I write about culture from a pro-Black perspective

Best Albums and Songs of 2010 – Explanation

This was an exceptionally strong year for Black music so I chose to expand both lists to 30 just so I could have the opportunity to extol the virtues of a lot of worthy music. This was such a strong year that most of the albums at the top of this list are either flawless or within a song or two of being flawless (though it needs to be stated that emcees would probably make stronger albums if they limited themselves to 10 or 11 tracks).

Compiling this list took considerably longer than it has in years past because the order started becoming a hassle. I'm not entirely pleased with the order of much of this, excluding the top 10 or so…maybe. But I do think it is important to give you some sense of the relative quality of all of these albums, so I stuck with the ordering format. Imperfect though it may be.

As always, my list is a total reflection of my tastes, nothing more. So if you think Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Alicia Keys, Lil Wayne are somewhere on this list, you will be disappointed. I am not in the habit of conflating cultural impact with artistic merit…you know, unless an artist of superb quality happens to break into the mainstream. Which is exceedingly rare in this historical moment for the industry with respect to Black music. 

Also – I do not make distinctions between official releases and mixtapes, or between singles, album tracks, or leaked songs. I just don't much care about that unless I can make a point about the kinds of songs that end up being left off of official albums that shouldn't have been (for instance, listening to mixtapes by Chrisette Michele and Raheem DeVaughn prove that they would be better served if the label just let them do whatever they want).

I usually do this as one big post, but I have decided to break this up into increments of 6. I will be publishing each installment – one post of singles and one post of albums – every weekday this week.


Monday – Best Songs of 2010 (30-25) / Best Albums of 2010 (30-25)

Tuesday – Best Songs of 2010 (24-19) / Best Albums of 2010 (24-19)

Wednesday – Best Songs of 2010 (18-13) / Best Albums of 2010 (18-13)

Thursday – Best Songs of 2010 (12-7) / Best Albums of 2010 (12-7)

Friday – Best Songs of 2010 (6-1) / Best Albums of 2010 (6-1)

Posted on December 27th, 2010 - Filed under Best of 2010 - Albums,Best of 2010 - Songs,Music
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Tigger’s Best Songs of 2009

This list represents what I consider to be the 20 best recorded songs in black music this year. You should know before reading that I don’t just consider singles, as singles are such a small sample of what is recorded and released in any given year.


Read All »

Posted on December 30th, 2009 - Filed under Music
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Best of the Rest: Alicia Keys’ Jane Doe

Songs In A Minor album cover This is one of the better songs from Alicia’s debut joint, but a lot of critics called the song too childish and beneath the talent of an artist like Alicia Keys.

The song is a catty little ditty about not letting a man go so some other chick can take him, but the melancholy quality in Alicia’s voice actually gives this song a bit more depth.  More importantly, this is one of the best tracks Alicia has ever sung over.  This joint knocks (check out the beatboxing) and co-writer Kandi’s background vocal arrangement, with those ill ass harmonies, completely elevates the song. Don’t sleep.

Best of the Rest – Full List
Best of the Rest – Explained

Posted on January 23rd, 2009 - Filed under Best of the Rest,Music
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Tigger’s Favorite Music of 2007

This was the first year I didn’t really bother to listen to or keep up with most of popular music. I did hear the Radiohead album and I loved it, but it won’t be on this list anywhere. My lists have always been about illuminating the breadth and the beauty of black music. I do this because few other people do, and those that do are usually looking at it from the outsider’s perspective (yes, even other black critics).

As most years tend to go, black music was horrible till about April or so (whenever Ne-Yo’s album dropped). There were actually not as many great albums this year as there were last year. Black pop continues to drown itself in production by one-trick ponies (oohhh, Hi hat! Yes, 808!! Ohhh my Casio has a button to speed up vocals, press it!!!) and corporate hip-hop has become totally concentrated around rappers with large personalities and little actual skill (yea, that means you Kanye, 50, T.I., and Wayne).

But, being a lover of black music means one gets to experience the joy and wonder of discovering that there is so much more out there than what the five major labels push on us. This year I discovered Sy Smith in a real way. This year I was treated to another piece of perfection from Rahsaan Patterson. I also continued to marvel at the work of artists like Truth Hurts and Adina Howard. I mean, this year two leaked songs by Solange Knowles (Champagne Chronic Nightcap and White Picket Dreams) are among the best pieces of recorded music I heard all year.

That joy is how one survives in this historical moment of producer-driven black pop and hip-hop. So take a look at what I was listening to this year:

BEST SONG OF THE YEAR–Rahsaan Patterson, Delirium (Comes and Goes)
One can say many things about Rahsaan Patterson’s music. But what is rarely said is how the man can put together a banger that makes you wanna shake your ass. Delirium (Comes and Goes) is exactly what its title says. It’s a whirling, thumping, dizzying three minutes of pure unadulterated funk. There was nothing as joyous, as perfect, as beautiful as this song this year.

1. Sy Smith, Bruise
2. Trey Songz, We Could Be
3. Jill Scott, Come See Me
4. Chrisette Michele, In This For You
5. Solange Knowles, Champagne Chronic Nightcap and White Picket Dreams (unreleased)
6. Pharoahe Monche, Body Baby
7. Adina Howard, Doin 80
8. Ne-Yo, Addicted
9. Tank, Coldest
10. (tie) Madonna, Candy Shop (unreleased) and Rihanna, Umbrella

WORST SINGLE OF THE YEAR—Souljah Boy, Crank That
I kinda respect the Souljah Boy business model. I respect that he made this song and it kinda took on a life of its own. I respect that this song represents truly what folks are listening to and are liking.

But the song is horrible. As I get older and strive to be more decolonized, I find it is harder to even be bothered by songs that are so bad because I don’t listen to them enough times to truly hate them. So while this song is clearly garbage, it is not really any worse than anything else that Viacom or Clearchannel is shoveling into the brains of children.

WORST ALBUM— (tie) Kanye West, Graduation and Alicia Keys, As I Am
Here’s my thing about Kanye West. He’s a terrific producer and songwriter; nearly peerless in his ability to craft great beats and great melodies. His production for Jay and Common is some of the best hip-hop production in the new millennium.

But here’s what folks forget: ‘Ye can’t rap for shit.

Sorry. His flow is erratic and clunky, so much so that it can completely ruin a decent lyric or punchline. His voice also has the effect of making one think about that bougie brotha around the way you grew up wit who you liked merely because he tried so damn hard. That can be fine on 16 bars, but it doesn’t quite work for 16 (or more) tracks.

Graduation is a U2 album with weak raps over it. The mainstream loves that because it is “universal” (read: white) and because it distinguishes him from his peers in corporate hip-hop.

But no matter how good the production is, the lyricism and flow are so horrid it can’t be considered a great album creatively. It just can’t. His flow is laughable at times and though I admire his arrogance more times than not, on record it comes across like suburban brotha desperation.

Alicia Keys’ album will be considered the best album of her career because it’s more consistent than anything she’s created before. However, the fire is missing from Ms. Keys in a way that is dumbfounding. I am not sure if the Kelly Clarkson pop rock sound was intentional, but there’s something lifeless and Top 40 about this album that completely sublimates Keys’ innate ability to get a song across to a listener. This album is an awful move toward a less raw, less black, less passionate work where pedantic lyricism does all the work of communicating emotion through a great vocal performance. There is nothing with the angry depth of Karma, nothing with the grit of Girlfriend, and nothing with the 70s-lite beauty of So Simple on this album. Keys’ should kick Linda Perry to the curb next album and go back to doing what she was doing before. It actually worked.

The thing about Kelly Rowland is that the odds are stacked against her so much that she could release an album on par with Aaliyah or Dangerously in Love and still go double wood. Why? Because the industry and the marketplace is not interested in seeing her succeed. They cannot see her separate from Beyonce.

And the truth is, she’s not doing the best job drawing that distinction.

Ms. Kelly is a better overall album than Simply Deep, but, save Love, there is nothing with the sheer beauty of her debut’s standout song, Beyond Imagination. This album is clearly meant to establish Kelly as a pop star, but the reality is that Kelly doesn’t have the chops to be a pop star. She doesn’t have the presence, she’s too dark skinned (sorry, America likes their sisters whitewashed), and she’s ill at ease on stage. That her voice is pitch perfect and a thousand times more expressive than any of her pop contemporaries is lost on consumers and Matthew Knowles, who buries her voice here in third-tier producer drivel.

Kelly Rowland needs to fire Matthew Knowles and make an R&B album. She’s an R&B singer. If she got Mike City, Raphael Saadiq, and DJ Premier to write for her, she’d make a beautiful album that would re-establish her as a completely different kind of artist. This is what she needs, creatively.

And yes, it would still go double wood. Such is this nation. Only one black woman on top at a time…y’all know the drill.
Runner-up: Angie Stone, The Art of Love and War

It is a shame that Trey doesn’t dance. Because if he did, he’d probably be the biggest thing out there. He’s light years ahead of both Chris Brown and Ne-Yo in terms of sheer vocal ability (witness his beautiful phrasing on album highlight, We Could Be).

Why then does Trey continue to get the bronze?

I think, honestly, that his material doesn’t always do his voice justice. Trey Day is the perfect example of how the perception of black men as sexual predators can ruin an artist. This album is a mess of contradictions. Trey’s voice and phrasing intimate a high level of sophistication that makes the somewhat juvenile nature of some of his songs hard to listen to. This was the problem with the last album too.

So while most of the album is more concerned with basic issues of love, the few songs about sex drag the album down a bit. It isn’t schizophrenic or hypocritical; Trey’s too skillful a vocalist for that, but it does make one wonder what exactly he wants to say to the world. And I think that’s why he has trouble connecting with audiences.

But Trey Day is a significant improvement over his debut and easily bests the new albums by Chris Brown and Mario. It is good enough that more people should have purchased it. I suggest everyone download We Could Be and witness the birth of the next great black pop vocalist. This song alone puts him in line behind Shanice, Brandy, and Usher, as a force to be reckoned with in black pop.
Runner-up: Kelly Rowland, Ms. Kelly

A horny and sad Jill makes brilliant music.

I was never bowled over by Jilly from Philly the way most of Black America were. She was just far too generic and abstract a lyricist to make me feel anything. But now she’s talking bout “crown royale on ice” and “its raining over here on the inside of my womb”. HOT DAMN! That’s the kind of shit I needed to hear from Jill. I need to know that “deep” and “real” Jill likes to get down. I need to know she has vulnerability. I need to know that there is more to her than generic spoken word and a slightly oversized ego.

The Real Thing is passionate, specific, insurgent music and it’s the kind of music worthy of a voice like Jill’s. She’s finally broken down that wall of pretention and let the world see what she really thinks and feels.

This was my number four album last year and over a year since its release in late 2006, this album remains one that I play weekly, if not daily. I think the key to it for me is the striking sense of self Lyfe so ably weaves into his work. He never once sounds self-serving or pretentious even though the spoken intros can seem tedious. He also shows off more of his range and has fuller backgrounds, which deepen his sound. The album is more open and forward-looking than his debut and if you didn’t get it already you need to get it now.

Chrisette Michele’s voice reminds me of supper club singers. It’s polished enough to compliment a nice dinner and a glass of wine, but gritty enough that you can get up afterward and shake a tailfeather. This kind of duality is rare in popular music. Often artists mistake adult contemporary schlock for polish and corporate hip-hop production for grit. What Chrisette Michele does in one album is exemplify black music’s tenuous and often beautiful relationship with the mainstream. I often talk about how artists who court the mainstream make creative decisions that result in music that sounds right but is ultimately unconvincing. Not so with Chrisette. She so clearly understands what kind of phrasing sells a song like the album standout, In This For You, and what kind of phrasing sells a Babyface song like Best of Me. That clarity of purpose is what makes her the best new artist to emerge this year.


10. Jill Scott, The Real Thing: Words And Sounds Vol. 3
Bottom line, this album is the culmination of the promise Jill showed on her first two records. These songs have weight, real emotion, beautiful arrangements, and most importantly, lyrics that convey more than abstract sentiment. Jill has finally gotten comfortable enough as an artist to open up and write songs that directly relate to who she is and what she is going through, not just what she thinks the marketplace needs to hear from a woman like her. This shift is exactly the shift I’ve been waiting for. And it’s about damn time.

9. (tie) Ne-Yo, Because of You and Trey Songz, Trey Day
Ne-Yo’s bid to be a grittier 21st century Michael Jackson can make him seem just a shade too derivative. And yet, he creates some beautiful music here. And that’s mostly what is working – the music. He’s got chops – his melodies are just amazing – but vocally he’s still finding himself. This is the main reason that, for me, he remains slightly overrated. Addicted is his crowning achievement. His vocal is the best vocal he’s ever employed, equal parts smooth swagger and lilting insecurity. There is no MJ here. This is pure Ne-Yo. Nothing else on the album, as slick as it is, comes anywhere close to it. It’s still the best black pop album of the year though, which says more about how bad black pop is than Ne-Yo.

Trey Songz thinks he’s his generation’s R. Kelly. This is often talked about in a bad way. But it doesn’t have to be. Trey Day gets him closer to the duality that R. used to display beautifully. This album is a significant improvement over his debut. Though it’s not as good overall as Ne-Yo’s album, the songs We Could Be, Can’t Help But Wait, Wonder Woman, and Missing You are better than any song on Ne-Yo’s album. The sheer beauty and sophistication of Trey’s voice could make him the premier male artist of his generation once he gets material consistently that merits such a voice. Trey Day is one step closer to it.

8. Chaka Khan, Funk This
Funk This sounds like the album of someone who is making music again because she wants to be making music again. There’s an element of play here. Vocally, Chaka is looser than she’s been in over a decade. She attacks the covers with her usual flair and unique phrasing. She also duets with Mary J. Blige on a track that does much to illuminate just how influential she has been and also how peerless she remains.

7. Adina Howard, Private Show
Adina Howard is the kind of artist that excites me every time I hear a new song. I never know what she is gonna do next. Private Show is a club record, but there is still more here than the term “club record” might lead you to believe. Album standout, Doin’ 80, is all about trying to catch ya man cheating. But even more than the lyrics is the more laidback, block party feel of the tracks. This is not about having 808s just to have 808s, each song has a distinctly different feel from the rest. What pulls the album together is Adina’s ability to command a song vocally with her usual sexual confidence. Three albums into a 13-year career, Adina still manages to surprise and be one of the greatest and most consistent black female artists currently recording.

6. Ledisi, Lost & Found
Ledisi has been around for nearly 10 years, but she broke through this year with a brilliant performance on a PBS special and the release of her latest album, Lost & Found. This is a slightly different album for Ledisi. It is less overtly jazzy. But it still has that characteristic joyful quality that Ledisi always brings to her work. This is a woman who just loves to sing. You can tell she enjoys the work. It’s intricate, but very accessible. Don’t be fooled by the Grammy nomination; it really is that good.

5. Donnie, The Daily News
Donnie’s voice is heaven sent. But his need to make political soul music (as I call it) is downright revolutionary in our apolitical and self-hating times. Here is a man who makes songs that are about blackness in a political sense and he calls on us to take responsibility for ourselves and our society. This is not just an album with occasional political messages to make one seem “deep.” This is a man who understands intrinsically the nature of life as a Black American. It’s stunning. But it’s also easier to listen to than reviews have claimed. There is tendency to assume that complexity means hard. It doesn’t necessarily mean hard, but it does mean that it requires the listener to engage with the art, not just put it on as background noise. For this reason, Donnie’s desire to shake Black America at the shoulders and yell “wake up” is the single most daring and laudable thing to happen in black music in decades.

4. Chrisette Michele, I Am
This is beautiful singing. Chrisette Michele’s voice on I Am manages to envelop you in its sheer prettiness. But don’t get it twisted, Ms. Michele is not just a pretty vocalist, she’s a very good songwriter. This is the kind of album that Natalie Cole really would have made if she coulda been allowed to have a little more flavor.

3. Sy Smith, The Syberspace Social
This album makes me feel the way I felt when I heard Badu’s Mama’s Gun. This comparison doesn’t quite fit but it gets at what I think Sy Smith represents to me as an artist. Great artists have unique points of view. By that I mean, they talk about the usual “universal” topics in ways that give the listener a window into how they see the world. They make the universal specific, so to speak. Sy Smith does this to perfection on The Syberspace Social. She takes the attitude and humanity of funk and mixes it with breakbeats and beautiful vocal arrangements, then layers a cohesive lyrical framework over it to create a perfectly sequenced, perfectly unified record. From the freestyle flow of Fa Show, to the beautiful lament of Bruise, to the negro spiritual of Runnin (Jah Child), Sy Smith creates a beautifully textured album.

2. Hip-Hop (Keith Murray, Rap-Murr-Phobia; Pharoahe Monche, Desire; Mos Def, Universal B-Boy, Pt. 2; Wu-Tang Clan, 8 Diagrams; Prodigy, Return of the Mac; Havoc, The Kush; Jay-Z, American Gangster; and Common, Finding Forever)
This year my inner b-boy woke up, put on a pair of clean draws, Adidas, a hoodie and jeans and strolled out into the sunlight. This year, there were eight albums – count ’em, eight – released in the calendar year that straight up made my head nod and my soul sing. These eight albums were released by MCs who have been around over a decade each and are among the most consistent artists in the genre.

These eight albums are examples of hip-hop that embodies the spirit of the culture, something you can’t do if you just believe in mess about five pillars or conscious vs. corporate rap paradigms. They represent for me the best of what hip-hop does for a real head. This hip-hop makes you love life, love being black, and think hard.

Keith Murray’s album, entirely produced by Erick Sermon, is a return to form for the frenetic linguist. Pharoahe’s album is a witty, funny, accessible and wholly enjoyable experience. He has managed to create a hip-hop album that makes you have to back up the track trying to catch what he is saying. I haven’t done that in ages. Mos, Prodigy and Havoc released albums that restored their ability to be purely enjoyable, complicated rhymesmiths. Jay and Common’s albums are the kind of sophisticated corporate hip-hop that just never really gets made by anyone else. And finally, The Wu put out the best album they’ve done since their debut. It’s a wholly different, confounding, beautiful, operatic melange of dynamic lyricism and stunning production.

As hip-hop continues to be defined in binary oppositional terms (conscious vs. corporate), its essence – the stuff that infuses these eight records through and through – will continue to be lost on everyone who doesn’t understand that it’s not what you say, but how you say it…and what beat you say it over.

1. Rahsaan Patterson, Wines & Spirits
I’m late to the party in my adulation for Rah’s new record. Popmatters.com has already anointed it the number 1 R&B album of the year, though it’s placement at number 18 of all albums released this year says a lot about where black music rests in the minds of mainstream critics minds. I say this because, I don’t think there was any other artist who so deliberately set out to shake up the public’s perception of what kind of artist he is. This album from start to finish is a testament to an artist who has figured out his life and wants to show you all its nooks and crannies. From the sheer fun of Delirium (Comes and Goes) to his sad cover of Janis Ian’s Stars, Rahsaan has created yet another masterpiece. In fact, Wines & Spirits, is so good it almost makes you want to look at his previous work as not quite perfect. This is of course is unfair and untrue. But that’s how good this album is.

Check out what I thought about 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002.

Posted on December 21st, 2007 - Filed under Music
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Great Songs in the Black Musical Tradition, 2000-2004

This essay was originally written for Epinions.com on October 6, 2005. This version is slightly different, with some language clarification. The choices are identical to the original list.

Like many writers on this site, and writers in mainstream and non-mainstream publications alike, I have a great disdain for black popular music that is more trendy than transcendent, formulaic than innovative.

It has nothing to do with the accepted Manichean way (bad vs. good imagery) of judging art’s value and worth. It does, however, have everything to do with mainstream black folks’ tendency to do whatever it takes to “make that chedda.” Manichean ways of looking at black music excludes the rest of society for their collusion in attributing value to “negative” images by their massive consumption of it. By acting as if black folks are mired in negative self-image, mainstream Americans alleviate their guilt or ignorance at consuming such images. As such, what is wrong with black music is an American problem, not a Black American one.

The point of this pre(r)amble is to set-up how I came to choose the list of songs I did. It’s important to impress upon everyone that this is not an attempt to blindly say underground music is better because it’s “positive” nor is it an attempt to pretend as if there aren’t “negative” images in “positive” underground music. Such a view is short-sighted and removes the consumer from the moral responsibility of his choices.

The criterion for this list was as simple as the title suggests — I chose songs I thought walk in the grand footsteps of black musical tradition that were released in the first 5 years of the new millenium (2000-2004). Black pop is not, as a sub-genre, inherently removed from consideration, but there does seem to be a move in the past 8 or 9 years toward eschewing those elements of hope and pride in Blackness and humanity that defines black music tradition starting with blues, through the “classic soul” of the 70’s, and into the funk/synth pop of the best 80’s black pop.

In this respect, I hope to illuminate a crucial feature of black music that I think black folks recognize but can’t always articulate. Frequently, we say black music is “soulful”, which is a vague, amorphous way of talking about the intersection between our pain, our hope, and our profound resilience in the face of our collective plight as Americans. It is that somewhat undefinable quality that makes us attuned to what distinguishes “the authentic” from what we know is “appropriation” even if we don’t admit it — especially in the face of the rise of pluralism in music reviewing (i.e the idea that “anyone” can make “any” type of music, thus ignoring the social conditions that lead to any group’s cultural expression).

I tried to leave off artists who I thought oversimplify black musical tradition or perhaps drape their music in its more superficial aspects (keyboards, layered vocals, references to essentialistic ideas or images of blackness, etc). It doesn’t so much interest me that there are black artists who copy rather than expand on black musical tradition. I also tried very hard to be fair in removing songs that are essentialistic in black pop and black so-called “neo-soul” (note: I will use this term because it is in common usage, although I in no way subscribe to its limiting characterization of contemporary soul).

Essentialism is the idea that there are “essential” features to black culture, that they represent the authentic, that by including them, the music automatically carries more weight, honesty, and “soul” than it would otherwise. This way of thinking has a tragically limiting effect on our understanding of the breadth of blackness.

These songs are not meant to be an indication that they are inherently better than other contemporary black music, but meant to show in a fuller way how rich the tradition of black music remains in the face of continuing mainstream and underground rhetoric that tells the world we’ve “lost our soul.”

R&B and soul seems bound in the national consciousness to be always and only Marvin, Aretha, and Philly Soul without an understanding of what underlies all of those sounds. My hope is that these songs make more clear that there is still an unbroken line in the tradition of black music that runs through contemporary black music.

These 20 songs are not a top 20, just my particular favorites that fit the criterion. They are in no particular order. I found it very difficult to rank them once I had picked them. The attempt here is to give voice to more than the single, more than the songs that Rolling Stone or Vibe champion, more than the song that reminds us narrowly of eatin’ chicken, poverty, and racism.


Meshell Ndegeocello, Priorities 1-6
From the opening line, I hail from a suburb/Outside southeast you know Meshell is repudiating this idea that equates the authentic with urbanity. She uses this song to set straight to her love interest how she intends to love her and what the priorities are in showing that love (i.e. Can I hang with you?/I ain’t gonna pay your rent). There is never a moment where you feel Meshell is fighting a loosing battle. The undercurrent of faith in her love interest to understand how she sees love (made clear in the repetition) is powerful.
From Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape (2001)

Raphael Saadiq, Blind Man
Buried at the end of his overlong debut, Blind Man sits as a lost gem even to those who love and adore the album. The song is a testament to prophetic brothas who steer you through life. And it has profound sensitivity and a sadness to it. When he sings say my name you get a chill. An uncommonly affecting song.
From Instant Vintage (2002)

Erykah Badu, Green Eyes
This is a fairly obvious choice. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not one of the finest examples of black music yet written. Erykah charts her denial, her acceptance and finally (in a devilish twist) her relapse. In my mind, her relapse is more of an expression of hope, that love still lingers. The final couplet (I know our love will never be the same/and I can’t stand these growing pains) is a tragically sad and hopeful admission that love doesn’t die, it just changes. For Erykah, the real struggle is in dealing with the pain of love that changes, not its loss.
From Mama’s Gun (2000)

Lina, I’m Not The Enemy
This standout track from Lina’s criminally ignored debut comes from a long line of songs that walk a fine line between loving and reprimanding men for laying their problems on women. When she sings You can’t love nobody unless you love yourself, don’t take it out on me baby there is love there, not anger. Lina links old and new with a simple drum beat, horns and scratches to make a song that is timeless.
From Stranger on Earth (2001)

Angie Stone, Wish I Didn’t Miss You
What distinguishes this song is the melody line. It’s written to be more reflective, than angry; more self-critical, than sad. What is great about the blues and soul is that it was never about castigating the opposite sex, but about reflecting on why we make bad choices in partners. Angie says, Memories don’t live like people do she invokes that classic blues idea of living with our choices being the real pain. Even as the song turns to vindictiveness in the lyrics, the music doesn’t change; letting us know that the anger she feels lies with herself.
From Mahogany Soul (2001)

Rahsaan Patterson, Humor
Humor plays like improvisation. There are barely any lyrics to speak of, but what there is serves a more lyrical purpose (in a poetic sense) rather than a narrative one. Shall I reach into my bag of tricks for anything I might have missed. Rahsaan and Van Hunt (who wrote the song) have crafted the greatest pure jazz song no one has ever heard. And it never feels less than a vocalist of uncommon humility ceding the spotlight to musicians having a great jam session.
From Love in Stereo (2000)

R. Kelly, How Did You Manage
In the past, R.’s forays into gospel have been spotty at best. However, this track from the glorious (but rather samey) gospel disc U Saved Me is proof positive that R. Kelly remains the premier songwriter of his generation. Putting his hope and pain on the line, R. asks god, How did you manage to love me.
From U Saved Me (2004)

LaToiya Williams, It Feelz Good
I wrote about this song in another review but I don’t think I did it justice. This song captures the emotional intersection between faith and love, thus it is not a love song per se, but a song of faith. When LaToiya sings, Feels right, so right, it feels good you completely understand that it’s about god.
From Doggy Style Allstars: Welcome to the House Vol 1 (2002)

Aaliyah, I Care 4 U
I Care 4 U has become a classic because it reminded a generation why the modern divas (Mariah, Whitney, and the like) are overrated. It reminded folks that the blues greats emoted by bending a note, not shouting it. Aaliyah’s pain is laid bare over Missy’s simple melody and Tim’s sparse production. Listen to her gorgeous vamp over her and Missy’s backgrounds — Hold on, stay strong, press on. Rarely has a singer so effortlessly culled such love and emotion from so little. Perhaps the greatest pop-soul song of our generation, this song proves again that the way the greats in the black music let the emotion, not the notes, carry them was what seduced the world.
Originally unreleased, released in 2002 on Aaliyah

Destiny’s Child, Through With Love
Destiny’s Child is usually so unabashedly poppy and derivative. So it is always interesting when they make forays into black musical tradition and come up with gold. A song like this could never keep Beyonce as a pin-up, mostly because she’s not what’s working here, not vocally. Michelle rips this song apart. This is pure gospel, right here. The girls (who all wrote the lyrics) make a gorgeous case transferring the pain at the limitations of earthly love–If this is love I don’t want it any more— into a love with god. When Michelle comes in and shuts the shit down, you may find yourself lookin’ for your nearest church.
From Destiny Fulfilled (2004)

Anthony Hamilton, I’m A Mess
The blues is not about loss, it’s about working through the pain. Which is an important distinction when dis
cussing I’m a Mess which, upon first listen, might seem like a song about loss. However, the ending vamp changes the entire direction of the song. Anthony exorcises that pain repeating Call me, write me in a way that lets you know this song is catharsis, not wallow.
From Comin Where I’m Comin From (2003)

Calvin Richardson, I’m Worthy
This is some church, driven entirely by the harmonies and Calvin’s wailin’ all up and down the song. Far from a “he’s no good” song, Calvin’s solo writing job is more about hoping that the woman will come to her senses. When he sangs, Look at what you have to do to get him to notice you, Calvin links personal responsibility to happiness, adding layers to what at first sounds like a “typical” black gospel-lite song.
From 2:35 PM (2003)

Van Hunt, Who Will Love Me In Winter
Van’s melange of styles is sharpest on this gem. This hopeful standout track is long on metaphor (Spaceship crashed against the wall, my neighbor’s grass ain’t so green after all), but paints an evocative picture of a man coming to grips with his lot in life. Taking a page from the bass of early R&B (nee rock & roll), Van Hunt layers his vocals into a stunning portrait of sadness.
From Van Hunt (2004)

Vivian Green, Final Hour
Vivian’s bluesy debut is the kind of music that just doesn’t get made very often. This measured portrait of self-reliance is the most fascinating song on the album. I turned away from the pain of hurting me is yet another example of the self-reflection that is such a staple of black music. Too often, blaming the opposite sex creeps into contemporary music. Not with Vivian. Her measured vocal performance gives masochism such beauty.
From A Love Story (2001)

Tank, Lady on My Block
Tank is on some minimalist funk on this track. Perhaps the greatest modern songwriter you’ve never heard (O, be damned). Painting desperation with a dose of the everyday, Tank links abuse to society in a way that shuns the beating-you-over-the-head approach of less talented, more pretentious songwriters. The death of the pimp achieves a level of tragedy that is profound and moving.
From Force of Nature (2001)

Jill Scott, My Petition
A gorgeous protest song masquerading as a run-of-the-mill love song, My Petition captures the sadness that one feels at being ignored and the profound hope that one day you will be heard.
From Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2 (2004)

Alicia Keys, If I Ain’t Got You
Alicia Keys songs are like textbooks; her influences are right there like footnotes. This doesn’t mean at all that she isn’t talented in her own right. This song is very simplistic, but Alicia’s vocal performance adds the kind of weight few singers know how to add to a song like this.
From The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003)

Amel Larrieux, Bravebird
No artist so thoroughly captures the subtlety of blues lyric writing like Amel Larrieux did on this track from her album of the same name. Here we have such a gorgeous metaphor for resiliency. Never once condescending, Amel lays out for you how women, through it all, all the bullshit, the struggle, the pain, the abuse, are the rarest kind.
From Bravebird (2003)

112, Player
I think a central problem with the inevitable controversy over this choice lies in the inability to understand the way intent, happenstance, and effect are not always aligned. The song is called player, but the song is more about wishing you are in the same place as the one you love, and how painful the realization that you are not, truly is. When Daron and Q sing baby the first one I’m calling is you you feel it. It’s not anger, it’s like “Damn, I tried to tell you not to make me fall in love with you, but you did anyway, but it’s totally my fault that I’m not ready.”
From Part III (2001)

Kelly Price, Mirror Mirror
Taking the trope of self-reflection and turning it into a simple metaphor, Kelly Price creates an unsung gem of stunning weight. In the song, Kelly covets a man in a relationship, but her vocals never let you feel like that is the real issue. It’s the inertia that grabs you–you know Kelly will never try to steal him away, so the song becomes about her hope that he’ll come to her.
From Mirror Mirror (2000)

This list will be quibbled with, I’m sure. There are lots of artists I could have included, but I tried to pick songs that are transcendent, not cheaply theatrical or crassly emotional. I tried to pick songs where the vocalists weren’t trying to shout down the music or prove they could “sing”. I tried to pick songs were the production served the emotion. This is all far more rare in so-called “neo-soul” than people care to admit.

Posted on February 14th, 2006 - Filed under Music
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