And here are the final 12 albums I consider to be the best of the first decade of the 21st century.
Check out the first 13 here.
Teedra’s debut album is the rare album that is so very perfect for the marketplace in every way, but is totally undone by a lack of promotion. Every person who hears Complex Simplicity loves it, and wonders why they haven’t heard any of it on the radio or seen a video. Unfortunately, Teedra was on a small record label that probably didn’t have the budget to adequately promote her. Why no major label has snatched Teedra up is one of music’s great mysteries.
Complex Simplicity is the kind of sophisticated R&B that just doesn’t get made anymore. It’s the kind of thing young educated sisters listen to as they get ready for the club. Teedra is, for many of these young women, their voice. She writes about desire (Be Your Girl), chickenheads (You Better Tell Her), the stresses of living (the title track), and sex (Backstroke), with the kind of wit and sly confidence that is instantly relatable.
I view these two albums as one entity. I think Nas has created a work that will be studied for decades. It’s a near perfect exploration of American and Black identities at a time when both identities are making enormous shifts.
Unfortunately, much of the discussion around the albums was about the album’s original title, “Nigger,” so much so that Nas eventually released the official studio album without a name, effectively killing any opportunity to talk about the substance of the music.
Nas actually had a stellar decade, releasing five brilliant albums. But Untitled and The Nigger Mixtape are the realization of all the promise that the other albums only hinted at. The beats go hard, the lyrics go harder. The result? – the most philosophically complex and fully realized conceptual album of Nas’ career.
Meshell Ndegeocello’s Cookie is concerned with identity, both her own and also Blackness. Meshell uses snippets of radical black thinkers like Angela Davis and Etheridge Knight to push back on the romanticization of radical black thought and its offshoot – complacency. On Dead Nigga Blvd Part 1, she says boldly: “You try to hold on to some Africa of the past / Then one must remember, it’s other Africans that helped enslave your ass.” And then she goes right into Hot Night, which features Talib Kweli, in which she says: “We all living in a world built upon / Rape,
starvation, greed, need, fascist regimes / White man, rich man democracy / Suffer in the world trade paradise.” Then there’s the more subtle deconstruction of religion’s body/spirit split on Better By The Pound and the things artists do for money on Pocketbook. On the personal side, she explores bisexuality (Berry Farms, a funky lil go-go song), passion (Trust), and love (Earth).
It’s the most enjoyable “political” album of the decade It’s refreshingly accessible and fun. And its only more rewarding with each listen, as the messages, emotions, and vulnerability become more and more apparent. Cookie marked the start of a period of great exploration for Meshell, both in terms of music and themes and it is probably her single greatest accomplishment to date.
Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we? Speakerboxxx is better than The Love Below.
There I said it. No arguments, kids.
This double album from one of the best hip hop groups of all time is perhaps the only hip hop album of the decade to also be a perfect pop album. Everyone likes this album and that fact doesn’t obscure Andre and Big Boi ‘s status as the least conventional pop stars of their generation. Big Boi’s pimp swag is way more ironic than anyone gives him credit for and Andre’s wacky really just gives him license to be one of the most sensitive soul poets we got. Plus – the music on this album is the perfect marriage of the brilliant rhyming of ATLiens and the expansive Dirty South funk of Stankonia. In other words – dope.
Rahsaan Patterson outdid himself with his last album, Wines & Spirits. The album is about one man’s redemption, starting with the dizzying one-two punch (the wine, if you will) of Cloud 9 and Delirium (Comes and Goes) to the clear-eyed salvation in Deliver Me, Oh Lord (Take Me Back), and Higher Love. And though the religious overtones are there, this is not a gospel-inflected album. Rahsaan is still, at his core, a jazzman, so in keeping with jazz’ improvisational core, songs here take sharp right turns, usually, when the spirit moves.
You get the impression that some major demons have been exorcised. But this is the rare personal album that sounds nothing like what you think a personal album should, could, or would sound like. Rahsaan has made an album that in its nooks and crannies holds something very personal to him, but manages to provide his fans with something else entirely. One can hardly imagine what Rahsaan will come up with next, but then, I said that after After Hours. And Love in Stereo. But that’s the fun of listening to perhaps the greatest contemporary male singer of the decade.
Raekwon did what no other rapper has been able to do – he met and exceeded the expectations of diehard fans. What I like about it is that as much as it flows directly from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, it also flows from the sonic marvel that was 8 Diagrams. Check RZA’s Godfather-sampling Black Mozart or Mathematics’ Mean Streets.
The album loosely tells the story of a crime boss with the kind of detail (“fishscalers, I live in elevators and gross/All this paper, profit maker lay there and post/Wit them Adidas that Bruce wore, stay in a juice bar/All I know if you saw me you thought I was broke/Black yo, I been hustlin’ since niggas was bustin’ guns/And scufflin’, and jumpin’ niggas over some coats” from Black Mozart) that you rarely hear on any hip hop album not made by Slick Rick. And though there are numerous cameos from his Wu brethren, Raekwon’s presence looms large over this album (even more so than he did on the first album). Appropriately so.
Chocolate Factory is the finest album of R. Kelly’s career. It is the album where his talents are in full bloom and his excesses are so minor as to be totallly inconsequential (Ignition is a dope song, but it’s the least of these, folks). There are no less than 6 perfect songs here — Step in the Name of Love, I’ll Never Leave, You Made Me Love You, Forever, You Knock Me Out, Imagine That — that rank up there with the best work that he’s ever done. His vulnerability feels more real and touching that it ever has – check his tortured vocal on You Made Me Love You and the romantic Forever. And his musicality is richer, deeper, and more expansive — check You Knock Me Out, Imagine That, and Step In The Name Of Love.
Before and after this album, R. Kelly frequently comes across like a self-indulgent cartoon. And though the R. Kelly and R. albums had flashes of brilliance and his writing for other artists (his duets with Mary J. Blige on It’s On and Sparkle on Be Careful, Toni Braxton’s I Don’t Want To, and his contribution to Q’s Jook Joint, Heaven’s Girl, in particular) often exceeded his own work, Chocolate Factory still feels like the album R. Kelly fans always wanted to get from him, the album that we knew he had in him. And it is.
Conflict is Sy Smith’s coming out party. It’s the album that announces that Sy is a stylistic chameleon, she’s comfortable being a stylistic chameleon, and dammit, you are gonna love her as a stylistic chameleon.
And by freeing herself from whatever it was that she felt might have been holding her back, she’s made the album of her career. The spacey title track gives way to the summery R&B of Fly Away With Me, and a few tracks later its dance track Spies and finally, Star, the album’s brilliant closer. Where Conflict is very direct in its y’all-are-gonna-get-alotta-shit-on-this-album-ness, Star is a haunting blues song that is much longer on metaphor (“hearts make useless souvenirs”). On it, Sy exorcises her need for approval, destroying that desire to be adored that keeps her tethered down. It’s one of the finest songs of the decade and probably one of the greatest songs about celebrity and fame that I’ve ever heard. And it is perfectly encapsulates all that Sy Smith is on Conflict.
Smoke’s solo debut is still his strongest record, a 29-track opus with full songs, beautiful, haunting interludes, and meditations that is as expansive as it is tight. The songcraft here is probably among the best on this list. Listen to We Can Call It Off, driven by a simple chord progression and a soulful melody. Or listen to the harmonies on the acappella Fake Roses, or the way Thru It All is basically finger snaps and a beautiful vocal arrangement, or take the percussive keyboard arrangement on Get Away.
There is just so much to savor here, and I haven’t even touched on the lyricism which is by turns downright sad (Get Away, C U Soon, Poppin Pills), raunchy (Freak Me Part 1, R U Wet, oh, and Freak Me Part 2), and contemplative (Selfish, 2nd Chance).
It’s been said that this was not a great decade for soul and R&B. And that’s true in as much as the industry purged itself of great soul and R&B artists and people had fewer artists to choose from. But the truth is the best of these artists made music on their own terms and sold it themselves. When you get albums like personal, pain & pleasure, you realize that black music unburdened from commercial concerns is often much much better.
Like Dangerously in Love, Confessions is the perfect pop album. It is also the greatest single example of how expressive, versatile, and soulful a vocalist Usher is. People spend way too much time on his dancing and his “is he or isn’t he the next Michael Jackson” ness, and miss how dope a singer he is. Check how he completely unravels on Caught Up, perfectly capturing with his vocal alone just how much ole girl got him hemmed up. It’s a controlled, yet completely unhinged performance and it’s perfectly modulated without sounding at all mannered. Then marvel at that clear-as-a-bell falsetto on Do It To Me or his chest voice in full bloom on Throwback (perhaps the best song on the album) or the way he shows off the full measure of his range on Follow Me.
The man doesn’t sing, so much as breathe life into songs. He’s a soul man masquerading as the best pop star on the globe. And that makes Confessions more than just a pop album. And though ladies hated his ex-wife and, by extension, Here I Stand (which was about his ex-wife), thus putting his commercial dominance in jeopardy, there is still no successor to his crown. No matter what the industry tells you. It is of course fashionable to hate Ursh, and pretend like you don’t love Confessions. But you do. And you should. Confessions was just confirmation that like Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown before him, Usher is peerless.
Jaguar Wright is all soul, no pretense. Which means that she’s the exact wrong kind of soul artist for the new millennium. And she knows this, hence the title – Divorcing Neo to Marry Soul.
Jag excels in the place that so many other soul artists fail – lyricism. She’s direct, funny, smart, emotional, and specific. This is not abstraction, this is heart-on-your-sleeve soul. On Timing: “Life can be so cruel, just like you/cause you would come through and run through me and then leave so easily.” Or take Been Here Before: “sometimes you act like a fool, still I won’t give up on you/even though I know we’ve been here before.”
Or take the 12-minute Do Your Worst, Jag’s solo writing job, on which the entire album rests: “I tried/To be/All that you needed/But the more/I try/I gave up me.” Do Your Worst, like Erykah’s Green Eyes and Joi’s I Love You Forever, Right Now, is a go-for-broke, pick-your-broke-heart-up-off-the-floor soul song that lays. you. out. And unlike those two songs, there is real anger here. But it never obscures just how devastated Jag is or just how gripping her singing truly is.
Divorcing Neo To Marry Soul is, quite simply, one of the greatest overlooked gems of the decade.
I’ve learned in the nearly three years since 8 Diagrams dropped that people have really forgotten what it was like when Wu-Tang first dropped in the early 90s. They were just so different. It wasn’t that they were grimy, necessarily, it was that their griminess was different from any other griminess out at the time. The same is true with 8 Diagrams, with which the RZA and the Wu out-do every other hip-hop artist that attempts to make a “cinematic” album. And strangely (or maybe not), Wu fans became like any other hip hop fans and demanded the same old Wu, in this case, forgetting why they loved Wu in the first place.
8 Diagrams is The Wu at its finest, dropping quotable lyrics and playing off each other over beats that few other could make such witty use of. And though it is not like previous Wu albums, it is perhaps their finest for just that reason. Everyone is dope here (particularly Method Man, Inspectah Deck, and, interestingly, Masta Killa). But it’s RZA’s production with its gorgeous orchestration that truly grabs you. It’s as accomplished and revelatory as his production on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), but almost exactly opposite – a polished symphony.
- Tim’m West, Songs from Red Dirt
- Last Offence, Run A Lap
- Yahzarah, Blackstar
- Scarface, The Fix
- Chico DeBarge, Addiction
- Q-Tip, The Renaissance
- Mint Condition, Livin’ The Luxury Brown
- Pharoahe Monche, Desire
- Amel Larrieux, Bravebird
- Keyshia Cole, The Way I Am
- Donnie, The Colored Section
- Common, Be
- The Roots, Game Theory
- Raphael Saadiq, Instant Vintage
- Truth Hurts, Truthfully Speaking
- Maxwell, BLACKsummers’night
- Black Milk, Tronic
- SugaRushBeat Company, SugaRushBeat Company
- Solange, Sol-Angel & The Hadley St. Dreams