This essay was originally written for Epinions.com on October 6, 2005. This version is slightly different, with some language clarification. The choices are identical to the original list.
Like many writers on this site, and writers in mainstream and non-mainstream publications alike, I have a great disdain for black popular music that is more trendy than transcendent, formulaic than innovative.
It has nothing to do with the accepted Manichean way (bad vs. good imagery) of judging art’s value and worth. It does, however, have everything to do with mainstream black folks’ tendency to do whatever it takes to “make that chedda.” Manichean ways of looking at black music excludes the rest of society for their collusion in attributing value to “negative” images by their massive consumption of it. By acting as if black folks are mired in negative self-image, mainstream Americans alleviate their guilt or ignorance at consuming such images. As such, what is wrong with black music is an American problem, not a Black American one.
The point of this pre(r)amble is to set-up how I came to choose the list of songs I did. It’s important to impress upon everyone that this is not an attempt to blindly say underground music is better because it’s “positive” nor is it an attempt to pretend as if there aren’t “negative” images in “positive” underground music. Such a view is short-sighted and removes the consumer from the moral responsibility of his choices.
The criterion for this list was as simple as the title suggests — I chose songs I thought walk in the grand footsteps of black musical tradition that were released in the first 5 years of the new millenium (2000-2004). Black pop is not, as a sub-genre, inherently removed from consideration, but there does seem to be a move in the past 8 or 9 years toward eschewing those elements of hope and pride in Blackness and humanity that defines black music tradition starting with blues, through the “classic soul” of the 70’s, and into the funk/synth pop of the best 80’s black pop.
In this respect, I hope to illuminate a crucial feature of black music that I think black folks recognize but can’t always articulate. Frequently, we say black music is “soulful”, which is a vague, amorphous way of talking about the intersection between our pain, our hope, and our profound resilience in the face of our collective plight as Americans. It is that somewhat undefinable quality that makes us attuned to what distinguishes “the authentic” from what we know is “appropriation” even if we don’t admit it — especially in the face of the rise of pluralism in music reviewing (i.e the idea that “anyone” can make “any” type of music, thus ignoring the social conditions that lead to any group’s cultural expression).
I tried to leave off artists who I thought oversimplify black musical tradition or perhaps drape their music in its more superficial aspects (keyboards, layered vocals, references to essentialistic ideas or images of blackness, etc). It doesn’t so much interest me that there are black artists who copy rather than expand on black musical tradition. I also tried very hard to be fair in removing songs that are essentialistic in black pop and black so-called “neo-soul” (note: I will use this term because it is in common usage, although I in no way subscribe to its limiting characterization of contemporary soul).
Essentialism is the idea that there are “essential” features to black culture, that they represent the authentic, that by including them, the music automatically carries more weight, honesty, and “soul” than it would otherwise. This way of thinking has a tragically limiting effect on our understanding of the breadth of blackness.
These songs are not meant to be an indication that they are inherently better than other contemporary black music, but meant to show in a fuller way how rich the tradition of black music remains in the face of continuing mainstream and underground rhetoric that tells the world we’ve “lost our soul.”
R&B and soul seems bound in the national consciousness to be always and only Marvin, Aretha, and Philly Soul without an understanding of what underlies all of those sounds. My hope is that these songs make more clear that there is still an unbroken line in the tradition of black music that runs through contemporary black music.
These 20 songs are not a top 20, just my particular favorites that fit the criterion. They are in no particular order. I found it very difficult to rank them once I had picked them. The attempt here is to give voice to more than the single, more than the songs that Rolling Stone or Vibe champion, more than the song that reminds us narrowly of eatin’ chicken, poverty, and racism.
Meshell Ndegeocello, Priorities 1-6
From the opening line, I hail from a suburb/Outside southeast you know Meshell is repudiating this idea that equates the authentic with urbanity. She uses this song to set straight to her love interest how she intends to love her and what the priorities are in showing that love (i.e. Can I hang with you?/I ain’t gonna pay your rent). There is never a moment where you feel Meshell is fighting a loosing battle. The undercurrent of faith in her love interest to understand how she sees love (made clear in the repetition) is powerful.
From Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape (2001)
Raphael Saadiq, Blind Man
Buried at the end of his overlong debut, Blind Man sits as a lost gem even to those who love and adore the album. The song is a testament to prophetic brothas who steer you through life. And it has profound sensitivity and a sadness to it. When he sings say my name you get a chill. An uncommonly affecting song.
From Instant Vintage (2002)
Erykah Badu, Green Eyes
This is a fairly obvious choice. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not one of the finest examples of black music yet written. Erykah charts her denial, her acceptance and finally (in a devilish twist) her relapse. In my mind, her relapse is more of an expression of hope, that love still lingers. The final couplet (I know our love will never be the same/and I can’t stand these growing pains) is a tragically sad and hopeful admission that love doesn’t die, it just changes. For Erykah, the real struggle is in dealing with the pain of love that changes, not its loss.
From Mama’s Gun (2000)
Lina, I’m Not The Enemy
This standout track from Lina’s criminally ignored debut comes from a long line of songs that walk a fine line between loving and reprimanding men for laying their problems on women. When she sings You can’t love nobody unless you love yourself, don’t take it out on me baby there is love there, not anger. Lina links old and new with a simple drum beat, horns and scratches to make a song that is timeless.
From Stranger on Earth (2001)
Angie Stone, Wish I Didn’t Miss You
What distinguishes this song is the melody line. It’s written to be more reflective, than angry; more self-critical, than sad. What is great about the blues and soul is that it was never about castigating the opposite sex, but about reflecting on why we make bad choices in partners. Angie says, Memories don’t live like people do she invokes that classic blues idea of living with our choices being the real pain. Even as the song turns to vindictiveness in the lyrics, the music doesn’t change; letting us know that the anger she feels lies with herself.
From Mahogany Soul (2001)
Rahsaan Patterson, Humor
Humor plays like improvisation. There are barely any lyrics to speak of, but what there is serves a more lyrical purpose (in a poetic sense) rather than a narrative one. Shall I reach into my bag of tricks for anything I might have missed. Rahsaan and Van Hunt (who wrote the song) have crafted the greatest pure jazz song no one has ever heard. And it never feels less than a vocalist of uncommon humility ceding the spotlight to musicians having a great jam session.
From Love in Stereo (2000)
R. Kelly, How Did You Manage
In the past, R.’s forays into gospel have been spotty at best. However, this track from the glorious (but rather samey) gospel disc U Saved Me is proof positive that R. Kelly remains the premier songwriter of his generation. Putting his hope and pain on the line, R. asks god, How did you manage to love me.
From U Saved Me (2004)
LaToiya Williams, It Feelz Good
I wrote about this song in another review but I don’t think I did it justice. This song captures the emotional intersection between faith and love, thus it is not a love song per se, but a song of faith. When LaToiya sings, Feels right, so right, it feels good you completely understand that it’s about god.
From Doggy Style Allstars: Welcome to the House Vol 1 (2002)
Aaliyah, I Care 4 U
I Care 4 U has become a classic because it reminded a generation why the modern divas (Mariah, Whitney, and the like) are overrated. It reminded folks that the blues greats emoted by bending a note, not shouting it. Aaliyah’s pain is laid bare over Missy’s simple melody and Tim’s sparse production. Listen to her gorgeous vamp over her and Missy’s backgrounds — Hold on, stay strong, press on. Rarely has a singer so effortlessly culled such love and emotion from so little. Perhaps the greatest pop-soul song of our generation, this song proves again that the way the greats in the black music let the emotion, not the notes, carry them was what seduced the world.
Originally unreleased, released in 2002 on Aaliyah
Destiny’s Child, Through With Love
Destiny’s Child is usually so unabashedly poppy and derivative. So it is always interesting when they make forays into black musical tradition and come up with gold. A song like this could never keep Beyonce as a pin-up, mostly because she’s not what’s working here, not vocally. Michelle rips this song apart. This is pure gospel, right here. The girls (who all wrote the lyrics) make a gorgeous case transferring the pain at the limitations of earthly love–If this is love I don’t want it any more— into a love with god. When Michelle comes in and shuts the shit down, you may find yourself lookin’ for your nearest church.
From Destiny Fulfilled (2004)
Anthony Hamilton, I’m A Mess
The blues is not about loss, it’s about working through the pain. Which is an important distinction when dis
cussing I’m a Mess which, upon first listen, might seem like a song about loss. However, the ending vamp changes the entire direction of the song. Anthony exorcises that pain repeating Call me, write me in a way that lets you know this song is catharsis, not wallow.
From Comin Where I’m Comin From (2003)
Calvin Richardson, I’m Worthy
This is some church, driven entirely by the harmonies and Calvin’s wailin’ all up and down the song. Far from a “he’s no good” song, Calvin’s solo writing job is more about hoping that the woman will come to her senses. When he sangs, Look at what you have to do to get him to notice you, Calvin links personal responsibility to happiness, adding layers to what at first sounds like a “typical” black gospel-lite song.
From 2:35 PM (2003)
Van Hunt, Who Will Love Me In Winter
Van’s melange of styles is sharpest on this gem. This hopeful standout track is long on metaphor (Spaceship crashed against the wall, my neighbor’s grass ain’t so green after all), but paints an evocative picture of a man coming to grips with his lot in life. Taking a page from the bass of early R&B (nee rock & roll), Van Hunt layers his vocals into a stunning portrait of sadness.
From Van Hunt (2004)
Vivian Green, Final Hour
Vivian’s bluesy debut is the kind of music that just doesn’t get made very often. This measured portrait of self-reliance is the most fascinating song on the album. I turned away from the pain of hurting me is yet another example of the self-reflection that is such a staple of black music. Too often, blaming the opposite sex creeps into contemporary music. Not with Vivian. Her measured vocal performance gives masochism such beauty.
From A Love Story (2001)
Tank, Lady on My Block
Tank is on some minimalist funk on this track. Perhaps the greatest modern songwriter you’ve never heard (O, be damned). Painting desperation with a dose of the everyday, Tank links abuse to society in a way that shuns the beating-you-over-the-head approach of less talented, more pretentious songwriters. The death of the pimp achieves a level of tragedy that is profound and moving.
From Force of Nature (2001)
Jill Scott, My Petition
A gorgeous protest song masquerading as a run-of-the-mill love song, My Petition captures the sadness that one feels at being ignored and the profound hope that one day you will be heard.
From Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2 (2004)
Alicia Keys, If I Ain’t Got You
Alicia Keys songs are like textbooks; her influences are right there like footnotes. This doesn’t mean at all that she isn’t talented in her own right. This song is very simplistic, but Alicia’s vocal performance adds the kind of weight few singers know how to add to a song like this.
From The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003)
Amel Larrieux, Bravebird
No artist so thoroughly captures the subtlety of blues lyric writing like Amel Larrieux did on this track from her album of the same name. Here we have such a gorgeous metaphor for resiliency. Never once condescending, Amel lays out for you how women, through it all, all the bullshit, the struggle, the pain, the abuse, are the rarest kind.
From Bravebird (2003)
I think a central problem with the inevitable controversy over this choice lies in the inability to understand the way intent, happenstance, and effect are not always aligned. The song is called player, but the song is more about wishing you are in the same place as the one you love, and how painful the realization that you are not, truly is. When Daron and Mike sing baby the first one I’m calling is you you feel it. It’s not anger, it’s like “Damn, I tried to tell you not to make me fall in love with you, but you did anyway, but it’s totally my fault that I’m not ready.”
From Part III (2001)
Kelly Price, Mirror Mirror
Taking the trope of self-reflection and turning it into a simple metaphor, Kelly Price creates an unsung gem of stunning weight. In the song, Kelly covets a man in a relationship, but her vocals never let you feel like that is the real issue. It’s the inertia that grabs you–you know Kelly will never try to steal him away, so the song becomes about her hope that he’ll come to her.
From Mirror Mirror (2000)
This list will be quibbled with, I’m sure. There are lots of artists I could have included, but I tried to pick songs that are transcendent, not cheaply theatrical or crassly emotional. I tried to pick songs where the vocalists weren’t trying to shout down the music or prove they could “sing”. I tried to pick songs were the production served the emotion. This is all far more rare in so-called “neo-soul” than people care to admit.