Most people who read me or know me know that I was pretty underwhelmed by most black music released this year. I do think this was a stronger year for individual songs than it was for albums, but even so I could literally only come up with 10 songs that I really love, that I played a lot, that I repped for hard this year.
Before we get to those though, here are a few runners-up. These are songs I like, that are good in their own way, but didn't quite bowl me over the way the top 10 did for one reason or another.
- Anwar Robinson, “Come Over”
- EPMD, “Don’t Get Clapped”
- Frank Ocean, “Back”
- Ginuwine, “Frozen”
- JLS, “Shy of the Cool”
- Johnny Gill, “In the Mood”
- LastO ft. Stern Savage ,“The City”
- Van Hunt ,“What Were You Hoping For”
- Teedra Moses, “To Hell Wit It’
- Nas, "Nasty"
- Mobb Deep ft. Nas, "Dog Shit"
- Jazmine Sullivan, “Fly & Sexy”
- Lalah Hathaway, “Small of My Back”
- Common ft. Nas, "Ghetto Dreams"
After the jump, get into the 10 songs that I adored this year.
10. Cali Swag District, "Kickback"
"Kickback" is fun in a way party hip-hop hasn’t been since the heyday of Naughty By Nature. Cali Swag District are the rare party rappers who make music that genuinely evokes adolescent fun. It’s not ironic. It's not excessive to the point of parody. It’s simpler, more honest than that (sample lyric: "women pay less, make you haters pay more"). And it's a shame it wasn't as big as "Teach Me How To Dougie."
9. Beyonce, "Lay Up Under Me"
Beyonce is an artist defined almost solely by her effort. She's the "hardest working woman in show business." She is "driven." She is "more professional than any other young woman." 4 showed us that that effort has seeped into her work to such a degree that she has lost the ability to let a song truly breathe. As such, the best songs on 4 work in spite of lead vocals that scream "I CAN SING Y'ALL! CAN'T YOU TELL?" And nothing is better on the album for me than "Lay Up Under Me," which foolishly didn’t make the official tracklisting. She oversings quite a bit, but her phrasing is flawless (particularly on the verses). I think "Love on Top" and "Rather Die Young" are better overall songs, but Beyonce conveys the love she feels for Jay-Z much more convincingly here than on any other song.
8. Kelly Rowland ft. Lil Wayne, "Motivation"
"Motivation" is, by far, the finest black pop song of 2011. I like it because it's the first song since "Beyond Imagination" to really make use of how expressive Kelly Rowland is capable of being. The song is a frivolous little trifle, but it's expertly sung. There's a delicacy to her phrasing here that is really really astonishingly beautiful. Check how she sings "i don't wanna feel my…legs." Kelly makes the song truly sensual, when it could have just been crass. That's not as easy as it sounds.
7. THEY, "Fatback"
So much millennial black synth pop coasts by on ambiance. On the feel that the production intimates, lyrics and melody be damned. Kevin Michael's (aborted?) group THEY captures that effervescence of great 80s black synth pop by remembering that the singing and the melody matter even if what you are responding to first is the production. "Fatback" sounds like something The Deele would have made if they had had a touch more Rick James in them.
6. Mint Condition, "Can't Get Away"
Mint Condition has been getting better and better ever since going indie with 2005's Living The Luxury Brown. It's gotta feel strange to be known for ballads when what you really excel at is straight up and down funk. So I appreciate that the band keeps getting funkier and funkier with each release since Brown. And that's what you get with "Can't Get Away," probably their single greatest song in half a decade. The combination of the distortion and the melody balances out the funk with a real palpable sense of fatigue. And O'Dell is a beast on that guitar solo.
5. Mary J. Blige ft. Nas, "Feel Inside"
"Feel Inside" is vintage Mary hip-hop soul. No one figures out a way to put a gut-wrenching soul anthem over a hip-hop beat and keeps the emotion front and center the way that Mary J. Blige does. I mean, you can't really go wrong with the "Triumph" beat, right? But it's the melody, the hook, the way she sings the words "feel inside" that literally knocks you flat on your ass. If this isn't a single…
4. Talib Kweli ft. Jean Grae, "Uh Oh"
I have always preferred hip-hop that is just emcees just flowin' lovely over a dope beat. The great thing about hip-hop is that it doesn't have to be in a conventional song format. It doesn't always need a hook. "Uh Oh" sorta has one, but the song is really just about Jean and Talib being dope on the mic. Nothing more, nothing less. I miss that in hip-hop, so this song was easily my favorite hip-hop song of the year.
3. Trey Songz, "Spray"
Trey Songz is at his finest when he's unconventionally soulful. "Spray" is disgusting, but it's also got a killer melody, great production courtesy of the brilliant Salaam Remi, subtly evocative backgrounds on the bridge, and one of the finest lead vocals Trey has yet done. I get why it didn't make his album last year, but it's a shame because it's just one more example of why Trey Songz – sales be damned – is the finest black male pop star since Usher.
2. Rahsaan Patterson, "Insomnia"
"Miss You" breaks your heart. "Mountain Top" is euphoric. "Ghost" is pure funk. But, for me, "Insomnia" is the best song on Rahsaan's latest nearly flawless album, Bleuphoria. Alternately contemplative and joyous, it conveys something true – and simple – about an artist's creative process. It's a conversation with the muse that invites you to listen in.
1. Tyrese, "Stay"
Tyrese is an amazingly adept singer when he wants to be. And with "Stay" he proves that with the right material, he's pretty much peerless. It's a throwback 70s soul joint that puts his flawless tone and great phrasing at the center. I love the mix of the backgrounds, how they are a little off. I love the fingersnaps. I love how Tyrese never tips over too far into begging. There’s dignity here and genuine love. Bravo.