Today is #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay. I normally listen to Janet all day and celebrate that way. But I thought I’d join in the online fun. So to celebrate this year, I thought I’d list my top 10 late-era Janet Jackson songs, which I’m defining as anything recorded or released after All For You. I’m doing this partly because commercially and creatively speaking Janet’s work during this period hasn’t really scaled the same heights as her 1986-2001 output.
But this doesn’t mean that Queen Janet hasn’t dropped some straight fire in the new millennium. She has. But icons always have periods where they are not quite as dominant as they were before. It’s part of what it means to be an icon and have a career spanning decades.
So I’m here to give you just a taste of how dope Janet was capable of being during the last two decades. Check it out after the jump.
10. The Internet – Hive Mind (2018) Ego Death was about as dope a leveling up as an artist has done in the past decade. But Hive Mind deepened and strengthened The Internet’s sound into something cleaner, so it feels to me like the slightly stronger album of the two. The fusion of electronic and traditional instruments is so seamless, it’s often hard to tell which is which. Syd’s voice is stronger and the lyrics have a more vulnerable, open quality that is thrilling.
9. (tie) Beyoncé – Lemonade(2016) / Solange – A Seat at the Table (2016) In many ways, the story of Black music in the 2010s is the story of the slow, wondrous creative maturation of Beyoncé and the rise of Solange as an avant garde dynamo. Certainly 2016 was their year. Lemonade is the fulfillment of the promise we’d seen begin on the messy 4and Beyoncé. It is the album I’d been waiting for Beyoncé to make since her incredible, but flawed, debut. An album that is a complete listening experience, an artistic statement, and a sonic leap forward. Solange’s A Seat at the Table is the most remarkable protest album of the new millennium. It’s the most inviting and open “fuck you” to whiteness I’ve ever heard. There’s a lightness that is paradoxically hard as a rock. She never sounds angry. Not for one minute. What she is is unbelievably clear about who she is as a black woman. And that’s where the power lies.
8. AZ – Legacy(2019) AZ is, for me, one of the five best emcees of all time. But, outside of his debut album Do or Die, he’s never been an album artist. So it was an incredibly pleasant surprise when he dropped Legacy, a compilation of old freestyles, leaked songs, and a handful of new joints that is actually one of the best hip-hop albums of the decade. But that’s what actually happens when you focus on greatness, rather than padding out an album as most emcees do. AZ’s laser-focus on Legacy is astonishing. It’s 11 short tracks with stellar production that serves as a reminder that AZ is one of the best to ever do it.
7. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 – Black Times(2018) It is very difficult to be the child of a visionary artist. Ask Sean Lennon. So it’s particularly wonderful to see Seun Kuti step into his own greatness as the lead singer of his father’s band Egypt 80 with Black Times. Afrobeat has always invited us to consider the wider plight of the diaspora as we dance. Seun is no different as he fills every song with enough space for the grooves to drive you to the dancefloor. But it truly is the lyrics where he shines, updating Afrobeat political concerns to the present. There’s caution to African youth not to fall prey to American culture’s propagandist images of blackness and progress on “African Dreams” and the critique of corporatist greed in “Corporate Public Control Department (C.P.C.D.).” Black Times is a vital addition to the Afrobeat tradition and a triumph for Seun as an artist.
6. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN(2017) Kendrick is hands down the most important emcee of his generation and he had an absolutely stellar decade, capped magnificently with the release of DAMN in 2017. He stacks his albums with references to his past, his hometown, his relationships. And yet there is an open, contemplative quality to them. It’s like you are literally listening to Kendrick processing how to make sense of his life and our society at that very moment. I find DAMN to be the most accessible, and yet the most dense, writing he’s yet done. That virtuosity here is truly remarkable.
5. Janet Jackson – Unbreakable(2015) Janet hadn’t released an essential album since Damita Jo. For us lifelong fans, we assumed perhaps she had run out of things to say. So it was a beautiful surprise when she dropped Unbreakable – her finest, most sonically diverse and adventurous album since her creative apex, The Velvet Rope. Here we have Janet concerned again about the world (“Black Eagle” and “Gon’ B Alright”) and processing the death of her brother Michael (“Broken Hearts Heal) in glorious fashion. Unbreakable reminded us that the greatest pop album artist of her generation still had a lot left in her to give us.
4. Joi – S.I.R. Rebekkah HolyLove (2018) We waited over a decade for S.I.R. Rebekkah HolyLove and it was worth the wait. Joi has long been ahead of her time as a visionary, self-possessed Black woman artist. And she outdid herself again with an album that serves up another helping of her patented funk/soul anthems. Joi is one of the most beautiful lyricists of her generation. She’s one of the most confident artists we have, but she suffuses her music with a profound vulnerability that makes her totally relatable. Only Joi would lament being single while never forgetting that she is a Queen (“Kingless Queen”) or would write a tearful (yes – it sounds like a good cry) contemplation of murdering an abusive boyfriend (album standout, “It Is Best”). Joi is a Black music treasure, an icon, and she turned out one of the finest albums of the decade.
3. Raphael Saadiq – Jimmy Lee (2019) Raphael Saadiq has spent the better part of the last two decades as one of our greatest musician/producers, working with everyone from icons like D’Angelo and Mary J. Blige to funk queen Joi, soul siren Jaguar Wright and the ever-evolving Solange. So it was a pleasant surprise when he dropped Jimmy Lee last year. A concept album that grapples with the myriad ways drug addiction affects families and the world, Jimmy Lee is the greatest album he’s ever recorded as a solo artist. Ray Ray has never been this focused, passionate, and clear-eyed as an artist before. But what’s particularly striking is that even with songs like “This World is Drunk” and “Rikers Island,” the album is more resolute and contemplative than a downer.
2. Rahsaan Patterson – Bleuphoria(2011) Wines & Spirits, Rahsaan’s 2007 masterpiece, is known for its sharp turns and its sonic ambition. His follow-up, Bleuphoria, is his first album where he handles most of the production duties himself. And the results are glorious. It’s his first album to really flirt with the vocal processing that you hear nearly everywhere else. But Rah uses it to accentuate what he’s already doing as an artist. Take “God” where the vocal production achieves an otherworldly quality the song demands or “Insomnia” where the entire song is meant to sound a bit disorienting like a dream. But when his voice is unadorned as it is on “Miss You” and “Goodbye”, there are few other Black male singers who can knock you out with the sheer beauty and emotional depth of their voice. With Bleuphoria, Rahsaan confirms his status as the finest Black male artist of his generation.
1. D’Angelo – Black Messiah (2014) Black Messiah benefits from a double emotional throughline – one, his struggles with addiction; the other, Black politics – that provides a steely spine to the album. D clearly had some things to get off his chest. He does so (and nothing more). It’s tight and focused. Sonically, D’s funkier with the music and smoother with the vocal arrangements in ways that insinuate themselves into your consciousness. There’s no knockout single like “Untitled” or “Cruisin.” D is much more interested in constructing an album statement where all the pieces fit together into a cohesive whole. Black Messiah was the first prominent album of the decade to grapple with what’s going on in Black communities. And it is the best album of the decade and the culmination of the great promise D’Angelo merely hinted at before.
I don’t know that I can sum up the 2010s for me with respect to this list other than to say this list is very much my own. It’s totally reflective of what moves me as a lover of Black music, as a 40-year old Black SGL man, and as someone who has always preferred been moved most by albums that make a complete statement. As a bit of a snob.
10. Get Out(2017) The brilliance of Get Out is simple and yet so utterly profound. Take one of Black people’s deepest-seated suspicions – that even “nice” White people are horrific racists – and turn it into our worst nightmare. It’s remarkable that the film got made at all. Though, I still think Chris’ refusal to kill Rose is a copout (and weirdly undercuts the film’s smart observation that White women are often the most vile racists) that undermines the film tremendously. But even with that there’s no denying that Get Out is some of the smartest filmmaking of the decade.
9. Marvel’s The Avengers(2012) In terms of sheer thrill and geek magic, no comic book film can top what Joss Whedon did with The Avengers. He figured out The Hulk, made Natasha a fully fleshed out character, and he found a way to make Clint important without being a drag. Most importantly, he made all the disparate pieces of the nascent MCU work. This is the first MCU film that feels like it was made by an auteur. With this film, it felt like we finally got the superhero film we’d been waiting for made by a filmmaker with a point of view. And because we did, nearly every other filmmaker working on these films afterward got to do a bit more than they likely would have been able to before.
8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier(2014) In purely economic terms, Iron Man is the most important film Marvel has made. In purely creative terms, the Captain America trilogy within the MCU are the apex. Marvel figured out how to make Cap relevant, cast the perfect actor (Chris Evans, a revelation – man was i wrong? lol), and put their finest screenwriters and directors at the helm. The Winter Soldier is the finest of the three by a pretty wide margin. It’s the tightest, tautest film in the MCU with some of the most memorable setpieces of the decade. But what is most thrilling for me is the way the film takes seriously how a man like Cap would react to post-9/11 American foreign policy, imperialism, and technology. And that is what makes this film, in particular, perfect.
7. Creed (2015) There are a fair number of films with Black men at the center. There are few as attuned to Black men’s inner emotional life as Creed. Ryan had to really understand what’s at the heart of the Rocky films in order to flip them and make one about a young Black man. And he did because he knows that, at their core, these films are about men who struggle with self-worth. By making a Rocky film with a Black man at the center, the film takes that core idea and deepens it. In Creed, this is about heritage. Roots. Black male self-definition.
6. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse(2018) Into the Spiderverse shakes up everything we know about Spidey by centering the film on Miles Morales. And by including multiple versions of Spidey, Into the Spiderverse makes textual what has always been subtext: anyone can be Spider-Man. Couple that wondrous bit of intersectionality with stunning animation and a simple, but emotionally resonant story and you get the best Spider-Man film yet made.
5. Selma (2015) Given how much we evoke Martin Luther King Jr’s name in America, it’s astonishing that it took nearly five decades for Hollywood to make a film about the civil rights giant. But man was it worth the wait! Ava’s Selma does important work here by telling one aspect of King’s advocacy, and in so doing, captures his brilliance far more usefully than a traditional biopic would have done. The Selma to Montgomery march was important not just because it led to the Voting Rights Act, but because King pursued it even though he had helped to secure a major win the year before – and crucially, in spite of resistance from allies like Johnson. It’s King’s most important lesson to us – that we fight for what’s right even when it’s inconvenient for our allies – and Ava’s film does a great job of showing us why.
4. Black Panther (2018) I wrote twopieces on this blog about how I never thought the kind of Black Panther film we deserve would ever get made. Man – I have never been so happy to be totally wrong as I am here! Ryan’s Black Panther exceeded every expectation I had and is easily the best film in the MCU to date. What’s striking is that Ryan actually told a better story than most of the stories in the original comic. The repurposing of Killmonger. The reworking of Man-Ape into a scene-stealing delight. The Dora Milaje. And most importantly, an emotional contemplation of what all African-descended people owe to one another across the diaspora.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road(2015) I remember being mostly bored with the original Mad Max films. I mostly remember Thunderdome for the Tina Turner song. So when I went to see Fury Road, it was really just another film. I didn’t expect to see such a stunningly feminist film, to be reminded of the beauty of practical effects, or to be surprised by what the actors – all of whom have been great before – would do. Mad Max: Fury Road is classic moviemaking, the kind of which we just don’t get much anymore.
2. Fruitvale Station(2013) Fruitvale Station forgoes the usual biopic and Important Black Film narrative tricks by going small. Rather than tell us that Oscar Grant is Important, we simply get to spend his last day with him. Oscar is struggling, but he’s also trying to celebrate his mother’s birthday and spend some time with his daughter. What Ryan understands is that Oscar’s specialness lies in the mundane details of a young life, not the moment of his death. And that approach makes his death at the end more emotionally devastating than we realize. Here’s my original review of the film.
1. Moonlight (2016) No film impressed or moved me more than Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. There has never been a film to take Black masculinity this seriously and deconstruct it as expertly as Moonlight. We see a lot of movies about Black boys in the ‘hood. And we see what they “become,” but we’ve never seen so much of the inner life. Jenkins, heavily influenced by French director Claire Denis, takes a more elliptical approach to storytelling that thrusts us deeper inside Chiron’s psyche. There are few movies more beautifully shot. There are few movies that have this many well-crafted roles for Black male actors to play. And there is no film that was better than Moonlight in the 2010s.
20. Gone Girl(2014) David Fincher’s masterful adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s book was my favorite thriller of the decade. Rosamund Pike was dynamite here playing up the ambiguity so masterfully that I had no idea what to think about Amy or Ben Affleck’s “Nick” (I still haven’t read the book). I’ve since watched it a few times and it still holds up even though I now know the twist and that’s thanks to smart direction by Fincher and Pike’s performance.
19. If Beale Street Could Talk(2018) Barry Jenkins is the first filmmaker to adapt a James Baldwin novel. His impressionistic, elliptical style is perfect for Baldwin, a writer you read for the way he tells the story. If Beale Street Could Talk is perfect for this moment a story as much about young Black love as it is about racist police abuse. And in Kiki Layne and Stephan James, Jenkins finds the perfect actors. They understand the close-up and interact wih each other and the space like dancers in every scene they share together.
18. The Dark Knight Rises(2012) Christopher Nolan had an incredibly tough job to do following up The Dark Knight. The film is a bit overstuffed much the way all concluding chapters of film trilogies are. But there’s so much to love here from Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Gary Oldman’s tortured performance to the stunning Anne Hathaway, who is a total revelation here. The Nolan films in total are arguably the best comic book films ever made and it’s remarkable that Nolan stuck the landing.
17. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes(2014) The rebooted Apes films are perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the decade turning a dormant franchise into a sharp critique of mankind’s hubris. Rise of the Planet of the Apes reboot the franchise with style and heart. Dawn takes it to the next level with an emotionally resonant middle chapter that completely shatters you by the end. The opening sequence of the Ape community is technically and narratively brilliant. Andy Serkis’ performance here is the best he’s yet given (and he’s been dope for a very long time).
16. Top Five(2014) I love Top Five so much. A talky relationship-oriented film for Black people. It’s literally the kind of film I’ve dreamed about. We so rarely get to see Black people having conversations where they reveal character, desire and vulnerabilities. Chris Rock has never been seen in quite this way on film and it’s been quite a long time since Rosario Dawson got to be this down-to-earth and beguiling. It’s a love letter to romantic possibility, to New York, and importantly, to hip-hop.
15. Weekend (2011) Every once in a while a film comes along that is perceptive about the ways that gay men relate to one another. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend doesn’t soft-pedal anything, including casual drug use, but it is masterful in depicting the ways that gay men can fall in love almost in spite of themselves. Haigh understands that it’s one thing to reject heteronormativity; it’s another to know what to replace that with.
14. 12 Years a Slave(2013) 12 Years a Slave is a brutal film. Though I loved it, I haven’t watched it since that first time in the theatre. Some great films don’t need to be rewatchable to be great. I don’t know that I’d ask Steve McQueen to show less of the torture because I think it’s critical to the narrative. There are so many dimensions to American chattel slavery. And one aspect of it that is underexplored is the system of capturing freed Black people and putting them into slavery. It’s one thing to be born into slavery; it’s another to be kidnapped and enslaved. McQueen understands that and treats the material accordingly.
13. Inception (2010) With Inception, Christopher Nolan confirmed his status as one of the best filmmakers of his generation. The film is thrilling with gorgeous visuals and the most original film – conceptually – on this list. Nolan films are experiences so I appreciate that Nolan doesn’t really talk much about the plots or the ideas of his films before they are released.
12. Pariah (2011) There are so, so few films about the coming of age experiences of Black girls. Fewer still films about queer Black girls. So much of the narrative about inclusion is gendered. It’s about Black men and boys. But what we are often missing are pespectives and images of Black femininity in all its variants. Pariah then is unique, and uniquely beautiful.
11. Big Words (2013) Big Words was my favorite find of the decade. It’s of a piece with Top Five, but warmer. I only heard about it because I followed the filmmaker, Neil Drumming, on Twitter and saw him promoting the streaming release. I loved it so much. It’s a love story and a story about middle-aged Black men grappling with regrets. Dorian Missick has never been used as well as he is here. But the revelation for me is Gbenga Akinnagbe. It’s a star turn that is a wonder of stillness and steely gazes. He’s never played a character like this and it should have led to more romantic, leading man roles.