This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. Links have been updated.
2004, for me, was a really strong year. I copped a lot of truly stellar albums and found that when compiling this list that I had to make it a top 15. Because most of this stuff, none of y’all heard and I truly believe you should hear it.
Hip-hop is continuing to deteriorate for me. And it’s not the image per se…its the fact that everyone is sounding the same…looking the same. Really what is the difference between a T.I. song and a Chingy song (sh*t, the goofy pretty boys even look the same)? Or for that matter, what is the difference between their videos?
R&B, soul, “neo-soul”, whatever limiting term you use to define it continues to deepen as a wide variety of new artists come into the market to spice it up. Lyfe Jennings is exciting! Ciara, well as a performer, she’s electrifying.
And a lot of people came back and did their thing in 2004. Regina Belle, Anita Baker, Teena Marie, Adina Howard, and the like released stellar albums and to hear women with really emotive voices make music that seems so effortless makes you loathe (or at least feel depressed about) how artificial commercial R&B; is and how artificial “neo-soul” is as well.
But it was a good year. B2K broke up and so they can no longer annoy. America seems to be smart enough to see that Joss Stone has a great voice she has no idea how to use yet. They haven’t been flockin in droves the way they have to Christina Aguilera, her American counterpoint…although I have a sneaking suspicion its more xenophobia than anything else. JC Chasez proved with his release that he’s a risk taker, STILL a better singer than Justin, and brilliant…and no one bought his record.
But here’s my wrap up. Feel free to blow up the comments section. It’s all love, baby!
BEST SINGLE OF THE YEAR–Usher, Yeah
See the thing about Usher, is that he is more than the sum of his parts. That he is the best f*ckin’ performer is unmitigated, but his ability to command a song vocally is equally as impressive. Even a casual listener of this maddeningly catchy song can hear how effectively Usher uses his voice. That the man is an accomplished singer is not lost on me, but it’s a shame, on some level, that this song might define his career. It’s a production showcase…a brilliant one…but not truly an Usher song. Nonetheless, it’s the best damn song of the year. No arguments, kids.
2. Van Hunt, Down Here In Hell With You (pain made simple)
3. Mos Def, Ghetto Rock (proving we STILL do own rock)
4. Destiny’s Child, Lose My Breath (Kelly owns it!!)
5. Adina Howard, Nasty Grind (Cause no one is a FREAK like Adina!!! I mean that! CLASSY sistah!)
6. Snoop Dogg, Drop It Like It’s Hot (man, Snoop mixes his funk flow with Neptunes party jawns, and shows how a hip-hop party need be THROWN!!!)
7. Mario, Let Me Love You (had to throw this on, its just well crafted soul pop and that is hard to come by)
8. R. Kelly, Happy People (cause he still can’t be beat musically…f*ck what you heard!)
9. Usher, Burn (the one honest moment on the album, methinks…and damn good!)
10. Akon, Ghetto (moving piece of work!)
BEST NON-SINGLE SONG OF THE YEAR–Rahsaan Patterson, So Hot
If you are smart you will pick up the US version of Rahsaan Patterson’s latest full-length masterpiece. Dude is AMAZING!! On So Hot, Rahsaan gives you pure contemporary funk with a disco twist and makes raw passion seem like a party! His voice is so pure, so clear. It makes you wonder why no one else sings like him. The breakdown at the end of the song is perhaps the most brilliant 20 seconds of music all year.
2. Usher, Follow Me (best song on the album…why is it last?)
3. Destiny’s Child, Through With Love (Michelle brings this jawn HOME, y’all! best song they’ve recorded)
4. Nas, Virgo (just classic Nas baby, classic Nas)
5. En Vogue, Losin My Mind (En Vogue on some soul sh*t…bout damn time)
6. R. Kelly, How Did You Manage (those who don’t like R.’s new album haven’t heard it. This song is magnificent. Simploe, but magnificent)
7. Adina Howard & Ee De, It’s Not Over (still a classy girl KNOWS how to put it down in a duet)
8. Lyfe Jennings, Must Be Nice (innocence in a whole new way)
9. Van Hunt, Who Will Love Me In Winter (because no one did pain the way Van Hunt did it this year, and this cut is quite frankly the unsung track on the album)
10. Ashanti, Only U (Can’t stand her, but this song is the WAY TO GO MA!!! do it up! The video is hot to DEF too!)
WORST SINGLE OF THE YEAR–Destiny’s Child, Soldier
GOD AWFUL!!!!! But I’ll say this so y’all can not kill me for hating this song…Kelly Rowland runs this song (and the video…girlfriend is makin moves to blow up in her own right, y’all!!). She’s the only one of the girls who sounds halfway believable talkin bout “carryin big things” and “soldiers” and other such drivel. That is a compliment of the highest order, because it is hard to maintain a classy demeanor and complexity when you are singing crassly (and not so subtly) about how big a man’s penis needs to be. Don’t act like you don’t know what the song is about!!!
But more to the point, it has 2 (why 2?) terrible rappers drawling on, bad vocal mixes and generic lyrics. The production is watered-down crunk (which is itself watered down Rick James funk) and not really well executed. The song might be the most poorly mixed song I’ve heard in a while…and I suspect it mighta been purposeful. Their choice, but it wasn’t a good one.
2. Ciara, Goodies (generic)
3. Lloyd Banks, On Fire (umm…he is trash!)
4. The Cam’ron/Diplomats songs..ALL OF THEM!!! (Cam is the prettiest rapper alive [that skin is FLAWLESS], but he used to be a good one as well..what happened!)
5. Jacki O, P*ssy (ummm…its just bad…i can write an essay on why…lame hook, lame production, generic rhymes, lazy vocals execution…etc)
WORST ALBUM–Destiny’s Child, Destiny Fulfilled
See when you have a title Destiny Fulfilled you gotta come wit it! DC DID NOT DO THAT!!! I am adamant about it because the thing about being on top the way DC is is that people characterize your skill and quality by the fact that your singles are selling. But the singles from DC albums have never really been indicative of what a DC album truly is. So to some degree, DC’s image is a nice contradiction. Great singles, bad albums.
That being said, this album is the most consistent, but it’s also the one that is the most rushed, sloppily mixed album of their career. It is purposeful that even when all three girls are singing, to hear Beyonce the most. It is purposeful that Michelle always sings the bridge, because there she isn’t forced to emulate Beyonce’s phrasing. It is purposeful that Kelly was put to the fore a lot more on this album.
It was not purposeful, I think, for the songs to be kind of maudlin and perfunctory in their execution. It gets a bit weary to hear Beyonce and Kelly on the verses, Michelle on the bridge all the time. It might be interesting for Beyonce to bring the song home on a bridge once or twice, let the other girls take lead.
That being said, Kelly’s voice has blossomed into one of true grace and her phrasing is really starting to become her own. Witness how gorgeous she sounds (and the graceful changes) each time she sings her part on T-Shirt and Is She The Reason. But despite all the people that love this record, its just average. Nothing really special. And its a shame because DC has the chops. But they don’t have to be amazing…they just gotta deliver vamp and pomp and circumstance and a hot single. Shame they only meet, not exceed, expectations.
MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF THE YEAR–Jon B, Stronger Everyday
I’m real mad about this record, feel me? Jon B for me represents everything that is right and beautiful about appropriation of black music styles. The respect and knowledge is there. The sheer ability and proficiency with instruments is there. And the humble respect for the fact that you walk in forms you did not create is there. This is important…feeling entitled to other cultures’ art is a problem of Western society and we too often ignore it.
That being said, Jon made a boring a** album. And the reasons are clear…he didn’t write too much of the stuff alone and the collabos are uninspired. Tank doesn’t give him any of the brilliance that is evident on his own albums. And his new songwriting partners are just not as good as Ngai Gee and his other partners. Jon seems content to coast on this album. It’s safe. It’s well made. But it lacks the passion and raw intensity of his previous work. And that is just a shame. He’s still one of the best pure artists working, but he just didn’t put it down this time. And that is just a shame.
2. Destiny’s Child, Destiny Fulfilled (see above)
3. Brandy, Afrodisiac (Timbaland tries to overshadow, B-Rocka don’t let him, but it still works less than it should)
MOST SLEPT-ON ALBUM OF THE YEAR–Teedra Moses, Complex Simplicity
Teedra’s album title is apt. Her songs seem kind of generic middle of the road first time you listen to them. But the subtlety of her lyricism and the complexity of her rhythm arrangements grows with each song. There was no push for this album, as there rarely is for new artists that don’t fit into a box. She’s deep, without being pretentious…and that is a hard thing to pull off. And she’s sensual, without being anything more or less than that…this is also hard to do. Cop this record!
2. Lyfe Jennings, Lyfe 268-192 (umm, where was the pub?)
3. Van Hunt, Van Hunt (too hard to categorize, y’all got confused)
4. Rahsaan Patterson, After Hours (too unique, y’all got confused)
5. Lalah Hathaway, Outrun the Sky (too brilliant, y’all got confused)
BEST HOLDOVER FROM LAST YEAR–Dwele, Subject
Dwele did what few other contemporaries singers can do. He flipped the ghetto/bourgeous player image and turned it inside out as well. Unlike Raphael Saadiq, who has personified and codified it on his latest release (to stunning results), Dwele finds the soul in the convention. Find A Way is a sad love song if I ever heard one, its just midtempo. Sho Ya Right is bravado maskin’ real insecurity. It’s what Tank does with contemporary R&B…finding; the sensitive lover man in motifs that aren’t know for their sensitivity. Subject is a brilliant song because the metaphor encapsulates the intent of the album, to take an existing trope and find the “subject”, the heart, the three-dimensional. Dwele doesn’t want a simple girl, he wants one that is more than the sum of her parts..a complete person. The album grows in complexity with each listen and it’s a shame it didn’t do better last year and this year as well. Dwele is a man to look out for.
2. 702, Star
3. Anthony Hamilton, Comin Where I’m Comin From
4. Alicia Keys, The Diary of Alicia Keys
5. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
BEST NEWCOMER–Lyfe Jennings, Lyfe 268-192
Lyfe is like the essence of what it means to be completely naked in your art. He captures his soul without gimmick. I’m gonna be short, because how I feel about this record makes me wanna gush, and this is already running long. You’ll see him for a very VERY long time. He manages to be honest about life and not make it seem like a retread. And that is hard, given his subject matter. But there’s a melancholic undercurrent that makes the whole endeavor weighty in a unique way. Cop this!!
MOST OVERRATED–Beyonce Knowles
Here’s the thing about Beyonce. She was groomed to be here. Like Justin Timberlake, she carries herself with a sense of entitlement that makes her off-putting to anyone not into the whole “diva” trip.
That is neither here nor there tho. Many artists are groomed to be stars. The thing that’s irritating about Beyonce is that she’s lauded for the elements of her persona that are the least important to what makes her truly gifted and fascinating to watch mature and grow. The videos from Dangerously In Love were designed to give her a unique image, but they were completely incongrous with the songs. Me Myself and I is a song about self-reliance, about learning to find strength in oneself…but the video has her writhing around on a floor in a tight sexy black dress, looking stunning. NOTHING TO DO WITH THE SONG!!! But it makes her look good! Her videos are glossy, transparent, and made to showcase B as a performer (or rather, a little girl loving to play dress up…witness Naughty Girl).
But the singles, excluding Me Myself and I, are not indicative of what made Dangerously in Love such a startlingly strong record. The album had an honesty to the lyricism, even when it didn’t always work (Gift From Virgo for instance) that made Beyonce into a three-dimensional woman.
But her image works against her because it seems to want to capitalize on her fierce work ethic, her drive, and what many perceive to be gross arrogance. It paints her as the unattainable beauty with the ungainly voice (which admittedly she’s becoming more and more proficient with using).
Her talent lies not in her beauty, the blonde weave (which for MANY reasons, needs to be a thing of the past) or her sometimes screeching vocals. It lies in her willingness to be honest on record (not the singles usually tho) and really put herself out there. Sometimes it’s shallow, often times its maddeningly pedestrian, but the mark of a true artist is not the amount of success, but the breadth of the work. Beyonce is building a fine catalog. It’d just be nice for everyone to recognize that it doesn’t really include the songs you might think.
MOST UNDERRATED–Kelly Rowland
Kelly Rowland has two very serious obstacles in her path to real stardom. And one is something she can very much change, one she is actively changing as we speak. The other is harder, something that she has no control over.
The first thing is she really has to work to create her own identity. First and foremost in that creation is the revamping of her phrasing. Destiny’s Child was designed to be a vehicle for Beyonce. As talented as B is, her arrangements are built around her voice and phrasing, not on the interplay of the other girls’ voices with her own (although to her credit on Emotions and If that is not the case). So Kelly was taught to sing like Beyonce…its not that she tries to do it…she really didn’t know anything else.
With the new DC singles, Kelly is really coming into her own. She completely dominates both songs. And the album really is a showcase for how differently Kelly and B approach songs. Kelly’s vocals are really starting to become emotive. Listen to how she sings on Is She The Reason in particular. Her section is the only section with any emotional resonance. Beyonce’s verses are a mishmash of her stutter style delivery and meaningless lyricism, but Kelly’s part just hammers home that feelin in the song of loosing out.
The biggest thing holding Kelly back is her skin. Let’s face it, dark skin women are not the rage. Beyonce was in the front for a reason. Matthew Knowles knew what he was doing. But as she grows into being more and more comfortable and her material (hopefully) improves, this can become a non-issue. But she was relegated to sidewoman for this reason (among others).
But because Kelly has been relegated to sidewoman and her voice, in the past, has resembled Beyonce’s people are really not paying attention to the astonishing talent that Kelly is just beginning to show. Witness her gorgeous performance of Endless Love with Lionel Richie on Motown 45. She completely owned that song. And I’ve already discussed her dominance of the new DC record. But the fact that not a single review I’ve read, excluding speed’s on here has even made passing reference is just proof that they aren’t listening to the album (esp. since they are grading it WAYYYYYY too high)
AWARD FOR PROVING ME REALLY REALLY WRONG!!!–Jill Scott, Beautifully Human
Here is the thing about Jill Scott. Raw talent? She’s probably unmatched by any of her contemporaries that aren’t Angie Stone and Erykah Badu.
But Jill falls victim to believing her own hype to a certain degree. Witness the self-congratulatory reverence in her liner notes about her “struggle” to define the new album. I acknowledge that the album was a struggle, but I quibble with the tone of the writing of that piece. It places too much weight on Jill as an artist and on her music on the whole. Because, frankly, Jill has a long long LOOOONNNNGGG way to go.
Beautifully Human is a nice normal jump forward. It’s not light years ahead of Who Is Jill Scott? but it does correct some of the easier things that were wrong with that record. First, it eliminates her poetry. Let it be said now, I don’t think Jill’s a terrible poet, I just think she, like many “spoken word” artists, says nothing new and says it in exactly the same way as every other spoken word artist. What makes artists like Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, and Saul Williams GREAT “spoken word” artists is that they have distinctive styles and rhythms to their writing. Jill sounds like every sistah in a coffeehouse angry at the treatment of black women by black men and society at large. Nuttin wrong with that, per se…but it does drag down the quality and flow of her albums and contributes to a tone of condescension.
Most significantly, tho. Jill’s lyricism is just better on this album. It does away (except on the abominable Family Picnic which recycles all kinds of cliches about black families that the bourgeois love in their music and writing…never mind that its essentialist nonsense that mistakes archetype for specificity) with the generic “sistah girl”, “this is black life-positive” that makes her a critical darling and an aural snooze.
Songs like Bedda at Home and Razool work because they have point of view and specificity and don’t pass judgment. The songs is just put forth and Jill sangs the HELL out of em!
If she wants to grow, this is the direction in which she should go. It’s important for the “neo-soul” artists, particularly the ones comin’ out of Philly, to remember its not about affectation (real instruments, generic bourgeois sentiment, and simply being the opposite of whatever is mainstream) that makes them “true” artists or even artists worth listening to, but its the specificity, the point of view and intention in their work that makes them artists. It does so because it gives them identity. One not forged in an “idea” of blackness, but one forged in who they are as black people. SUBTLE difference. Yet common mistake.
Just so y’all know. These 15 albums are all 4.5-5 star albums. These represent the cream of what is happening in music when you all aren’t really looking. It’s not a question of mainstream versus underground here because I see a good mix. Its really about these 15 artists really pulling out all the stops and making fantastic music that is first and foremost their own. We put a lot of pressure on artists and usually its in the most uselessly constrictive ways. These artists represent the kind of artists that really don’t seem to care too much about the public consciousness. Some ride the wave of mainstream/white (and bourgeous black…which is the same thing…beautiful thing assimilation, eh?) acceptance and respect, others ride below the wave unfettered too much by the fickle nature of commerce.
In any case, I suggest that you at least listen to these albums. My lists are always different, and like I said last year, were I a less secure person, I’d think I didn’t know what I was talking about.
15. The Roots, The Tipping Point
Streamlining the sound and lettin’ Black Thought loose for 12 tracks was a masterstroke. The only reason this is low is because the albums above this are simply better. Black Thought puts it down! And The Roots have the sense enough to have Latif on vocals AND Jean Grae spittin!
Key Tracks: Boom, Guns Are Drawn
14. Adina Howard, The Second Coming
I really understand how this album fell under the radar. I do. But I really wish that Nasty Grind hadn’t been the first single. It wasn’t a song that could be played on the radio or a video that could be shown on TV…even in an edited version. And some of the other tracks, especially the club-ready ones, could really have set her off on this new phase in her career.
Nevertheless, Adina Howard proves that no one has done adult sexual love this good since Millie Jackson and Ms. Howard has grown so beautifully as a singer. And with Missing You, her solo writing gig, she shows a flair for melody that had been previously untapped. Bravo, ma!
Key Tracks: Nasty Grind, It’s Not Over, Missing You and Buttnaked
13. New Edition, One Love
New Edition remind you of how fresh it is to hear a group with more than one voice at the fore. They remind you of how fun new jack swing used to be. And they make it seem like no one else should be doing it. Ronnie’s voice is developing nicely, Ricky is the MVP (puttin in some great vocal work) and Johnny and Ralph anchor the group with the kind of work that is often heralded but not truly respected for its depth. And all five guys harmonies grow richer every time…even on the brilliant lead single Hot 2 Nite
Key Tracks: Newness, Hot 2 Nite, Leave Me, Come Home With Me and Best Man
12. R. Kelly, Happy People/U Saved Me
It’s easy to hate R. Kelly. He’s a pederast. Great thing about that is, that it is completely irrelevant. He’s also a very talented musician. And with this one-two punch R. Kelly moved firmly into his status as the premier songwriter of his generation. His simplicity is often discussed, but the effect with which he uses it to put forth simple messages of love (Happy People) and spirituality (U Saved Me) is completely ignored. The latter is the stronger album, but it also has the more glaring missteps. His earnestness wears thin and for even me who happens to be moved by R. Kelly’s work, it does come across insincere on a track or two. Nonetheless, R. Kelly is the man! No arguments, kids.
U Saved Me Key Tracks: How Did You Manage, Spirit and Diary of Me
Happy People Key Tracks: Red Carpet and Happy People
11. Queen Latifah, The Dana Owens Album
Umm it was like a wet dream come true for Lah to make this album. Ever since Living Out Loud (brilliant film, by the way) came out, I’d been hoping Lah would grace us with an album of her beautiful singing. And for her to do Moody’s Mood For Love was the icing on the cake. I love that song!
Key Track: Moody’s Mood For Love
10. Trina Broussard, Same Girl
Trina Broussard did her thing on Same Girl. She wrote most of the material and really used her collaborators to bring out a new clarity in her voice. Rahsaan puts it down, as does Jamey Jaz, Van Hunt and Trey Lorenz. Trina is one of them singers that will be around forever that everyone loves when they hear but then never quite get around to purchasing because her face isn’t plastered everywhere. But Same Girl is worth the purchase and just a great example of really good emotive singing.
Key Tracks: Losing My Mind and Dreamin’ of One
9. En Vogue, Soul Flower
Hot damn! This, for me, is the album I wished the four original girls made. This is a soulful album. Its got all the grace notes, the passion and the layered vocals that made 70’s soul so definable. New girl, Rhona Bennett, not only holds her own vocally, but she contributes 2 outstanding songs in Stop and Losin’ My Mind. It’s bliss almost the whole way through and its bittersweet cause as good as it is, i sorta wish it was the original four girls.
Key Tracks: Losin’ My Mind, How Do I Get Over You, New Day Callin, Careful and Stop
8. Usher, Confessions
Usher’s album is somewhat of a gimmick. And interestingly, it doesn’t much matter. If he’d called it 8702, it’d be just as accomplished, but it wouldn’t have to worry about a title that doesn’t really capture the essence of the album. Usher’s voice grows in intensity and grace with each album. The problem lies in some of the more immature moments (most notably Bad Girl and That’s What It’s Made For). But when Usher is on, he’s on…and can’t nobody really f*ck wit him. This is a very strong record, but it’s not really confessional, so much as a bit exploitative and shallow. But I think ultimately, Usher knows this. There’s sadness to the album and it makes it a much more interesting album for that reason.
Key Tracks: Follow Me, Yeah, Burn, Do It To Me and Caught Up
7. Raphael Saadiq, As Ray Ray
Man, Raphael reminded me how fun funk music and the music of the blaxploitation era really is. This album is a concept. It needn’t, and shouldn’t, be taken seriously at all. Plus since it is funk, Ray’s proficiency with the bass is on full display. Joi, Teedra and Dawn Robinson funk it up on a few cuts and the mood and texture of each track gets more and more layered and laconic as the album goes on. It doesn’t have any standout tracks because it is so damn seemless. For my money tho, Joi on Ray Ray’s Theme is HOT TO DEF!!!
6. Lyfe Jennings, Lyfe 268-192
Well, really I said it above in the Best Newcomer section but let me clarify quickly. If you think Jaheim and D’Angelo do the soulful tortured thug thing well, listen to Lyfe Jennings and be corrected.
Key Tracks: Must Be Nice, Stick Up Kid and She Got Kids
5. Lalah Hathaway, Outrun The Sky
Umm. I wish I could get away with sayin…IT’S LALAH HATHAWAY, YOU AIN’T KNOW???!!!
Oh, I can…
Key Tracks: Back Then and If U Ever
4. Amel Larrieux, Bravebird
Amel Larrieux is a jazz trained vocalist. And you can hear it in the way she sings but also in the way her vocals are arranged. Her album works the old magic of social consciousness without being overt. Every single song on this album is brilliant.
Key Tracks: For Real, All I Got, Say You Want It All and Giving Something Up
3. Nas, Street’s Disciple
Ummm, Nas is clearly the most conflicted hip-hop artist since Tupac. He’s also the most daring, the most exhilarating when he is ON, and perhaps the most infuriating when he fails. But few have the pure gift and honesty of Nasir Jones. This record is near perfection. The songs that should have been left off, really don’t matter. An unqualified triumph.
Key Tracks: Virgo, Disciple, Street’s Disciple, Bridging The Gap, and These Are Our Heroes
2. Van Hunt, Van Hunt
Well, this is the album that perfectly displays what I’m always talking about when I criticize some of the more overlauded “neo-soul” artists. Van Hunt’s lyricism is so damn SHARP. He doesn’t generalize, his lyrics are specific. They have intention, weight, and (now listen closely) specificity. Few other artists have that. Every track is musically brilliant, lyrically compelling and with Who Will Love Me In Winter the strength of Van Hunt’s voice is undeniable.
Key Tracks: Who Will Love Me In Winter, Hello Goodbye, Highlights, Down Here In Hell With You and Her December
1. Rahsaan Patterson, After Hours
This is light years ahead of every other record released this year. NO ONE makes music like Rahsaan Patterson. He seems completely unconcerned with audience. In his voice, you hear the pure love of singing. You can feel how much he enjoys it. I reviewed the UK version and the US version has two additional songs. The first is a Mike City gem called Forever Yours. The second is another Jamey Jaz collabo Sometimes (You Gotta Let Go). GOOD LORD AND BUDDAH!!! This song is great! It’s a shame that even though this fine, brilliant piece of work finally got a bearth stateside, few people are allowing themselves to be blessed with what is perhaps the finest pure talent working. Read the review!