This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. Links have been updated.
As black music continued to slouch toward Bethlehem at the hands of corporate powers, media consolidation, and opportunistic blacks with little to no self-love or respect in 2006, I rediscovered my pure love of music.
Myspace did that for me.
Call it what you will and you’d probably be right, but Myspace gives one unprecedented access to countless musicians. It opens up the world of what is out there. And that can be good and that can be bad. For every great artist I heard, there were probably 25 bad ones. Such is the price you pay.
So to get things on and poppin, here are:
The Five Best “Myspace” Artists I Discovered in 2006:
I discovered this duo via Digital Black from Playa. Their 2004 independent release, Daily Trade, is about as gorgeous as an album can be. It’s the kind of southern soul that is rivaled only by Anthony Hamilton.
Chase Martin is a modest artist. He makes the kind of music that would fit into most radio formats, yet there’s an earnestness to his vocal delivery that is very compelling. Both his albums are deeply flawed (cliche themes, mostly) but have enough charm to keep you listening anyway.
Adrianne Archie is another artist I found through Digital Black from Playa. This year, I think I’ve discovered that Louisville, Kentucky (home to Playa, Archie, and Klientel) might be the hidden gem of 21st century soul. That said, Archie is the kind of down-to-earth singer that makes every single lyric sound like it is the most original thing you’ve ever heard. There is nothing derivative about her phrasing, nothing ungenuine, yet she allows the musicians to do their thing too creating a beautifully textured world.
By blending simplistic rapping and singing, Renaissanz almost belongs in the early 90’s alongside Devante and Keith Sweat. And he’s got that beggin’ quality that you just don’t hear nowadays. His melodies and arrangements are deceptively simple. He’ll be fun to watch develop.
Quest’s music is exciting. It’s kinetic and fun. It’s creative without being self-indulgent. Of the five artists listed here, he’s the one who would probably blow up if he had a major label contract. The music is very reminiscent of stuff The Neptunes were doing back when they were actually doing stuff. But again, less showy.
BEST SONG OF THE YEAR–(tie)
Lyfe Jennings, S.E.X.
Lyfe Jennings accomplishes what every other black male in corporate music has been trying to do convincingly since Jodeci donned leather pants and jackets — He makes the sensitive thug posturing believable. Nowhere is this more apparent than on his radical ode to the beauty of black female sexuality. S.E.X. works because he doesn’t moralize or deify the black woman, rather he roots her struggles firmly in reality and finds humanity in the everyday.
Digital Black, Window Pane
Digital Black is one-third of the criminally underrated 90’s soul group, Playa. Digital Black has perhaps one of the best voices in the industry right now, but you’d never know it because Playa has been so marginalized (excluding Static’s writing). This song is from his forthcoming album and is hands-down the best song I heard this year. Never has a song about stalking sounded so good. Black’s sound is the closest of the three members to all-out gospel. From the arrangements, the phrasing, and the melodies, Black has found a way to make any subject a matter of faith and devotion.
1. Prince, Black Sweat
2. Joi, Another Rocket
3. Alice Smith, Dream,
4. Van Hunt, Priest or Police
5. Beyonce, Resentment
6. Smoke E. Digglera, Get Away
7. Danity Kane, Right Now
8. Robin Thicke, Threesome (unreleased)
9. Jaguar Wright, Sometimes
10. Quest, Let Go
WORST SINGLE OF THE YEAR–Fergie, London Bridge
I don’t fully blame Stacy for the abomination that is her debut album. Nor do I blame her fully for this god and buddha awful song about her pussy. I blame a society that gives talented women so little room to be truly artistic. Stacy Ferguson is a better singer than any white girl emulating black singing except Pink. But you’d never know it. She also had the benefit of growing up around Rahsaan Patterson and Martika, artists of unrivaled integrity, but you’d never know that either. That the lure of money and status is so great to rob Stacy of true artistry is a tragedy. And it makes her the greatest waste of pure talent this side of Beyonce Knowles.
Runners-up: Any dirty south song
WORST ALBUM–Monica, Makings of Me
I believe that Monica is a hoodrat. I do. I also believe that she is trying to be true to who she is, what she knows, and the life she knew before she became famous. So it’s a cruel twist of fate that, as this album is written and performed, I don’t buy it. It simply does not translate. Sideline Ho doesn’t translate. She has too much natural depth, too much inherent nuance, in her voice for any of the drivel she has recorded on this abomination to be convincing. And so you are left with an expensive coaster and a tear in your eye yet again for what this world offers women.
Runners-up: Beyonce, B-Day
MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF THE YEAR–The so-called greats of popular music: Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera
I am not a fan of these artists in the slightest. However, to pretend they aren’t gifted (not talented, folks, gifted) would be a lie of epic proportions. But the truth is that each of their albums is a cruel indictment of how hype can ruin an artist before they have had a chance to be truly creative.
Beyonce Knowles spent the first half of the year decrying the fact that she is seen as beautiful first, artist second, then released an album that made it impossible to make the case that she had any artistic merit at all. Every single song, minus the gorgeous Resentment, is a mindless, wonderfully produced ode to her sex. And at 25, she still can’t seem to make me believe she owns it. It all just seems like dress-up. There is a difference between being sexual and playing sexual. Beyonce has yet to figure out how to do the former.
Brilliant title track aside, Justin Timberlake went from taking outsize credit for Michael Jackson’s cast-offs to ripping off Prince and David Bowie in music and mimicking Robbie Williams’ disaffected swagger in video. That he had the audacity to argue these influences at every turn is the worst kind of white entitlement. I know you are gonna keep copying better artists, I just would prefer that you’d be honest about it. Or better yet, get rid of Timbaland (the true artist) and take an artistic risk and prove that Gone was no fluke. Poseur.
Christina Aguilera’s decision to mix the golden age of sexist, racist beauty icons with black woman blues is the worst kind of ignorance. To think that black woman blues is glamorous, to cover it in an antiquated sexist, racist aesthetic is to belie a monumental misunderstanding of what music has meant historically to black people. Of the three albums, Christina’s may be the most artistically daring, because I think Christina tries harder than any of her peers to be interesting and thoughtful. I just would like her to figure out that while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s the laziest form of artistry.
It is perhaps a good sign that there was some backlash for each of these albums. What that will mean for these artists’ next work is yet to be determined, but one hopes they will begin to fulfill their promise instead of coasting on racist, sexist imagery and lyrics.
MOST SLEPT-ON ALBUM OF THE YEAR–Janet Jackson, 20 Y.O.
It was easy to dislike Janet’s album this year. Her promotional campaign smacked of desperation and there are the newer, less talented girls out there who are a product of these times.
Janet is out of step. But that doesn’t erase the fact that creatively this is her best album since her 1997 masterpiece, The Velvet Rope. A thoughtful listener will hear that she’s recovered a sense of balance and nuance as she moves through the near perfect second half of her album.
Artistically, she accomplished her goal. Many of the songs evoke memories of her past triumphs without sounding like tired retreads. She will probably never connect with the younger generation raised on 3LW, Beyonce, and Ciara. And she should recognize that this is fine. We should recognize that this is fine. For her next work, she’d be better served doing something radical. I have been calling for a Janet Unplugged for over a decade. Seriously, Janet, a chair, and an acoustic guitar singing The Body That Loves You?! Or a pure R&B/soul record with Ray Ray that gets her in touch with her inner Motown would be nice as well.
That said, 20 Y.O. is a fantastic, if safe, album and those over 15 should have recognized and championed it.
BEST HOLDOVER FROM LAST YEAR–Jaguar Wright, Divorcing Neo To Marry Soul
Jaguar Wright has such a striking sense of self. This is a woman who knows who she is, what her music is about, and who it is for. Jag’s grown woman soul is rivaled only by Mary J Blige. Sophisticated soul music may not be what Clear Channel or MTV wants you to hear, but damn if it ain’t compelling.
MOST PROMISING NEWCOMER–Lupe Fiasco
Lupe heralds nothing. Like Kanye, expectations were far too great for a guy who’s style is two parts Jay-Z with a dash of Common to warrant such love. That doesn’t mean though that his album, Food & Liquor, wasn’t good. It just means that a healthy dose of perspective might have made it easier to see that the album is about 3 songs too long and Lupe’s flow can be a bit monotonous. That said, he’s the most intriguing MC to come along since Pharoahe Monche and that could bode well for him if he don’t get caught up in the machine.
MOST OVERRATED–John Legend
John Legend might be the most overrated artist working outside of John Mayer. Which isn’t to say that he’s not talented. Because he clearly is. I just think that the sophistication that his songs intimate is undercut by pedantic lyricism. I don’t really believe what he is singing about even though it sounds right. I also don’t think that he’s all that unique. There are a plethora of great male soul artists out there that the world never gets to hear, but John has (or did have) Kanye and suddenly he’s the savior of soul? I don’t think so. Eric Roberson, Calvin Richardson, Anthony Hamilton, Dwele, Rahsaan Patterson, Raheem DeVaughn, and Lyfe Jennings are makign insurgent, passionate music that deserves a spot along side John Legend so that there can be something against which to measure Legend’s boring, trite music. You like it because you ain’t heard nuttin else. Period.
AWARD FOR PROVING ME WRONG–Ciara, Evolution of Ciara
When I first heard Goodies, I wanted to break something. When I first heard 1 2, Step, I wanted to run out of the club. Then someone let me listen to the full Goodies album. And I got bored and ranted about the oversexualization of young black women
But when I heard Promise, I thought, “Wow, that was unexpected.” And I don’t necessarily like the song.
My point is that I think Ciara is being very smart and honest with her career. She doesn’t pretend to be anything that she isn’t, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t striving to broaden what the public thinks Ciara is about. And that is a tension I find fascinating to watch given the lackluster state of female Pop&B. I think it was a smart move to give the world something a bit slower. I think it was a smart move to add some ballads to her repertoire and really show that she can use what little (and it is little) voice she has. I think it’s sad, then, that reviews of this wonderfully mature and thoughtful piece of work are so dismissive of her ballad work. Truth is, mainstream press doesn’t care for balladry or mid-tempos in black music unless they are power ballads by power ballad singers (witness the snubbing of the finer moments of Dangerously in Love despite 5 Grammys). Ciara is blossoming into a beguiling young woman and my interest in her career has officially been piqued.
10. (tie) Nas, Hip-Hop Is Dead / Jay-Z, Kingdom Come
Nas’ album is significantly better, but Jay-Z’s is more interesting in the sense that there is a vulnerability to Kingdom Come that is new, almost revelatory. That said, both are worthy additions to bodies of work that are (mostly) stellar.
9. Amel Larrieux, Morning
Despite being nowhere near as beautiful as 2004’s Bravebird, Amel’s new joint expands her sound nicely. She’s still the most clear-headed female artist out there. Every album has a vision, a purpose. And she never fails in realizing it. It makes her more consistent than any other artist currently recording.
8. Janet Jackson, 20 Y.O.
Janet did her thing here. She accomplished what she wanted. And in Enjoy, Daybreak, and Take Care she creates a trifecta of pure Janet brilliance that ranks among her best work ever. Don’t sleep.
7. Alice Smith, For Lovers, Dreamers & Me
Alice is this wild, passionate force of nature. And yet there’s a mannered quality to her vocal performances that conveys pure, raw emotion. This is the album that people think Corinne Baily Rae made.
6. (tie) Robin Thicke, The Evolution of Robin Thicke / Dre Allen, Ghetto Rockstar
Both of these albums are anchored by beautiful piano ballads. Robin’s feature his beautiful voice and Dre’s display his adroit and clever way with words. Robin made only one mistake in not including Threesome.
5. Prince, 3121
It’s hard to talk about how a good Prince album makes you feel. Black Sweat just makes you feel dirty and sexual. There’s something about the way that Prince makes music that gets into you when it’s good. Unfortunately, there are 3 generations of music buyers who have been socialized to not understand a single thing about music like this. Sad.
4. Lyfe Jennings, The Phoenix
Perfection. Period. Lyfe Jennings is purely soulful. Like Anthony Hamilton, Mary J. Blige, what he does is so clearly black. This is not “soul” in the sense of baring your soul. It’s soul in that conveying the humanity of a devalued people. It sounds like it should have been made in the 70s. This album is about new life, it’s about becoming a new person and the challenges of that.
Lyfe looks like a contemporary guy – and there are contemporary elements in his music – but this is next level sh*t. Alnong with Van Hunt, Anthony Hamilton, and Rahsaan Patterson, Lyfe Jennings is the best black male soul artist currently working.
3. (tie) Digital Black, Memoirs of an R&B Thug / Smoke E. Digglera, personal, pain & pleasure
Black’s album is built around his thick, Southern gospel soul of a voice and features the late Aaliyah on Don’t Think They Know, and all three members of Playa on two standout tracks, Ride 4 Me and LUST (which rivals I-65 as the greatest song the three men have ever recorded). He manages to walk that line between sex and god throughout the album in a way that would make Marvin proud. The gospel praise of N Ya Life, the confessional Can’t Turn Back Now, and the exultation of I’m a G, Black manages to put you in church and on the stoop wit ya boys at the exact same time.
Smokey’s album is perhaps the more ambitious of the two as he has stuffed the record with 29 tracks that blend full-length songs with shorter meditations, interludes (sung, not spoken), and reinterpretations. As such, it’s almost impossible to listen to out of sequence – a rare feat that is truly a compliment, not a diss. It is hard to pick standouts for this reason, but Thru It All, We Can Call It Off, and Get Away (my personal favorite track) impress with sophisticated lyricism, gorgeous background arrangements, and inventive production.
2. Van Hunt, On The Jungle Floor
Van Hunt stepped his game up. He deepened his production and complicated his lyricism. His debut was very direct, very seemless. But On The Jungle Floor is messy, heavy. It’s funky (Ride Ride Ride) and compelling (Priest or Police). And you should have it.
1. Joi, Tennessee Slim Is The Bomb
Joi Gilliam has been called the Queen of the Underground. She’s also the woman who helped shape and influence the best musicians of the past 20 years – Organized Noize. She is strikingly self-confident in a blues way, sensual and playful in a 70’s P-Funk way, and vulnerable in a soulful way, which makes her the most complicated female this side of Erykah Badu and Mary J. Blige. You need to have this album in your collection. It chronicles the end of her marriage to Goodie Mobb’s Big Gipp to her rebirth as Tennessee Slim.
This album is a companion piece of sorts for Lyfe’s The Phoenix. Both albums are about shedding a former persona or life and recreating oneself. Joi’s is concerned with the lessons learned, which makes hers more reflective than forward-looking (minus the genius funk of the title track). Easily the year’s best album, perhaps one of the 5 best albums of the new millennium, Joi Gilliam continues a career of unrivaled integrity and devastatingly passionate music. Bravo, ma!