This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. Links have been updated.
I really really thought this was gonna be a bad year for music.
And in many ways it was. Black music is moving farther and farther into the mainstream and its relevance rapidly becoming inversely proportionate to how many black people are actually having anything financially and/or creatively to do with it. Basically the bigger it gets, the less and less it resembles what was originally so appropriate-able in the first place.
And interestingly, the more and more black music moves into the mainstream the more and more the music itself gives stupid liberals comfort in essentialist ideas about black people (as the music itself seems to be, overall, stagnating in tired cliché) and everyone else fuel for conservative, blame-the-victim-because-changing-the-society-that-created-him-is-SO-much-harder-to-do moralizing.
And the first six months of the year did nothing to thwart most of what allows this kind of “settling-in” to take place. We just kept making sh*tty music, from 50 Cent to drivel like the endless B2K singles.
50 Cent dominated with his own brand of exploit-the-victim-because-changing-the-society-that-created-him-is-SO-much-harder-to-do so-called gangsta rap. That people take this fool seriously isn’t so much a surprise as it is a head grabbing, groan inducing, “Of COURSE they do” kind of reaction.
I have decided not to do a movie write-up this year as I’ve seen so few films this year. The music realm seemed more like the film world this year, ironically enough. It seemed I couldn’t keep up with the plethora of great music being released after September. Everyone from Alicia Keys to Gerald Levert was releasing some of their best work ever.
My list is more or less the same format as always, but hopefully y’all will see some things you haven’t copped yet. I seem to always be in the minority with these things, but that’s the fun. Were I a less secure person, I would begin to think I have sh*tty taste. You decide, I’ve saved the top 10 for last.
BEST SINGLE OF THE YEAR–Beyoncé Knowles & Jay-Z, Crazy In Love
B’s song wins out over the much catchier, but now maddeningly annoying Lumidee song, Never Leave You. Frankly as far as singles go, they were the best in terms of sheer ingenuity of production. Neither vocalist is of any consequence, but B wins out because she’s turned into a fantastic performer and she’s never lacked for spunk and personality. Plus Jigga sounds positively inspired. Love is a many splendored thing, huh?
2. Lumidee, Never Leave You
3. Talib Kweli, Get By
4. Big Boi, The Way You Movie
5. Dre, Hey Ya
BEST NON-SINGLE SONG OF THE YEAR–Beyoncé, Speechless
Beyoncé knocked it out of the park on this track from her stellar debut album. Speechless is an incredible ode to being turned out. It might seem crass, but Beyoncé proved with this song that she’s getting it in just the way that she should be. It’s the most revealing moment for an artist this year. Beyoncé drops all the pretense that she’s been groomed to offer the public and gives us a six minute glimpse into her bedroom. Bravo, ma!
2. (tie) 702–Places and Alicia Keys, Karma
3. R. Kelly–You Knock Me Out
4. Anthony Hamilton–Cornbread, Fish And Collard Greens
5. Madonna–Easy Ride
WORST SINGLE OF THE YEAR-Christina Aguilera f/Lil Kim, Can’t Hold Us Down
The problem with Christina Aguilera has almost nothing to do with Christina Aguilera. It’s the foolish critics who think just because she hits the notes (actually an astute listener can tell she’s glidin’ in and around them, but does it matter?) and is loud, doesn’t mean she can sing. Technical singing is fine and all, but it has no place in contemporary music if you can’t use it.
This song is trite and unconvincing because well, who the f*ck is trying to hold her down? The critical lambasting she got with the release of Stripped was designed to keep her name in the papers. No one actually believes any of the isht she professes on this album and in countless interviews. It’s sloppily thrown together, the vocals are convoluted and muddy. And Kim has become so much of a self-parody her presence on a song does neither harm nor good.
2. Black Eyed Peas, Where Is The Love
3. Justin Timberlake, Rock Your Body
4. Mya, My Love Is Like…Whoa!
5. Anything by 50 Cent.
MOST PROMISING NEWCOMER-Latif, Love In The First
Latif got lost in the shuffle this year. He’s a victim a classic paradox in music…the talented young artist meant for mass consumption, but too complex for the kiddies. Much of his album is the kind of fun, yet mindlessly well-crafted stuff that you would expect from a 19 year old R&B; artist. But when left to his own devices (most notably on Heavenly, Rain Will Go Away, and the title track) he displays a sharpness of phrasing, a keen eye for melody, and surprisingly thoughtful lyricism. This is not an album that y’all should continue to pass up.
WORST ALBUM–Female R&B; (Mary J. Blige–Love And Life, Monica–After The Storm, Ashanti–Chapter II, Mya–Moodring)
The problem with female R&B; was not so much a matter of craftsmanship as it bad input. Mary had Puffy and her new husband to give her the worst album of her career, sounding rushed and maudlin at exactly the same time. Ashanti has no one to blame but herself since she writes (no, seriously) her own stuff, but being on Murder…excuse me..The Inc doesn’t help. Mya is inconsequential because she as bad a singer as has ever been. She also suffers from lack of personality, as does Monica who manages to continue to squander one of the greatest voices on the planet. On paper a Missy Elliott produced album probably did sound good, but since she didn’t write any of the songs with Timbaland, Missy’s joints were all over the place. Monica and Mary will recover from these disasters, to their credit, they always sound great.
MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF THE YEAR–Keith Murray, He’s Keith Murray
Back in the early 90’s, in New York City, there were three underground cats that were makin noise all over the 5 boroughs. Notorious BIG, Nas and Keith Murray. Everywhere you went, brothas and sistahs were talking bout this lil’ brotha who made up words and was ill on the mic.
Nas was the best, no question, but Keith Murray was always my favorite. Despite the brilliance of his first three albums, especially It’s A Beautiful Thing and Enigma, Keith never took over the mainstream in the way he was supposed to. He was grimy, but not the most personable of artists, funny but few kiddies would get the jokes, and intelligent in a way no one else is except Canibus…the allusions and metaphors Keith bring to his music were just too much for the mainstream of the mid 90’s. Plus, he got locked up.
When Keith was released from prison, real heads was goin crazy. He got lots of press, because everyone with taste knows that Keith Murray is one of the best out there.
But then He’s Keith Murray dropped and I’m here to tell all y’all that this is a sad sad album. The fire seems to be missing outside of the first two or three tracks. I blame it on Erick Sermon for not producing more, Keith is on top of his game on the Sermon produced tracks, but flounders otherwise. His heart ain’t in it. But Keith is my man so you know I’m coppin his new joint when it drops. Regardless.
2. Chico Debarge, Free
3. Jonny Lang, Long Time Coming
4. Mary J Blige, Love & Life
5. Monica, After The Storm
MOST SLEPT-ON ALBUM OF THE YEAR–Kindred The Family Soul, Surrender To Love
Kindred did that rare thing in so-called “neo-soul”–they had fun. They managed to make a great album instead of making a flawed album that gets the “they have potential..a few albums from now, they’ll be great” response a la every other “neo-soul” artist save Erykah Badu. This is a joyous album. It’s free of the pretension of nearly every other “neo-soul” in recent memory. This husband/wife duo manages to fuse the life feel of gospel praise and with real passion and weight. The most pleasant surprise given the spotty releases of all them “neo-soul” artists from Philly.
2. Latif, Love In The First
3. Dwele, Subject
4. 702, Star
5. Madonna, American Life
BEST HOLDOVER FROM LAST YEAR–Tank One Man
Tank is such a mess of contradictions. Probably the most photo/telegenic of R&B; crooners, it is odd that he isn’t plastered all over the place in hopes of making little girls and grown-a** women wet. And his music is so sexually ardent, it would seem that he’d market himself more. But sadly, I think that his record label, one that did a great job handling Aaliyah, has no idea what to do with the guy. His music is far to melodic and not “catchy” enough to really compete for the mindless drones. One Man is ballad heavy too. But regardless, after a full year, it still gets madd spins from me. The bounce of Club to the thrillingly understated So Many Times, Tank is redefining what it means to make “baby-makin'” music…and y’all are missin’ it.
2. Vivian Green, A Love Story
3. Meshell Ndegeocello, Cookie, The Anthropological Mixtape
4. Talib Kweli, Quality
5. Brandy, Full Moon
MOST OVERRATED–John Mayer
He’s rather pompous, but that is more amusing that anything. Actually, the only thing I don’t like about John Mayer is that his music is frightfully boring. It’s melodic, and thoughtful, and all the things music should be…except exciting and thought-provoking. But perhaps he’ll develop into someone with personality, who knows? Who cares?
2. Justin Timberlake
3. Christina Aguilera
4. Jason Mraz
5. dead prez
702 is the rarest of girl groups. They are classy, without seeming fake or contrived. And they have the rare distinction of making faceless music that they TEAR UP in a live show. Sistah’s can sang! And with this year’s, Star, 702 finally made it work. They got some great (and some average) material and turned in the best R&B; album by a girl group in a long time. Better than the mess that was Survivor. But they might never achieve what they deserve because they don’t seem to be all that into it. Its admirable that they want the music to sell itself, but to look as aloof in interviews and videos is really a disservice to themselves. Cop this!
2. Big Boi
AWARD FOR PROVING ME REALLY REALLY WRONG!!!–Bubba Sparxxx
I hated Bubba Sparxxx when he first dropped. Thought he was average, but worse…uninteresting. And most of that is still true. But the thing about Deliverance is that it isn’t really revolutionary. It doesn’t do anything new. Bubba Sparxxx’s skills are really only minutely better than on his messy debut.Deliverance is the result of confidence. Knowing what one is good at and being really really good at it. Bubba Sparxxx took some great production from Tim, some even better production from The Dungeon Family, and some recycled Tim tracks and made a stunning album. Bubba’s lyricism isn’t much improved, but his awareness of his limitations make the songs soar. They are refreshingly honest and cinematic in scope and his simple yet confident delivery sells every single one of em.
FULFILLMENT OF POTENTIAL…FINALLY!!!–Dave Hollister, Real Talk
When Dave Hollister left BLACKstreet it made sense and it didn’t. The first BLACKstreet album was good, but didn’t make many waves. But his voice, while good, wasn’t exactly the most distinctive. And after two terrible albums, Dave has made a genuine banger with Real Talk deftly blending nostalgic tunes with corny sex metaphors that, mostly, don’t much matter. On this record, Dave has found a voice, a confidence, which is a wonder to see…few could make a song like the title track work. Seems Dave is takin a lesson from Tank and subverting tired playa clichés, mostly.
3. Beyoncé Knowles
4. R. Kelly
5. Alicia Keys
It seemed this year, that everyone was consumed by race in music, and in all the silliest and most comfortable ways. Its much more comfortable to laugh at Michael Jackson about the whole face thing and his only seeming to be black when he thinks he’ll get something out of it as opposed to the appallingly racist way Justin Timberlake’s Justified was marketed (from the “He’s from Memphis, the soul capital, so it’s in his blood” argument, to his out and out lies about the fact that most of the tracks and melodies were pre-written when he got them). It’s offensive. For some reason, the very real climate of rampant appropriation without remembering who created, or influenced it, is everywhere. Justin is the most obvious example because, well, it’s obvious but no one will talk about it because a) the kid is unquestionably talented b) and entire segment of the industry gets their bread from the kid and c) because most people are afraid of being called racist.
Its not racist to see that what is happening to Michael is less because of his race and more because of the general climate surrounding his eccentricities (which interestingly enough are rooted in a deep self-hatred that we, collectively, never wanna deal with, but that is tangential to the point). It is definitely not racist to say that when black producers make music with and for black people, the industry falls all over itself, until THEY decide its tired and push it off on the first white boy/girl they can and call it brand new.
From the Eminem debacle to the recent spate of white crooners to Michael to the blatant marginalization of legitimate white crooners like Thicke, its clear that while the root of this trend is deeply entrenched in our society, the powers that be, scaredy-cay liberals, and ignorant conservatives will reap the financial and critical rewards of a continuing pillage of black musical tradition. This won’t stop it, but saying Eminem is a racist but Justin is the new king of pop, only proves that a) you are too tuned in to mainstream media without questioning what you hear and b) the problem isn’t racism, but a categorical denial of what the real effects of racism are.
10. MC Lyte–Da Underground Heat Vol 1
The problem with MC Lyte’s triumphant return is that she doesn’t say much. She packs quite a punch, but in the end the “I’m the best” braggadocio wears thin. Not to mention she, like Keith Murray, felt the need to have Jamie Foxx all over her sh*t. He’s tired. He’s hardly funny. And he nearly murders her record. But sadly, all this is still better than 99.98% of the hip-hop released, because its fun, its well-made, and it lacks the self-consciousness that has dogged the genre in the last 10 years. Lyte is still incredible on the mic and for a die-hard like me…it’s enough
9. Meshell Ndegeocello–Comfort Woman
Last year, Meshell had my number one album. Cookie was a masterpiece. Comfort Woman, not so much. It’s great, but for an album that is supposedly romantic, its shockingly cold and passionless, I think, by design. It’s interesting, and on Liliquoi Moon, she creates her greatest single song. The bass is omnipresent and yet unobtrusive. Its Meshell and it is fantastic. Nuf said.
Star is about as fun a pop/R&B; album as there is. But even that is an understatement, because 702’s music is far-reaching here. From the soul of Better Day to the janet like sexuality of the albums’ standout, Places, the ladies work it out vocally. Even when the production is less than stellar, Meelah’s lead reigns supreme, stomping all over the song. Clearly, we have a singer here who never allows the production, good or bad, to upstage her.
7. Jay-Z–The Black Album
Hot damn! Jigga’s back. This is the album that should have been The Blueprint. Jay-Z hasn’t done sh*t, album wise, since Vol 2. I dare you to argue. But he is one of the best, no question. And with this album, Jay gives you a glimpse into who he really is. Or at least, who he is most comfortable being for public consumption. Nevertheless, he’s made a stellar album. For the record, I think he should retire. He’s clearly bored, real heads have noticed it for years. And having your finest work be the first and last, is certainly poetic.
6. Erykah Badu–Worldwide Underground
This album was maligned for obvious reasons. 7 minutes songs, no hooks, no verses…wah wah wah. Who gives a shit? This is the funnest Erykah album yet. It chronicles her recent tour and because of that, yes, there is a loose feel to the material. F*ck what you heard, Worldwide Underground is great!
5. Beyoncé–Dangerously In Love
When Dangerously In Love was released, the field was bare. Nothing was good, lots of serviceable pop was being released in the form of John Mayer and the like, but nothing that was fun, good, and creative. Then B dashed out thatt gate, y’all. I didn’t believe she had it in her. I really didn’t. Forget all the piddling reviews praising the singles, the meat of the album lies between Be With You and Speechless. Personal, heartfelt, soulful. Beyoncé did her thing.
4. Madonna–American Life
That people didn’t like this isn’t a surprise. That critics didn’t like this is. I’m not sure how the drivel that was Ray Of Light could win Grammys but this beautifully orchestrated work is slammed worldwide. Perhaps its because this is her third go at electronic music and we are all over it. Which actually proves my point…they only liked Ray Of Light because it was so different, not because it was any good. All this is beside the point, the album is masterfully produced, lushly arranged, and either deeply heartfelt or artfully superficial in a warm way (not really sure). Either way, its terrific.
3. Alicia Keys–The Diary Of Alicia Keys
I’m kinda blown away by the effort Keys put into this. And it shows, but not in an insecure way, but in a “Y’all thought you knew, but you really didn’t” kind of way. All other superlatives that you’ve read are applicable here. She’s a force. Unstoppable.
2. OutKast–Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
I personally love Big Boi’s album. And not because it’s like all the other recent OutKast albums, but because I really love Big Boi as a lyricist and he really does his thing here. I am not a big fan of Aquemini or Stankonia, I think the spectacle of OutKast superseded the declining cohesiveness of their albums. Sure, they were adventurous and fun, but they lacked the complete punch that ATLiens had. Most interesting to me on both these albums, is the undercurrent of rampant misogyny that fuels much of the lyricism…particularly on The Love Below. Of course this makes Dre’s album closer in tone and affect to Rick James than Prince (as many a mag has so incorrectly stated). But regardless, it lends a weight that is profound, disturbing and, yes, genius to the proceedings.
1. Male R&B; (R. Kelly, Chocolate Factory, Anthony Hamilton, Comin’ From Where I’m From, Dwele, Subject, Dave Hollister, Real Talk, and Gerald Levert, Stroke Of Genius, Al Green, I Can’t Stop)
It’s long been considered that when black music makes great leaps forward in artistic genius, women are at the fore. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but reading between the lines of that statement and you find a consistent historical criticism of paternalism in black music…the undercurrents of femiphobia, sexual fervor at the expense of female pleasure, and genuine self-loathing.
Well in 2003 there were some brothers who really turned it out…made some deeply personal, soulful, and subversive music. R. reaffirmed his place in the long line of maladjusted geniuses of music. Chocolate Factory is no less than brilliant because R. has never been this focused, this impassioned, this restrained. And it works…even with that stupid a** Ja cameo. Al Green came back and just showed everyone how it should be done. Anthony Hamilton and Dwele injected some much needed sensitivity and subversiveness (check the sly ode to pimpin’ of Hamilton’s Cornbread Fish And Collard Greens) into male R&B…never; taking themselves too seriously. Dave Hollister pulled out all the stops and made an album of quiet breadth and simple singing. And my man Gerald Levert freaked a sex metaphor like no one’s business…peep the stunning collabo with Eddie and Sean.
With these six albums, male R&B; went a long way toward livening up a tired string of clichés in music…and proved that the fellas could make you cry, sang, dance, and shout as good as the sisters.