Here are the songs that I think are the finest that I had the opportunity to hear in 2012. If you want to see the other 10, go here.
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.
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.
MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF THE YEAR—Kelly Rowland, Ms. Kelly
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
MOST SLEPT-ON ALBUM OF THE YEAR—Trey Songz, Trey Day
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
BOUT DAMN TIME AWARD OF THE YEAR – Jill Scott
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.
BEST HOLDOVER FROM LAST YEAR—Lyfe Jennings, The Phoenix
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.
MOST PROMISING NEWCOMER—Chrisette Michele
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.