Six best albums of the year, after the jump.
R. Kelly set out to re-seduce us all after a tumultuous (to say the very very least) first decade of the 21st century. And he largely succeeded with his most restrained album to date. In a way, Love Letter is the true follow up to 2003's brilliant Chocolate Factory because it takes that album's deep humanity to its logical conclusion: love. It is a deeply heartfelt and masterfully written and produced album of tremendous subtlety. And right at the center is R. Kelly singing his damn heart out for love.
It is not surprising to me that a conceptual album about connections and struggles across the African diaspora was met with an "oh that's nice." What is surprising to me is that the album is nowhere near as didactic as the words "connections and struggles across the African diaspora" intimates. And that is the real triumph. This is an album that celebrates the essential humanity and beauty of African descended people. And it is fun to listen to because both men recognize that to celebrate and explore that humanity is a joy. Give this one a listen.
For all the attention that "Fuck You" and The Lady Killer got this year – and largely, that is well-deserved – Cee-Lo's genius was on greater display on the Stray Bullets mixtape that preceded Killer this year. It is marvelously deranged (have you heard "I'll Kill Her"? You should.) The Lady Killer is the lesser of the two albums, but what that really means (particularly when you listen to both of them back-to-back) is Cee-Lo has a very clear sense of what he wants to do and what he knows he can get away with. That tension, embodied in these two brilliant works, is fascinating to hear.
Like Raekwon did last year, Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek (otherwise known as Reflection Eternal) came back after 10 years and exceeded every expectation that their fans had for their sophomore album. That is really hard to do, particularly with rap artists whose fans tend to lionize them to such a degree that disappointment is inevitable. So you have to take notice when emcees can give you exactly what you wanted, but in none of the ways you expected. Revolutions Per Minute is not Train of Thought and that's a very good thing. I've had it on repeat for months (so much so I haven't even had a chance to listen to the song commentaries that came with the deluxe Itunes edition.) and what I most marvel at is how effortless it sounds. There is no sweat here. Interestingly – I went back and forth about whether or not this was the best hip-hop album of the year, but ultimately I realized that…
…in a just world, Big Boi's debut solo joint would be heralded as the best hip-hop album of the year. Because it is. It expands on all the elements that have made Big Boi great, particularly since he started to emerge as a force on Stankonia. But OutKast had it's "moment" when Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dominated conversation, awards, and year-end lists in 2003. And he's not Andre 3000, so people have been socialized to think that he's not that interesting. But listen to "Tangerine," "Daddy Fat Sax," first single "Shutterbug" or, shit, even the strange-as-hell "Hustle Blood" and there is no way to deny that Big Boi is downright compelling.
This was expected, right? I've written a lot this year about Bilal's flawless return to recording. And so at the risk of repeating myself let me say that this is the work of an artist at the peak of his full powers. There were a lot of "unconventional" artists this year and a lot of ordinary artists who wrapped themselves in an "unconventional" aesthetic, but what Bilal is doing on Airtight's Revenge is deeper than that. Some muse took hold of him and gave us this album. Very few artists make albums anymore, a collection of songs that give you a definitive statement of something important to that artist. Airtight's Revenge is a big fuck-you to the industry for not trusting his genius. And it's a glorious statement of just how wrong the industry was.
I did a better job explaining the album's greatness here.
So I've decided that I'll do a wrap-up post sometime this weekend to give a few other thoughts and show a lil love to albums that I either missed (and, by that, I mean picked up late) or albums that came out so late I didn't have time to fully digest them). Come on back then.