The thing that is interesting to me about all the lists I’ve read about music in the Aughts is how little the lists reflect the impact of the internet. Reading most lists, you wouldn’t think that the industry changed as much as it did. You’d also think that, reading other lists, that the industry figured out the internet immediately and it became just another promotional tool for them to give you whatever it is they’ve decided is hot music.
Napster started in June 1999, just six months before the new millennium and the music industry has never been the same. Illegal downloading meant that people could hear an artist’s work before it was done. They could hear songs that artists never intended for them to hear. And they could hear multiple versions of a song that ultimately went to another artist (how many people downloaded Posh Spice’s version of Beyonce’s Resentment?).
What this meant is that the single had even less meaning than it did in the past, though the industry and your favorite artist will never tell you that. Indeed, the minute that iTunes and other online music services offered you the ability to pick which song you want to own, singles just became different animals. Oh sure, we still had huge singles in the decade that everyone bought and then couldn’t escape for years – Yeah!, Crazy In Love, and Hey Ya come to mind – but the point is, how the consumer interacts with an artist shifted completely. Many artists began to release as singles album tracks that were buzzworthy on the internet in hopes of increasing sales (Mariah Carey seems to live and die by her message boards, which explains the yo-yoing of her career of late).
It also meant that the industry’s devaluation of the album was complete. Oh sure, people still buy albums, but with the ability to pick and choose what you want, there was even less incentive for the biggest artists to make albums a complete experience. More then ever, what we got from corporate artists were three or four “radio singles” and a bunch of lamentable album tracks (you know, the ones that artists like Britney, Rihanna and nem point to as evidence of their “growth” because the songs might have an actual bridge or something).
For me, as a music lover, it was a wonderful time to discover music online I might not otherwise have heard. I was able to follow the rise of homo hop, get copies of shelved albums by artists like Joi Gilliam and Nicole Wray, get obscure albums by Ricky Bell, LaTocha Scott, and Mark Middleton, and find artists who had been discarded by the industry but were making music on their own terms (Shanice, Smoke E. Digglera and Digital Black from Playa). And let’s not forget how R&B artists have embraced the “mixtape” concept as a way to put out music that perhaps the label didn’t want you to hear or just to keep their names in your mind (Teedra Moses, Trey Songz, Amerie).
What this meant was that I had something else to compare to whatever it was the industry was throwing at me. It meant that I didn’t have to fall for the othering of British “phenoms” who were ripping off American Black music unconvincingly. It meant that I didn’t have to be mired in the industry’s mistaken belief that artists were only as good as the song Rich Harrison, Timbaland, Pharrell, Rodney Jerkins, or whoever gave them. It meant that what I listened to was more driven by me than the industry. Great as the 90s were, I was largely at the mercy of the industry. That is simply not the case anymore – even for consumers (and artists) who live and die by the Billboard charts.
I say all this to say that my list reflects very much my experience with black music in the Aughts. It is not a list that is designed to rank the biggest commercial albums of the decade and then find creative ways of equating art and commerce. Which is not to say that there aren’t some obvious choices on here. But this is my list, not a list that necessarily reflects the perspective of the average music consumer.
You been warned.
NOTE – The list is long, so its broken into two parts. This post has the first 13 albums.
The List (in alphabetical order):
Aaliyah’s third and final album was critically acclaimed from the moment it dropped. And rightfully so. But its true impact as a defining album of the decade comes from the fact that every. single. young. woman in the industry has tried to make it themselves. Listen to anything Ciara has done, Rihanna, Beyonce, Amerie, Britney Spears, Ashanti, even Brandy, and what you hear is an attempt to find that Aaliyah mixture of pathos, mystery, and smoky sex appeal.
The album itself, written mostly by Static/Major (the man Johnta Austin, Sean Garrett and Ryan Leslie have been ripping off for 10 years), is a stunning masterwork that married state-of-the-art production with perfect singing. Aaliyah was a vocalist of subtle beauty, a blues singer with the ability to bend a note, a lyric, to her own unique design. Listen to how she barely rises above a whisper on I Care 4 U, her single greatest work, or even hear how, without shouting, she doesn’t let the production drown her out on I Refuse. And marvel at how, with Rock The Boat, Aaliyah brings the class back to the sex metaphor. There is no other album like Aaliyah in the Aughts and I suspect that young women will be trying to make it for at least another decade.
Mama’s Gun is a defining album of the decade because it let the world know, with great, memorable music, that we just do not know what Erykah Badu is really about, or what she will give us when she releases an album. Baduizm was the kind of debut that makes artists either scramble to recreate it or run from it for the rest of their career. Erykah did neither of those things. She was the first of the so-called neo-soul artists to throw off that mantle and embrace her own artistry, critics, industry, and fans be damned.
And so of course the album wasn’t loved at first because people really wanted more Baduizm. And Erykah messed with the album right up till it was shipped, resulting in a final song sequence that did not match what was printed in the liner notes and an alternate version of lead single Bag Lady, which caused great confusion. The album floats between sharp social commentary (Penitentiary Philosophy and A.D. 2000) and a devastating chronicle of the end of Erykah’s relationship with Andre 3000 (Green Eyes and In Love With You). Green Eyes is probably one of the best songs ever recorded and released. And Mama’s Gun looms large over all soul records of the decade.
Dangerously In Love is the perfect example of what the industry wants every pop record to do. It set Beyonce up to be the female of her generation. And here’s the kicker: It’s a damn near flawless record (skip Gift From Virgo, the icky Daddy, and Missy’s inane Signs). It is warm, human, emotional, vulnerable, beautifully sung, and funky.
The heart of the album lies between Hip Hop Star (the best of the uptempos) and Speechless (again, skip Signs…seriously). Each song in this little suite does more to turn Beyonce into a three-dimensional woman with feelings, thoughts, and ideas than anything before or since (including the stupendously insulting and soulless I Am disc). That she has failed to expand on the promise of this stellar record is, in retrospect, unsurprising. But her increasingly cartoonish Jezebel persona will never obscure the fact that Dangerously in Love is a terrific album.
Check out my original review from 2003.
Most artists get one, maybe two, great defining albums in their career. Mary J. Blige, arguably, has four — What’s The 411, My Life, Mary, and The Breakthrough.
The Breakthrough came at a crossroads in Mary J. Blige’s career. She had earned the respect of the industry and fans alike with very little compromise or naked commercial ambition (we’ll ignore her reunion with Puff on Love & Life, since I’m sure she does). But Mary was trying to save herself and she wanted her music to reflect that. As a result, we got The Breakthrough, which was a beautiful depiction of a woman finding her joy, her humanity, and her self-worth. On Enough Cryin and Ain’t Really Love, Mary throws out the last no-good man and finds love in herself. On Take Me As I Am, she explores with stunning clarity how much that self-love means to her. And on I Found My Everything, the album’s stunning centerpiece with Raphael Saadiq (the decade’s greatest, unsung songwriter) and probably the single greatest song of her career, Mary J. Blige finds true love.
With The Breakthrough, we got a full picture of a woman in recovery. Something that so many of us didn’t really want. We liked My Life Mary and we were selfishly okay with saying that. But damn if Mary J. Blige didn’t make us accept her struggle to become a whole woman, winning us over with music as emotionally complex and identifiable as anything on My Life. It’s a stunning achievement and a rare occurrence in musical history.
Anyone who knows me knows that Playa’s Cheers 2 U is one of my favorite albums. I’ve said countless times that I think it’s one of the best soul albums of the last 25 years. In the 10 years since that album dropped, the three members of Playa went their separate ways. Digital Black started his own record label and released two solo albums, the first of which is Memoirs of an R&B Thug, a refreshingly familiar, but brilliant, album about a contemporary R&B man’s love and life.
What is most surprising and rewarding about the album is discovering just how versatile a singer Black is and how he so ingeniously finds the divine in the profane. N Ya Life is a gospel song of devotion, I’m A G is a gospel song of praise, and Can’t Turn Back Now is as much about faith as it is a song about the struggle to be an artist in the industry. His second album, The Autobiography of Benjamin Bush, deepened all of these elements to perfection, but Digital Black’s debut album is a raw, passionate introduction to one of the great singers most people will never get the opportunity to hear.
En Vogue may not be the commercial powerhouses they were in the early 1990s, but with Masterpiece Theater they prove that they rival LaBelle for the status as the greatest female vocal group in history.
Masterpiece Theater is a conceptual album that blends soul and pop music with classical music elements. It required the kind of vocal precision that few popular singers could master. But Terry, Maxine and Cindy nail it. More impressively, they don’t lose any of the soul that made them who they are. There is just nothing else like it. Listen to Terry Ellis on the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy-backed Love U Crazay, or Maxine Jones and Cindy Herron who both bring tears to your eyes with their performances on Sad But True, which interpolates Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Sad But True is one of the finest songs of the decade. It is a crying shame that this album was so underappreciated (most critics panned it because they are fantastically stupid) and underpromoted (the label stupidly released Riddle as the first single and were surprised that it misrepresented the album). The only thing wrong with this album is that Dawn Robinson isn’t on it.
Check out my original review.
Comin’ From Where I’m From is a miracle. Anthony Hamilton toiled away in the industry for over a decade, never quite given a chance, and then this album is released by a label (!) during the least soulful decade for the record industry. I suspect someone at Hamilton’s label just did it to get him to shut up and go away. What else do you do with a guy who is more Bobby Womack than Bobby Brown when you are targeting a generation that only knows Bobby Brown as a crackhead. Quite the dilemma, no?
Surprise then that people loved it. And why shouldn’t they? The album is a wonder, a throwback that sounds so immediate and of-the-moment. The opening track samples Jay-Z! This is an album of tender love songs and soul laments that no one – no one – else is making right now, at least not this way. But Anthony Hamilton doesn’t take himself too seriously here – Cornbread, Fish & Collard Greens, his sly ode to pimpin, is as fun as it is subversively dirty. It is hard to pick a standout on the album, because it is such a complete listening experience, but I’m gonna go with the devastating I’m A Mess, which made me cry the first time I heard it. Plus – he duets with LaToiya Williams on My First Love, recognizing that she’s the great voice that no one is using.
There are lots of young black woman making music about sex, or rather, there are lots of young black women making songs about what they think men want to hear them say about sex. Adina Howard is a different kind of artist. More Millie Jackson than Lil’ Kim, sex in Adina’s music is as much about her pleasure as it is about the man’s. That distinction is key to understanding and appreciating Adina’s work.
The Second Coming came nearly 10 years after Adina Howard’s debut album and did a much better job of portraying Adina as a three-dimensional woman. It’s a more assured, complex, and accomplished work in every way. It loosely chronicles a relationship from meeting (Outside (The Club)) through separation (Missing You), but the heart and soul of the album is the middle suite of songs that explore the relationship’s sex. T-Shirt & Panties seduces, Nasty Grind is a sensual fuck, and Buttnaked, the album’s brilliant standout track, is the cuddle after. It’s here where Adina soars, using her wonderfully expressive voice to convey sensuality and love with real heart and soul. Adina proves with The Second Coming that she really is the only successor to Millie.
Check out my original review.
People fell in love with Van Hunt when his debut dropped in 2004. I mean, dude was talkin bout “down here in hell with you” and “seconds of pleasure.” How could you not? So when On The Jungle Floor came out and he started talkin’ bout “whether she be priest or police” and “god moves at midnight,” some wondered what had happened.
Van Hunt’s debut was straightforward and compelling. On The Jungle Floor was everything it’s title intimated — it was dirty, funky, crowded, wet. And the lyrics were long on metaphor and short on romantic sentiment. But it is a superior record. The hooks are actually more catchy than on Van Hunt – I defy you not to yell “ride ride ride to the other side” every single time the song comes on – and there is so much more musicality. Priest or Police is the slyest of love songs, a brilliant depiction of a man failing to kill his love for a woman with other women. At The End of a Slow Dance is a rocking good way to break up, and The Night Is Young is a beautiful song about how growing old doesn’t mean you lack things to offer.
It’s true that On The Jungle Floor isn’t easily accessible. It’s also true that that fact alone isn’t its selling point. You get something for doing the work of listening to an artist like Van Hunt, an appreciation for someone who truly finds new ways to say old things.
The Phoenix is an album about a man reborn. After chronicling what led to his incarceration on his debut album, Lyfe Jennings turned to making an album that would explore the man he wants to be, and how he is struggling to get there. Down Here, Up There is a beautiful guitar ballad about how hard life is as an ex-con. The River is a heartbreaking gospel song about faith, about how only god can know how hard life is and only god can help. Still Here is about resilience, being able to stand despite everything.
And rather than make it about himself alone, he also made songs that are as much about the things that we all need to do to be better people. And he covers everything from sex (the brilliant S.E.X. with the late Lala Brown) to relationships (Let’s Stay Together “don’t do it for the kids, do it for me”) to how hard life is for a poor black man (Ghetto Superman).
What holds it all together and keeps it from sounding preachy or silly, is Lyfe’s complete lack of pretense. This is a man who genuinely believes in the redemptive power of music. Also – he’s a terrific songwriter and a singer with incredible range. The Phoenix is a masterpiece and remains his strongest record to date.
Joi Gilliam is probably the most influential artist that you’ve never heard of. She’s one of the main collaborators and inspiration for Organized Noize, OutKast, and Goodie Mob. Her debut, The Pendulum Vibe, inspired Madonna to make Bedtime Stories, the greatest album of her career. And she wrote the female empowerment anthem, Freedom, which was the theme for the film Panther.
Tennessee Slim is the Bomb is her first full album released independently and it’s an album as much about her experience in the industry (Tennessee Slim is the Bomb, I’m So Famous, Co-Stars) as it is about being reborn after the end of a great love. In this way, it’s a very different album from her previous work, but no less great as those that came before it. I defy you to not feel her pain on Gravity, to not feel her funk on Cloud Nine with Pharcyde, to not empathize with her self-doubt on Maybe. I Love You Forever, Right Now is a companion piece of sorts to Erykah Badu’s Green Eyes, and its every bit as good.
Klientel are a duo out of Louisville, Kentucky, home of the guys from Playa. I found them when they co-wrote and sang background on Digital Black’s first album. They released two albums this decade, the second of which is Daily Trade.
Daily Trade is my greatest find this decade, an album that is truly a singular piece of work that, had it been commercially released, would likely have been a huge hit because it really doesn’t sound like an independently released album. It’s incredibly well-produced, with beats that are not all that dissimilar from what you’d hear from any of the other southern acts that dominated this decade. But what puts this album over are the lyrics and the singing. I could write out what makes each song work and it wouldn’t do the album any justice. It’s the kind of album that heralds the arrival of major talent. Unfortunately, Klientel isn’t recording together anymore. But the fellas can relaxing knowing they created one of the finest soul albums of the decade – whether most people have heard it or not.
Listen to the entire album on Rhapsody, then go buy it.
Lina’s debut never got its proper due. Lumped in with so-called “neo-soul” sisters who all debuted in the early part of the decade (Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Jaguar Wright, India.Arie), Lina suffered the most because she was truly not “neo-soul” (whatever that means). She was doing something entirely different.
Stranger on Earth is a unique blend of hip-hop, operatic vocals, and big band swing jazz. It sounds nothing less than completely contemporary as well, due almost entirely to great lyricism. Lina takes you from the opera of lead single Playa No Mo’ to the soulful I’m Not The Enemy and Waiting to a stunning remake of Dinah Washington’s jazz standard, Stranger on Earth, to the hidden track, a brilliant little jazz ditty called Doodle. There is truly no artist like Lina and Stranger on Earth is one of the great underappreciated albums of the past couple decades.
Come back later in the week for the rest of the list….