsers: Jidenna, El Debarge, Nat King Cole
Finger waves have gotten a bad rap for much of their history, and to be fair, it’s mostly earned: In a Jim Crowier time, the style was used to signify class and suavity, often in opposition to kinkier-haired folks. These days, though, it’s virtually nonexistent — even Jidenna left that shit in his “Classic Man” past. Though it’s a maintenance nightmare and a botched wave could permanently damage the scalp, it’s somehow gained a cult appreciation, and is a few brave spokesmodels from staging a comeback that would make Debarge himself proud.
Peak Era: N/A
Celebrity Endorsers: Drew Gooden, Coco Crisp
The ducktail is rightfully stigmatized by the majority of people who have experienced its affront on the senses. It takes a truly nihilistic personality to etch out a patch of hair on the nape. Like, for what? For why? The ducktail is a statement piece, but exactly what it’s declaring (besides questionable priorities) is open to anyone’s interpretation. Seriously, anybody’s. Because we have no idea.
Peak Era: late ’80s
Celebrity Endorsers: Bobby Brown, EST from Three Times Dope
I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen this pulled off smoothly. It does take some gall to shape ya head up like a skate ramp, but I guess it’s your prerogative.
29. Drop Shag
Peak Era: late ’10s-present
Celebrity Endorsers: Trapboy Freddy
Longevity: 2 (outside Dallas) / 8 (inside Dallas)
Listen, both as a Houstonian and someone who cares about how I present in the eyes of actual, real-life, human beings, you wouldn’t catch me dead rocking a drop shag. It’s like telling the barber “gimme a mullet but make it negro,” but to each their own. Regardless, the impact of Dallas’ oddball swag on the culture and the idiosyncratic eminence of the drop shag is undeniable. Not to mention it doubles as padding for the odd slap upside the head.
Peak Era: late ’80s
Celebrity Endorsers: Kadeem Hardison
The slope throws together a number of classic looks — the fade, the taper, and the froish top — then adds in some geometry for character’s sake. It’s a challenge to pull off well. Not only does the slope need a clear line of demarcation, but if the arc features even a modicum of dip, you might gotta head back to the barber because the whole move is an L. (Unless you’re Dwayne Wayne and the kicktail look is intentional.) It’s a high degree of difficulty that places the slope near the bottom of our list.
Peak Era: N/A
Celebrity Endorsers: Theo Huxtable, Javale McGee
True to their namesake, rattails’ ability to survive hatred and persecution is obnoxiously impressive. Even Google’s description of the rattail as an “element” suggests that the style is both a fact of nature and a mortal ill on society. Black mamas everywhere shudder at the sight of it — and despite their collective side eye containing more power than a nuclear bomb, the rattail lives to infest another day.
Peak Era: mid-’80s
Celebrity Endorsers: Mr. T, Puff, Fishbone’s Angelo Moore
We promise this won’t end up being a pity the fool joke. We promise. It won’t. What we will say is that the amount of visible skin required for a proper mohawk almost necessitates a relatively symmetrical head. For those oblong skulls, though, it’s a real pity — [tape cuts]
25. Dye Stripe
Peak Era: late-’80s, late-’00s
Celebrity Endorsers: Kwame, Big Daddy Kane, Rolling Papers-era Wiz Khalifa
As a man who spent many, many hours watching former Rockets center Clint Capela’s faded gold patch twinkle across the court only to miss converting a Harden lob, I can testify to the fact that the blonde dollop is an acquired taste. Though Wiz Khalifa is probably the most popular modern-era head to rock it, there was a period in the late aughts where you couldn’t go to a high school with Black and Brown kids without seeing the patch here and there. It’s fallen from grace recently, but those same patchy high schoolers are about to run the world. We’ll see if it has cross-generational legs.
Peak Era: mid -90s-early ’00s
Celebrity Endorsers: Ludacris, Snoop
Despite the low ranking, you can consider this an unabashed shill. More men should try puff look and here’s why: It’s very cute, it shows diligence to the hair care journey, and did I mention it’s very cute? As time passes, and more men delve into the softer side of beauty, I suspect we’ll see more brave modern-day pioneers in the vein of St. Louis’ Smino, who burnished his already extensive tonsorial bona fides by rocking the puffs on his Soundcloud banner.
23. Shirley Temple Curls
Peak Era: mid-’90s
Celebrity Endorsers: Snoop, Dru Down
If you were a bruh and wore Shirley Temple curls in the mid-’90s, it’s fair to assume you’ve probably backhanded a few plebians tryna talk down on pimpin’.
22. Baby Locs
Peak Era: mid-’90s, late ’10s
Celebrity Endorsers: Shawn Wayans, 21 Savage, Lil Baby
Don’t let the name confuse you: This isn’t the ugly phase at the beginnings of the loc journey. Nah, these have a bit of hang time, and in the mid-90s it was hard to go to any afrocentric function without seeing men, women, and everyone in between and outside, tryna get their Kyle-Barker-from-Living Single on. With a recent uptick in dyed toddler locs, it seems the style is making a return in the emo rap age.
21. Tapered Afro
Peak Era: early ’00s
Celebrity Endorsers: Kobe Bryant, Hitch-era Will Smith
The nostalgia wrapped up in #8 Kobe carries this slight ’fro alteration onto our list. Dude was outta this world audacious and had the bunnies to match. It’s hard to imagine a moment when the offshoot makes a huge comeback — at least not without a dye strip or some other supplemental flex — but it was a hit for the time we had it, and earned its place in the rafters among the greats.
Peak Era: 1920s-’60s
Celebrity Endorsers: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Malcolm Little
Respect to those heads willing to shepherd lye through their scalps to achieve their black beauty goals. Clearly, I wasn’t built for the conk. I’ve never seen 20th-century rockers and soul cats like Chuck Berry or Fats Domino fight, but I assume they’re liable to put the paws on you if need be. This classic style points back to a time where talkin’ down on a permed brotha meant a scrap — the glory days when Twitter fingers weren’t an option and the deserving parties actually got their asses beat.
19. Dyed Locs
Peak Era: current
Celebrity Endorsers: Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Pump
To the headbanging intelligentsia, the dyed loc is the style choice du jour. Perfect for a mosh where the colors — most likely blonde, or in Dwight Howard’s case, purple — collide in sweaty, quasi-violent ecstasy. While some of the curmudgeons among us might hate on the young guns, we’re in the midst of its peak, so it’s either get with it or get lost.
Peak Era: late ’00s
Celebrity Endorsers: Kanye West, Kid Cudi, will.i.am
The Frohawk was the rare wave that propagated from Gen X downward toward the youth as opposed to the trickle-up effect in other entries. Right around the time “Swagga Like Us” dropped, it seemed like every middle-aged artist from ’Ye to Jason Derulo had a frohawk phase. But it’s millennials, specifically cats like Odell Beckham Jr., that made the Frohawk (and its customization) the official style of Pop Warner Youth Football.
Peak Era: late ’80s-late ’90s
Celebrity Endorsers: Denzel Washington, Carl Thomas, Diddy
There’s an undeniable mystique to the S-Curl, as with any relic of unknown provenance. It prompts questions like, how much gel really is too much? Were the curls crafted with the fingertips or an alien brush? Is it worth the inevitable snowfall once that gel’s hold starts to loosen? The S-Curl was the pretty-boi statement of the late ’80s and ’90s and while it’s since been replaced — much to the chagrin of Bobby Valentino — the impact of its mystery is still felt today.
Peak Era: mid-’80s, late ’00s
Celebrity Endorsers: Theo Huxtable, Ralph Tresvant, Kanye West, Nick Young
Around the 808s and Heartbreak era, love-jonesing rappers heralded a comeback for the soul mullet. The renaissance was bleak, but was yet another reminder that Black folk just make dumb shit look cool.
15. Jheri Curl
Peak Era: late ’70s-mid-’90s
Celebrity Endorsers: AC Green, Ice Cube, Darryl from Coming To America
Soggy fabrics be damned: When the jheri curl reigned, it reigned supreme. As hip-hop transitioned out of disco’s demise (official cause of death: wypipo) and into a brash new period, it brought its predecessor’s signature look with it. In fact, the curl survived through the mid-’90s til the laundry bill was just too steep.
14. Messy Afro
Peak Era: 2000-present
Celebrity Endorsers: Questlove, Donald Glover, Ludacris
Not as fly or as iconic as its halo-like cousin, the messy afro still makes the list off pure proximity to greatness. Old heads know the game. The classic fro, at its best, features a damn near perfect circumference. And while the messy fro has been taken on by cultural giants like Questlove and Childish Gambino — artists don’t need to give a fuck about their hair — the style is more symbolic of the generational transition than a stand-alone.
13. 2-Strand Twists
Peak Era: ’90s-’00s
Celebrity Endorsers: DJ Quik, Tyga
All praise to the protection and grace of the two-strand twist. Learning this simple coil is crucial to natural hair growth and the style’s been holding us down for centuries. It’s a fundamental element of Black hair care — the hydrogen atom on its periodic table.
Peak Era: Fittingly, permanent
Celebrity Endorsers: Katt Williams, Shonuff, Lloyd, Stankonia-era Andre 3000, Rico in Belly
I cede this entry to national treasure and perm gawd Katt Williams, who in The Pimp Chronicles Pt. 1 issued the undeniable Black man’s relaxer manifesto: “Understand: niggas is gon hate you regardless. Get that outta yo’ head, that fantasy world where niggas ain’t hatin’ on you. You gotta be grateful. You need haters. What the fuck is you complaining about, what the fuck do you think a hater’s job is? To fuckin hate — so let them muhfuckas do they goddamn job. What the fuck is you complainin about? Ladies, if you got 14 women hating on you, you need to figure out how to get to 16 before the summer get here. Fellas, if you got 20 haters, you need 40 of them muhfuckas, what is you complainin’ about? If there is any haters in here right now who ain’t got nobody to hate on, feel free to hate on me! Sit back there and say my hair ain’t luxurious when you know it is, bitch.” The congregation rests.
11. Plaited Braids
Peak Era: late ’00s-present
Celebrity Endorsers: A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott
The plaited braid experienced a resurgence in the late aughts as sad eff-boi rap became the new blues. Much like this hip-hop mood, it’s uncertain how long the style’s spotlight will last. But if its paragons, Travis Scott and A$AP Rocky, are any indication, the kids braids gon bang in the mosh and the trap for the foreseeable future.
10. OG Afro
Peak Era: mid-’60s-late ’70s
Celebrity Endorsers: Earth Wind and Fire, Sly Stone, Colin Kaepernick
Ah yes, ol’ tried and true: The most symbolically powerful and striking style Black folks done drummed up. During the birth of the Black Power movement, the ’fro gave the fist to relaxers and celebrated the power of natural hair, quickly coming to represent the fervor of Black youth and revolutionary spirit. There’s an inherent magic to the OG Fro, the alchemical result of picking that mug out for tireless hours and spraying it all down for a glossy but firm hold. At the afro’s peak, any satellite photo taken over a chocolate city doubtless would have caught a sea of heads bobbing to the blend of fear, and possibility that personified the time. And the most fearless among them — Angela Davis, Dr. J, Sly Stone — wore their meticulously crafted fros, faced the world, and told it to get on Our level.
Peak Era: 1950s
Celebrity Endorsers: Yung Joc, Miguel
Some of my longest-lasting friendships were built on a simple question: Where were you when Yung Joc popped up on the ’gram with a permed pompadour looking like a peppermint-toting woman of God? Respect to big pimpin’: It takes a strong backbone to post up a ’50s-era gender-bending snap knowing that the Interwebs will inevitably roast that shit up. I, for one, didn’t hate the pompadour; it felt like a natural progression for Joc, who comes off as saditty in that photo as he does on Love & Hip-Hop. Not to mention that even when it was truly poppin’, the pomp is god-level difficult to pull off. Charge it to an enviable head shape, but Prince and Miguel make it look suave and easy. Unfortunately, its longevity is up for debate. While Joc did kinda-sorta revive the look, he also opened the door for wonks like Chris Brown and Usher following suit. And that shit wasn’t pretty.
8. The “Duke Starting Five”
Peak Era: mid-’10s-present
Celebrity Endorsers: Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson, Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow
I’m not sure who coined this hairstyle, but it’s perfectly ironic that the Duke Starting Five came about in 2014, in retrospect the last peak the program has seen. The chip-winning squad received all the accolades and draft selections the school has become notorious for — but even more importantly, they convinced the overwhelming population of the country that can’t stand Duke to still rock that high bald taper with the fro’d out curls like we received the letter of acceptance. We’re lowkey still in its thrall; the style is showy enough to suggest the wearer actually cares about their hair, while being low maintenance enough that we (yes…I’m rocking the DSF right now) rock it on the daily with ease. Win-win.
Peak Era: early ’80s-present
Celebrity Endorsers: Nas, TI
Much like its older cousin the caesar, the fade and its many variations find a home on scalps that are either starting their journey toward a more extravagant style, or whose owners lack the time/bandwidth to care for their hair with regularity. Taper fades became the go-to for black men around the mid-’00s, outgrowing the low-bald look of the generation prior, but competitive barbers were also sweet on the cut: Between the quick brush down and clip up, it required a ton of wrist-work for both hands. Online, barbers from across the country would try to cut the quickest taper without skimping on crispness. While we’re in the midst of the taper fade’s dominance, many variations have had their time in the sun — the low/high-bald, burst fades, temple fades, and others — suggesting that the fade is probably the most essential, long-standing cut in Black America.
Peak Era: late ’80s-present
Celebrity Endorsers: DMX, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Jordan,Tupac
Versatility: 8By choice or by natural selection, the bald head is a top tier style if only for the worldshakers that wore it proudly. Pac, MJ, and Samuel motherfucking Jackson alone are enough to catapult the look into the stratosphere, but even plenty of Black men of a certain age got something to say; the Fast & Furious franchise may owe its entire success to the Black bald head. And we’d be remiss not to mention the heads that had very little choice when it comes to baldness. Shouts to y’all for taking the leap when biology called out from the screen door to come on home. It takes courage, especially when the shape of your head is unknown; y’all are the bravest among us.
Peak Era: ’90s-present
Celebrity Endorsers: Drake, 50 Cent
Versatility: 8Like returning home after months at sea, the caesar is a lighthouse for those needing a fresh start. Growing out the mane can be a long and arduous process, so there’s no shame if the natural hair journey ends up back to this base look. Like its namesake and the Roman empire, the caesar is a favorite among dads, punks, and radicals alike. And while Julius wasn’t no slouch, not even he pulled off the caesar with the cool savoir faire of the melanated strutting straight out the barber shop, scalp gleaming under the sun’s rays. Granted, the low-cut style is a military fave — sanctioned and guerrilla alike — and we’re not really out here pushing the imperial lobby, but most bruhs are bangless so a low-bald caesar steers well clear of the style’s martial connotations (as well as incel/mall ninja territory, because yiiiiikes).
Peak Era: mid-’70s-present
Celebrity Endorsers: Lil Wayne, Future, Richard Sherman, Wale, Buju Banton
There’s no style this side of box braids that’s stirred up more White angst for Black people in the last century the way locs have. From their post-slave trade Rastafarian resonance to the Texas high school trying to deny teenager DeAndre Arnold his graduation walk, locs have long held a transgressive power that attracts hate and misunderstanding — which only makes their continued survival and popularity all the more significant. The loc has come to embody the journey of Black people in an anti-Black world: When we finally had enough time for our beauty to marinate and consolidate, we unwrapped the natural glory on top of our heads and watched the world lose its shit. (And one last time: if you’re not Black or Afro-Latinx, please, please let your loc dreams go. It’s not worth the heartbreak. The more you know, fam.)
Peak Era: mid-’90s-present
Celebrity Endorsers: Allen Iverson, Kawhi Leonard, Nipsey Hussle, John Boyega
Versatility: 9Like locs, cornrows’ longevity and versatility are the style’s biggest benefit. Cornrows for dudes have always been a thing — like, since for antiquity for real — but rocking them as a style beyond protection in the contemporary didn’t truly kick up until the urban phantasmagoria of the ’90s Black-cinema explosion and Allen Iverson’s godlike plaits (and equally divine game). Cornrows are the most consistent great unifiers between Black folks. They’re not demonized as much as locs, but they share the necessity of having other fingers in your hair. Those precious hours grimacing through the dull pain often (and unnecessarily) associated with Black beauty is carried on four shoulders, not two. Hair styling is a practice of creating beauty and relation.
2. High-Top Fade
Peak Era: late ’80s-early ’90s
Celebrity Endorsers: Kid, Big Daddy Kane
If the OG Afro represents the most politically potent hairstyle in history, the hightop fade is the most joyous. Think back to the oft-rhapsodized Golden Age of Hip-Hop when grandeur and Black-ass fun went hand in hand. Countless Black men have taken on the towering style, battling the sky, gravity, and all the other manmade forces seeking to steal our happy. Just going through the iconic figures who’ve worn it — Kid ’N Play, Dougie Fresh, De La’s Posdnuos, Will Smith — the hightop fade seems built to elicit smiles. (Hell, even MC Serch tried to get in on the fun, though those smiles might have been more like patient grimaces). It felt, for a shining moment, like Black people were actually winning the culture wars. And while the true cultural takeover would take another couple of decades, the unapologetic exuberance the hightop fade embodies launches it all the way up to the number-two spot.
1. 360 Waves
Peak Era: early ’90s-present
Celebrity Endorsers: Nas, Fabolous, Nelly, Larenz Tate, A$AP Ferg
Versatility: 10 The perilous and urgent quest to hip Black aesthetic may have no greater symbol than 360 waves. Its ’90s exemplars — Diddy, Fab, Nas — gave the style a glossy superstar sheen, inspiring those with the coarsest hair among us to find the softest brushes around and put in the wrist-work to get them waves on swim. That priority ushered in the smooth wave era of the new millennium, where the depth and thickness of the wave became the primary focus. The cultural desire for a rippling head of hair provides the basis for whole business models, including the iconic rise of products like Sportin Waves, which capitalized on the relatively low maintenance style. By that same token, 360 waves are some of our gateways into our hair care journeys. In that way, it’s likely this style will be around for as long as the earth decides to sustain human existence.
Photos: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Michael Loccisano/Getty Images, NBC/Getty Images, Presley Ann/Getty Images, Brad Barket/Getty Images, Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images, Scott Dudelson/Getty Images, Johnny Nunez/Getty Images, Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images