This was a very very strong year for black music. For the first time since I started writing about black music, I put together a list of the Top 25 albums.
But before I start counting down let me shout out a few artists whose albums were strong, that I listen to, but didn't make the top 25: Eric Benet, Snoop, Raphael Saadiq, Raheem Devaughn (shoddy lyricism was the issue here, but dude is MAJOR), N.E.R.D., Michelle Williams, Eric Cire, Jaylen Heart, and Al Green.
I didn't really have thoughts about what a Terrence Howard album would sound like. I am unsure whether I even knew any details about what ole boy was cookin up. So when I heard Shine Through It, I appreciated its lack of polish. I appreciated that his singing was more emotion, less technique. Because somewhere in this album is a man who struggles with an emotional life that is messy, confusing, overwhelming. Terrence Howard defines black male vulnerability onscreen. Who knew he'd give some of the best soul men a run for their money in this arena as well. Do not sleep.
Day26 really deserved better than they got this year, but despite poor promotion and life with Puffy, these men put out a truly solid debut. Their lead single, Got Me Goin, is the slyest piece of black pop I've heard in years. There is genuine charisma here (Silly Love), vulnerability (Co-Star) and terrific singing (Exclusive). With more consistently good writing, better awareness of strengths (Willie is for video, not for record. Puff – Think Dalvin) and better promotion these five guys could be the next great male vocal group.
Algebra Blessett is a prime example of how much deeper the pool of black artistry is than what the labels sell us. There is nothing here inaccessible, boring, or pretentious. Purpose is a fantastic title, because you hear in Algebra's voice a desire to connect with the audience. This might seem a small thing, but in today's climate where the vocalist is often an afterthought, such present singing is refreshing and beautiful. But don't sleep, these joints knock too.
Dwele is contemporary soul's journey man. He consistently churns out sophisticated soul jams that wiggle their way into your consciousness over time. Despite a tendency toward overlong albums (Sketches is 21 tracks long) and Musiq-like conversational phrasing, Dwele is a major force. Sketches is a mite more uptempo and funky than either Subject or Some Kinda, which should convince naysayers to shake a tailfeather to some grown and sexy.
Lalah is dignity personified. Sometimes, that can make for music without verve. On her last album, Outrun the Sky, she picked up the pace a bit and expanded our understanding of what a brilliant alto can do with a song. Now with Self Portrait, she's finally in a comfortable mid-tempo groove that is all coffeehouse without the attendant pretention. She's sophisticated without telling you it all the damn time.
Calvin Richardson is a singer's singer. He's also beautiful. So its interesting that none of his record labels knew what to do with him. His previous two albums hinted at a southern fried soul that comes to beautiful fruition on When Love Comes. Calvin is in his comfort zone here, singing with a renewed vigor and passion that threatens to break open every song. But don't think he's a belter or given to melisma and unnecessary flourish. He's not. Calvin is the rare powerful singer who understands intrinsically that less can be more.
The interesting thing about Ne-Yo's album is that it really isn't the marked shift from his previous albums that we were told it would be. Many of the leaked uptempos didn't make the final cut (Trouble's absence is probably the worst move Ne-Yo has yet made in his career. That song is straight fire.). Ne-Yo proves with this album that he's a major artist. He's still pimpin the Michael Jackson 2.0 thing, which continues to limit his ability to truly standout as a unique artist, but he is getting better with each album. There's no denying that his songwriting is strong, consistent and catchy. And in this climate of black pop, that is cause for praise.
Jon B is my favorite white boy. Cool Relax and pleasures u like are the best appropriated black pop of the past 20 years. Hands down. So that Stronger Everyday saw Jon slip a bit hurt almost as much as being forced to watch Justin Timberlake take his place (undeservedly) as the coolest white boy in the world. Helpless Romantic finds Jon back on his game as one of the strongest singer/songwriters currently recording. There isn't a single bad song on this album (though U So Sexy is a bit too bland for a lead single), even though he embraces some Europop (It's U) and pop rock (Everybody Here Wants You) elements. That he makes it work in a year when so many others didn't (from Kanye to Beyonce to Brandy) is really saying something. Welcome back, Jon.
Mint Condition is sorta like The Roots, in that each album is vastly different from the last. So part of the fun of buying a Mint joint is not knowing what they are gonna do on it. Livin' the Luxury Brown was a rock album. E-Life is like a dirty south album with a whole lot more musicianship and class. This doesn't mean that the musicians cede the spotlight to Stokley's expert emoting, because the tight arrangement of instruments on standouts like Let It Go and Gratitude show that the fellas serve the song, not their egos. E-Life confirms the Mint as an institution. Five straight beautifully crafted, brilliant realized albums.
Static's death in February rocked me pretty hard. I'm a huge Playa stan and everything Static touched (even the Pretty Ricky records) pretty much worked for me. You can hear his work in everything on the radio and on Viacom television today. Ryan Leslie, Johnta Austin, Sean Garrett, all of em, owe their careers to Static, especially since their sounds are so derivative of his. The version of Suppertime I have is a leaked version and so I have every confidence that its not the final selection of songs that would have ended up on the official version. That said, what's here is brilliant. The funk of Dirty Mind knocks even as its driven more by the melody than the rhythm arrangement. This is Static's genius, man. What strikes me most about these songs is that Static purposefully plays up the raspy quality of his voice to highlight the contrast between his polished melodies and arrangements and the knock of the production. There isn't a vocal performance as polished as anything he did on Cheers 2 U, but that doesn't mean the craft here is lacking. Because it isn't.
Erykah is an artist I adore. But unlike most artists I like, I can understand perfectly why others do not adore her. Erykah is completely, totally, defiantly unconcerned with how she is perceived, how her music is received, and the demands of an artist in the corporate system. That can make for music that doesn't fit neatly into accepted and recognized structures. In other words, Erykah could give a fuck about a hook, y'all. It is a testament to her supporters and the strength of her work that she continues to thrive. New Amerykah is dense and confounding, but thrilling. But there is an element of play in Erykah's work that keeps her from being totally self-indulgent. She enjoys what she does and that comes through. Give it another listen, folks.
Michael Keith is that "oh, the other one" member of 112, but folks should know that he was (with Daron Jones) the most important member. He did all the vocal arrangements. That skill is put to use beautifully on his far below the radar solo debut. This album is beautifully sung from start to finish. From the knock of Ain't Feelin You to the "ghetto symphony," Off Up In This Bedroom, to some funny and sexy storytelling on Shawdy Red, Michael Keith completely obliterates work this year from 112 frontmen Slim and Q. Straight up – there isn't a note out of place here. This is brilliant work and the most pleasant surprise of the year.
Lyfe Change finds Lyfe switching things up quite a bit. Gone are the interludes as connective tissue. Gone is the album as a story of life structure. But the album doesn't dip in quality from the last two at all. In fact, the loose structure allows Lyfe an opportunity to do a bunch of different things. And he proves with this album that the lighter, more celebratory songs suit him just as well as the cautionary tales on which he made his mark. At this point, there is no reason why Lyfe shouldn't be a huge star.
Digital Black is the raw intensity of Playa. He's got the deep, gravelly growl of a voice that anchored damn near all of their harmonies and, on lead, provided the urgency that gave them fire. As a solo artist with his own independent record label, Black is able to show that his voice can do so much more than we've previously heard. The standout track on his second solo joint, Window Pane – leaked on his Myspace page in early 2007 — was tied for my favorite song of 2007. It features a more pleading vocal from Black, which showcases just how thoughtful and effective a singer he truly is. Such singing is evident throughout from the funk of lead single, I Want U, to the gospel-lite Benefits. Stop sleepin on the Playa guys, y'all. Seriously.
Back to Now is such an appropriate title for Labelle's first album in decades. This albums is both current and such a perfect example of why the 70s was the best decade for black music. "Timeless" is an oft-overused term, but this is what we have here. It almost defies categorization. The ladies more than prove they still got it, they prove that "it" is something you never loose, that exists when you put the right voices together with the right songwriters and the right producers. That we need icons like this to still tell us what should be basic is a sad indictment of where black music is right now.
Fearless is the most striking debut of the year, all strings and drama. And yet it feels more grounded than most music this year. And its because the vocals are always front and center. Bust Your Windows works because even with the stunning string arrangement, what drives the song is an evocative background vocal arrangement. Without the backgrounds the song would be melodramatic and empty. This strategy is evident throughout. Jazmine anchors high drama lyricism with earthy vocal arrangements.
Lina is the most criminally ignored black artist recording. Morning Star is her third straight flawless piece of work. Here she marries the swing/hip-hop flavor of Stranger on Earth with the operatic arrangements of The Inner Beauty Movement to stunning effect. Its a strange mix of styles that works better than it probably should. Lina manages to find the heart in the opera vocalizing that keeps her songs from being flashy experiments in showy genremelding. And to prove she can do something else, she drops a stunning piano ballad, Piano Song, in her chest voice. Why? Because she can and she's that good.
I wasn't prepared for Solange to blow most other artists out of the water this year. I admired her writing of Beyond Imagination for Kelly Rowland's Simply Deep even as I didn't care for her writing of the title track. I never heard her solo debut and didn't like her contributions to sister Beyonce's B-Day. When I heard Champagne Chronic Nightcap and White Picket Dreams last year, I began to take notice. But it was the three singles she released this year, I Decided, Sandcastle Disco, and T.O.N.Y.,and their evocative, playful videos that told me we were witnessing the birth of a great artist. Solange did more than harken back to a 60s girl group sound, she understood that there was something proudly black and unique and radical about that time and she took that essence and gave it contemporary flair. Simply put – there was no better black pop album this year except…
Here I Stand is the first album since Bobby to be undone commercially by the artist's love life. I'm convinced that sales of, and critical response to, this album is directly related to everyone's hatred of Ursh's wife. This is sad, because by any objective standard Here I Stand is a brilliant piece of work. It features some of the most emotional singing Usher has ever done. And with title track Here I Stand and Love You Gently, Usher shows that there is a soul man beating beneath the surface of the greatest black pop artist in a generation. This album features no less than 8 perfect songs that rank up there with the best work Usher has ever done — Something Special, Here I Stand, Revolver, Love You Gently, His Mistakes, Lifetime, Will Work For Love, What's A Man To Do. Everyone should give this another, much deeper, listen. This is the best black pop album of the year.
Drums! Drums drums drums! Sometimes, with hip-hop being dominated so much by corporate powers, one can get disenchanted with the form. But then artists like Black Milk arrive and remind you why you fell in love with the music in the first place. There is nothing groundbreaking here, except that quintessential hip-hop verve and that undefinable quality that separates great hip-hop from the rest. Black Milk's got it. In spades. His drums…the drums alone, folks!
The Resurrection. Indeed. There is a clarity to listening to great emcees that one doesn't necessarily get listening to greats in any other genre. I'm not sure what that is. But when you hear Q-Tip it's like coming home. It's familiar, comfortable, but exciting. The Resurrection does nothing more than reaffirm that Tip is one of the greatest to ever do it. And it seems so effortless. But this is not easy. Hip-hop is, by design, a form that requires ingenuity and innovation. Most artists show their effort, even if they succeed. Tip makes it all seems easy.
SugaRush Beat Company is a collaboration between American soul genius Rahsaan Patterson, Danish pop singer Ida Corr, and U.K. producer Jaz Rogers. And this is a funk group through and through. Don't let anyone tell you it's a dance/electronic album. Its a dance/electronic album only in the sense that those forms take their rhythmic cues from funk. The album is also a lean affair, with 13 tracks, split evenly between Rah and Ida on vocals. The album has yet to receive an American release, but its worth the extra money to get it from Amazon UK. Run, don't walk.
Popular was shelved by Blue Note. So don't let anyone tell you that niche labels treat artists any better. That Van didn't fit the boring, shitty format that Blue Note has been calling jazz is by no means a slight. Popular continues Van's move way from easily definable music. But it's no less enjoyable than his last two records. In fact, the rawness of the lyricism here gives the songs an immediacy that he only toyed with on past records. He feels present here, like this is the kind of music he's been dying to make. Hunt down a copy of this online, folks. Thank me later.
Sy Smith is that chick! And Conflict is her no-holds-barred "take me as I am" masterpiece. Every song is different from the last, but Sy manages to make it all work as one coherent piece of work. The title track sets it up beautifully but letting you know that what follows is going to be eclectic. She goes from the soul of The Art of You to the dance track Spies to the haunting Star in the space of a few tracks and you love it all. Sy proves yet again that she is a major artist and makes one of the strongest albums of the year.
That Hip-Hop Is Dead, as good as it was, ultimately felt like a marketing gimmick has limited most hip-hop fans from appreciating what Nas has accomplished with these two albums. That the titles also felt like a gimmick is a shame given what these albums are actually about. For the record – Nigger was definitely more than appropriate. Listening to these albums made me realize that Nas filled a void in hip-hop I hadn't realized was there. A lot of hip-hop deals with image and aesthetics and a lot of it deals with politics (both small p and capital P), but Nas has achieved something different. He's explored identity, both American and black, in such stunning complexity. And in that, he explores our relationship to our various identities, how we cling to them, how we change, how we are bound by them. Nas has been good before and he's been great. But he's never really achieved something this complex, this timely, this relevant. There was no better work of music this year, folks.