Black pop is perhaps the hardest genre for black artists to work seriously and have their work taken seriously. In many ways, the quest for mainstream success that the term "pop" denotes is antithetical to all the things that have made black music historically what it is. In this respect, it is often hard for many lovers of black music to take most black pop seriously, and by extension, hard for these same individuals to truly understand what it is they like about the handful of great black pop artists.
Ironically, much of the music that is revered by the hip-hop generation from the 60s and 70s is that time’s version of black pop. Motown and Berry Gordy’s desire for white approval is well-documented, but despite the work of critics like Nelson George, few people know that Philly sound progenitors, Gamble and Huff, had similar, if not as naked, aspirations.
Understanding this fact gives us the proper prospective about what is and isn’t going on in contemporary black pop. Black music is usually seen as in two forms — so-called "R&B" and "soul" — that are diametrically opposed. Soul is "real." R&B is "commercial." This is, of course, limiting for the artists but it’s more limiting for the public who is forced into a false choice that leaves out the bulk of music created by black folks that, in the best sense of this term, is meant for everyone.
Nowadays, it’s fashionable to lionize 90s black pop because what Teddy Riley and his generation did with new jack swing was truly inspiring and, on the whole, edifying music. It is also fashionable to demonize black pop in the post-Puffy era (roughly post-1997).
Sean "Puffy" Combs is rightly considered a hack (interestingly, the more he embraces it, the more his commercial viability and status grows), but his very large shadow does obscure a decade of music that is actually quite good. So though it is true that we are in an era of one-trick-pony producer-driven black pop that prizes hook over melody, tight song structure, and vocal prowess, this does not mean that there is no great black pop. For instance, Brandy and Usher, the twin pillars of great turn-of-the-century black pop, have thrived at the very historical moment artists like them have become unfashionable and unmarketable.
This list represents what I believe to be some of the great black pop since the turn of the century. I picked 10 albums that I thought expand our understanding of what black pop can be and has been for Black folks that I think were commercially and critically ignored (for all the reasons I stated above).
Because, contrary to popular opinion, it is simply true that there are artists who managed to turn out downright beautiful music even as they, and artists like them, got pushed out of the public corporate sphere for the latest Timbaland/Rich Harrison/Rodney Jerkins/Neptunes-backed no-talent.
These albums are in no particular order:
Tank – Force of Nature (2000)
Tank is the black pop version of Calvin Richardson; an artist so attractive that the industry mismarkets because they don’t trust that the marketplace to accept depth and beauty (of an artist) at the same time. Blackground never quite knew what to do with Tank. Nevertheless, he created a multi-layered debut with real texture, real heart, and stunning vocal arrangements and harmonies. Lady on My Block could be a companion piece to Lauryn Hill’s Every Ghetto, Every City and the tender sensitivity of Let it Go, I Can’t Get Down, and first single Maybe I Deserve, intimate more depth than most loverman balladeers.
Koffee Brown – Mars/Venus (2001)
Girl/guy groups are very rare. Girl/guy groups that take advantage of their unique ability to address gender dynamics in life and love, even superficially, in their music is rarer still. Mars/Venus is a smart, well-produced album that attempts to illuminate the difference between the genders in compelling ways. More often than not, it works. The album, structured from meeting to dissolution to reconciliation, is ultimately quite hopeful. Falonte Moore and Vee sing beautifully and their chemistry is used to stunning effect on lead single After Party and "fight" songs like Chick on Da Side and Didn’t Mean to Turn You On. Vee’s solo joint, All Those Fancy Things, though is a black pop masterpiece that calls men on their bullshit by eschewing the usual one-dimensional anger for a confident cast-off.
Adina Howard – The Second Coming (2004)
It took almost a decade for Adina to release a sophomore album. The Second Coming rightly takes the opportunity to reintroduce Adina to the marketplace. It also resituates her sexual persona in the context of love and relationships. The album is sequenced much the way Mars/Venus is, from meeting to breakup to make up to separation. Ordering the songs this way actually makes the sexual songs in the middle – Nasty Grind and Buttnaked – a richer listening experience as the songs take on a fuller meaning in the context of the album narrative. It’s also worth noting that Adina Howard has a powerful voice, here used to stunning effect on every single song.
Michel’le – Hung Jury (1998)
This album, with its heavy use of synthesizers and horns, is a throwback to the albums of Brenda Russell, Vesta, and Cherrelle. You take powerful singers with atypical phrasing and you envelop their voice in overly textured production. It is the kind of sound that was never fully appreciated even back in the 80s. In the late 90s, when it was released amid the scandals of Death Row Records, it fell like an anchor. Too bad, because it’s a masterful album that showcases the beauty of perhaps the most underrated female vocalist of her generation. The trio of perfect songs in the middle, After The Love, Walk With Me, and Don’t Say U Love Me, are downright goosebump inducing.
702 – Star (2003)
702 were the underdogs of the turn-of-the-century girl groups. They didn’t have the naked ambition and high-fashion appeal of Destiny’s Child, but what they did have was a lead singer who could sing anything you gave her. This was part of the problem for the first two albums – they sang anything they were given. On the whole, not a good thing. But Star was unjustly marginalized. It’s a fine piece of music and better than any of the DC albums. Songs like Certified and Feelings showcase a keen ability to connect emotionally with the songs, which elevates the generic subject matter. But more importantly, Meelah takes Places and Jealousy and manages to inject the kind of raw emotion usually equated with soul music. These four songs alone make Star more than worth the purchase.
Truth Hurts – Truthfully Speaking (2002)
Truth Hurts is the kind of artist for whom singles just never quite do justice. Addictive was a genuine banger, but it tells you nothing about what is in store when you buy the album. Truth takes lyrics and melodies that wouldn’t be out of place on a Jaguar Wright album and lays them over hard West Coast production. It is only jarring if you don’t listen more closely. Next To You floats over on a bassline that makes you nod your head, but still manages to communicate a fair amount of melancholy. This Feeling is piano-driven and full of passion. But for my money, Bullshit, a brilliant Organized Noize produced track, is an ignored classic. Equal parts anger and sadness, Truth’s vocal is downright painful in its beauty.
En Vogue – Masterpiece Theater (2000)
After the relative flop that was EV3, En Vogue decided to get experimental. The album is built around a four-song suite of songs that borrow heavily from classical music. Doing this allows En Vogue to prove yet again that they are the finest girl group ever assembled. They also prove that while Dawn’s loss is significant, it isn’t debilitative. Cindy, Maxine and Terry sing their little hearts out and create some of the finest music ever recorded by a group of women. Sad But True will make you cry.
Teedra Moses – Complex Simplicity (2004)
Few album titles are as apt as the one Teedra gave her debut set. This is an album that marries some deft songwriting to contemporary production. It affects you in a way very similar to Mary J.’s What’s the 411 – you hum the melodies and you remember the hooks. This is an album that would have been a huge hit if it had been released even 2 years earlier.
Ginuwine – The Life (2001)
The Life suffered, I think, from a marketing campaign that paid too much attention to the fact that Timbaland only produced one song. Because we live in a producer-driven time, it is fashionable to think that all producers create their artists. But Timbaland’s relationship with his original collaborators was actually analogous to the kind of artist/producer relationship that pioneered some of the best music of the 60s and 70s. There was synergy. I still can’t imagine Tim without Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Playa and Missy…even if everyone else has. That said, The Life makes a bold statement about how good a Ginuwine album can actually be with out Tim. The first two songs alone, Why Not Me and There It Is, are about the most emotional work the man has ever done. This remains Ginuwine’s best, most complete album…and criminally ignored.
Sparkle – Told You So (2000)
Sparkle’s album is the kind of album that Cherelle might have made if she kept recording into the 90s. It’s the kind of butter-smooth lite pop soul that is all too often dismissed as simplistic and generic. But Sparkle, who co-wrote every song, makes some beautiful music here. The standout track, When A Woman’s Heart Is Broken, features the kind of emotive vocal restraint that is all too often dismissed for power ballad theatrics. Sparkle is the kind of artist who knows so clearly what her voice can do. Her singing is alive and warm. Even when she’s angry.