This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. Links have been updated.
Another year, another Tigger round up, folks!
This year found me getting more and more dissatisfied with music and culture. It began this winter with the release of Tweet, Faith Evans and Amerie. These ladies released disgustingly overrated albums and singles.
Tweet and Faith have yet to reach their full potential. Their abundant talent does not automatically mean their albums are good. Why that is a difficult concept for Americans is lost on me. Amerie is a producer’s dream. Vainglorious and shallow, she pimps a hot beat like the Beyonce clone she’s supposed to be and that makes her both adored (a Lady of Soul award for Entertainer of the Year!!!!?????) and loathed (the album tanked, justifiably so).
It seemed that the kind of co-signing of mediocrity that allows mainstream artists like Ashlee Simpson, Coldplay, John Mayer and the like to become media and critical darlings has seeped into black popular music.
Where, in the past, albums by Ciara, B2K and their contemporaries were critically destroyed, now it was the case that we were just gonna give critical passes to people because of one hot single or because that artist has a niche (particularly Tweet who has a rabid, loyal fanbase).
So any number of friends who so loyally put up with my constant ranting and (what I consider to be perfectly reasonable, well-founded) disgust with music didn’t hear a single positive word from me till Mint Condition and Common dropped their gorgeous, brilliant albums in late spring/early summer.
Hip hop continues to depress me as it seems to be either disgustingly misogynistic or so focused on ingenuity that it lacks the fire of sheer exuberance that made legends like Rakim, LL and Big Daddy Kane such a joy to hear.
I firmly believe that we’ve lost our verve in hip hop. Blackalicious’ and K-os’ latest albums are cold and boring, Kanye West tried to radicalize his image and was met with indifference (mostly due to the snoozefest he calls Late Registration and his milquetoast, bourgeois persona), and Lil Kim gets 5 mics for continuing to be this generation’s Michael Jackson of self-loathing whilst trying to “outFoxy” Foxy Brown (and failing miserably).
This is hip-hop?!
Am I really supposed to jump for joy because Kanye was on the cover of Time? No, I jumped for joy when he decried homophobia in hip-hop. Because that was so much more a profoundly radical and brilliant and important thing to do. That such a statement caused no stir in hip-hop is proof positive of how divorced the community is from corporate artists.
Still, none of this erases the reality that his album is pedestrian.
For me, integrity became the word of the year. Which is really interesting, because that word was the most looked up word on Dictionary.com this year. So I’m not the only one. Which makes me feel good.
For me, it became about being honest (“real”, so to speak) about the realities of how deficient music truly is. It became about me saying that yes, I am happy Mariah is back and successful, but no, I’m not gonna pretend like the windblown album cover and staccato light vocal arrangements weren’t cheap attempts to Beyonce-fy her image.
Jermaine Dupri is gifted but he hasn’t done right by Mariah by turning her into a cheap knock-off of an artist nowhere near her vocal league. Mariah doesn’t need to be shouting “like that y’all”. Why? Because she can’t do it convincingly. Because to oversexualize her is to cheapen what makes her the artist she is. Because to oversexualize her is to say that even the most talented women are nothing but their p-ussies.
Plus, most of the songs just really suck!
For the 2nd year in a row, in my opinion, consumers (esp. black consumers) seem to have a real hard time balancing their moral world with their music world.
No self-respecting self-loving black person should have purchased Gwen Stefani’s album. This goes beyond aesthetics. The continued pillage of black musical tradition should be resisted. Her album and her videos, with the rampant superficial use of enthnic images, is offensive to the nth degree. This feeling of entitlement to other cultures is really f-ing disgusting. For little kids to see such images divorced from any kind of context is to cheapen them, it’s appropriation at it’s worst and most insidious. We should go beyond our desire to just shake our asses. Reducing all choices to just what you “like” ignores social realities that are harmful. Gwen Stefani’s album and its accompanying videos were so disgustingly racist in the way they superficially appropriated and represented ethnicity.
No self-respecting self-loving black person should have bought the Lil Kim album. This goes beyond aesthetics. The continued self-hatred that Kim displays should be resisted. Her disgusting attempt to turn her case into street cred should be resisted. Imagine how she might change if all her people, sh-it if at least Brooklyn, said to her…”Kim you were beautiful the way God, Jehovah, Buddah, whoever made you.” Do you think if her paper were threatened, the work of self-love would be work that she’d start doing?
Anyway, all this to say, it was a very uneven year for music, particularly black music. We need to be honest about the way in which the quest for mainstream love and attention compromises the art. It has to. By definition, what mainstream audiences see in us is very different from what we see in us. That is just the way it is.
But the only way that changes is to for us to strive to recognize the best in us and represent that.. The real in us. The complex in us. We are sexual. We can be violent. But that’s not all we are.
This is not a question of good versus bad imagery (to wit, Scarface says awful things in his work, but his work is still brilliant, moving, and illuminative of a segment of blackness), its about balance. It’s about understanding the intersection between commerce, art, and audience – audience, because we need to begin to recognize that who the art is directed at informs its production.
These albums on my top 10 list represent choices, art of integrity. This does not mean they are necessarily “positive” pieces of work. Rather, they represent the vision, the complex humanity of the artists. That’s a lot to ask for nowadays (apparently). To choose music morally, radically, as a gesture of resistance means to think more than how mindlessly you can shake your a-ss and how easily you can suspend reality in order to be a part of the mainstream.
BEST SINGLE OF THE YEAR–Ciara featuring Ludacris, Oh!
It’s important that this be my favorite single released this year. Because my pre(r)amble might make you think that I just blindly hate all popular music and none of it is good.
Not so, my friends.
Ciara hit paydirt with this slow wind. She’s comes into her own on this track by Jazze Pha. Her first two singles are complete garbage, mostly because Ciara’s charisma was mostly in videos, not in the studio. But here she achieves Aaliyah like coyness and sensuality that cements her rise to prominence as more than just ordained by the men-of-powers-that-be.
Plus Luda puts it down hard, y’all.
BEST NON-SINGLE SONG OF THE YEAR–112, What The Hell Do You Want
112 made a terrible album all over again. They tend to do that, so there is comfort in their consistency. But there is also that infuriating-this-group-is-better-than-this feeling too.
But Daron Jones, the principal songwriter of the group, knocks this one out of the park, right here. This is beggin, down-home, southern soul beggin. I’m in church beggin. Daron and Mike’s passion is limitless as they use their full range to ask this lady exactly what it is that he needs to do to make it work.
WORST SINGLE OF THE YEAR–Gwen Stefani, Hollaback Girl
I wish I could find an interesting and moving way to convince you this is the unmitigated, putrid garbage that it is, but I can’t do it. The offense, sing-songy way that mainstream artists appropriate black vernacular, in this case “hollaback”, is the bane of my f-ing existence. It should be for you too. Spend your $.99 on real blackness and buy any number of black artists who say “hollaback”. It’s a gesture of respect for a culture that is not your own.
WORST ALBUM–Mariah Carey, The Emancipation of Mimi
It’s not that I hate Mariah Carey because I really don’t. Quite simply, it’s because not only do I not buy her as a ghetto hood chick, I think it’s an insult to her talent, her legacy, to be promoted in such a way. That she may have chosen her new post-Motolla image is beside the point. Societal pressure on women to behave the way Mariah is behaving is omnipresent. Furthermore, Jermaine’s gorgeous tracks aside, her music is all the same. Wispy, weapy, oversimplified platitudes about love.
MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF THE YEAR–112, Pleasure & Pain
112 is a collective force. With Daron’s writing skills, Q’s movie star good looks, Mike’s ability to arrange vocals, and Slim’s nasally-distinctive voice, 112 is instantly recognizable as a group. However, they have yet to pool all those talents into a brilliant full-length album. Part III was their best effort, but it was marred by too much Slim, too much Puffy, and not enough Daron.
Moving away from the childish come-ons to the maturity of Daron’s What The Hell Do You Want would be a welcome change, one that could broaden (in a good way) their appeal. There is no male group that can touch them, all things being equal, so it’s time for them to stop coasting.
MOST SLEPT-ON ALBUM OF THE YEAR–Mint Condition, Living the Luxury Brown
It’s easy to see why this was slept on. It’s a band. They had no promotion. And well, for some reason, those are bad things. Not really sure what that’s about. But all I know this is a fine return to form from the Mint, with strong vocals yet again from the criminally underrated Stokley.
BEST HOLDOVER FROM LAST YEAR–Truth Hurts, Ready Now
This album did not make my list at all last year. But interestingly, it has stayed in constant rotation. Truth Hurts is a singer of great simplicity. She doesn’t use lots of vocal tricks, she doesn’t seem to have any range to speak of, and she favors very simple, hard phrasing. However, the refreshing honesty with which she writes her lyrics and melodies makes her overt sexual persona much more personable than other women of song who do what she does. And with Catch-22, she has a brilliant sad love song that is on par with any sad love song you can name.
MOST PROMISING NEWCOMER–(tie) Trey Songz, I Gotta Make It
I changed this category to Most Promising because Best would go to Leela James and she’s in my top 10.
Trey Songz is a real singer y’all. Unfortunately, he’s also adorable as sh-it and so the powers-that-be will sell him as a junior Usher with a real voice (which is dumb considering the senior Usher has a real voice, but whatever I’m not a publicist).
Because of this decision, Trey’s album is a mishmash of R. Kelly light psychosexual bullsh-it that he can’t remotely make believable and gorgeous harmonies straight out of Philly Soul. The force of Trey’s pure ability and innate likeability (his videos showcase his innocent charisma, like no one since Tevin Campbell, to stunning effect) shines through even the most banal tracks and lyrics. You know, you can just feel how much better than this he is. I Gotta Go is one of the best songs of the year hands down. The album, however, is not.
BEST SONGWRITER—Raphael Saadiq
This year Ray Ray outdid himself, creating songs for everyone from Anthony Hamilon to Warren G, Kenny G to Will Smith. And what makes him so good is you can’t recognize his work. Because he fully collaborates with his artists the songs have a unique quality that is beneficial to the artist. His work on Jaguar Wright’s album and his collaboration (both vocally and creatively) with Mary J. Blige on I Found My Everything are highlights of yet another fascinating, satisfying year for music courtesy of Ray Ray! Kudos, brotha!
MOST OVERRATED–Gwen Stefani
This is an easy choice. Gwen is pretty in that I-died-my-hair-blonde-to-fit-with-conventional-beauty-standards way. She’s also that annoying girl in high school who tried so hard to be a mish-mash of styles and be so cool and original and just succeeded in being annoying to those confident enough to say it and really popular for fools who can’t see past aesthetics. I’ve already mentioned the offensive videos from her debut album, but let me say again, this kind of appropriation is not homage, it’s not respect, it’s not even clever, it’s just yet another case of white folks feeling entitled to a culture they don’t bother to try to understand.
The reality that her solo album is a nostalgic throwback (the source of 95% of its appeal) that neither sounds organic nor completely terrible is a testament to its producers, not Gwen. I could be wrong that Gwen is lacking in talent or I could insult her fanbase by saying it has to be a “woman” thing, the source of her appeal. However, I don’t believe I’m wrong and I don’t really enjoy insulting audience’s intelligence.
Suffice it to say, this lil diatribe will barely register to anyone currently a Stefani fan (which is sad), but that doesn’t make it any less valid.
MOST UNDERRATED–Kelly Clarkson
Kelly Clarkson’s new album is the kind of polished made-for-the masses stuff that just doesn’t get done anymore. Kelly manages to sell even the silliest of songs because she’s so blissfully open a singer. She connects with the cheesiness of her songs, not because she denies their cheesiness, but because she believes in the simplicity of their sentiment. This is rare.
Kelly is also blessed with one hell of a voice. Freed from her need to do bad Mariah/Whitney/Celine style yelling, Kelly seems to have figured out a nuanced way of singing the same old pop rock that we all love, but don’t want to tell anyone about.
She does what Avril thinks she’s doing. What Ashlee Simpson could never do. And what we all love about her is that she’s completely comfortable doing it.
10. Mary J. Blige, The Breakthrough
Mary J. is already platinum. In something like 9 or 10 days, the Queen has conquered her last hurdle – mainstream love and adoration. And she’s done it always on her own terms. It took mainstream consumers 10 years to figure out that Mary J. Blige is the truth. It took them 10 years to figure out that what she does is for everyone, even if it’s steeped so richly in her own experience, in the experience of black women. This is true crossover. Bono came to Mary. Elton came to Mary. She did not come to them.
So it’s a good thing that this album is as strong as it is. She breezes effortlessly through the more generic stuff of No One Will Do and Enough Crying and settles in to a run of some of her best work to date including Baggage, The Father in You, and her masterpiece with Ray Ray, I Found My Everything. And for good measure, she injects some good old soul into U2’s One without taking over the song, without rearranging it into some cheesy homage to black music.
All Hail the Queen!
9. Keyshia Cole, The Way It Is
Keyshia Cole put new wrinkles in the woman as victim strain of soul music of which she’s chosen to be a part. She teaches a master’s class in melisma on Love, hits new heights of sadness with her vamp on Love, I Thought You Had My Back and outshines Jadakiss on Guess What, making her the most welcome new voice in black pop in a very long while. Oh, and she wrote nearly all the lyrics and melodies (very complex melodies) herself. Kudos, ma!
8. Rob Thomas, Something To Be
I was not a Matchbox Twenty fan and I still think Smooth is one of the weakest songs on Supernatural, so there was no reason for me to even pick up this record. That is until I heard the pulsating first track, Lonely No More. His work is intimate, even though it features anthemic rhythms. This makes for a record that is classy and universal without being silly, stupid, or pandering to any audience.
7. Anthony Hamilton, Ain’t Nobody Worryin’
I think it’s fascinating how this album doesn’t even touch his debut, Comin Where I’m Comin From, in terms of sheer, raw emotion, but manages to be somehow a much more pleasurable listening experience the whole way through. Perhaps it’s the fuller arrangements. Perhaps it’s Anthony’s willingness to dial back the harmonies and give his voice free reign to dominate a song. Or perhaps it’s just that he’s brilliant. You choose.
6. Mint Condition, Living the Luxury Brown
Mint Condition is easy to overlook. They are an R&B; band that sounds nothing like any other R&B; band in history. They don’t just parrot their influences, the Mint can do contemporary soul wit the best of them. And Stokley’s voice is emotive perfection. He’s not as sharp as Rahsaan or Tevin, but he’s got such a command of his range it’s astonishing. Once again, we are reminded that music like this should never have gone away.
5. Stevie Wonder, A Time To Love
Stevie’s new disc is his best in years. It sounds like Stevie at his height in the mid-70’s. Everything from the vocal arrangements, the thrilling lead vocal performances (how does he get all that sound out?!!!), to the lyricism just makes you feel good about the world. Stevie, given his radicalism, puts life into perspective, he gives you hope. When he challenge If Your Love Can Not Be Moved, you really feel that it can’t – you pray that it can’t.
4. Raheem DeVaughn, The Love Experience
Raheem’s album is like a book of poetry. Each song is so unique in its construction, yet the album is very cohesive. Since he’s a DC native, I’ve seen him live tons of times and let me tell ya, brotha has got it! His style is all his own, which is remarkable given how much work his producers have done for other artists. If you don’t fall in love with Breathe, I don’t know what to tell ya.
3. Common, BE
There is a reason this is the lone piece of hip-hop on my list. Passion. This represents the pinnacle of craftsmanship right here. Interestingly, I came to a fuller appreciation for Common after a corrective from madtheory about this album. On his review, I commented that what was most striking about BE was the way the themes in the lyrics complement the sample choices. I extolled the virtues of Kanye’s work as that much more impressive because of it. Mad reminded me that the tracks were pre-made and that Kanye couldn’t have known what Common would say over them. This corrective doesn’t slight Kanye, rather, it puts more fully in to perspective just how thoughtful and meticulous Common’s rhymes really are. To understand the tonal implications of his music, not just the rhythms, is to understand how to write a song. Common has done this here.
2. Dwele, Some Kinda
Dwele continued his brave exploration of subjectivity this year with a masterful follow-up to Subject. What is so enjoyable about Dwele’s music is how seriously he takes his conceits, he never shies away from them (even on the absurdly affecting Flapjacks). It requires more work from listeners than most music and so to not enjoy it is perfectly legitimate. To slight such superior craftsmanship is another matter, and completely unjustified.
1. Female Black Music (Jaguar Wright, Divorcing Neo To Marry Soul; Lina, The Inner Beauty Movement; Leela James, A Change Is Gonna Come; Vivian Green, Vivian)
In 2003, I discussed how men in black music had redefined their role in the form by expanding their ability to be multi-dimensional and emotional. That piece talked briefly about how black women are always at the fore of American musical revolution and how implicit in such a centuries-long dominance is an uninterrupted critique of patriarchy in music and in America.
This year, four black women leapt to the fore of American black music by continuing in this tradition of strong, passionate, well-crafted music that challenges conventional ways of seeing women, relationships, and music.
Vivian Green’s album is a study in loving oneself as a solitary being. Bell hooks once said (and I’m paraphrasing) that most women find it hard to feel comfortable when they aren’t serving others needs. On Vivian, we are invited to share in the joy that Green feels as a divorced, single woman. Refusing to wallow in the past, Green creates a fascinating portrait of a woman reborn, without it sounding as if she is in denial of her true feelings or ignoring her past love. Many a person who’s heard this album says they don’t understand why it’s so happy, why a woman who lost the love of her life could be so full of joy. This is just it, she just can.
Jaguar Wright’s sophomore album sounds like a new person. She’s rid herself of much of the overt hip-hop sound. But what is most striking is how she’s rounded out her abrasive persona so that it takes on new dimension. So what we have is an assertive woman who isn’t afraid to show her sensitivity. This is exceedingly rare and flies in the face of most people’s view of who women like Jag are.
Leela James’ debut gets right the joy of the blues. Too often, folks mistake blues for misery, but it’s not. Blues is about joy, it’s about the joy of struggle and what it does for character. Everything from My Joy, to Mistreating Me to Soul Food is steeped in a profound sense of self-love, self-reflection and pride.
Lina is the most criminally ignored woman currently working in black music. And it has everything to do with her desire to be her own artist. With her own label, an outreach program for teens in Cali funded by her music, and a sound that is wholly her own, Lina stands as a testament to integrity in music. Her sound blends operatic vocals with swing and jazz and blues to create an aural experience like none other. The Inner Beauty Experience is a concept album about loving oneself. Its simple theme gives way to complex emotion on It Could Be and Let It Go and musically you just won’t hear anything like Come To Mama anywhere else.
If you don’t have these four albums, rectify that post-haste.