I write about culture from a pro-Black perspective

The Year of Predictability or Tigger’s Most Enjoyable Movies Experiences In 2002

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. Links have been updated.

I’ma just say it…

The last 3 or 4 months of 2002 were a big f*cking letdown. I wasn’t impressed by any of the late offerings. They were predictable, well made mostly, but predictably cloying, melodramatic, and sweeping (down to the score, kids). Even the Sundance offering had the feeling of wanting to be independent, without actually achieving it.

In short…it all seemed to be business as usual dressed up as great filmmaking.

But strangely, the movies I did adore weren’t mind-blowing technically. Weren’t original in the sense of screaming their conceit to you a la Adaptation, daring you to hate them for being self-consciously in love with their own cleverness. Weren’t showy in the casting of great actors who cry, scream, loose or gain weight, play down or play up and off of beauty. Weren’t Big Films, with all the fanfare and hype that ensures that you’ll either automatically love it upon purchase of ticket or hate it just to be “different” and “original”. (I wonder if this list’ll make me the latter).

While 1999, for instance, was a flashy year, their seemed to be heart and soul underneath the pomp and circumstance. American Beauty might have been doggedly linear and showy, it still resonated in the way in which the characters interacted. In films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Adaptation the characters seemed to suit the whims and egos of the writers, directors, and movie star/actors who wanted a “cool” Gen-X Kaufmann film on their resume to remind the public that it, after all, is really about the craft.

All that said, here is my list of enjoyable and well made and flat out stellar films of 2002.

Note: I chose 13 films because I thought it would be fun, because I can (it’s my list) and because even though I hated most of the films I saw this year, I still saw more than 10 superb films.

13. Tim Story’s Barbershop
Barbershop is the kind of film Hollywood wants you to believe are what they are really about. Relevant, but not too relevant. Formulaic, without being mindless. A crowdpleaser, without pandering too much. And it is all those things. But it represents a benchmark in the black comedy…one that is rooted in the humor of our people, the culture of our people, and the struggle of our people. Oh, and Ice Cube gives a strong nuanced performance that proves Three Kings wasn’t a fluke.

12. Sandra Goldbacher’s Me Without You
Michelle Williams is the kind of actress who continually surprises you because she never seems to be acting. She is the actress who is beautiful but can just seem to fit in whatever film environment she is given. That, admittedly, has next to nothing to do with her acting at all. Luckily, she can do that in ways the talented, but overrated Katie Holmes, can’t. Me Without You is a film about the friendship of two British girls (Williams and Anna Friel). It’s not really anything new but the levels of said friendship are so unique to who these girls are that you will be surprised how you will forgive the somewhat predictable plot (which is really just incidental).

11. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow
Damn if Kirsten Dunst isn’t the most amazing young actress working. Not because she’s the best…she isn’t. But just because she will take a part that you wouldn’t expect her to be able to do and nails it. Her Marion Davies is not quite as dumb or disloyal as one might first think. Dunst always keeps you wondering. The fun of the film lies in watching these characters become more and more ridiculous and self-conscious. It makes for a difficult and oddly prurient film experience.

10. Rob Marshall’s Chicago
Just plain fun. Not much else really. Great casting. Great singing and imaginative structure make for a surprisingly weighty musical. Even with Mya. Kudos to John C Reilly and Queen Latifah for reminding me there really isn’t anything they can’t do.

9. Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven
I was a fan of Velvet Goldmine and from that I watched Safe. All hail visual stylists who can find the heart in scripts too. I’ve heard many interpretations of the film, but to me I found that by making the film as authentic to the style of 50’s filmmaking and moires, Haynes used Moore’s character to poke holes of reality into it. It’s subtle and not overbearing which can make it drag in places, but it’s important in making the point that film doesn’t really represent life, but an idea of what life could, should, or would be depending on the filmmaker.

8. Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction
Damn if this film isn’t more impressive now that I’ve seen it on DVD. Unlike the self-consciousness of some of the late 2002 entries, the style serves the characters, the story, and what I see as the message of the film…that yes the 20’s are hard, but only because it is hard when you realize you aren’t the center of the universe. James Van Der Beek’s performance is quite good, but it’s really Ian Somerhalder who makes the film. Daring, bold, and remarkably nuanced, Somerhalder defines the role of the self-loathing 20-something. (That really is a compliment, most actors can’t do it)

7. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Anyone who uses “It doesn’t have an ending or a beginning” as a reason to slight Jackson’s masterpiece is really stupid. It’s like going ice skating and complaining about the cold. You knew it would be cold. That said, really all there is to say is that Legolas is f*cking cool.

6. Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour
I absolutely can not understand how Spike’s style and design are continually maligned, when the prevailing styles of anyone from Scorsese (sweeping, almost ungainly, films) to Spielberg (self-righteously sentimental at the expense of common sense and character) to Allen (nebbish Jewish guy infatuated with younger women) define their genius and the adoration they enjoy, but with Spike (the didactic structure, casting himself, and dolly shot) are what he is crucified with. I’d scream racism, but that isn’t it…not entirely. It’s simply the fact that Spike doesn’t have the answers, knows it and will make you realize you don’t either. And isn’t that kind of depressing…America is so great.

Anyway, The 25th Hour isn’t really a typical Lee flick. It is more about one man’s reevaluation of his life and less about society’s involvement in making us who we are (although that is there a bit too). It makes for a film that critics loved just because. Lucky for Spike, it really is that good. I enjoyed the dynamics of the characters and it is sweet when you find that Spike can still be great with actual three-dimensional characters. Big ups to Barry Pepper for a truly astonishing performance…who knew?

5. Todd Solondz’ Storytelling
I loved this film, good Lord, I did. I love when the curtain we place around our security and sheltered existence is ripped away. No one does that better than Solondz. He did it with adolescence in Welcome to the Dollhouse and suburban sprawl in Happiness. Now he takes it to the abstract with Fiction and Non-Fiction. Playing with the ideas of how we define it, how it manifests itself and, ultimately, what it means, Solondz exposes our society’s hypocrisies (none more so than the infamous “rape” scene). Kudos to Mark Webber for a truly stunning performance as Scooby.

4. Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien
Teen comedy, my ass! This film was sadder than most films that were shoved down our throats as weepy dramas (The Hours, anyone?). It was poetic, lyrical, and honest. It’s the kind of film that is frank without being aware of it and funny without being obnoxious. Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal make adolescence look like more joy and pain than any actors in recent memory.

3. Almodovar’s Talk To Her
You know what. I loved it. It was flawless and if you want to know why read d_fienberg‘s review. I couldn’t have said it any better. I told Dan I was working on a review, but I never finished it. It’s sitting on my computer. But the gist is that Almodovar loves to find the humanity in what is most disturbing and off kilter to the mainstream. He enjoys examining how people rationalize their fetishes, their desires. He does it without once belittling and few can say that.

2. Burr Steers’ Igby Goes Down
Finally a film that makes me feel some sympathy for spoiled self-centered rich white boys. It never seemed earned before. But Steers has made a film that exists in the world of the upper class without really defining the film by it. It’s a film defined almost entirely by the ghost of one character, Bill Pullman’s Jason. Through that absence one is supposed to filter Igby’s experience. Why wasn’t Culkin nominated? Or Sarandon? Shit even, Ryan Phillippe, who proves in the DVD deleted scenes, that his portrayal was more nuanced that I’d previously believed…he keeps this up I might forget 54.

1. Peter Care’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
I enjoyed that this film didn’t make fun of religion. I enjoyed that the characters were believably awkward and not that scripted stammering crap TV actors do with adolescents. I liked that there has never been a young girl as tragic and complex for me as Jena Malone’s Margie Flynn. I loved that the animation complemented and broadened the depth and meaning of the boys, the film and religion. I loved that it was so good you had to hate it for being predictable. I loved it because Kieran Culkin is clearly more deserving of all the hoopla Jake Gyllenhaal is getting but, because he is not, will probably keep on making great films.

THE REST

Most Disappointing
THE INDIE OUTPUT…TadpoleThe Good GirlMoonlight Mile, and Pumpkin
I bet on paper, these all seemed like great flicks. Mike White proves with The Good Girl that I wasn’t wrong about Chuck and Buck he does sacrifice three dimensional characters for the sake of making a point. Moonlight Mile forgot to tell the audience what it was about until Jake Gyllenhaal brilliant crying scene about 2/3 of the way into the film. Tadpole did have Bebe Neuwirth (and that brilliant restaurant scene) and that makes everything better. And well, as far as Pumpkin…lets just remember 1998 as Christina Ricci’s year.

Most Overrated
Minority Report and Punch-Drunk Love
Simply put, you fell for the hooks. The Intelligent Popcorn Flick. The Branching Out of Adam Sandler a la Jim Carrey. And you were baited, gutted, and fried up with some lemon and butter. Really people, Minority Report…why did home granny kiss Tom and why did the nurse chick grab Tom’s butt…no one can give me an acceptable reason. And yes, I realize that you have to accept that Sandler’s persona fuels the film, but once the tank is full, shouldn’t someone steer? Worth seeing? Yes. Worth all the love and hoopla? HELLS NO!!!!!!!!!!!!

HONORABLE MENTION
1. Spider-Man
2. Insomnia
3. Catch Me If You Can
4. Frida
5. Gangs of New York
6. The Bourne Identity
7. Brown Sugar
8. About Schmidt
9. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
10. The Importance of Being Earnest
11. Frailty

ACTING AWARDS
Best Actor-Kieran Culkin Igby Goes Down
runner up-Mark Webber Storytelling

Best Actress-(tie) Julianne Moore Far From Heaven
runner up-Jena Malone Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys

Best Director-Almodovar Talk To Her
runner up-Peter Jackson

Best Supporting Actor-(tie) Michael Ealy Barbershop Christopher Walken Catch Me If You Can

Best Supporting Actress-(tie)Queen Latifah Chicago and Susan Sarandon in Igby Goes Down and Moonlight Mile

Award for Actor who made a lot of bad movies but was fine in them. Jake Gyllenhaal.

BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCES
1. Emilie Hirsch The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
2. Mark Webber Storytelling
3. Maggie Gyllenhaal Secretary
4. Michelle Williams Me Without You
5. Emily Mortimer Lovely and Amazing
6. Bill Pullman Igby Goes Down
7. Adam Sandler Punch-Drunk Love
8. Salma Hayek Frida
9. Matthew McConaughey Frailty

So that’s it. And yes I saw About Schmidt and all these other flicks..they were aight.



Posted on March 9th, 2003 - Filed under Film

Delusions of Blackness: Reviewing Justin Timberlake’s Justified

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. This is a slight revision and does not take into account later information (e.g. that the Pharrell tracks were discarded Michael Jackson songs).

Justified album coverThere are 2 very distinct ways you can look at Justin Timberlake’s debut album, Justified. You can revel in the lean, slick sound and be carried away by it genuine listenability. Or you can listen closely and recognize that there is not an original note, chord progression, adlib, whatever, on the entire album.

Now I’m not the biggest fan of Justin, but Gone was the rarest of contemporary pop songs — one that managed to evoke its influences instead of just copying them. It was smooth, well-crafted soul-pop and is the one of only two songs of its kind to come out of the recent pop boom. (The other is Backstreet Boys’ If You Stay). That song alone made me think that perhaps a debut Justin album might be worthwhile.

Reviewers are eating this album up and they have chosen to look at the album in the first way. Star Tribune was so enamored of the album that they said, “This might be the first truly can’t-miss stepping-out-of-a-group debut since Lionel Richie left the Commodores.” USA Today, in a short paragraph, makes pains to tell readers he’s not really copying Michael Jackson, but then they back peddle a bit and say (what is probably the truest statement made in the media regarding the album), “at least he sings with more taste and restraint than most of his peers.”

Why then, am I saying Justified is so bad?

Justified is a confusing mess, lyrically and emotionally. On half the songs, Justin’s lame attempts at being down sound just like what you would expect. On the other half, he’s a typical NSYNCer trying to get the girl. The most glaring example of the former would be Right For Me where the affected slang and hip-hop lite braggadocio is hilarious. Senorita is a nice little ditty, but again he just sounds like a little boy who wants so bad to be cool and fails miserably. Take Me Now is corny and not remotely believable. Then of course you get the requisite mid-tempos which are only marginally better than the poseur-lite tripe I’ve just referenced. He seems more comfortable singing stuff like Still On My Brain, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better.

There is not an original note on this album. No original vocal production, phrasing, adlibbing. Nothing. Everything on this album is a blind copy. The only songs that manage to rise up and become truly derivative are Cry Me A River and Nothin’ Else. The former is about as sublime a song as Timbaland has ever created. Justin’s real talent may be in his ability to marry simple beatboxing to melodies. He did it to stunning effect on Gone and now on Cry Me A River. Justin’s heartfelt lyric “You were my sun/You were my earth isn’t the deepest, but by the time he gets to The bridges were burned/Now its your turn to cry” he truly grabs you. The song is stellar, but honestly I’ve heard songs very much like it on Ginuwine’s albums, some just as good, if not better. Nothin’ Else is so Stevie inspired that you half expect to hear his harmonica. But that said, the laid back groove and sparse percussive backing track is perfect for Justin’s lower register. The bridge, and the little preceding break, is so beautiful, it’s astonishing. Those are the only truly affecting moments on the album. Too bad the same honesty of spirit and emotion isn’t elsewhere.

And that, friends, is the real problem. Justin is so earnestly mimicking his influences, instead of allowing himself to be influenced, that he actually believes he has created his own sound…he even says it in the liner notes. It’s not hard to like this album, it is well-crafted for the most part. But for me, at times it’s like listening to the best Ginuwine tracks and at other times it’s like listening to Kelis’ Kaleidoscope. What makes it hard to like is the lack of fun that was evident in Justin’s contributions to NSYNC. It is more palatable to listen to lame white boys mimic if they seem to be aware that they are just playing dress up. From his MTV performance, to the Billboard performance, and his vacillation between loverboy and b-boy poseur, it is clear that Timberlake is confused. He is so earnest.

His MJ-lite opening single, Like I Love You would have angered even had he not ripped off entire choreographed segments and the MJ look on MTV. Take It From Here and Last Night are so innocuously catchy that you wanna drill a hole in your head and hope that the melodies fall out. The Brian McKnight contribution is further proof that he should have stopped after One Last Cry(Oh No) What You Got is probably the best of the rest, with Justin actually engaged with the Timbaland track instead of just coasting over it.

The production is not the problem. It’s good…that is if you haven’t heard Timbaland and the Neptunes other work. They aren’t doing anything new on this record. I don’t wanna say they gave him their scraps, because it is clear they didn’t. But it seems that they made an attempt to tailor their production to the thin melodies Justin wrote. I don’t think it really works. He sounds unconvincing and bored.

Many of the Neptune mid-tempos are reminiscent of the work they did for Kelis. But since no one bought that album, Justin is gonna get credit for what will seem like branching out on the Neptunes part. Same goes for Timbaland. Those who didn’t buy Missy albums or Timbs own albums will think this is new for him. Because yes, none of this sounds like Aaliyah, or Britney, or the other people they produced for.

Ultimately, the album is good enough that critics adore it. And that is what he wanted. But answer me this, how many of them do you think heard and reviewed Kaleidoscope? How many of them reviewed 100% Ginuwine? How many of them have heard Donny Hathaway who Justin unconvincingly apes on nearly every ballad? Not many.

But he’s achieved what he was groomed to achieve. To break away and be seen as a serious artist. Is he one? No. Is he capable of becoming one? Absolutely. But this is a fan’s album, a little kid’s work. He made music that he wanted to make and I applaud that, but it isn’t him. I’m just truly disturbed and disappointed that he really believes Justified is an original work. The hype machine is so great on this and around him that he can really do no wrong, and that is dangerous. What he doesn’t realize, I think, is that if he continues to do albums like this, the truth, that he is ripping off black folks, will become a liability. Mainstream media doesn’t really want to acknowledge that it’s all black at the core, so once they’ll let it slide. Shit, maybe twice…who knows? But at some point, someone will have to sound the alarm, right?

So yes, this is inventive. It sounds edgy. (Didn’t Daria show us that “edgy” has no meaning, I keep seen that word in conjuction with this record). Bottom-line. People are so easily bored with Timbaland and Neptunes when they were doing work for Aaliyah and Missy and Noriega. But now it’s all shiny and new.

Except it isn’t.

I guess its a smart move on their part, because they get to work more…but how many preteens are gonna remember Cry Me A River as the great production of Timbaland. Or Like I Love You as great production of the Neptunes.

And therein lies the danger…once again, for the people this will really influence, the next generation, the real musicians, the real artists, will fade to the background, when creatively, they are front and center.

2 stars..one each for the two good songs.



Posted on December 11th, 2002 - Filed under Uncategorized

Reviewing ‘Vanilla Sky’: Rent the Original

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. This is gonna be a dual review that critiques both Vanilla Sky and Abre Los Ojos . I decided that the only way to truly talk about one was to talk about the other. I can understand if you think it is a bit off-topic.

Vanilla Sky movie posterI have never been so disappointed in a film. I’m gonna come straight out and say that Cameron Crowe is a great director. And he is a great director. But Vanilla Sky was not the film for Crowe. I mean even Steven Soderbergh messed up with Kafka so I’m not gonna say Crowe’s career is over. Far from it. This is just not the right film for his sensibilities. Much the way Spielberg was all wrong for A.I. 

He fills the film with flashy techniques he has never used before and it shows. The ending shot when Cruise jumps up on the ledge is thrilling but also overkill. The worst scene though is the back and forth edits between Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz (who, as much as I hate to admit it, is the best thing about the film) during the sex scene. That is not in Abre Los Ojos and it is flashy and it makes clear what is more understated and powerful and crucial inAbre Los Ojos .

Having just watched both films back to back something becomes abundantly clear. Vanilla Sky is WAY too aware of its cleverness (it can be argued that Abre Los Ojos is too but I believe that to be part the tone of that film.). At every turn, we have flashy camera tricks, forced moments (a silly nod to Jerry Maguire-like awkwardness [“I’m gonna go to work” + plus toothy grin = bleech] is just…well, awkward), and cliche metaphors and unintentionally extraneous dialogue (Cruise’s “I’m straight” line comes to mind…) and the end result is something that resembles a thoughtful, complex puzzler but is really just a beautiful mess.

Point one. The dialogue is classic Crowe. 
It is both reflective and studied awareness. It is beautiful and yet disarmingly cliche in places. But mostly it is just out of place. Lines like Cruz’s “She looks like the saddest girl to ever hold a martini” is great but tonally all wrong. Crowe tries to marry his romantic comedy sensibilities to a character driven thought piece and just isn’t capable of it. The line comes off forced and over-the-top just because of its existence in the wrong kind of film (having nothing to do with Cruz’ very good performance). Same with the stupid a** line “I see you in another life when we are cats” or something to that effect. That Crowe’s impulse for Tom Cruise to laugh at the line means it should have been cut in the first place.

Point two. Tom Cruise is woefully miscast. 
Other than Magnolia Cruise has never fully become a character before and that is essential to this story. In both versions, the protagonist is a loathsome lothario who is somehow redeemed as he finds out what is really happening in his head. Cruise plays David like he played his earlier roles, with plenty of swagger and not an ounce of intention, weight, or honesty. Part of the problem is that much of the distress is placed into the real world scenes and not into the discussions with the psychologist as in Abre Los Ojos.

In Vanilla Sky the emphasis seems to be on just how weird all this can be, and in Abre Los Ojos the emphasis is on how each time we come back to the prison sequence we have gotten more insight into Cesar (David in our version) and it becomes more fascinating. But in Vanilla Sky Cruise seems forced to go over the top and yet sound so mannered (esp. in the doctor scene where he is given the mask).

Unfortunately, I think this is the kind of role that requires less of the movie star baggage. Or at least a movie star who can convincingly become his character. Tom Cruise, as good as he is, is not that actor. I can’t help wondering how much better (but still not perfect…remember, it is poorly written) this would have been if Billy Crudup were in the role or Jason Patric. Admittedly, that is unfair but Cruise is a disaster and as much as I wanna blame it on the script (and I will, partly) he, as a producer, should have known better.

Point three. Focus. 
Crowe has turned a beautiful study of the ambiguity of conscious vs. subconscious into a vanity piece. What made Abre Los Ojos work despite its “let’s explain the film” ending, is that Cesar is completely incapable of distinguishing reality from dream and that pain and anguish is felt in those scenes in the prison with the psychologist. Because in the end the irony is that the one constant, the prison and the psychologist, is also a dream. Thus subtly driving home the point of “where is the line between our conscious and subconscious.”

Eduardo Norieaga, as Cesar, has a simmering kind of anger that, as the film progresses, becomes true despair. He has no clue if he killed Nuria (the fuckbuddy, played with dizzying weight by Najwa Nimri) or Sofia (Penelope Cruz) and though we never get a clue who it is he killed, we know that it is tearing him up just by the way those scenes are short, intense, and darkly comic.

But in Vanilla Sky all of the anguish is felt in the real life scenes, here elongated and not well. We get a drunken Tom Cruise (in yet another elongated scene) overacting and being obnoxious. We get countless scenes of Cruise pacing while giving overtly silly speeches (like in the the drunken scene and with the doctors). And we get added scenes of the business world which, admittedly, are lacking in Abre Los Ojos but here only serve to make Cruise seem as big as Crowe, as writer, infer’s Cesar was in Abre Los Ojos . It comes across as contrived and overkill. Cruise’s swagger is more than enough macho posturing, why corporatize it? And of course we get all the long looks in the mirror. What makes it worse is that Tom Cruise has not really aged all that well. Besides the point, right? No, this is exactly the point. This makes the film seem like Cruise’s last ditch effort to be seen as a masculine alpha male, but the combination of that Freudian slip (“I’m straight”) and the mirror preening, Tom seems like a peacock strutting around wondering why he, of all people must turn 40 soon.

While Kurt Russell is quite good (and nice to see him back), his character is muted in the film and it dilutes the true central relationship and ultimately his performance becomes all wrong. In Abre Los Ojos the only person Cesar really interacts with is the psychologist and the weight is felt at the end when he is truly shown to be a figment of his imagination. Sofia, in both films, is an ideal. She is not a character, per se. And Penelope Cruz’s portrayals in both films is truly superb because she is lilting and coy (without being obnoxious) and not easily impressed and that makes her all the more beguiling to Cesar/David.

But in Vanilla Sky that true central relationship is never established because Crowe makes the crushing decision to make Russell’s psychologist too removed from the relationship…he is supposed to have dinner (or lunch…I don’t remember exactly) with his two daughters. But then he is more interested in the “crime” than David’s mind. In Abre Los Ojos the two daughters thing is a passing reference to another patient and the psychologist becomes enraptured by Cesar’s seeming psychosis.

Ultimately, at the end Russell’s psychologist pleads for understanding and it just seems silly. Whereas in Abre Los Ojos the psychologist is angry at the notion that he isn’t real. Again, the line between conscious and subconscious is blurred.

Both films suffer from a strange desire to explain everything at the end of the film. And both waste perfectly good cast members (Fele Martinez and Jason Lee as the best friend). And both structurally can’t bear the weight of their ideals. Part of this I believe (esp. in Crowe’s case) is that they are misreading their own ideas or perhaps underestimating the subtext and just trying to appease an audience, who gets sunrises and universe disaster averted endings from Hollywood, they also underestimate. Crowe’s is more offensive because he misread or underestimated someone else’s film and then tried to make it over, diluting the best elements and focusing on all the wrong ones.

Since I did see the original first, it is entirely possible that I was never gonna like Vanilla Sky but I highly doubt it. Admittedly, reviewing it against Abre Los Ojos might make Vanilla Sky seem doubly bad. But really it only illuminates the elements of the film that I think people who didn’t like it are seeing. Feel free to totally disagree…as I’m sure you will. Maybe you liked it being a vanity piece and less intriguing but I didn’t.

Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky gets 2 stars, one for each actress. Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos gets 4 stars.



Posted on January 13th, 2002 - Filed under Film

2001 Music Review

This was an immensely disappointing year for music, full of contradictions. It found every genre breaking some rules but no one consumer really took to anything this year. Not like in past years. So many of my purchases were old stuff (finally completed my Rakim and Brand Nubian collection…woo hoo…I digress).

However, some of the best work has been overlooked this year, in every genre, and I’m here to put in my two cents.

So without further ado:

BEST ALBUM – Mary J. Blige, No More Drama 

It goes without saying that Mary is the premier singer of our times, but like most great artists, her albums are very good, but not quite perfect. No More Drama is her most consistently entertaining and soulful set since the seminal My Life. Miss Blige found a way to wrap up her newfound happiness and what I think is amazing clear-headedness in a stunningly understated soul package. From the heartbreakingly honest PMS to the thumping bass (and Mary rappin again) of Love to the soulful bombast of the title track, Mary is in better form than ever. Mary J. Blige has never had the kind of mainstream success of Lauryn Hill (even though she made it possible for Lauryn to break through and deserves it) and it has enabled her to grow and change and experiment without having to worry about the bottom-line. It has been a nice 10 years for Miss Blige and if you look at her body of work, you see a woman willing to put herself out there and be prolific and complex and not give a damn, leaving the music to speak for itself. And boy, does it.

Runners up:
#2. (tie) Jon b., pleasures u like and Usher, 8701
#3. 112, Part III
#4. Missy Elliot, Miss E…So Addictive
#5. Aaliyah, Aaliyah
#6. Foxy Brown, Broken Silence
#7. Angie Stone, Mahogany Soul
#8. Radiohead, Amnesiac
#9. Luther Vandross, Luther Vandross
#10. Blu Cantrell, So Blu

WORST ALBUM- Boyz II Men, NathanMichaelShawnWanya 

It is saying something, something bad, when you say the best thing about an album is its running length. NathanMichaelShawnWanya is a terrible piece of work. It has exactly 4 listenable songs ( Pass You By, I Do, Never Go Away, and Thank You in Advance). This is not to say they are good or stellar, just listenable. For artists of their caliber, this is simply unacceptable. It is worth noting that Shawn Stockman is responsible for the best songs on the record. He has written all of Boyz II Men’s most impressive work ( 50 Candles and Doin Just Fine ). If they are gonna record another album, he should write all their stuff. And if they must collaborate, may I suggest Mervyn Warren again and any of the Crouches (they do gospel/soul better than anybody). Again, all I can really say about this is unacceptable.

Runners up:

#2. Macy Gray, The Id
#3. P Diddy, The Saga Continues
#4. Canibus, C True Hollywood Stories
#5. Jaheim, Ghetto Hymns

MOST DISAPPOINTING RELEASE – (tie) Destiny’s Child, Survivor 

You know, it shouldn’t have surprised me, Survivor was a terrible song and I should have known better. It took me 6 months to even get up the courage to purchase the album (used…thank god for small favors) and I was right. Like I said in my review of the album here, Survivor is like those hollow chocolate bunnies you get around Easter. It is really tasty and rich on the outside, but ultimately there is nothing inside at all. Vocally, this is their strongest album to date, but the lyrics are self-involved, childish, banal, classless, irritating, ignorant, petty, stupid, selfish, depressing words that are beneath the potential this group has.

Runners up:
#2. Jill Scott, Who is Jill Scott?
#3. Michael Jackson, Invincible
#4. Janet Jackson, All For You
#5. Pink, M!ssundaztood

BEST NEWCOMER – Blu Cantrell, So Blu 

Given the pettiness (and undeniably catchiness) of her lead single,Hit Em Up Style it is truly amazing that So Blu is as good as it is. I’m willing to forgive the lead single being a mainstream grabber, because what is so great about Blu Cantrell is that the woman can blow. Like the Kelly Prices and Mary Js of the world, she knows how to wring the emotion out of a lyric. She knows how to be understated and when to let it all go. She is a fitting addition to a growing pool of new soul/jazz singers that we have the distinct pleasure of hearing in between the NSYNCs of the world (who I do like, so don�t get mad, Kristina 🙂 ).

Runners up:
#2. Alicia Keys, Songs in A Minor
#3. Tank, Force of Nature
#4. India Arie, Acoustic Soul
#5. Gorillaz, Gorillaz

FULFILLMENT OF POTENTIAL…FINALLY!! – Foxy Brown,Broken Silence 

The thing that always made Foxy so fascinating was the intelligence that lurked behind the image. What made us (the few who recognized the potential) pay attention was Inga, who she really was. The Foxy moniker, honestly, was (and is) a huge joke at poor Inga’s expense. She never truly seemed comfortable spitting Lil Kim-style bombast and foul hoe-filled lyrics. Her best work was always the stuff that let us see who she really was. Her debut was average at best, boasting at most five tracks written by Inga herself (fittingly the best tracks). Chyna Doll was an overlooked gem, featuring some stellar work ( 4,5,6 being the standout).
But I don’t think anyone was prepared for the completeness, the honesty, the level of complexity (rhyming and production), and the return to a rawness (few outside of Brooklyn had been privy to) that was Broken Silence Broken Silence finds Inga striking a terrific balance between the underground and mainstream. It is one of the grimiest, most “street” albums to not suffer because of it. It is immensely listenable and literate and compelling. Tracks like the title cut, Na Na Be Like are among some of the best pieces of hip-hop released this year. I think everyone should at least give it a listen. Be warned, I’ve seen Foxy spit in Brooklyn and she has returned to her roots here, if you only like clean or mainstream rhyming, stay away.

MOST OVERRATED ARTIST – Macy Gray 

I think because music, in general, is so commercialized we have a tendency to equate different with good. Different with talented. Different with worthy of an intelligent person’s time. Macy Gray is a testament to this theory. Sure, she’s quirky. So what? Sure, she’s unique and eclectic and weird looking. But both of her albums, particularly The Id are cacophonous pieces of drivel that unfortunately put her vocals at the fore, instead of the really good work of her band. She is one of those people who fronts a good band and as such, gets all the credit (Gwen Stefani anyone). Her voice is unique, but it is also devoid of tone, passion, pitch, and soul. I’m sure she can hit some notes, but that doesn’t mean that I have to suffer through countless images and news briefs from mainstream rags like Rolling Stone and MTV telling me that she is a breath of fresh air, when she isn’t.

#2. Jill Scott
#3. Staind
#4. Linkin Park
#5. Ras Kass

MOST UNDERRATED ARTIST – MISSY ELLIOTT 

It is fascinating that an artist like Missy Elliott, who has the support of just about every mainstream critic, still hasn’t taken off. Again, I say that Middle America is just crazy. Missy’s albums are the future of R&B;/soul music, people. She manages to sing passionately over Timbaland frenetic, complexly brilliant production and still move you. The latest single, Take Away finds Missy singing about what really matters to her and it is sublime. Everything about her is fascinating, honest, raw, and just plain infectious. She deserves to have people buying her albums. She is more that a clubbanger and she knows it. Miss E…So Addictive is her most seductive coherent and soulful work to date. Go get it.

#2. Foxy Brown
#3. Aaliyah
#4. (tie) Usher and Ginuwine
#5. NSYNC

GUILTY OF SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION AND OVEREXPOSURE – TRL Artists 

You know what the problem with MTV is? It is its smirking self-awareness. Every five minutes you will hear Carson Daly plugging MTV’s ability to turn artists like Blink 182 and Korn from gritty garage bands into TRL icons. It is insulting and a little fascinating, that the Carson Daly will stand in front of an audience of 13-18 year olds and make fun (and celebrate?) of his, and MTV’s, ability to warp and control their listening habits. TO THEIR FACES!! It is actually quite amusing if you think about it.

Unfortunately, the bi-product is the ubiquity of what is now called “the TRL artist.” If I see Fred Durst one more time, I’m gonna kill someone. If I see one of the members of Blink 182, lamenting the dilution of their sound and image, I’m gonna throw up. And if I see Beyonce one more time running around half-naked looking trashy like she just came of the Boulevard, I’m gonna personally call her mother and father to verbally pimp slap them for being so neglectful and manipulative in a shameless effort to pimp their daughter for money and TRL dominance. First, there was the show, which was a fascinating little piece of pop culture. Then, there was the domination of the NSYNCs and Britneys, before they had a chance to create anything worth listening too. And next was the tour and the CDs (and the tangential dominance of the NOW compilations which are evil incarnate). It needs to end.

#2. Michael Jackson
#3. Bono
#4. Shaggy
#5. Carson Daly himself

PROOF THAT POP MUSIC IS A TRAGIC PARADOX – NSYNC, Celebrity 

It is almost fitting that Celebrity fell out of the top 10 within the first six weeks. It would be unfair if they were just as popular when they made good music as when they were recording other people’s trash. Say what you will, but much of this album was written and produced by the boys (well, actually JC and Justin, but do the others really matter?). And much of it was good, interesting even.Gone is the best single released in pop music this year. It is brilliantly understated, and despite Justin’s limited vocal chops, it is remarkably soulful. And that doesn’t even count the soulful brilliance of Selfish which I contend is the best song they’ve ever recorded. It is telling that the minute a pop group does their own thing, the audience becomes disenchanted, almost the very minute a pop artist embraces the forms it formally pillaged and raped, white girls and boys become disinterested. I mean, shit they wouldn’t even buy a 112 album or a Maxwell album, so why buy it from white boys who have finally decided to listen to the people that they imitate. It is sad, unfair, and indicative of a country that still doesn’t want to admit that the biggest force in the world, pop culture, is just the commodification, the dilution, and the commercialization of black culture.

GUILTY PLEASURE OF THE YEAR – Britney Spears, Slave 4 U 

I’m sorry, but the Neptunes are brilliant. Only they could make Britney seem damn intriguing, three-dimensional even. But considering she can’t even articulate what the song is, makes the production wizards that much more responsible for the tempting pop morsel that Slave 4 U is. It is completely driven by the bass line and Britney’s coy little breaths. There are no verses to speak of, but it doesn’t matter, because the Neptunes are much more interested in bridges and key changes (oh, they’re there, she isn’t the strongest vocalist remember). It is a great song, and the only thing worthwhile on her terrible third album.

MOST SLEPT ON ALBUM OF THE YEAR – Jon B, pleasures u like 

Jon b is one of those guys you love but don’t want the mainstream to discover. It would be unfair to loose such a talent to Middle America’s penchant for watering down. This white boy is straight soulful. His work is complex, timely (but not trendy), and consistent. pleasures u like is a great little piece of neo-soul. If anyone is keeping soul music alive it is Jon b. He has a command of song structure and just about every instrument in the world. But he is no showoff, the mixing of the tracks is among some of the best layering and complex stuff since the great defining studio work of Stevie Wonder (and later Teddy Riley). I mean that, even if you don’t like a lot of the material, it is incredibly musical in a traditional way. I suggest everyone get a copy right now.

#2. Bahamadia, BB Queen
#3. Foxy Brown, Broken Silence
#4. 112, Part III
#5. NSYNC, Celebrity

MOST WELCOME RETURN – Bahamadia, BB Queen 

It goes without saying that Bahamadia is the best female MC of all time. She has a wonderful command of rhythm, timing, and ingenuity. Her work has always been good, but this album is the culmination of all her struggles to keep recording. If someone doesn’t pick her up (Hello!! Def Jam..are you there?) and make her a star somewhere other than in Philly, there is no hope for the quickly dying (read: commercialization) rap art form. But perhaps we should keep her to ourselves, black people. I’m not sure, we’ll see.

Runners up:
#2. The Isley Brothers, Eternal
#3. Luther Vandross, Luther Vandross
#4. Radiohead, Amnesiac
#5. Jamiroquai, A Funk Odyssey

MOST UNWELCOME RETURN – No Doubt, Rock Steady 

I know people really dig Gwen Stefani, but her post 90’s Cyndi Lauper thing is tired, annoying, and unnecessary. The band itself is madd talented, but her banal self-involved lyrics are just boring. And her bouncing around in all the videos looking silly just undermines their credibility. Oh, and if one more person tells me that they are a true ska band, I’ma kill myself. They aren’t. They are just an American watered-down version of ska. Rock Steady is an exercise in calculated mainstream pandering and shallow superficiality. The best thing I can say for No Doubt right now is that there other albums were at least partially listenable. This one is trash. Period.

#2. Britney Spears, Britney
#3. Boyz II Men, NathanMichaelShawnWanya
#4. Sisqo, Return of the Dragon
#5. Jennifer Lopez, J.Lo

MOST DESERVING OF ITS CONTINUED SUCCESS – Usher,8701 

The man who is currently doing Michael Jackson better than MJ himself is still in the top twenty and has been since 8701 was released. The album is remarkably consistent and complex. Vocally, Usher is stronger than he has ever been. He has never made a bad album (his self-titled debut is particularly strong), but this is a truly great pop/soul album. Everything from the percolating infectious I Don’t Know to the Spanish inflected How Do I Say this album finds Usher exploring love and sex and identity in a decidedly more mature and musically complex and experimental way. Gone are the overproduced production of most R&B; and the pointless rap cameos (except one from Puffy…which is definitely unacceptable but ultimately not in the least detrimental over all). I suggest everyone get it. It is subtle song craft so I won’t be surprised if y’all find it boring.

BEST REMIX – JANET JACKSON, Son of a Gun featuring Missy Elliott and Carly Simon remixed by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis 

Despite the disappointing All For You album (it wasn’t bad, not even close, just average) Janet had a stellar year. She is finally starting to get her props and recognition (albeit for her image more so than her continued growth as a songwriter) for being the force and icon that she is. This song is among the better ones on the disk and addition of Missy is an inspired choice. The track is sped up and much more club-ready. And Jimmy and Terry remixed their own track. Inspired!! But what works is that Janet’s vocals are brought to the fore and it is great. The song itself is Janet and Carly Simon rappin over a interpolation of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain . Check it out. This is her best remix since Preemo’s remix of Together Again. 

BEST VIDEO OF THE YEAR – DMX, Who We Be 

I can’t explain to you how happy I was to see this video. DMX has been stale since his second album, but with this brilliantly introspective and penetrative song, we get X at his most open and complex. The video is a stunning black and white video that plunges us through every problem you could think of. It is harrowing, moving, and brilliantly realized.

#2. Mary J. Blige, No More Drama
#3. Gorillaz, Clint Eastwood
#4. Missy Elliot, Get Ur Freak On
#5. Janet Jackson feat. Missy and Carly Simon, Son of a Gun

That is my assessment of the year in music. I suppose I will get lots of comments and I welcome them. Overall, I was deeply disappointed with hip-hop’s representation. OutKast, while still a great group, have yet to attain the brilliance of ATLiens. And their eccentricities are nearly off-putting, nearly. Hopefully next year there will be better material. I will say that you should look out for my review of 2001 in films because we are having a stellar year (especially indie-wise).



Posted on December 21st, 2001 - Filed under Music