Clipping - Visions Of Bodies Being Burned How far you want to dive into the references to classic horror films and homages to an earlier generation of hip hop artists on this latest from Daveed Diggs' group is up to you. Even if totally ignorant of all the cogitation behind their creative process, I can't imagine the brick hard, serrated beats - constructed by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes with other collaborators - combined with Diggs' machine-gun delivery not having an impact. Part of that is the sheer viscera Diggs pumps into couplets like: "'Til nine months later with a stomach full of Devil baby/She startin' to think it's time to pump the brakes/But that train left the station with the Great Migration/Bloody tracks left right by the drain, say the name." You would not be mistaken if you assigned the album to the same moment that gave us HBO's Lovecraft Country, another canny a mix of pop-culture inside jokes with social commentary. So whether it's the words or the grim soundscapes that discomfit you while listening, either way you will not be bored.
Conway The Machine - From A King To A GOD, No One Mourns The Wicked (with Big Ghost Ltd.), and Lulu (with The Alchemist) Maybe it's the raw winters of Buffalo that forged this indomitable rapper, who seems to have endless bars to deliver over beats by some of the best producers around, including DJ Premier, Havoc, Big Ghost Ltd., and The Alchemist. In some ways, there's nothing on these three albums that couldn't have come out five years ago, but rather than live on the cutting edge, Conway seeks merely to be excellent. He's also damned convincing in whatever tales he's delivering, with a persona of having come through the fire to rise to the top. But among the brags are heartfelt and humble moments of reflection, as on The Contract from Lulu: "Let's toast to my enemies, no, let's toast to my injuries/Turned my negative to positive, I don't need no sympathy/I'm the GOAT 'til infinity, I wrote with intensity/Plus, my potent delivery, I just hope they remember me." If he keeps up this pace and quality, he'll be impossible to forget.
Megan Thee Stallion - Good News Like Conway, Megan sees no need to jump on trap or drill trends, just serving up fun, creative beats from a roster of expert producers (I count 20!), and slathering her diamond-sharp rhymes all over them with infectious glee. Her joy - and ours - comes not only from her sheer skill with syllables, but her complete lack of inhibition, which can also be found on WAP, the era-defining single (and video!) she made with Cardi B. While Cardi is not on the album, there are a ton of other guests, but she lets none of them dim her shine, although Dababy and Sza come close. While Don't Rock Me To Sleep, the one pure pop move, is regrettable, mainstream hip hop this good is not as common as it should be so all is forgiven. Not that she would care what I think - nor would I want her to!
Jean Dawson - Pixel Bath The Pigeons & Planes Discord is one of the brightest spots on the internet, full of positivity, constructive criticism, and enthusiastic sharing. While time constraints have me mostly lurking, my antennae are always up for something getting a lot of attention, and this nearly genre-free debut quickly bubbled up. As much a rock or pop album, with all the soaring guitar solos and sticky choruses that implies, it slots in here nicely due to its omnivorous nature and sharp attitude. While there is plenty of youthful angst, it fortunately stays to the right side of emo, landing almost in a post-punk zone on occasion. It's anyone's guess where Dawson goes from here, but his options appear to be unlimited.
Spillage Village, JID & EarthGang - Spilligion Even before I knew this collective was from Atlanta, GA, I was getting strong OutKast vibes based on the beat-making, which is colorfully original yet steeped in funk, soul, gospel, etc., and the variety and energy of the flows. Loads of pop smarts, too, with several songs achieving ear worm status. Perhaps a testament to the deep collaboration underpinning the whole album is the fact that, with 20+ producers and a more than a dozen rappers, Spilligion not only doesn't collapse under its own weight, but is actually a joyful and consistent listen. You can listen free on every service, but tell me you aren't tempted by this vinyl package, which is as exuberant as the music.
Goodie Mob - Survival Kit Speaking of the Dirty South, here comes the Mob with their first album in seven years - and one of their best. Even at nearly an hour, it does not overstay its welcome thanks to the lively tracks by Organized Noise and energized and engaged rhyming from everybody, including the three stellar guests: Chuck D, Andre 3000, and Big Boi. Considering the way 2021 has kicked off, I'm going to keep this album close at hand. As Khujo Goodie says in the title track: "Mask on, gloves on, we ain't out the woods yet/The power of the mind is my survival kit."
Run The Jewels - RTJ4 Some have complained that while this is good, it's nothing new from Killer Mike and El-P, but I think the former is carrying the latter less often, which is refreshing. El's beats are as great as usual, with more of an electro flavor (and a great Gang Of Four sample on The Ground Below), inspiring Killer Mike to some awesome heights, as on this verse from Goonies Vs. E.T.: "Ain't no revolution is televised and digitized/You've been hypnotized and Twitter-ized by silly guys/Cues to the evening news, make sure you ill-advised/Got you celebrating the generators of genocide/Any good deed is pummeled, punished, and penalized." There's also a devastating Mavis Staples feature on Pulling The Pin, and one of the best rallying cries ever on JU$T: "Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar." When I start using paper money again, I will be looking hard.
Sault - Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise) Through a combination of savvy marketing and a canny combination of influences ranging from Black Heat and 24 Carat Black to contemporary funk, R&B, and hip hop, this mystery collective topped many a list of 2020's best music. Much of that acclaim was deserved as they delivered two albums full of sticky tunes, danceable grooves, and up to the minute rallying cries. However, each album is salted with PSA like interludes (like You Know It Ain't) that lose their luster after a few listens. But there is much that is thought-provoking and much that is sheerly enjoyable here. Maybe next time around they'll realize they have nothing to prove.
Orion Sun - A Collection Of Fleeting Moments And Daydreams This slightly updated version of her 2017 EP shows off Tiffany Majette's talents with exquisite focus, slightly more so than her other 2020 release, Hold Space For Me. But both make great use of acoustic guitars, scratchy records, bossa nova samples, and Majette's voice, which has a delicacy belying its hidden strengths. Both records are a time-lapse view of a new original blossoming before your ears.
Kali Uchis - Sin Miedo (Del Amor Y Otros Demonios) Anyone who's heard 2018's Isolation, Uchis' first album, would know from songs like Your Teeth In My Neck that she is "sin miedo" (without fear) - and that she's an endless font of melody. That combination means it's no surprise that this album of mostly Spanish language material goes down so smoothly. She traverses boleros and reggaeton with equal ease, demonstrating that steely delicacy on song after song. Even on a banger like Te Pongo Mal, she never oversells, making an album that will work at a party but also in quieter circumstances. The last track, Angel Sin Cielo, which could have been a tour de force of layered vocals over acoustic guitar, is an unfortunate misfire, but the rest is close to perfection.
Denise Sherwood - This Road If the name looks familiar to you from the On-U Sound universe led by Adrian Sherwood, you're already on the right track to digging this delicious debut by his daughter. Apparently years in the making as she sought her voice, it's helped by that temporal variety, with touches of trip-hop and drum & bass among the sleekly assured reggae you would expect. And it's a gorgeous voice, too, confident yet restrained, with the low-key strength of someone who knows they have nothing to prove. More than holding its own among classics from the New Age Steppers, African Head Charge, and other Sherwood projects, This Road sees the On-U legend yet being written. All hail!
Toots & The Maytals - Got To Be Tough That was a bit of a sorry roller coaster ride we went on last year with this reggae legend. First, there was his inspiring interview in Rolling Stone, which revealed a long-in-the-works new album would soon be coming to fruition, with the unlikely help of Zak Starkey. Then, just days later, the dispiriting news that this indefatigable force had been felled by complications resulting from COVID-19. So now the album had the dual weight of not only being his first in ten years, but his final statement. I'm happy to report that, after a shaky start (the first song is annoying, the second inconsequential), and despite an unnecessary remake of Three Little Birds, this is a fine album. His voice sounds strong throughout and there are more than a few songs - the title track especially - worthy of including on a career-spanning playlist. There may be more in the vaults that will come out posthumously, but for now this will serve as a capstone to a life in music that needed no burnishing.
Singles: This category always churns up essential stand-alone singles. In 2020 there was the aforementioned WAP and we also got Frank Ocean singing dreamily in Spanish on the spare Cayendo, the warm Terry Callier/Isley Brothers vibes of The Sun by Secret Night Gang, Hot Sauce, another tasty lagniappe from Pinkcaravan!, and Lockdown, the quarantine smash by Anderson .Paak. He rose to our current moment with one his best songs yet, somehow giving us permission to dance while looking squarely in the face at some of the challenges of 2020. My grandchildren will understand a bit more of what we're going through when we play them Lockdown. What music will you share with them to help them understand?
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Best Of 2019: Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae
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