This list represents what I consider to be the 20 best recorded songs in black music this year. You should know before reading that I don’t just consider singles, as singles are such a small sample of what is recorded and released in any given year.
20. RichGirl, He Ain’t Wit Me Now (Tho)
I’m sort of known for having disdain for most popular music. Sometimes this disdain is confused for out-and-out hatred of anything popular. Not so. Take RichGirl: They are basically Destiny’s Child re-imagined as an actual vocal group with production by Rich Harrison, the most irritating of the one-trick pony producers cluttering the landscape right now. And yet, He Ain’t Wit Me Now Tho is just terrific. It’s the rare example of a song that is genuinely good despite all the independent variables that made it. It’s also compelling enough to make me want to hear more from RichGirl.
19. Kid Cudi, Day & Night
There was nothing really like this Kid Cudi joint this year and that, in and of itself, doesn’t mean much. That Kid Cudi has done this electro/hip-hop fusion better than Kanye West, Pharrell, and all the other suburban backpacker brothers means a whole hell of a lot. While Man on the Moon failed to build on the promise of this song, it is clear that Cudi is the man to watch.
18. Smoke E. Digglera, 100% (click to listen)
Smoke E. Digglera of Playa was ridiculously prolific this year, releasing 4 albums of material independently. So there was lots of great stuff, but 100% stood out to me because it’s basically a gospel song of praise. It’s a classic paean to how much better women are than men and Smoke just nails it, from his terrific lead vocal to the arrangement of the backgrounds. It’s probably the best sung song on this list. Smoke is pretty much single-handedly keeping alive black music’s long tradition of destroying the line between the divine and the secular. Go get his stuff.
17. Day26, Get Away Girl
Day26 would be the ultimate cautionary tale for anyone wanting to get into business with Puff, were it not for, oh, every artist that ever worked with Puff. Puff completely mishandled Day26 this year. And proof positive is the fact that Get Away Girl is hands down the best song they’ve yet recorded and it didn’t even end up on their sophomore album. This song is all atmosphere and texture. The lyrics are mostly frivolous, but the sentiment – what the ultimate unattainable woman does to you – is beautifully evoked here in the production and the vocal performances. Robert, always the group’s best singer, completely gets it and injects the song with just enough soul to take it to the next level (check his bridge!). This is brilliant work and it should not only have been on the album, but it should have been a single.
16. Mos Def and Slick Rick, Auditorium
I am still not sure what the hell Auditorium is about, but I really don’t care because damn its compelling. There’s an undercurrent of paranoia (“suckas tryna hide like the struggle wont find em”) to it, which gives the song some pathos. Also – Rick murders his verse. Dude is probably the only rapper whose style is timeless, fitting on whatever the hell track he wants to rhyme over.
15. Tank, Make Up Sex
Tank does grown man babymakin music better than any brotha currently recording. And Make Up Sex is the perfect example of this. The song is flawless from melody to lyric to production. Yet, despite Grammy nods for his last album, Tank still is not as huge as he should be. This has more to do with where the industry is than anything else. Anyone who hears Tank loves him, problem is, people just don’t get to hear him. Like Keith Sweat 20 years ago, Tank is re-writing the book on beggin. Don’t sleep.
14. Black Einstein featuring Baby Sol, It’s Whatever
For the 8th anniversary of Aaliyah’s tragic death, a number of artists covered some of Aaliyah’s work for the free download tribute album, Aaliyah Revisited. The best is this cover of It’s Whatever, an album track from Aaliyah’s self-titled last album. Black Einstein and Baby Sol strip the song down and give it a little more texture and dial back a bit of the sexual innuendo. It’s thrilling. Aaliyah Revisited proved just how singular a vocalist Aaliyah truly was, as this is truly the only version that rivals the original. That says a lot about Black and Baby.
13.Trey Songz, Black Roses
Trey Songz is finally a star. Every move he made this year was designed to get people to finally recognize that this is the guy to watch. And it worked. And it’s great because Trey truly is peerless, easily the most gifted young singer to arrive since Usher. Too bad then that much of what we get to hear about Trey revolves around his beauty, his sexual prowess, and, worst of all, his emulation of R. Kelly’s worst qualities. All of these things detract from Trey’s gift and enable people to miss the greatness in songs like Black Roses. The song is a soulful lament set to quasi-electronica production with a killer vocal arrangement. It works because it plays perfectly to Trey’s greatest strength – his ability to convey tremendous longing better than any other singer of his generation.
12. Last Offence, Fresh As I Wanna Be
Last Offence is the best of a new generation of gay rappers that are making a lot of waves online and in the gay community. Fresh As I Wanna Be from his Not For Non-Profit mixtape is so good, I almost want to tell you not to listen to any of the others. He’s just that good, or rather, what Lasto does is just so different from what the other gay rappers are doing it’s actually unfair to compare them. His flow is complex, his lyrics are witty, he has an almost intuitive grasp of how to use his voice to punctuate a lyric, and he knows how to pick a good beat. All of that is displayed to perfection on this song.
11. Method Man & Redman featuring Saukrates, A-Yo
Method Man & Redman make smart party hip-hop in a way almost no one does anymore, which is a shame. You can play A-Yo at the club or on the corner wit your boys and everyone will love it. A-Yo though is actually a lil out-of-left-field for the fellas, it’s got a summery laidback feel to it that is nothing like what made them stars as a duo on the first Blackout. But Reggie and Cliff are two of the best in the game (Reg – get your royalty check from Weezy for stealin your image) and the effortless cool of this track is just the latest reminder of that fact.
10. Raekwon featuring GZA, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, and Method Man, House of Flying Daggers
What can you say about Wu-Tang? They do what they do and no one else does it like them…or even tries. This is just classic Wu, a bunch of whip-smart black nerds fantasizing that they are a band of ill ass samurai. Also – best video of the year. Hands down. No question.
9. Ledisi, Trippin’
Ledisi did some new stuff on her latest album, working with hitmaker producers and coming up with yet another winner. The best song on the album is Trippin, produced by Chucky Thompson (the man who actually produced Mary J. Blige’s My Life album). The production here is key as it conveys perfectly that feeling of holding in all your feelings to keep from…trippin. Ledisi is wonderfully controlled here capturing the spirit of the song effortlessly. This is the most thrillingly original thing she’s ever recorded, proof yet again that there is nothing – nothing – that she can’t do.
8. Maxwell, Love You
Any song on Maxwell’s triumphant return to recording could have been here, but I chose Love You because the song is so open. You can hear in the song just how free one can feel when in love. Often people sing about love in terms of the pain or the work or how they want it to make them feel. Rarely are love songs about joy, pure joy. The kind of joy that happens when love frees you. That is what this song does, beautifully.
7. Chrisette Michele, Fragile
Fragile is the best song on Chrisette Michele’s latest album, Epiphany. It showcases just how expressive Chrisette’s voice can be, particularly when she’s basically testifying. This is gospel folks, through and through. Sure, it’s about love on the surface, but at its core, in construction, it’s a song about salvation. And by song’s end, Chrisette sounds positively transcendant.
6. Playa, Gravy Train
I chose this song because it is proof just how far ahead of the curve Playa and Static/Major truly were. This song was recorded about 8 years ago, before southern rap and dirty south dominated the landscape. And though many have come and gone and made millions off of southern-inflected music, no one does it quite as well as Playa does it. The song wasn’t released officially till this year when former Playa member Smoke E. Digglera put together an album’s worth of unreleased Playa tracks. Gravy Train is just funky, stanky, grimy, filthy. It knocks the way no other song does and its one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. It manages to be soulful, playful, grimy, and sound like a ill ass jam session at the same time.
5.(tie) Eric Roberson, She / Eric Roberson, My Life (cover song)
These two songs represent what is so great about Eric Roberson – he’s a vocal stylist. On She, he creates a stunning three-minute piano ballad all about that feeling at the beginning of a great love. And to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the release of Mary J. Blige’s seminal My Life, Eric Roberson covered the title track. And he manages to do the original justice and still make it his own. He sings the hell out of it and never lets it go.
4. Jackson 5, Man’s Temptation
Listen to the other versions of Man’s Temptation recorded by Gene Chandler, whom Curtis Mayfield wrote it for, and Isaac Hayes for his seminal Black Moses album and you realize the Jackson 5 were just about the most soulful human beings out there. Their version is just thrilling. Jackie and Jermaine share leads with Michael. And though Mike is the clear standout, don’t sleep on the vocal work by the elder Jacksons, who both do stellar work here. Or for that matter, the backing harmonies, which are rich and evocative. This song is the clear standout from I Want You Back! Unreleased Masters, released shortly after Michael passed away. The song presages so much of what we got to hear on the great Jacksons trilogy, Destiny, Victory, and Triumph. Man’s Temptation may be the greatest example of how great all five brothers truly are. It’s a shame we had to wait 40 years to hear it.
3. Meshell Ndegeocello, Crying In Your Beer
Here we have the ultimate genre deconstructionist reinventing the sad love song. Crying In Your Beer is a devastatingly aching song. You can hear pain in the distortion, confusion in the production, and a profound sadness in Meshell’s vocal. And yet, it feels cathartic, particularly as the instrumentation clears at the end. The song is about two and a half minutes long, but you barely notice. It leaves such a deep impression, you’d think its longer. It’s just that effective.
2. Solange, Stillness Is The Move (cover song)
1. Chico DeBarge, Slick (Addiction)
I’ve been extolling the virtues of Slick (Addiction) ever since I heard it. And it never gets old. Chico has created the single finest work of music this year with this terrific jazz song. He has never sounded this passionate, this present, this in tune with what the song is conveying and how it conveys it. This is master class singing here. And the song itself is a wonder, a woman-is-my-addiction song that sounds neither self-pitying, condescending, or silly. In fact, as interpreted by Chico, it’s a stunningly subversive love song. You get the impression that Chico admires this woman, admires how she so easily captivates him. And that impression is what makes the song linger long after it is over.