For the third year in a row, I felt like this was a better year for individual songs and singles than it was for albums. I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense in a digital era that the industry has returned its focus to singles, rather than albums. But it continues to make for a very frustrating listening experience.
This is not to diminish the great work that I’m about to highlight. It is incredibly difficult to make a great song. Can’t forget that just because most artists today are unconcerned with making complete album experiences.
So without further ado, hit that jump for the 15 songs that I consider the very best songs that I heard in 2013
Choosing an album track to highlight from the Playa catalog is stupid hard. They literally have not recorded a single thing that I haven't loved. I initially wanted to highlight an unreleased song, LUST, which surfaced on Black's 2004 solo debut. Then I thought about the obvious, I-65 or Buggin' Over You, or the less obvious, I Gotta Know (which, trust me, knocks).
But, in the end, I chose this song, Birthday, which appears on the Tim's Bio album, because it highlights a point I've been making for a while: No one makes better use of a Timbaland track than Playa, Ginuwine, Missy and Aaliyah. Part of the reason for this is that the uniqueness of the track was matched by the uniqueness of the songwriting, the singing, and the vocal arrangements, which is all but missing from Tim's post-Ginuwine production.
Here Playa literally ride this Tim track hard. The track gives the song a rhythmic element that is often missing from romantic music of this type. Each vocalist takes time with the words, opening the phrasing up. Black, in particular, sings the second verse with a restrained intensity that we just don't hear enough these days. Playa are vocalists who understand intrinsically how to evoke a feeling with every element of a song from the lead vocal, to the arrangements, to the track. That has never been more evident than on Birthday, which does so much with so very very little.
I could go on and on because – with full disclosure – I don't think there's been a better self-contained vocal group over the last 30 years than Playa. Such thoughts lead one to gush…but just listen.
Crazy Feelings, from Missy Elliott’s criminally underrated sophomore album Da Real World, is the first great Beyonce vocal performance. It is one of only three instances where Beyonce shows she has some emotive instincts (the other two being Speechless and Resentment). Here, she sings in a slightly lower register, which shows that (when she wants to) her voice can have beautiful tone.
Crazy Feelings is also a slow burn of a song. Missy wisely opens the song with her more emotive, plaintive singing and lets Beyonce take more of the dramatic build up on the second verse and the adlibs over the bridge. This is the key to both performances. Missy’s backgrounds do their job splendidly, grounding Beyonce and, in a way, forcing her to exercise a fair amount of restraint. But the song is about goin’ a lil crazy, so that tension between the two voices, particularly on the bridge, is what makes the song work.
Another underrated, on-the-verge of blowin up black artist has passed away way too soon – Static Major.
On Monday, February 25, 2008, Stephen “Static” Garrett, died in Louisville, KY at age 33. Cause of death is unknown.
I’m more upset by this than I think is particularly healthy. If you are a member of my generation (mid 20s to mid 30s) you have been deeply influenced by the music of Static — whether you know it or not. As the main songwriter to work with Timbaland before he stopped working with R&B artists and switched over to pop artists, Static is arguably the most influential black songwriter of the past 15 years.
I’ve said numerous times that Playa, Static’s group with Digital Black and Smoke E. Digglera, was the most underrated male vocal group of the late 90s and probably neck-and-neck with Jodeci for the greatest post-soul male vocal group we’ve had. Cheers 2 U, their one and only album, was church set to Timbaland’s futuristic production and Smokey’s more orchestral production. When it dropped in 1998, folks just weren’t ready. Nowadays, people sang all up and through a Timbaland track, but back then people just didn’t quite get Playa. Nonetheless, it’s arguably the best male vocal album of the 90s.
Since then, Static has been keeping busy writing for lots of artists, most notably Aaliyah and Tank.
Static was the last of the three guys in Playa to release a solo album (which was slated to drop sometime this year). In an email to me on Myspace, he was said that he won’t release it till it is perfect. I certainly hope that it comes out in some form still.
Check out a video of the Playa guys payin tribute at a Louisville radio show. Moving!:
Static has never written or performed anything that I didn’t love, but here are my top 5 Static involved joints.
5. We Need a Resolution, Aaliyah(written by Static)
This song is really about the melody. Everyone talks about how Timbaland’s production is so hot — and it is. But the reason that he blew up as big as he did is because Missy and Static, especially, have a firm understanding and mastery of melody. Listen to how Aaliyah rides the groove, but sings with such purpose. I’ve said it a million fuckin times but no one should really sing over a Timbaland beat but Missy, Playa, Ginuwine and Aaliyah. As a collective, they have defined R&B for the past 15 years but they don’t work together anymore. Sad.
4. So Anxious, Ginuwine(written by Static)
Other than G himself, no one could write a melody for Ginuwine the way Static could. Static’s genius was understanding everything about the singer. This is definitely the case with Aaliyah, but his influence and importance in Ginuwine’s career is often overlooked.
I’m not sure, but I think this was to be the first single from the follow-up album to Cheers 2 U. The fact that this album has never materialized is criminal. Blackground has not really figured out what to do with its roster of artists (Tank and Playa, especially). The loss of Aaliyah, and now Static, will make that harder, I think. Nevertheless, this song reinforced what these 3 men do that no other male vocal group do — they bring the church right to ya ears and make you wanna dance. Most people refine that church sound, Playa was all about making every song sound like praise, or devotion, or a spiritual transaction. This is what set them apart and (probably) what made them hard to categorize.
2. Tank, So Many Times(written by Static)
This standout track from Tank’s criminally underappreciated sophomore album, One Man, is perhaps Static’s greatest song. And Tank sangs the hell out of it. If you buy nothing else that Static writes, this is the one you should buy.
1.Playa, 1-65 (written and produced by Playa)
Cheers 2 U was a largely ignored album, but every single person who has heard it or owns it cites I-65 as the crown jewel of the album. It’s basically a song about goin home and lovin where you from. All three guys share lead and all three wrote the song, but Static’s bridge sells it. What’s great about Playa is that they all share lead, but they understand instinctively what voice is right for what part, and the songs are written to each guy’s voice. So when Static’s bridge comes the tempo changes and the harmonies dial up. It’s so moving that I’m sure I’m not even capturing it in this description. On some level, one has to listen to the song and pay attention to the vocal arrangement to see really how the bridge works. Either way, these three brothas never make a bad song, but this remains their single greatest piece of work.