And here are the top 10 albums of the decade.
10. The Internet – Hive Mind (2018)
Ego Death was about as dope a leveling up as an artist has done in the past decade. But Hive Mind deepened and strengthened The Internet’s sound into something cleaner, so it feels to me like the slightly stronger album of the two. The fusion of electronic and traditional instruments is so seamless, it’s often hard to tell which is which. Syd’s voice is stronger and the lyrics have a more vulnerable, open quality that is thrilling.
9. (tie) Beyoncé – Lemonade (2016) / Solange – A Seat at the Table (2016)
In many ways, the story of Black music in the 2010s is the story of the slow, wondrous creative maturation of Beyoncé and the rise of Solange as an avant garde dynamo. Certainly 2016 was their year. Lemonade is the fulfillment of the promise we’d seen begin on the messy 4 and Beyoncé. It is the album I’d been waiting for Beyoncé to make since her incredible, but flawed, debut. An album that is a complete listening experience, an artistic statement, and a sonic leap forward. Solange’s A Seat at the Table is the most remarkable protest album of the new millennium. It’s the most inviting and open “fuck you” to whiteness I’ve ever heard. There’s a lightness that is paradoxically hard as a rock. She never sounds angry. Not for one minute. What she is is unbelievably clear about who she is as a black woman. And that’s where the power lies.
8. AZ – Legacy (2019)
AZ is, for me, one of the five best emcees of all time. But, outside of his debut album Do or Die, he’s never been an album artist. So it was an incredibly pleasant surprise when he dropped Legacy, a compilation of old freestyles, leaked songs, and a handful of new joints that is actually one of the best hip-hop albums of the decade. But that’s what actually happens when you focus on greatness, rather than padding out an album as most emcees do. AZ’s laser-focus on Legacy is astonishing. It’s 11 short tracks with stellar production that serves as a reminder that AZ is one of the best to ever do it.
7. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 – Black Times (2018)
It is very difficult to be the child of a visionary artist. Ask Sean Lennon. So it’s particularly wonderful to see Seun Kuti step into his own greatness as the lead singer of his father’s band Egypt 80 with Black Times. Afrobeat has always invited us to consider the wider plight of the diaspora as we dance. Seun is no different as he fills every song with enough space for the grooves to drive you to the dancefloor. But it truly is the lyrics where he shines, updating Afrobeat political concerns to the present. There’s caution to African youth not to fall prey to American culture’s propagandist images of blackness and progress on “African Dreams” and the critique of corporatist greed in “Corporate Public Control Department (C.P.C.D.).” Black Times is a vital addition to the Afrobeat tradition and a triumph for Seun as an artist.
6. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN (2017)
Kendrick is hands down the most important emcee of his generation and he had an absolutely stellar decade, capped magnificently with the release of DAMN in 2017. He stacks his albums with references to his past, his hometown, his relationships. And yet there is an open, contemplative quality to them. It’s like you are literally listening to Kendrick processing how to make sense of his life and our society at that very moment. I find DAMN to be the most accessible, and yet the most dense, writing he’s yet done. That virtuosity here is truly remarkable.
5. Janet Jackson – Unbreakable (2015)
Janet hadn’t released an essential album since Damita Jo. For us lifelong fans, we assumed perhaps she had run out of things to say. So it was a beautiful surprise when she dropped Unbreakable – her finest, most sonically diverse and adventurous album since her creative apex, The Velvet Rope. Here we have Janet concerned again about the world (“Black Eagle” and “Gon’ B Alright”) and processing the death of her brother Michael (“Broken Hearts Heal) in glorious fashion. Unbreakable reminded us that the greatest pop album artist of her generation still had a lot left in her to give us.
4. Joi – S.I.R. Rebekkah HolyLove (2018)
We waited over a decade for S.I.R. Rebekkah HolyLove and it was worth the wait. Joi has long been ahead of her time as a visionary, self-possessed Black woman artist. And she outdid herself again with an album that serves up another helping of her patented funk/soul anthems. Joi is one of the most beautiful lyricists of her generation. She’s one of the most confident artists we have, but she suffuses her music with a profound vulnerability that makes her totally relatable. Only Joi would lament being single while never forgetting that she is a Queen (“Kingless Queen”) or would write a tearful (yes – it sounds like a good cry) contemplation of murdering an abusive boyfriend (album standout, “It Is Best”). Joi is a Black music treasure, an icon, and she turned out one of the finest albums of the decade.
3. Raphael Saadiq – Jimmy Lee (2019)
Raphael Saadiq has spent the better part of the last two decades as one of our greatest musician/producers, working with everyone from icons like D’Angelo and Mary J. Blige to funk queen Joi, soul siren Jaguar Wright and the ever-evolving Solange. So it was a pleasant surprise when he dropped Jimmy Lee last year. A concept album that grapples with the myriad ways drug addiction affects families and the world, Jimmy Lee is the greatest album he’s ever recorded as a solo artist. Ray Ray has never been this focused, passionate, and clear-eyed as an artist before. But what’s particularly striking is that even with songs like “This World is Drunk” and “Rikers Island,” the album is more resolute and contemplative than a downer.
2. Rahsaan Patterson – Bleuphoria (2011)
Wines & Spirits, Rahsaan’s 2007 masterpiece, is known for its sharp turns and its sonic ambition. His follow-up, Bleuphoria, is his first album where he handles most of the production duties himself. And the results are glorious. It’s his first album to really flirt with the vocal processing that you hear nearly everywhere else. But Rah uses it to accentuate what he’s already doing as an artist. Take “God” where the vocal production achieves an otherworldly quality the song demands or “Insomnia” where the entire song is meant to sound a bit disorienting like a dream. But when his voice is unadorned as it is on “Miss You” and “Goodbye”, there are few other Black male singers who can knock you out with the sheer beauty and emotional depth of their voice. With Bleuphoria, Rahsaan confirms his status as the finest Black male artist of his generation.
1. D’Angelo – Black Messiah (2014)
Black Messiah benefits from a double emotional throughline – one, his struggles with addiction; the other, Black politics – that provides a steely spine to the album. D clearly had some things to get off his chest. He does so (and nothing more). It’s tight and focused. Sonically, D’s funkier with the music and smoother with the vocal arrangements in ways that insinuate themselves into your consciousness. There’s no knockout single like “Untitled” or “Cruisin.” D is much more interested in constructing an album statement where all the pieces fit together into a cohesive whole. Black Messiah was the first prominent album of the decade to grapple with what’s going on in Black communities. And it is the best album of the decade and the culmination of the great promise D’Angelo merely hinted at before.