20 Best Black Music Albums of the Decade (10-1)

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. 

MORE:
20 Best Black Music Albums of the Decade (20-11)

20 Best Black Music Albums of the Decade (20-11)

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.

Enjoy

A closeup of Trey's face with raindrops in the foreground

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.

where's vivian cover photo

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.

MORE:
20 Best Black Music Albums of the Decade (10-1)

With ‘The Blacker The Berry,’ Kendrick Lamar Issues a Challenge to Black America

I wonder if people’s reaction to “The Blacker The Berry” will change once the song’s meaning sinks in.

Because Kendrick Lamar hasn’t created an anthem, at least not a traditional one. He isn’t merely reflecting the moment or the burgeoning #blacklivesmatter movement. He’s asking questions that lie at the root of Blackness in the United States. Questions we often ignore, find too painful, or don’t quite know how to address.

The ways white supremacy gets in our head…

Church me with your fake prophesyzing that I’mma be another slave in my head

…The war between self-determination and self-hatred that every single Black person in America faces…

You fuckin’ evil, I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.

You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me

…So that when you get to that final verse, you realize that the song is not merely a war cry. It’s actually a direct challenge to all of us – those who are becoming radicalized in the wake of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown and those of us who think we’re already radicals – to understand the ways in which our efforts to fight racism are incomplete.

So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?

That last couplet lands hard because of everything that comes before it. We don’t respond to it as “blame the victim” because the song so effectively explores the ways in which we’ve internalized oppression, which in turn compromises any effort to address white supremacy despite our best efforts. As a result, Kendrick reminds us that before we can truly be free, we must divest of the ways we – daily – hate ourselves.

In this way, “The Blacker The Berry” takes “Self-Destruction” one step further to the root of where that self-destruction comes from. It’s an empathetic challenge to do very difficult work where the earlier song was merely a lecture, if a beautiful one.

On the Devolution of Music Journalism

This piece on the devolution of music journalism by Ted Gioia on The Daily Beast is really great. And I think it’s right.

But the lede…

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients. Or an expert on cars who refuses to look under the hood of an automobile.

These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music.  Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

…actually raises two issues that the piece doesn’t really consider: 1) the audience for music and 2) the fact that music journalism has always been largely a niche endeavor.

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My 13 Favorite Pop Culture Moments of 2013

I don’t have a long preamble for this. This list is just my way of trying to pull together a lot of disparate pop culture moments that struck me in some profound way during the year. I think the more you engage with pop culture the more it can feel like you’re always having the same conversations, with the same people, in the same way. So when something disrupts that monotony, frustrates the dominant ways we think and talk about our relationship to one another, I think it’s important.

Here are the 13 moments this year that made me sit up and look at the world just a little bit differently.

 

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