Monday, February 28, 2022

Best Of 2021: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae

Last year, I only reviewed two hip hop albums, which must be a record low for me. Both of them - Madlib's Sound Ancestors and Tyler The Creator's Call Me If You Get Lost - were on my Top 25, too. But that doesn't mean I wasn't listening broadly and finding much to love in the genre, which, as Dr. Dre and company further proved on the recent Super Bowl Halftime Show, is as much American music as anything else. RnB and reggae also had their moments, with the former at its best when it didn't sink into cliché or pop cheesiness, and the latter always struggling mightily with its own past. Here, then, are the releases that stood out from the pack. Listen to the mix here or in the playlist below.

Atlas Jenkins - The Doomsday Device The cover announces the ambitions of this album to be nothing less than a hip hop Dark Side Of The Moon, an epic mind movie about the human condition - and it comes very close to succeeding. Kicking off with a monologue from My Dinner With Andre that ends with the warning, "Escape before its too late," Jenkins then proceeds to provide that escape through spacy grooves, a few questing raps, including some standout rhymes from Jack Harlow, and more monologues from the likes of astronaut Frank Borman (which seems to cast back to another progenitor, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing) and Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson. There's also a cover of the Beastie Boys' Flute Loop cooked up with sax/flute maven Benny Reid. Another collaborator is Preston Crump, known for contributing gooey bass lines to records by Outkast, Raphael Saadiq, and others. But overarching it all is the vision of Jenkins, who in his day job as an ICU nurse is pursuing the intersection of music and medicine. Take a dose of The Doomsday Device - it's over the counter but strictly prescription strength.

81355 - This Time I'll Be Of Use Pronounce it "BLESS." Indie hip hop from Indy, brought to my attention via Justin Vernon & co.'s 37dO3d (pronounced "PEOPLE") label. Production by Sedcairn Archives is both spare and sparkly, underpinning moody, reality-grounded raps and soaring sung choruses by Sirius Blvck and Oreo Jones. Their struggles and joys seem to become my own - pop music transference.

Kanye West - Donda While Donda continues the troubled trajectory of releases since 2013's Yeezus, West's last true masterpiece, this is more coherent than The Life Of Pablo, more varied than Jesus Is King, and better in every respect than Ye. It's also less approachable than Pablo and lacks JIK's concision. Filled with broad-stroke minimalism that has simple, repetitive structures blown up to arena size, there is an almost operatic or cinematic scale to everything here. In a sort of musical imperialism, some songs overstay their welcome or recur in alternate versions barely distinguishable from the originals. That said, there are more than a couple of real winners here, including Jail, Hurricane, Believe What I Say, Jesus Lord, Keep My Spirit Alive, and Lord I Need You, all of which have emotionally-connected raps and memorable melodic elements. As much as I loathe some of the people involved here (Da Baby and Marilyn Manson, to name two), perhaps there's a message in their inclusion about not being judged only by your worst acts. Musically speaking, they're essentially unnoticeable among the overall grandeur. If there's one thing West seems to have lost since 2013, it might be a ruthlessness toward his own art - something none of his collaborators have been able to inculcate again. Still, an utterly fascinating listen from a man whose talent remains formidable despite the surrounding chaos.

Isaiah Rashad - The House Is Burning "Weed couldn't settle my fire/Couldn't cover my pain," Rashad raps over the melancholy backing of Headshots (4r Da Locals), a standout track from his long-awaited third album. Unlike the tentative moves of 2016's The Sun's Tirade, this one finds him confident in himself, embracing joy, sorrow, anger, and lust in equal measure. He also displays a dazzling variety of flows, from staccato spitting to relaxed rhyming. While the gap between albums slowed his momentum, there's nothing stopping him now.

Conway The Machine and Big Ghost LTD - If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed
Conway The Machine -
La Maquina  
The problem with this Buffalo-based rapper/producer is not that his rapid output dilutes his talent, but that he so damned consistent that he demands you keep up. Even as I write this, he has another great album out. That said, there are matters of degree and even by his standards, La Maquina is ahead of the pack. Whether chewing the mic on Blood Roses or uplifting the crowd on Grace (both featuring Jae Skeese, another product of Buffalo), Conway is fully in command. Don't be turned off by the long list of guests, there's no doubt who is calling the shots. Along with work for Conway, Big Ghost also produced The Lost Tapes by Ghostface Killah, and while If It Bleeds... is not as monumentally scuzzy, it's hypnotic and dank, giving the rappers plenty to work with, and they take full advantage for a thrilling ride.

Mach-Hommy - Pray For Haiti and Balens Cho (Hot Candles) Even more so than Conway The Machine, with whom he is connected through the Griselda collective, this NJ-based, Port Au Prince-rooted rapper is building a world of his own. Mostly working in obscurity (his real name is still unknown) since 2004, he emerged big-time with these two albums in 2021. Featuring woozy beats, off-center punchlines, and highly personal reflections alongside outlandish boasts - sometimes in Haitian Creole - both albums display a tight integration of words and music, like a soloist jamming over a jazz band that follows their every move. While the air of mystery might draw you in, you'll stay for the originality and a backstage pass to a place where the rules don't apply. And don't miss his bittersweet track $payforhaiti alongside songs with H.E.R. and Thundercat on Kaytranada's Intimidated EP.

Paris Texas - Boy Anonymous Neither from Paris, Texas, or Paris, Texas, this LA-based duo's debut is a completely assured introduction to their talents, which include making self-produced electronic beats that are are infused with a rock sensibility and pop smarts. The vocals, spoken and sung, are sometimes obscured to tantalizing effect like half-heard conversations from another room. At just over 20 minutes, it's guaranteed they will leave you wanting more.

Brockhampton - Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine "America's greatest boy band," as they like to call themselves, announced an "indefinite hiatus" to begin after their Coachella appearance later this year. Whether this proves to be their last album or not, there are no signs of flagging energy as they trade verses among themselves and a slew of notable guests (A$AP Rocky, JPEG Mafia, etc.) in trademark style. The music is full of color and catchy hooks, adding to the exuberance - and another reason they will be missed. 

Moor Mother - Black Encyclopedia Of The Air In which Moor Mother makes an album completely recognizable as hip hop while also sounding as if she's inventing a new genre as she goes along. Whether wielding an acoustic guitar, a modular synth, or a drum machine, everything she does has a ritual power. If you're seeking a point of entry into her distinctive universe, look no further. Also nice to hear Orion Sun on a few tracks. 

Pinkcaravan! - Pink Lemonade While I appreciate the "more is more" philosophy of some of the artists included above, Pinkcaravan!'s little gems brighten up my year with candlepower disproportionate to their length and frequency. This one charming song is what she gave us in 2021 and I savor every delightful second.

Arlo Parks - Collapsed In Sunbeams Often lighter than air, Parks' songs are only occasionally in danger of disappearing entirely. But her strong pop sensibility - and that of her main collaborator, Gianluca Buccellati - lodges several choruses firmly in your ears and her emotional engagement gives the songs staying power. Is she capable of something utterly devastating like Cranes In The Sky by Solange, one of her inspirations? Unknown, but I'm pulling for it!

Secret Night Gang - Secret Night Gang While their fealty to the wonders of Stevie and the elements of Earth Wind & Fire is sometimes oppressive, that's more a result of me thinking too hard than anything they should be concerned about. While the psych-folk-soul epic of The Sun is still their strongest song, the album is proof that there is nothing they can't do in the jazz-funk-gospel-R&B arena and no limit to the sunshine they can bring to your life.

Silk Sonic - An Evening With Silk Sonic Well, goddamn if Anderson .Paak doesn't have me listening to Bruno Mars without cringing! The two are having so much fun in their Motown/Philly Soul (with a touch of Outkast) fantasies that it's almost impossible not to join in. The songs are strong, if not especially original, and the production gleams with .Paak's usual flair. Collaborating seems to have brought out the best in both of them so join the party or be a stick in the mud.

Stimulator Jones - La Mano It's been three years since his debut and Jones' music has only grown more organic, shading closer to jazz, but the grooves and gently left-field approach make it a nice fit among contemporary RnB, too. There are no vocals this time, just quietly dazzling virtuosity on a variety of instruments, including organ, synth, piano, guitar, drums, and bass. New vistas, including tv and film soundtracks, are opening up for the stimulating Mr. Jones.

New Age Doom - Lee "Scratch" Perry's Guide To The Universe An unexpected blessing from the now departed Perry, who answered the call from this Vancouver-based drone-jazz-metal collective and set them on a path to the dub side of the moon - and all the other planets. Led by drummer Eric J. Breitenbach and multi-instrumentalist Greg Valou, the album features a big cast, including two members of Bowie's Blackstar band, Donnie McCaslin on sax and Tim Lefebvre on bass. Perry's presence is appropriately spectral yet somehow fully in charge, like a Jamaican Gandalf goading his band of explorers ever onward. Not for dub purists and all the better for that. 

Pachyman - The Return Of... Another unexpected success, as Pachy Garcia of synth-punkers Prettiest Eyes indulges in his dub obsession with almost eerie fidelity to the original masters, most notably King Tubby. What keeps it from being a rote exercise in studio craft is Garcia's ultra-light touch, a sense of play that is infectiously delightful. 

Etana - Pamoja Occasionally you discover an unheard gem among the Grammy nominations, which is how I found the free-flowing joys of Etana as exhibited here, on her seventh album. Resolutely contemporary, but with an expansive gaze that takes in roots as much as dancehall, she lavishes everything with vocals that are both soulful and elegant. The lyrics could be sharper, but I'm not complaining - positivity and uplift are in short enough supply these days. There are also a number of guests, including the dancehall stalwart Vybz Kartel and the now iconic Damien Marley, who is too infrequently heard from (his last album, the excellent Stony Hill, came out in 2017). Marley is in fabulous form on Turn Up Di Sound, which only makes me wish harder for more from him. Etana's generosity with the mic leads to the album's only stumble, on a song called Fly, which features an execrable vocal from a character named Fiji. It's easily avoided, however, but don't skip this album. I'll be pulling for Etana on April 3rd, when they hand out the Grammys - it's about time a woman took the prize.

Find more beats, rhymes, grooves, and rhythms in the 2021 archived playlist and follow the 2022 playlist to see what this year brings!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2020: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Best Of 2019: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
Best Of 2018: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2017: Hip Hop, RnB and Reggae
Best Of 2016: Hip Hop and RnB

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