Best of 2001: J. Victoria Sanders

[17 December 2001]

By J. Victoria Sanders

Best Music of 2001 Lists


Jay-Z, The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella/ Island Def Jam)
When this black boy hustled his way onto the hip-hop scene five years ago with Reasonable Doubt, he proved that love is love. Jay Hova’s love for the lyrics and passion for the flow emanated through some of his more noteworthy tracks (“Hard Knock Life”, “Streets Is Watching” and “The City Is Mine,” to name a few) over the years. But when you come into a circle of hardcore beat purists who skim through music in search of the next Rakim, love is not only love: love is hate, too. To some, he is a crossover artist who makes money from pimping hip-hop culture. To others, he’s that cat who never writes a rhyme down and has put out six albums in five years.

No matter what, Jay can’t win, really. Any businessman with the propensity to rhyme would be the subject of envy. Especially if that mogul never professed to be an emcee or a rapper. His honesty aside, Jigga offered commentary to haters and fans alike in 2001, by beginning and ending the year effortlessly spitting on hot tracks. He started the year with The Dynasty Roc La Familia. Jigga appeased the radio stations with “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It to Me)” and fed his soul with an emotional verse about his absent father on “Where Have You Been”. For some, that would have been a year’s work. But because the city never sleeps and the streets never stop talking, he came harder with The Blueprint —on the catastrophic Sept. 11, no less — and still managed to sell more than 400,000 records. Though his latest effort was thick with samples, he created a couple of classics with the gritty “Never Change”, a melancholy “Heart of the City”, and the amazingly tight ode to free speech, “Renagade”.

It wasn’t all big pimpin’ for him, though. In response to Nas and Mobb Deep and whoever else, Jay-Z recorded “Takeover”. He re-launched the spirit of steady beef that has separated the boys from men in hip-hop tribes since b-boys were babies. People will still be talking about Jay well into next year. Sure, he’s a little extra with the black soprano-pose. He could be a little more positive about women and offer fans more depth. But for decades, people will remember Jigga for that apathetic grill, the freestyle flow and handling his business. Period.

india.arie, Acoustic Soul (Motown)
At first sight, it might have seemed like a taller, updated version of Lauryn Hill had appeared on MTV with an acoustic guitar. And while Iindia.arie elicited that comparison because she is a black woman with dreadlocks, the comparison did not last long. With her funky first single, “Video”, she allowed every woman who doesn’t fit the video chick mold (think size 2 with long, straight hair) to take a deep breath of relief. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “Thank God someone made a song about how I feel.”

Acoustic Soul proved to be 16 tracks of soul merging with folk. It was an antidote to the racy lyrics of Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears. It was a cool drink of Iced Tea in the thick humidity of rap’s machismo and contemporary R&B’s obsession with sex. After daydreaming to the saucy bass of “Brown Skin”, and jamming to “Strength, Courage & Wisdom”, images of a smiling Tracy Chapman danced in my head. No, india.arie was not nearly as political as Chapman (at least not on this debut), but she wielded her guitar like a sling of arrows on Acoustic Soul. She seemed to speak directly to women through testimony on this LP, even when she slipped out a dirge on “Ready for Love”. With such a strong debut, Arie proved herself a priestess of melodies and an alchemist capable of blending folk with jazzy soul.

Res, How I Do (MCA)
Res interrupted the monotony of heavily sampled, hip-hop-esque singing with her debut LP, How I Do. With her dreamy voice and poetic lyrics, this Philly-born singer deviated from the melodramatic riffs and one-dimensional content of her contemporaries. She proved that she could stick to the script, with the hip-hop influenced “Sittin’ Back”. Then she flipped the formula for commercial success — pretty woman+good lyrics+great voice= take off your clothes to sell records — by adding her sarcastic and thoughtful touch.

From the laid-back and funky “How I Do” to the carelessly confident “I’ve Known the Garden”, Res defined herself as a sober voice of reason in this current wilderness of haphazard music. She sent the dudes of video-land a clever and snappy retort with “Golden Boys”, then Res offered her yearnings on the Sade-like “700 Mile Situation”. She reminded fans of good music that there is not always a classification for a classic artist. By singing outside of the radio and cable-driven jukebox, Res might not have attracted as large a following as some of her more inane and raunchy peers. But she certainly gave them something to meditate on.

Nikka Costa, Everybody Got Their Something (Cheeba Sound/Virgin)
This self-proclaimed “Funky white bitch” lives by the thick drop of bass. Reared in music by her famed father Don Costa, Nikka is unapologetically free on her fifth album Everybody Got Their Something. Costa is not new to gyrating on microphone stands and belting out soul tunes from her diaphragm: she’s been singing since she was five. Now in her late twenties, she has burst on the scene with songs that stick to the frontal lobe.

“So Have I For You” provides classic guitar riffs and drums while Nikka spills her love all over the lyrics: “You can choose the rain, but I choose the sun.” Despite her small stature, she is a presence that brings to mind old school white girl divas like Teena Marie or the poetic and zany Janis Joplin.

The gently rousing title track, “Everybody Got Their Something” is reminiscent of a lost Al Green song, or a joint that producers of The Wiz score would have made the theme song for the movie. But few of the songs on Nikka’s most popular album to date rival the intensity and gentle beauty of “Push & Pull”, an intricate glimpse of the inner battles of a man’s spirit: “You push and you pull it / Struggle with the knot / That’s tying you up while you’re fading.” Everyone has their something, indeed, and there’s something for everyone on this brilliant, intergalactic and intriguing album.

Maxwell, Now (Columbia)
The term “neo-soul” is Maxwell’s fault. Ever since the modest sex symbol emerged with Urban Hang Suite in 1996, that phrase has been riding the sensual waves of his achievement. He released an intriguing Unplugged album in ? where he first performed Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work”. After the esoteric Embrya in 1998, then the beautiful “Fortunate” on the Life soundtrack in 1999, the popularity of “neo-soul” was still gaining momentum. And this year, Now created a buzz unlike the phrase has ever seen before. (This writer is even guilty of using it after spending too much time staring at the hypnotic glare of my computer screen.)

Supposedly, neo-soul is the catch phrase for the new soul movement, composed of the likes of D’Angelo, Bilal, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and, naturally, Maxwell. But if it’s “new” soul, that implies that “old” soul went somewhere. And every singer, dead and alive, knows that true soul never goes away. It might chill for a couple of years, duck out of the public eye like a celebrity desperately avoiding screaming groupies. But like any other genre, soul doesn’t need a neat prefix just because it’s a different kind of soul than the world has experienced before. Is Creed “neo-Rock?” Is Ludacris “neo-Rap?” I digress.

Maxwell proved my point with his latest effort. There are elements of the ephemeral Marvin Gaye on the uplifting yet casually inspirational “Lifetime”. The exquisite “W/As My Girl"lasts for all of three short minutes, but seductively reminds fans of Gaye’s “I Want You”. In the vein of his Mello Smooth remix of “Sumthin Sumthin” on the 1998 Love Jones soundtrack, this is a song that wraps you up in the aroma of sandalwood incense and the calm blue breath of sexual after-glow. Certainly, this unassuming, beautiful man is difficult to describe. Maxwell is on his own level, where a song like “For Lovers Only” is perfect mood music for a slow dance in the kitchen on a rainy Sunday morning. But that’s not new. That’s residue from emotion that has unravelled itself into a new millennium. Another highlight of Now is the studio version of “This Woman’s Work”, which is only half as good as his live version of the song, but is still breathtaking.

It’s so easy to call Maxwell the king of “neo-soul.” But it’s much simpler to say that he is a contemporary prince of soul and R&B. (He may never achieve King status, since that title is currently held by Prince.)

Aaliyah, Aaliyah (Blackground/Atlantic)
Aaliyah was such an attractive enigma. She began her career that way, as a sultry tomboy in 1994, when she released her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number. With her long black hair tucked behind a cap and baggy jeans sagging far below her belly button, she sang “Back and Forth” with a silky falsetto. She remade “At Your Best (You Are Love)” excellently, and she was only 15. Rumors ensued that she had been married and divorced to R.Kelly. She faded away from the limelight for a couple of years and returned in 1996 with One in a Million.

The cap was gone. The pants were tighter, her hair was loose and draped seductively over one eye. She was coming into her own, singing the suggestive “If Your Girl Only Knew” and clearly thriving from her partnership with hip-hop producers Timbaland and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. In a few years, she sang “Are You That Somebody” on the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack, co-starred with Jet Li in Romeo Must Dien and began working on what would be her last effort, Aaliyah.

A month after her album was released this summer, Aaliyah died in a private plane crash on her way back to the US from the Bahamas. She was 22. She was engaged to Damon Dash, president of Roc-A-Fella records. She was gone too soon. “We Need a Resolution” had just been released. She had been filming the video to her second single, “Rock the Boat”. Aaliyah, on her final album, was a more confident and soulful young woman. Songs like “More Than a Woman” are painful to listen to. “What if” is haunting and it is clear on songs like “Never No More” that she made a tremendous aesthetic leap forward with her last effort. It is difficult to objective about an artists’ work after they are gone and unable to create better, more full music. But in several years, the young tomboy had gone from being a svelte singer with a small following to being labeled the Princess Diana of hip-hop and R&B. While this last album was certainly an achievement, there is no telling what she would have accomplished musically and otherwise had she lived. But if she couldn’t stay with us, at least we got one last whisper of her soft voice before she left. Before she was gone. Too soon.

Published at: