Monday, January 15, 2018

Best Of 2017: Hip Hop, R&B and Reggae

I had only two albums from this category in my Top 25 for 2017: the undeniable DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar and Process, the powerful debut by Sampha. This is a little low for me, which I think was mainly due to where my head was at, needing music of a different sort to get me through the year. But that doesn't mean I didn't find several strong, even stunning, albums in this area, not to mention individual songs, which I feature at the bottom.

Hip Hop Albums

Both Rap Album Two by Jonwayne and The Hegelian Dialectic by Prodigy (RIP) were on my Best Of 2017 (So Far) back in July and they are indeed excellent albums. While they each had qualities that kept them out of the Top 25 (Jonwayne’s tendency to overthink EVERYTHING, some of Prodigy’s questionable lyrical choices), they will also more than reward your attention. 

Big K.R.I.T. - 4eva Is A Mighty Long Time This double album is a statement of purpose from Justin Scott, a veteran rapper from Mississippi. The first part is almost wall-to-wall classic Southern hip hop with beats worthy of OutKast or Goodie Mob, which makes sense as their producer Organized Noize worked on some of the album. K.R.I.T. practically chews up the mic with his raps, more than holding his own alongside some strong guests, like T.I., who lights up Big Bank like a Christmas tree, Bun B. and Pimp C. Nothing detracts from K.R.I.T.’s commanding performance, however. Then, in a dazzling display of his versatility, he takes a left turn into material that’s soulful, funky, jazzy, and even playful. Keep The Devil Off even finds him cooking up a gospel fervor, with church organ to match. This is the “Justin Scott” persona and his collaborators here are people like Joi and Jill Scott, and on the penultimate track, Bilal and Robert Glasper, Jr. But he takes the last song, Bury Me In Gold, on his own, never letting you forget whose show this is. He’s always been good, but this impressive effort vaults him into greatness. 

Big Boi - Boomiverse Speaking of Southern hip hop, Big Boi’s third album is a far more consistent collection than his last, playing to his strengths as the party-starting rapper with the tack-sharp flow. All Night, with its rickety ragtime piano, is a great reminder that hip hop was all about fun at one time. But Big Boi never gets too serious, even when Killer Mike drops by to spit fire. Speaking of guests, I got triggered when I saw Adam Levine’s name on the credits for Mic Jack, but even a Maroon 5 hater like me didn’t really notice him on the track. Plus, the presence of the silky-voiced Sleepy Brown (also a welcome presence on the K.R.I.T. album) more than made up for it. Even acknowledging the fact that he’s not reaching the heights he did in OutKast does little to dampen the pleasures to be found in Big Boi’s Boomiverse, which are many. 

Aminé - Good For You While this fresh new voice is definitely a post-Chance The Rapper rapper, he has more than enough of his own personality, as well as a serious way with a hook. Songs like Veggies, Caroline and Sundays will follow you through your day after a couple of listens. There are a few features, with the best ones being Charlie Wilson singing his ass off on Dakota and Kehlani getting cozy on Heebiejeebies, but this debut is all about Aminé. Get him on your radar. 

Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory Even with a raft of producers (from Zack Sekoff on five tracks (one with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon), to electro-poppers Flume and Sophie, among others) and guests (Kendrick Lamar and Ty Dolla Sign, Blur’s Damon Albarn, etc.), this third album from Staples is his sleekest LP yet. While the feel is high-tech throughout, his flow is gritty and compelling. Highlights are Big Fish, which is danceable, catchy, vaguely threatening - the perfect club single - and Homage, which finds a middle ground between drum’n’bass and techno, with Staples rapping at high tempo seemingly without effort. 

Mourning [A] BLKstar - BLK Muzak This is rainswept black asphalt music, full of startling collage-like shifts in texture and tone. It feels very original but also in deeply in the tradition of Afro-futurism. RA Washington, who founded the Ohio-based collective in 2015, obviously knows very well the size and shape of the envelope he’s pushing with such confidence. I think the time for M[A]B to come up from underground is nigh - don’t get caught by surprise when they do. 

Freddie Gibbs - You Only Live 2wice This short, sharp shock of an album puts Gibbs back in action after some legal troubles relating to an accusation of sexual assault. His relief at being acquitted is palpable as he raps with fury on every track. On Crushed Glass, the first single, his flow is almost exhausting, with only a well-placed Sade sample allowing you (and him) to catch your breath. Phone Lit is another standout, with a woozy groove and more hypnotism from Gibbs. There's something of a Charles Oakley quality to Freddie Gibbs - he may not be a superstar but he always gets the job done.

Raekwon - The Wild The last album by this Wu-Tang Clan stalwart was overstuffed and overworked, which may be why this one was slightly overlooked. Kicking off with This Is What It Comes Too (sic), a fiery blast over a tough-ass boom bap beat, The Wild, while uneven, has Raekwon not only living up to his reputation but expanding on it with songs like Marvin, which tells Marvin Gaye's life story in four sad, soulful minutes, Nothing, which has swagger to burn, and Reign, a regal statement indeed.

R&B Albums

I already wrote about the delights of Charlotte Dos Santos's Cleo, which opens with a sultry take on a 700-year-old song and ends with a cubist cha cha, and The Two Of Us, the latest mixtape from Chloe X Halle, with its touches of blues and reggae framing their gorgeous harmonies. Don't let these two gems get lost in the shuffle.

Kelela - Take Me Apart While her experimental spirit is somewhat dimmed from the badass heights of Cut 4 Me, her debut EP from 2015, this is still an album of great substance. The songs are well-conceived, with insidiously catchy choruses, and the production is still futuristic and haunting. Her stunning voice keeps getting better, displaying some new techniques, while continuing to communicate her individuality and ability to connect directly, human to human. If you're looking for points of entry, try Waitin', a frisky take on that moment when you realize you're not over the person you thought you were over, or LMK, which nails how relationships can bud - or not - in our cultural moment. Enough is a stellar, star-lit ballad, the kind of floating-in-space thing Björk used to be so good at. In fact, if I were going to fall back on an overused reviewer's trope, I might say Kelela is like Björk and FKA Twigs meeting in Janet Jackson's living room. If any of those artists intrigue you, get into Take Me Apart. I just hope she doesn't smooth out her edges any further, a common occurrence in this musical space.

Moses Sumney - Aromanticism Sumney's career has been a slow build since he dropped Mid City Island, a captivating five-song EP, in 2014. From the start, his was obviously a unique vision, putting his sweet voice in spare contexts that evoked folk-soul sounds of the past - Terry Callier comes to mind - while sounding utterly contemporary. Aromanticism is his first full-length and finds his voice ever more assured, with a jazzy, improvisatory insouciance that perfectly fits his androgynous sound. The backing tracks focus mainly on his guitar and multiple layers of his voice, with spare synths rounding things out, making for a supremely chilled-out experience. He has a lot on his mind, too, about how we live and love these days and how he refuses to follow any expected paths. While he occasionally slips into a solipsistic bubble that can make even a dedicated listener feel left out, Sumney is second only to Frank Ocean in dragging soul and r&b into the future.

Sza - CTRL  SZA, otherwise known as Solána Imani Rowe, has a supple singing style that owes as much to jazz as to forbears like Lauren Hill. That loose, intimate style, combined with the analog textures she curated for her debut full-length creates an immediacy that remains fresh even after multiple listens. Rather than writing strict verse/chorus/verse songs, she has a stream of consciousness approach that sometimes feels she's sending you a late-night voice mail. While the album is slightly uneven, the fact that her style works as often as it does is remarkable. Standouts are Prom, which is her version of a pop song, and Doves In The Wind, which features Kendrick Lamar rapping an ode to"power" as singleminded as Chris Rock's routine on Kanye West's Blame Game. Isaiah Rashad, her Top Dawg label-mate as well as a good friend, drops in on Pretty Little Birds, putting down an impressive feature as well. The album concludes with the aching 20 Something, which has SZA pouring her heart out over an acoustic guitar as she explores the pains and possibilities of being at a transitional time in life. Moving stuff, and another example of her versatility and burgeoning mastery.

SiR - Her Too Top Dawg Entertainment, home of Kendrick Lamar as well as SZA and Isaiah Rashad, is a true believer in artist development. So, they're bringing this contemporary crooner along slowly with EPs like this one and the results make it obvious that an album can't be far off. While he's not an R&B radical, he's versatile enough to put over a fun and frisky song like Don't Call My Phone or a moody one like The Canvas. Her Too makes a strong case for a more traditional - and damned sexy - approach to contemporary soul so let's hope TDE lets more of this smooth cat out of the bag soon.

Reggae Albums

Damian Marley - Stony Hill When this album came out I was surprised to find that it was Marley's first solo album in 12 years. Of course, his last album was the titanic Welcome To Jamrock, which he followed up with Distant Relatives, an excellent collaboration with Nas, so we'll cut him a break. We can also forgive that detour into Superheavy, with Mick Jagger and Joss Stone, which was neither super nor heavy. In any case, Stony Hill is very nearly a return to form and easily the best reggae album of the last few years. Marley is in excellent voice, whether singing or toasting, even carrying off Autumn Leaves, a grand ballad, and getting frisky with brother Stephen on the delightful Grown And Sexy. He really can do it all and his production is rich and detailed, displays a deep knowledge of music history beyond reggae. In short, Stony Hill is just Jr. Gong doing what he does best - hopefully we won't have to wait a decade for the next one.

Chronixx - Chronicle Marley should hire Chronixx's publicist because this album was everywhere! Chronixx, AKA Jamar McNaughton is also the scion of a reggae family as his father is Chronicle, known for the rootsy and soulful album Feel This One. A lot of the attention on this debut was deserved, even if the best songs made the weak spots more frustrating. The first five songs are all winners, nothing really new but just classic-feeling reggae sung with a spirited confidence and a disarmingly light touch. Things get a little cheesy with Smile Jamaica and then, with I Can, a shark is jumped in Montego Bay. It's unlistenable. The album mostly recovers, but there are still some ill-conceived moves and the saccharine bonus track I Know Love is no bonus. But Chronixx is still young and undeniably talented. If he buckles down on the quality control, his next album will be a classic.

The Expanders - Old Time Something Come Back Again, Vol. 2 These So-Cal reggae revivalists sound so good it's almost like a trick. But there is no curtain to look behind, just great roots reggae played with skill and style to burn. While their last album, Hustling Culture, was a terrific foray into writing their own material, they return to covers on OTSCBA Vol. 2 and their taste in songs is as impeccable as their playing. Crank up the bass!

Lee Scratch Perry & Subatomic Sound System - Super Ape Returns To Conquer This is also a cover album of sorts, as Perry re-records his own material, mostly from the legendary Super Ape album, with his current backing band. Perry sounds great, the Subatomics know their way around a groove and the dub controls, and there are fine guest appearances by Jahdan Blakkamore and Ari Up from The Slits. As the latter died in 2010, we can assume this has been in the works for a while, but it all hangs together and goes down easy. Also, it's no rote reconstruction, as Perry continues to take chances. Consider me conquered.

Party Mix

Singles are still a big deal in this category, making overnight sensations of artists like Fetty Wap and Soulja Boy - but that doesn't mean everyone should put out an album. Also, even if an artist has only one great song it can still be what you need to get a party started. Then there are the geniuses, like Frank Ocean, where we hang on every note, even during years when they don't put out a full-length. Here's a quick rundown of some of the highlights that enlivened my playlists this year.

Four singles from Frank Ocean seemed like a gold rush after the years of waiting between Channel Orange and Blond, his last two albums. Out of the four, my favorite was probably Chanel with its lo-fi piano and overlapping vocals, but put them all together and you have a legit EP from one of the great artists of our time.

In the excitement over DAMN., Kendrick's Lamar's instant-classic album, the single that proceeded it got a little lost in the mix. But The Heart Part 4 is definitely in the canon, with Lamar changing mood and tone over a shifting series of musical backings. It's like a four-minute mixtape.

Close But But Quite, the debut EP by Everything Is Recorded, the project of Richard Russell, founder of XL Records, found him orchestrating tracks for a number of different singers, including Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, who shows off his auto-tune skills to good effect among the rappers on D'Elusion. But the best song was the title track, which finds Sampha jamming with a lengthy sample of Curtis Mayfield's The Makings Of You - pure gold.

Missy Elliott is an American treasure who finally began releasing new music a couple of years ago after getting over some health issues. Unfortunately, it's been at the rate of about one new song a year! But I'm Better was a sly delight, with Elliott finding some new ways to mess with syllables in the spaces between a spare trap beat. Of course, the video was a visual treat, too. Album in 2018? We can only hope.

Cardi B, a former stripper turned rapper, was ubiquitous in 2017 on the back of Bodak Yellow, an undeniably entertaining single that both traded on her raw, untrained flow and the sheer freedom she felt from breaking with her past. "I don't dance now, I make money moves," is definitely a slogan strivers everywhere can get behind. But do we need an album from her? Probably not, yet if she puts out another song as killer as Bodak Yellow, you'll find it here next year.

Someone I would like to hear more from is pinkcaravan!, a budding artist from St. Louis who murmurs her way charmingly through tracks filled with electronic sunshine and rainbows (kudos to producer Namesake). candy land from her EP a very sad happy birthday is a hit in my book but everything she has released is pretty great. Hat tip to Lorum Ipsum for the pointer.

Lorum Ipsum also introduced me to Josh The Word and his clever Make You A Mixtape, which is like if your best friend shared a song with you and it was actually good. His album was kind of terrible, but that's OK because we're just looking for great songs for our own mixtapes at this point.

While I've liked albums by Your Old Droog in the past, his latest, PACKS, didn't really connect. But You Can Do It (Give Up), built around a perfect Richard Swift sample, features great storytelling and an interesting message.

"All my friends are dead/Push me to the edge," is the unforgettable refrain from Lil Uzi Vert's unpronounceable XO TOUR Llif3, which proved that putting real emotional heat behind the hip hop style of the moment can work. His album is an hour long, however, which was a long time to try and maintain this level of commitment.

In a year that gave us a lot of lemons that didn't always yield lemonade, Lemon, the single announcing the return of N.E.R.D. was definitely a bright spot. The rhythm was just this side of frantic and Rihanna's verse was fiery enough that I put the song at number five in my ranking of all the N.E.R.D. songs. And if the subsequent album didn't quite deliver, it wouldn't be the first thing that failed us in 2017. Time to shut up and dance!

You can hear all of the above here or below and if you want to know what other jams caught my ear last year, get to the 2017 Archive (Hip Hop, R&B and Reggae) playlist. Keep up in 2018 here.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: The Top 25
Best Of 2017: Classical

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