I don’t know that I can sum up the 2010s for me with respect to this list other than to say this list is very much my own. It’s totally reflective of what moves me as a lover of Black music, as a 40-year old Black SGL man, and as someone who has always preferred been moved most by albums that make a complete statement. As a bit of a snob.
20. Trey Songz – Passion, Pain & Pleasure (2010)
Trey Songz is both the most creatively interesting Black male R&B singer of his generation and the most frustratingly inconsistent. Passion, Pain & Pleasure then is his finest, most complete, work to date. Coming after his commercial breakthrough, Ready, Trey had something to prove with his fourth album. And he proved it with an album that expands, complicates, and deepens what a Trey Songz album is supposed to be. The songs here are sturdier, more vulnerable, and masterfully arranged around the limitations of his uniquely compelling voice. That he hasn’t matched the album’s greatness is unfortunate, but nothing can diminish what he’s accomplished here. It remains the best male R&B album of his generation.
Read my original review.
19. LastO – Where’s Vivian (2013)
LastO, who retired shortly after this album (his first after two mixtapes) dropped, was far ahead of his time. An emcee who chafed at all the limitations – both self-imposed and external – that being a “gay rapper” meant, LastO’s work completely obliterated so many of assumptions about what gay rap music should sound like. This is neither hardcore street rap, nor something crassly commercial. Where’s Vivian is the perfect distillation of all the things that made LastO the first great gay emcee and a perfect example of what is possible for gay rappers. The album is vulnerable, passionate, pleading, and a little sad. No other gay rapper has made anything nearly as good, before or after.
Read my original review.
18. Bilal – Airtight’s Revenge (2010)
Airtight’s Revenge came nearly a decade after Bilal’s debut. It’s insurgent, passionate, thrilling music that exceeds the work that he did on 1st Born Second. It’s a masterwork of tremendous musicianship, thoughtful lyricism, and stunning vocal production. When it dropped at the start of the decade, it felt as if we were getting a vital piece of a much larger puzzle making up Black music. Bilal’s recorded a few things since, but Airtight’s Revenge looms quite large over his catalog.
Read my original review.
17. Rashad, The Quiet Loud (2015)
2015 was really a turning point for Black music this past decade. After the emergence of Black Lives Matter, Black artists became newly (re-)engaged with more socially substantive concerns. You can hear all of that in Rashad’s sophomore album, The Quiet Loud, which is concerned about equally with affairs of the heart and concerns of the community. The album is at once fresh and a throwback, a balance that Rashad strikes almost effortlessly across the album’s 15 tracks. Sonically it sounds a bit like a cross between Dilla and Teddy Riley. It’s just Rashad, the most refreshingly interesting Black producer to emerge in the 2010s.
16. Mint Condition, 7… (2011)
Mint Condition has been on a roll since Living The Luxury Brown. 7… is their finest work of the decade – and probably my favorite album they’ve ever released. It came 20 years after their debut and represents a perfect distillation of everything that the Mint does well. There’s a beautiful instrumental “Bossalude” in the center, a stunning duet ballad with Kelly Price (“Not My Daddy”), exciting electronic fusions like album standout “Can’t Get Away,” and of course Stokely’s flawless voice pulling it all together. It’s the shortest Mint Condition album to date and in that it feels like the tightest, most confident thing they’ve ever done.
15. Miguel – War & Leisure (2017)
All four of Miguel’s albums are stellar, but it’s War & Leisure where I feel like his talent is in full bloom. He’s in fuller command of his voice; the arrangements display this to great effect throughout. The songcraft is sturdier. And the lyricism feels a lot less self-conscious. You don’t hear the sweat as much. This is a more confident, assured Miguel and it’s glorious. And he’s never done something as purely gorgeous and smooth as “Come Through and Chill” (produced by the peerless Salaam Remi). For that song alone really, this is his finest album and one of the best of the decade.
14. Nakhane – You Will Not Die (2018)
Nakhane is a queer South African singer who feels like a cross between David Bowie and Marvin Gaye. The songs on You Will Not Die sound at once operatic and soulful. The themes here – identity, love, sexuality, religion – are rendered as confession. It’s an album that feels like the album one makes when their very life is on the line. And yet Nakhane isn’t asking for permission. He’s asserting his full humanity. You Will Not Die is a masterwork of unflinching vulnerability and emotional clarity. Nakhane hasn’t broken yet in America, but he’s one of the most exciting artists to emerge this past decade.
13. Kele Okereke – Leave to Remain (2019)
Every single one of Kele’s 6 solo releases came out this past decade. But it’s the one that he released in early 2019 that is his most important. Leave to Remain is an album version of a musical about an interracial gay love affair that he co-wrote and produced in the UK this year. It’s a fusion of African music and the electronic dance music that has driven much of his work outside of Bloc Party. It’s remarkably compelling from the deceptively infectious lead single “Not the Drugs Talking” to the purely danceable (and yet heartbreaking) “The Lies We Tell.” I imagine the music takes on even deeper meaning to those who were able to see the musical (it’s only been staged in the UK). But even without the book this is powerful stuff.
12. Teedra Moses – Royal Patience…A Love Journey (2010)
Teedra Moses released her proper sophomore album, Cognac & Conversation, in 2015. But, for me, it’s a “mixtape” called Royal Patience she released on Valentine’s Day at the top of the decade that feels the most urgent this past decade. I’ve always thought of Teedra’s later “mixtapes” as albums since they are more cohesive than most proper album releases from other artists. That is particularly true of Royal Patience, which is the most complete release in her entire catalog. From the smooth opener “R U 4Real (freestyle)” all the way to the thrilling musicality of album closer “The Last Song (the jam session),” Teedra takes us through the many emotional peaks and valleys of a great love. And she does it with some of the best production and tightest melodies she’s yet given us.
11. Nas and Damian Marley, Distant Relatives (2010)
Nas has quietly become the most fascinating mainstream emcee of his generation. Nearly every release since Stillmatic has been stellar. This past decade, he put out only three releases. And it’s his collaborative album with Damian “Jr Gong” Marley that is his most essential. It’s filled with thoughtful meditations on the shared dreams and traumas of the many people in the African diaspora. And sonically, it feels like a thrilling fusion of Marley’s reggae roots, Nas’ classic NY hip hop production, and a wide array of African rhythms. And, most importantly, it’s not nearly as self-conscious or pretentious as it might seem. There’s a clarity, a humility that is truly awe-inspiring.