Here we go…
Sadly, Rah Digga's triumphant return to rhyming got very little attention this year. It's a shame because Rah Digga is, as she says on the album, "straight spittin." This is a lean, focused album produced entirely by Nottz directed almost exclusively at Rah Digga's fanbase. She's not tryna blow up big or prove she can run with the young artists. This is the work of a veteran totally comfortable in her greatness just doing what she loves for love of it and for whoever might love it too. As greats age, a lot of attention is being paid to "middle-aged hip hop." Well, we should be talking about Classic as an album that could be a template for how to age gracefully in the game. Pure emceeing over great beats that make you nod your head. Rah Digga makes you remember that this is actually all you need.
Jazmine Sullivan has a big bluesy voice that she frequently deploys in bombastic ways that convey tremendous anger, sadness or exasperation. On Love Me Back, she wisely chooses to show that she's capable of much much more. So she beguiles on "Don't Make Me Wait," duets with Ne-Yo on "You Get On My Damn Nerves), and raps on "Redemption." And, of course, doing so only makes you appreciate what she achieves when she plays fed up on the Salaam Remi-produced "10 Seconds" – the best song on the album – and breaks your heart on "Good Enough." Jazmine Sullivan confirms with Love Me Back that she is one of the few female singers of her generation that knows exactly what she's doing…
…which is in stark contrast to a singer like Chrisette Michele. She's a vocal stylist who was signed at the exact time that such a thing is totally unmarketable. So her label tampered with her image and albums trying to figure out how to sell her to people who likely will never appreciate her greatness and frustrating those people who felt that she wasn't being allowed to fulfill her potential. Which brings me to the provocatively titled Let Freedom Reign, which features songs all written or co-written by Michele for the first time since her debut. Clearly, then this album is about, on some level, becoming exactly the artist that Michele wants to be – a torch song loving chanteuse who sometimes makes intriguing forays into hip-hop soul. "Goodbye Game" and "I Don't Know Why, But I Do" are brilliant, destined-to-be standards and the charms of "So In Love," "I'm Your Life," and "I'm A Star" hit you after a few listens. It's perhaps a song or two too long, but give in to Michele. She really is a star and this album gets her a little closer to that definitive album statement that we all know she has in her.
Novel has been toiling away as a singer/emcee for over a decade. And even though that is not so rare a thing anymore, Novel remains an unsigned gem. And rather than uses his dual status as a gimmick, Novel genuinely seems to understand when an idea is best conveyed in song and when it might be better served by a few tight verses. He is truly the rare artist who excels at both. Legato Blues Summer is his latest free mixtape – he released a collabo mixtape with Joell Ortiz this year too – and it's chock full of great rhymes and terrific melodies about life, love, women, and vulnerability.
Brandon Hines has been around for a few years, but In Search Of… is the first album where you think that he could break into the mainstream. And it isn't because he's latched onto a new trend convincingly or because there is a monster single on the album. Nope, it is because though it is fairly standard R&B, the album feels truly complete and fully realized – which is not something that we are getting from young male R&B new jacks right now. In Search Of… is about something basic – longing, desire, looking for love – but Hines' wonderfully expressive voice, particularly on "Screaming Out" and "Bye Bye Bye", makes the album something special.
At this point in his career, Calvin Richardson has boiled his sound down to the essence. His is a no-frills southern-fried soul that is comforting in its simplicity and straight-forwardness. "You're So Amazing" is powerful, but it's really on "Come Over" and "Feels Like We're Sexin" where Richardson's greatness is in full bloom. He's been a fairly chaste lover in the past, so it is nice to see him get a lil nasty on this album. Ultimately, America's Most Wanted is Richardson's most consistent recording to date.
My full review over at Popmatters.