Best of 2004: The Midwest Reborn, Shades of Gray, and a Chakalicious Classic

Mark Anthony Neal

Noted cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal picks the best hip-hop and R&B of the year. Yeah, he's a Kanye guy.

Classic Hip-hop from that Big-headed Boy
1. Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)
Perhaps the first thing you notice about Kanye West is the big-head he's developed in the aftermath of becoming the producer of the moment. Cat might not have much humility, but damn if he ain't drop the best recording of the year. Give Kanye credit for trying to get all crunk up in the church ("Jesus Walks"), bringing Chaka's genius back to the light ("Through the Wire") and finally getting fellow Chi-town son Twista some much needed national recognition with "Slow Jamz". But for me Kanye's genius is best found on a track like "Spaceship", a working class lament on exploitation and the need for transcendence. Kanye's Spaceship, was once George Clinton's Mothership, was once Sun Ra's "Rocket Number Nine", was once an enslaved African's "sweet chariot". "Spaceship" is smack in the middle of the "spirit" suite which includes "All Falls Down", "Jesus Walks" and "Never Let Me Down" with 'Hov and J-Ivy. Michael Eric Dyson refers to Kanye's music as ghetto theodicy and indeed after hearing the "spirit suite you'd be hard pressed to find any form of black pop in recent years that so powerfully synthesizes the sacred and the profane.
   :. original PopMatters review

The Mid-west Rises Again
2. Van Hunt, Van Hunt (Capitol)
This son of Dayton, Ohio had the misfortune of signing to a label that didn't have a clue about how to promote him. Is Van Hunt the second coming of Prince? The fulfillment of the promises that Lenny Kravitz made to us so long ago? Or is Van Hunt simply another reminder of the genius that the Midwest has given us? -- the brothers Isley, a baby-faced crooner named Kenny and a legend named Curtis, just to name a few. Van Hunt is currently the brightest light in a loose collective of soul artists aligned with American Idol's Randy Jackson including Dionne Farris (Van Hunt co-wrote "Hopeless") and Rahsaan Patterson. If you ain't heard "Seconds of Pleasure", "Dust", "Down Here is Hell (With You)" than you have missed a gem of a recording and the beginning of a very promising career.
   :. original PopMatters review

Veteran's Day
3. De La Soul, The Grind Date (Sanctuary)
"Do it for the love of the art..." and De La Soul has been doing as much for more than 15 years, consciously distancing themselves from the fame and hype that came with their ground-breaking debut 3 Feet High and Risin' (1989). All Dave, Pos and Maseo have wanted to do is make the best hip-hop they could and The Grind Date proves that these veterans are still at their creative peak. 1970s soul is the soundtrack for the day whether it's Jeffrey Osborne and L.T.D. on "Much More" or Clifton Davis' "Never Can Say Goodbye" on "No (Butta Verses)". Give De La credit for sounding vital and relevant flowing with MF Doom on "Rock.Co.Kane" or on the humorous "Shopping Bags", but what makes De La important these days is their willingness to get real about being 30-somethin' black men trying make this life thing happen and they are at their best in this regard when they take it to "Church".
   :. original PopMatters review

4. Chaka Khan, Classikhan (Sanctuary)
Ms. Chaka might have been the original 'round-the-way girl. Sis's pics from those '70s Rufus album covers hark back to an age when and R&B stunna didn't have to be a size six. And perhaps that why hip-hop has so love Ms. Chake, be it De La, Kanye or most famously Melle Mel ("Chaka Khan, let me love, let me love you Chaka Khan"). A few years Ms. Chaka more than held her own a few years ago with a group of jazz giants that included Freddie Hubbard and Chick Corea and deep fans have been waiting for her to record that straight jazz album. It took more than 20 years, but Classikan is arguably the best recording of the round-the-way Diva's fabulous 30-year-old career. And she is indeed the "every" woman at her peek on tracks like "Crazy" (made famous by Patsy Cline), "To Sir with Love", T. Monk's "Round Midnight" and "Stormy Weather".

Shades of a Grey Jay
5. Danger Mouse, The Grey Album
What happens when The Beatles' White Album gets mashed with Jay Z's Black Album? You get an ingenious concoction from the mind of Danger Mouse. The powers to be were quick to get at The Grey Album for Mouse's unauthorized use of The Beatles music, but not before the joint got major league copped by cats on the web. For his part Jay remained silent, no doubt because the very reason he put out a vocal-only version of The Black Album was to prove that as the greatest of all time, he could flow over anything... anything!
   :. original PopMatters review

The Power of Jimi
6. Various, Power of Soul: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix (Image Entertainment)
Next September marks the 35th anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix. In that time the legacy of Hendrix has only grown as Power of Soul, a decidedly soulful tribute to the legendary guitarist, aims to prove. No doubt the project was helped by the appearances of "big" names like Santana, Clapton, Sting and the late Stevie Ray Vaughn, whose version of "Little Wing" is worth the price of admission alone. but it was the love that came from Jimi's folk that makes this one special. Prince contributes a purplized version of Jimi's "Red House" with "Purple House" (the late John Lee Hooker is on board with a cover of the original "Red House"), Robert Randolph and the Family do the do to "Purple Haze", Eric Gales gives us "May This Be Love" (where's MeShell?) and Lenny Kravitz turns in one of his best vocal performances on "Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland)". But these are the cats you'd expect to be in the room -- the real gems come from those who we didn't expect. So Ms. Chaka is in rare form on a moving version of "Little Wing" and Sounds of Blackness give "Castles in the Sand" an uplift (not a facelift) and we love the fact that Musiq thought he could do "Are You Experienced?" (joint earned him a Grammy nomination).

Flight of a Philly Songbird
7. Amel, Bravebird (Bliss Life)
Far too many folk only think of Amel Larrieux as the chick from Groove Theory. Her debut solo release Infinite Possibilities (2000) was easily the most sophisticated recording among any that could claim to be neo-soul. No doubt Larrieux's refusal to be locked up in the neo-soul ghetto or put on-display as the R&B chanteuse of the moment, led to her flight from her label. Like so many refugees from the music industry plantation, Larrieux finds real freedom doing it on her own and Bravebird is the product. "For Real" is simply the sweetest R&B single of the year (though you've probably never heard it) and Larrieux is utterly disarming on the title track-a pulsating groove that brings you into the world of female circumcision on it's own terms.

Fertile Rewards
8. Fertile Ground, Black Is... (Blackout Studios)
Fertile Ground does it the way it needs to be done. Talk about doing it for the love of the art and if you're James Collins, Navasha Daya and the rest of the cats in Fertile Ground that's the only reason to do it. Black Is... is the most accomplished recording from the Baltimore-based band and an album that relishes in the way it "echoes" from the deep well of black music, whether it's Ellington, Doug Carn or Nina Simone that gets revisited. Black Is... is a throwback to era being "too black, too strong" was the only way to make this music.

Make the Music with Your Mouth
9. Jean Grae, This Week (Babygrande)
In Jean Grae's case, genius clearly runs in the family. The daughter of vocalist Sathima Bey Benjamin and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (who will proudly tell you that his baby-girl is on tour with The Roots and Talib Kweli), Jean Grae is a hip-hop original and the one that will end all questions about the presumed rarity of serious women MCs. The flow is the flow, but always works best when backed by some Blue Soul and indeed there's been days when I've listened to "Supa Luv" like 10... 12 times in a row.
   :. original PopMatters review

Reverend Cee-lo
10. Cee Lo, Cee Lo Green... is the Soul Machine (Arista)
Cee-Lo ain't ever gonna be your favorite rapper, because he's more interested in being Al Green. This point has been made clear now through two solo efforts, the latest of which shows off Cee Lo's fluidity in great black music as we here riffs from The Color Purple, "His Eye is on the Sparrow" and P-Funk's "Give Up the Funk". Yet we know that Cee-Lo has only scratched the surface of his talents (see his version of "Foxey Lady" on the Hendrix tribute disc) -- unfortunately he needs to sell records which in this day in age seems mutually exclusive from making great art.
   :. original PopMatters review

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