I'm an album guy.
I never really bought singles unless there was a B-side or a remix that was dope. And while I'm aware now that Michael Jackson's single + filler archetype is the dominant approach to album making for most black music, I still hold out hope that artists will give me 10, 12 or 14 songs that fit together in a way that makes for a complete listening experience.
In 2011, that happened far more infrequently for me than I would have liked. Last year, I did a list of 30. This year, I only got 10.
NOTE: I should also say that I haven't really had time to digest new material by Anthony Hamilton, Common, Meshell N'degeocello, Trey Songz, and The Roots (tho my initial reaction here was that it's the best album of the year) so I just couldn't justify ranking them at all.
Before we get to the top 10 after the jump, here are albums I liked, but didn't love:
- Anwar Robinson, Everything (pleasant, but unremarkable except for "Come Over," which is sublime)
- Johnny Gill, Still Winning (pleasant but unremarkable)
- Idle Warship, Habits of the Heart (feels undercooked in places)
- Frank Ocean, nostalgia/ultra (definitely feels undercooked)
- The Paxtons, Avenue: A (a shade too in love with Kanye and Jay Electronica, but tight rhymes)
- Cali Swag District, Kickback (far too long, far too short on the verve that makes their singles so hot)
And albums that disappointed me:
- Ledisi, Pieces of Me (too adult contemporary for my tastes. much of this material is just not worthy of Ledisi's voice)
- Jill Scott, The Light of the Sun (unfinished and undisciplined is the last thing Jill Scott needs. Tried to be like Worldwide Underground and failed miserably).
- Beyonce, 4 (didn't go far enough toward real tried-and-true R&B or soul. full of messy lead vocals)
- Kelly Rowland, Here I Am (the definition of derivative. three strikes and you're out, Kelly!)
- Kelly Price, Kelly (zzzzzz)
- Tyrese, Open Invitation ("Stay" should have been an indication of what this album would be, but unfortunately it's just a weird outlier on a standard bad male R&B album)
- Ginuwine, Elgin (why Ginuwine thinks "maturity" equals "boring" is beyond me. someone get him his groove back, please.)
- Pharoahe Monche, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) (some mediocre production ruins this one for me)
- Talib Kweli, Gutter Rainbows (too long, too much bad production. feels like an afterthought)
- Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin' (i am over this retro Ray Ray. time to step into the new millennium, homie)
Van Hunt continues to blossom into a full-fledged rock star on What Were You Hoping For? It's an album that eschews hooks for rollicking, distorted guitar riffs. Van seems fascinated by social decay as songs like the title track, "North Hollywood", and "Designer Jeans" feel the most fully realized. And even though he is light years away from the Van Hunt on his debut, there is some beautiful rock balladry here for folks lost in all the funk.
It took me a minute to get around to listening to Big K.R.I.T. I've been so underwhelmed by millennial hip-hop that I just kept ignoring everyone who said he was dope. In my defense, most people are wrong about Drake, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar, so I felt pretty confident that they were wrong about K.R.I.T. too. Not so. K.R.I.T. is really good. It is clear he's been paying attention to Organized Noize, because Return of 4Eva sounds like something Goodie Mob would have made in its heyday. Like most black albums (esp. hip-hop), it's far far too long, but I am officially a fan.
I love that most songs on Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang are about 2 and a half minutes long because really you don't always need 3 verses and a hook. I love the way its sequenced so well that it goes down lovely (though I skip "Rock 'N' Roll"). I love that Raekwon continues to be the Wu-Tang member so confident in his ability to anchor and drive his work that he'll let his featured guests outshine him on a track or two (that Deck verse on "Chop Chop Ninja" is just…). And I love that Raekwon proves with each release that the Wu never gets old.
In a way, Cookies or Comas is a bigger coming out party than The Bootleg of the Bootleg EP in that the sheer force of Jean's personality is front and center in a way it wasn't before. Cookies feels like the first time we really get to appreciate how funny Jean really is. It's always been there, but this album just seems wittier ("I Rock On"), lighter ("You Don't Like It"), and more confident ("Jeanie Rules") than Jean's work in the past.
Where It All Begins is by far the most varied, textured album that Lalah Hathaway has released. It is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Every time you listen to the album, you notice something new. She seems to blossom as the album plays on and she tackles various moods, styles, and ideas. The Dre and Vidal productions, "Strong Woman" and "Lie To Me," the country of "Wrong Way," and the synth of "If You Want To" are strikingly assured, but it's her cover of her father's "You Were Meant For Me" and "Small of My Back" that really soar.
Tamar Davis' album reminds me of Sy Smith, Teedra Moses, and a lot of what Nicole Wray has been doing during the last decade. It updates 80s black synth pop with real flourish. Tamar isn't all show though, "Love Speaks" and "All By Myself" are beautifully, haunting ballads on which she emotes incredibly well. But get into "Heartbeat," "Red Carpet," and "Slow Down" if you want to see Tamar at the peak of her full powers.
Let's get this out of the way: The Breakthrough was My Life 2. It was the album statement that best showed us how far Mary has come since What's the 411? and My Life. This of course doesn't mean that the actual My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1) isn't a good album. It is a very good album (though about 4 songs too long). It's just misnamed. But it's her most consistently enjoyable album in years with a few outstanding moments ("Feel Inside," "Why," "Don't Mind," and "Empty Prayers").
At this point, Teedra always makes my year-end reviews. Her work is so complete, so detailed, so moving. I never feel like I'm getting filler, even though everything she's released since Complex Simplicity are random songs put together onto mixtapes. Luxurious Underground is chock full of great ideas. Check the funk of "Another Lovr" or the 80s synth that she always does so well on "Invitation" or the hip-hop soul of "Special' and "Falling 4 U." There's nothing Teedra can't do. If you are checking for any other chicks right now, you are making a mistake. Teedra is the finest black woman artist to emerge in the new millennium.
7… got me through most of 2011. It came out so early when there was nothing to listen to really that I practically played it out. It features one of the best opening tracks in recent memory ("Can't Get Away"), a stunning funk closer ("Twenty Years Later"), and manages to be consistently dope the whole way through. There are moments like "Caught My Eye" and "Unsung" that recall earlier Mint joints without seeming like retreads. But at this point, if you are buying Mint Condition albums, you're buying them for the funk because that's where these brothas are living. One quibble: "Whatcha Want" should have been on the official tracklisting.
When I think of art, I think of Rahsaan Patterson. Every album he releases puts you right there where he is at the time he made it. There is no excess, no pretense, no bullshit. Bleuphoria continues Rahsaan's experimentation with songs that take sharp left turns much the way Wines and Spirits did, but this is a lighter, tighter, more uplifting album than that one was. Bleuphoria is a love letter to a great lost love. Songs here are quite sad, but mostly what you're left with is the way that love felt, not its loss. I am endlessly fascinated with the fact that there is, for me, no more thrilling, confounding, maddeningly creative, achingly vulnerable black male artist working right now than Rahsaan Patterson. And he's done it again.