Saturday, February 04, 2023

Best Of 2022: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae

Hip hop continues to dominate popular music, whether as itself or as an influence on production and songwriting. But there is great depth to the field as well, far beyond the commercial frontier. The same can be said for RnB, which now incorporates hip hop, pop, and the old DNA of soul and funk into its makeup. As for reggae, I've stopped worrying about where Jamaican music would go after dancehall and just listen for the sounds that hit my sweet spot. See below for what I discovered in these intertwined genres, starting with the releases I already covered. Find a track from each (except Isaiah Rashad) in this playlist or below.

Record Roundup: 22 For 22 (Part 1)
FKA Twigs - Caprisongs
Pusha T - It's Almost Dry
Kendrick Lamar - Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers

Record Roundup: Evocative Voices
Moor Mother - Jazz Codes See also the powerfully skeletal Nothing To Declare by 700 Bliss (Moor Mother with DJ Haram)
Lizzo - Special

Record Roundup: Songcraft
Steve Lacy - Gemini Rights
Sudan Archives - Natural Brown Prom Queen


Isaiah Rashad - Music 4r Da Vibers Given that his best album included the word "demo" in the title and his second album was about writer's block, it's obvious Rashad sometimes gets in his own way. Following up last year's The House Is Burning with this leaked collection of demos and snippets may point a new way forward for him because it's even better than that excellent album. Warmth, immediacy, and a cutting self-examination are just some of the characteristics that have had me coming back to this over and over, along with the smeared, grimy beats. 

Megan Thee Stallion - Traumazine Wildly entertaining, vulnerable, and intricately assembled, Megan's second album proves her staying power. The best songs feature not only her sharp flow but also a kind of vocal counterpoint going on the the background, breath sounds, random words, and vocal tics creating an atmospheric tapestry. Ending with Anxiety ("They keep sayin' I should get help/But I don't even know what I need/They keep sayin' speak your truth/And at the same time say they don't believe, man"), the first 11 songs alone would have been enough to get Traumazine on this list. Things get a little patchier after that, with the pace slowing down and Megan becoming almost a guest on her own album. But when she's ON there are few others who can do what she does. 

Conway The Machine - God Don't Make Mistakes and Conway The Machine & Big Ghost Ltd. - What Has Been Blessed Cannot Be Cursed While this Buffalo-based rapper seems to be working all the time, God Don't Make Mistakes is only his second album proper after 2021's excellent La Maquina - and he's raised the bar significantly this time. When he ends Tear Gas with the line "I keep the guns and the drugs just for the paranoia," I couldn't help but think, "And for the lyrical content." But by the time you get to the extraordinary title track you realize there's nothing sensationalist about the gritty noir that defines his style. Over a grimy track by the Alchemist, Conway runs through a series of questions about the life-changing aftermath of getting shot ("Sometimes I wonder, if this Bell's Palsy didn't paralyze my grill in/Would there still be murals of my face painted on side of buildings?") ending with his mother praying over his grievously injured body in the hospital. It's a haunting finale that will have you hitting repeat so you can try to grasp how he pulled a new beginning out of that near ending. While God Don't Make Mistakes represents Conway's major label debut, What Has Been Blessed... finds him back with Big Ghost and showing no sign of losing touch with his roots. As he raps on Bodie Broadus: "I'm the main source of the culture, I'm love's professor/The one that every major label wanna all get next to/And that's just from recordin' pressure, all it cost was effort/Bars so electric, shit might could charge your Tesla." All never truer than on these two albums.

Freddie Gibbs - $oul $old $eparately After the haymaker one-two punch of Bandana, produced entirely by Madlib, and Alfredo, produced entirely by The Alchemist, I had some trepidation when I heard Gibbs was going the major label-multi-producer route. I was at least a little bit right to be concerned as there is definitely a more diffuse, diluted vibe to this collection. Even the concept - Freddie locked up in a Vegas hotel trying to finish his album - is not quite enough to make it cohere. But Gibbs is never less than committed when comes to the microphone there's nothing slack about his raps. The concept also imposes a number of skits on the album, which are amusing, but when you have a song as hot as Gold Rings, with its killer Pusha T feature, I kinda wish it didn't end with 30 seconds of tomfoolery, i.e. Jesus leaving a voice mail. They should at least put those on their own track so you can weed them out if you want to.

Prodigy - The Hegelian Dialectic 2: The Book Of Heroine While this collection is uneven, it's good to see Prodigy's planned trilogy finally coming to fruition. Following 2017's darkly elegant The Book Of Revelation - the last album released during his lifetime - this one addresses lighter concerns of "sex, drugs, and partying" as opposed to apocalyptic, political themes. Some of the beats feel demo quality but Prodigy's voice is always strong, rapping with intent. As on the romantic Low from the last Mobb Deep album, Prodigy actually, er, rises to the occasion of discussing sex and love on I Heart You: "Candle-lit rooms, shadows on the wall kiss/Her silhouette shape on the wall so thick/The flames on the wick dancin' to the music/Make our hearts melt like wax into each other palms." It's hard to know what he would have done differently, but I imagine he would be proud to have Big Daddy Kane, D.J. Premier, Faith Evans, his old running buddy, Big Noyd, and others on the project. Perhaps even more importantly, Prodigy's estate was finally able to resolve the business tangles that kept his work off of streaming services, making his indelible legacy available again. The final album in the trilogy, promised to confront death itself, is coming out later in 2023.

They Hate Change - Finally, New Even though their set was cut short at IndiePlaza last fall, at least the festival succeeded in turning me on to this Tampa-based duo. Vonne Parks and Andre Gainey combine tag-team, high energy raps with an eclectic landscape of beats that incorporate dub, drum & bass, and all manner of electronic dance grooves - sometimes in the same song. No dilettantes here, however, as they take full ownership of every sound. While they are aggressive in making it clear they stand apart from much of the hip hop universe (As Gainey raps in Blatant Localism: "It’s funny how y’all get excited about crime/I can’t deny, I thought them rhymes was really true to they lives"), it's less clear where they do stand lyrically - but the words sound good nonetheless, making for an assured package. No surprise, as they've been working their way up to this album since 2015 - hence the "finally" in the title. 

Pinkcaravan! - Bananaz and Eazy Bake Since 2018, when her delightful EP 2002 came out, we've been lucky to be gifted one or two songs a year from this unique artist. These two tracks do nothing to stop me from wanting more of her candy-coated hip hop confections. Perhaps 2023 will make that happen.

Saba - Few Good Things While nothing here quite matches the cinematic sweep and emotional depth of Prom / King, the standout track from his 2018 album, Care For Me, this third album is also more consistent. You can learn a lot about what he's giving us here just by the picture of his seemingly indomitable grandfather on the cover - and the ambiguity of the title. There is no bitter without the sweet, and vice versa, in Saba's universe. As he noted when describing the short film attached to the project, "An empty glass is full of air. An empty bank is full of lessons. An empty heart is full of memories." But this album is full - full of heart, soul, anger, humor, not to mention juicy beats, mostly cooked up by Saba and his Pivot Gang cohort. As Saba tries to just live life, I think you'll find him enriching yours.

Vince Staples - Ramona Park Broke My Heart While his last two projects didn't connect with me, in 2017 I highlighted Big Fish Theory for its "high tech" feel and Staples' "gritty and compelling" raps. Now, on his fifth album he's caught me again, although he's in a much more reflective mood. As the title hints, he's exploring his relationship to the Long Beach neighborhood that raised him. An example of the complexity and depth of his approach is When Sparks Fly, which uses Havoc's echoing beat from Mobb Deep's More Trife Life to provide atmosphere and drive for a love song between a man and his gun, playing with the many ways the language of romance can have a double meaning: "She said, "Baby, keep me closely, love it when you hold me/Know that I'm a real one, I don't do no ghostin'/I know that you love me, you don't gotta show me." Sampling the chorus from Lyves' yearning 2016 track No Love, with its "Lovers in arms" line, is yet another clever feint, making the song sound even more romantic. Of course, there's a subtext about why a young Black man in Long Beach would need a gun. As a bit of of autobiography in the otherwise bloody Magic notes: "Momma met my daddy, then they had me in the ghetto/Handed me a thirty-eight and told me I was special." Touches like that are what makes these songs, and the album, so haunting.

Billy Woods - Aethiopes and Church It's not uncommon for hip hop to come across as cinematic, the words making pictures in your mind that move with the music. Aethiopes, with a textured background by producer Preservation coming from a realm of deep knowledge of many musics of the African diaspora, comes across with the electric, intimate immediacy of an Amiri Baraka play. The Doldrums, for example, stitches together harpsichord stabs, Ralph Towner guitar fragments, throbbing drums, and brooding bass as Woods barks out a tapestry that links the slave trade with the drug trade, both of which can leave people stranded in the doldrums: "Thick mist, piff smoke, draw straws from clenched fists/Sinkin' ship, human souls in thе hull/He got the whole world in his hands, ice cold/Open them palms up, turned black as a ghost." Church features production from Messiah Musik and feels murkier and less coherent than Aethiopes, but still compelling.

Elucid - I Told Bessie Elucid is Billy Woods' partner in the long-running avant hip hop duo, Armand Hammer, and Woods appears on four songs and executive produced I Told Bessie. But as tribute to the love and support Elucid received from his grandmother, Bessie, who died in 2017, it's clearly very personal to him. The album is filled with languid, minimalist beats from a variety of producers, all of whom hew to Elucid's vision and give him space to spin his impressionistic rhymes. Impasse is one highlight, with Elucid interrogating his mortality over an off-kilter drum track and nocturnal horns: "Who will close the book, who ain't write my name down?/Who gon' hold the torch, what the cards say now?/Last good kiss, last call, the lights up/It's where the road splits, asphalt shakedown." With this album, Elucid has definitely written his name in the book of hip hop.


In 2017, I praised SZA's "versatility and burgeoning mastery" on her debut, CTRL. Five years and, by all accounts, hundreds of songs later, we get more of the former and evidence that the latter needs no qualifiers. Of course, versatility can become a liability when you have trouble recognizing your strengths and weaknesses, which leads to some longueurs on this 68-minute album. But for every miss, like the rote pop of F2F, you get three hits, like the delicious revenge fantasy, Kill Bill (complete with Tarantino-esque video), the yearning Nobody Gets Me, or Ghost In The Machine, which finds power in sisterhood with Phoebe Bridgers, who guests on the song. Hopefully next time she doesn't feel the need to be all things to all people - after all, as proven by the best songs here, she's already perfect at being herself.

Kehlani - Blue Water Road While the first three tracks on this third album are in no way unpleasant, they feel unfocused, like a warmup. But when the rounded weight of the beat from Slick Rick's Children's Story drops on Wish I Never (one of a few well-deployed samples on the album) the momentum kicks in and doesn’t let up. Even Justin Bieber can’t interrupt the flow of song after song of sleek, emotionally engaged R&B. The ballads, like Melt, which starts off with little more than an acoustic guitar and a drum machine, have an urgency and a melodic inevitability that keeps you listening. When the burner is lit, Blue Water Road is a triumph for Kehlani and their main collaborator, Pop Wansel. The son of Philly Soul legend Dexter Wansel, Pop is in nobody’s shadow by now - and neither is Kehlani.

Phony Ppl - Euphonyus Over a decade into their career, it would be easy to take this Brooklyn-based R&B group for granted, but the fact is there aren't too many like them around anymore, such is the focus on solo acts in the genre. But that would all be immaterial were it not for the many varieties of charming tunes here, from upbeat electro-dance tracks like Dialtone and Warmest Winter, neo-disco like To Get Home (feat. Leon Bridges and The Soul Rebels, who lay down some nice horns), or a creamy ballad like Been Away, which rises to a glorious guitar-driven crescendo. Then there's Fkn Around, another electro track that airlifts Megan Thee Stallion in for a signature rap, complete with counterpoint, which only adds extra juice to the quintet's classic tales of infidelity. 

Yaya Bey - Remember Your North Star Bey comes across as self-effacing, with those lower-case song titles and that sweet voice, which assays jazz, reggae, soul, R&B, and hip hop with equal ease, but don't be fooled. The first words we hear are "Fed up bitch/I just won't let up bitch/I take my foot up off your neck when I feel like bitch," which clues you in to her steely resolve to realize her music and express her feelings, which center around the "deep wound" Black women have around finding love and being loved. Self-produced with assists from Phony Ppl’s Aja Grant and DJ Nativesun, the music ranges over all those genres in which her voice feels so at home. With 18 songs from 16 seconds to 4:25, there's almost a sense of cracking the code of someone's iPhone and scrolling through their voice notes. The vocal sound on a song like Street Fighter Blues only reinforces that vibe. Intimate, vulnerable, and powerful, you won't soon forget Yaya Bey or her music.

Michelle - After Dinner We Talk Dreams Having been lucky enough to catch this charming sextet in concert I am happy to report that everything you hear on this second album is real - the harmonies, the unity, the tunefulness, the grooves, the sheer delight they have in making music together, a feeling they seamlessly translate to the listener. It's also a remarkably consistent album so don't trust those Spotify play counts and only listen to the first four songs. Also give an ear to the Side Dishes single, which has two more great songs. There's a deep well here, so drink up.

Stimulator Jones - Round Spiritual Ring On his debut and subsequent instrumental album, Sam Lunsford displayed his dazzling, somewhat off-center facility at many forms of R&B and dance music. On his latest, he gives us another mix of related styles, from hearkening back to Shannon's Let The Music Play on Pain Inside to paying homage to the mid-70s Isley Brothers on Love Will Light Your Dreams, complete with a smoking hot guitar solo. The album's dreamy trajectory gets goosed by the uptempo rock of Peace, Love, Respect & Adoration, connecting him with other traditions. And it is all about connection - the album title may have originated in a misheard Prince lyric but is a good metaphor for the interchange between creator and listener and between inspiration and creativity. 

Lady Wray - Piece Of Me Twenty-four years on from her debut as a protege of Missy Elliott and Timbaland, nearly everything about Nicole Wray has changed - not just her professional name. Her voice is stronger and her artistic vision more her own, just to name two things. Some of what you hear on this third album was evident on 2016's Queen Alone, when she reemerged in the soul-revival orbit of Leon Michels, Lee Fields, and Charles Bradley. But while she's still recognizably in that world, the sound of Piece Of Me injects much that is new - whether a folk-like directness on Come On In or hints of dub and lovers rock on Through It All - into what can quickly become formulaic. This is also her most personal album, with her father and daughter making appearances, lending even further warmth. Follow her lead: invite the family, then put this record on.


Kabaka Pyramid - The Calling It took not only a 2023 Grammy nomination but an Instagram post from Damian Marley, who produced this third album, for this artist to gain traction in my eardrums. Granted, his output has been slow, with his debut coming over a decade ago. But this rich 15-song collection is a great showcase for his songwriting and toasting. Even if nearly every song has a guest, starting with the opening track, which features an effective sample of the late Peter Tosh,  Kabaka is a commanding presence more than able to hold his own with anyone in contemporary reggae. Grateful is a great showcase of his rhythmic flexibility, with verses seamlessly transitioning from rapid fire flow to stop-start segments. The song has a sweet hook sung by Jamere Morgan, grandson of Denroy Morgan, too, lending an additional sense of legacy to the track. For anyone waiting for Damian Marley's next album - his last, the excellent Stony Hill, came out in 2017 - this fills the gap very nicely.

Koffee - Gifted Nearly twice as long as her fine 2019 EP, Rapture, this gives us a chance to get to know Koffee's breezy, winning style better. Opening with X10, which has her casually singing over Bob Marley's Redemption Song, was a bold move, and many tracks have spare backing to keep the focus on her voice. Whether toasting intensely over Where I'm From or sweetly starting the party on West Indies, where she tosses in a hint of Lionel Richie's All Night Long, she's effortlessly versatile. 

Horace Andy - Rockers & Scorchers One of reggae's most legendary voices, Andy released two albums in 2022, Midnight Rockers and Midnight Scorchers, both brilliantly produced by UK dub magus Adrian Sherwood. This deluxe edition compiles both of them with two bonus tracks, giving us a cup that runneth over with passionate roots reggae. Several songs are updates, like This Must Be Hell, originally on his classic 1978 album, Natty Dread A Weh She Want. But he sounds so engaged, you won't hear complaints from me. He also covers Safe From Harm, the Massive Attack song, in convincing enough fashion that I wonder why he didn't do it in the first place. With so many of the great voices now gone, having Andy nearly at full strength is a gift indeed.

Dubokaj Meets Lee Scratch Perry - Daydreamflix With Perry's death in 2021, I was sure we would be inundated with subpar scraps from the master's workbench. Maybe they're out there - but this is not one of them. Recorded in 2017, Daydreamflix finds Perry working with Swiss-based dub scientist, Daniel Jakob, on a series of spacious, spacey dub tracks, heavy on the electronics and full of atmosphere. Jakob is not too reverent either, processing Perry's voice and treating it like just another color on his palette. A fitting addition to Perry's vast discography with the only mystery being why it took five years to reach fruition.

Dubmatix Meets Future Dub Orchestra - Frontline Dub Smooth, expansive, and never without forward motion, this collaboration between the Toronto-based producer and the Bristol, UK band is an object lesson in dub, if not quite as titanic as the Sly & Robbie connection from 2018.

Find more beats, rhymes, grooves, and rhythms in the 2022 archived playlist and follow the 2023 playlist to see what this year brings!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2021: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
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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