Music

Best Music of 2002: Mark Anthony Neal

Gettin' Grown, A New-Black Mix-Tape and the Loveland Sessions: 2002 Year-End Review

Cee-Lo: Sermon from the Church of NewBlackness
Imagine a hybrid of Rev. Al Green, Bobby Womack, Rev. CL Franklin, Buddha, Sugar Foot (of the Ohio Players) chillin' some place in the ATL which his shirt off and smokin' a blunt, and singing Funkadelic riffs and you get the Cee-Lo Green aesthetic. Where Dungeon Family members like Goodie, Outkast (especially Dre) and others have consistently pushed the boundaries of blackness, no one has been more comfortable and soulful at it as Cee-Lo. Cee-Lo was always the reminder that even in the world of alternative-hip-hop (whatever the hell that means) that it is always about the "chu'ch" and don' t nobody do "chu'ch" in hip-hop better than Cee-Lo. Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (Arista), the long-awaited solo disc by Cee-Lo, is straight-up "Church Music" for the folks they don't often let up in the church. The breakdown on "Closet Freak" is pure brilliance, while joints like "El Dorado", "One for the Road", "Under the Influence (Follow Me)", and the anthem-like "Getting Grown" were slept-on genius in their right.

Remixing the Stacks: Verve//Remixed
First you get Verve to unlock the vaults, start diggin' in the crates of time-tested classics from the likes of Billie Holliday, Carmen McRae, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and of course Ms. Nina, and then feel the freedom to do the "voodoo, you do" and what you get is Verve//Remixed. So King Britt gets his hands on Tony Scott and the fruit gets no stranger, when its Tricky behind the boards updating Ms. Holiday's "Strange Fruit" for a post-9/11 reality. But the stars of this joint are MJ Cole, whose speed-bumped take on Ms. McRae's "How Long has This Been Going On" was good enough for Starbucks and MAW (Masters at Work), whose freak of "See-Line Woman" confirmed Nina Simone as the Dance floor Diva we always knew she was.

"Game Recognize Game and You Lookin' Familiar": Scarface
You always had to respect his work ethic, but it ain't Scarface's fault that he been representin' Houston-if the cat had hailed from Cali or NYC, you know we'd always be talkin' 'bout him as a Top-10. Been as steady as they come, and steady for 'Face has always been damn-near genius and in that regard Scarface (Def Jam South) is classic 'Face all grown up. He digs deep in the crates for Donny and Roberta's "Be Real Black" to give love to the 'hood that made him with "On My Block." "Guess Who's Back" is yet another ditty with Young 'Hove and Beans (they hit up a third ditty on The Blueprint 2) suggesting that the trio needs to get in the studio to a E-double, Keith and Redman-like thing. If folks don't think the 'Face of hip-hop is "getting' grown" just check "What Can I Do?", "Someday" and "Heaven" and find playa contemplating middle-age and the afterlife.

More than Sexual Healing: A Southern Hummingbird Sings
So word has it that Elektra's Sylvia Rhone and Island/Def Jam's "bigga nigga" Lyor Cohen, stared each other down over who would get sole control of that April 11th drop date, Rhone's Tweet or Cohen's Ashanti. We know who won, as Ashanti got saturated all over the world moving some 500,000 units in the first week (I ain't sayin' there was payola, but?) and later getting dissed (unfairly, though it was a legitimate gripe) at the Soul Train Awards. When Tweet's hypnotic "Oops (Oh My)" began to hit the airwaves last December, it seemed certain that she was gonna be the one in 2002. Alas, much of Southern Hummingbird fit more nicely into the world of grown-folks than teeny-boppers, who think that Ashanti's "Foolish" sampled Biggie, as opposed to the original Debarge (who?) that Biggie and Puff got it from in the first place. No Tweet didn't move gazillions of units, but Tweet produced a finely crafted recording that she largely wrote and produced. The sweet and tender grooves of "My Place", "Smoking Cigarettes", and "Heaven" sound like they should be on a Dexter Wansel (who?) or Norman Connors (who?) compilation, which is high praise in my mind. The high point of Southern Hummingbird is "Best Friend", her oh so sexy duet with Bilal. Like Bilal's own First Born Second, Tweet's Southern Hummingbird deserved a better fate.

We Got Love for Y'all, But Y'all Don't Love Us: Still Ghetto
Word is that Teddy P don't think the brotha can sing, which I guess is a natural response when you hear somebody on the radio that sound like you did in your prime. Thing is Jaheim ain't in his prime yet, which makes Still Ghetto (Warner Bros.) all the more inspiring. The new poster-boy for Thug Soul, Jaheim is anything but a thug on the fabulous "Fabulous", which is as inspiring a track done on the corporate Soul scene since McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now". Yeah bruh hem and haws about the crack game, the hood and other ghetto specifics on tracks like "Let's Talk About It", "Me and My Bitch" and "Diamond in the Rough", but damn if those ghetto chronicles never sounded so good. The treats though come when Ja Ja slows his roll making "Put That Woman First" (his update of William Bell's "I Forgot to be You Lover"), "Everywhere I Am" and "Special Day" the best evidence of what Jaheim can become when he does in fact reach his prime and Teddy P won't be able to hate on that.

When Did You First Fall In Love with Hip-hop: Electric Circus
Hip-hop ain't supposed to make you cry, but I cried several times during my first listen of Common's Electric Circus (MCA). Yes, I mean I was literally in tears (all up in Starbucks) and it was not about tears of sadness, but tears of joy and satisfaction that somebody had finally forged an artistic vision of hip-hop that simply transcended any attempt to label it. Hip-hop's Purple Haze? Common's Bitches Brew? All too confining. In short this is the shit we been waitin' for-been waitin' for. And it was a collective effort, from the sweet love of Common and Mary's "Come Close" to the closing sermon "Heaven Somewhere" in which Omar, Cee-lo, Bilal, Jilly, Mary, Badu and Common's pop (who's cameoed on all of his son's discs ) all take turns at lead on a track that clocks in at over 10 minutes. The Common /Badu tribute to Jimi ("Jimi was Rock Star") is worth the price of admission alone. When did I fall in love with hip-hop? When I sat down and first heard Electric Circus.

A Cookie for the Soul: Ndegeocello's NewBlack Mix-tape
Cookie: the Autobiographical Mix-Tape is N'degeocello at her funkiest and most complete since 1996's Peace Before Passion. Madonna may be a maverick, but her imprint has been anything but in their efforts to promote N' degeocello. But that ain't all on them; How exactly do you promote someone who simply collapses labels, boundaries, genres and ideological viewpoints the way that Ms. Meshell do? And then there's the music, like the sophisticated funk of "Dead Nigga Blvd." and "Jabril", the jazzed out groove of "Criterion", and the post-coital swing of "Priorities 1-6" and "Earth". Ms. Meshell is at her best though when she lives up to the mix-tape praxis that Cookie's provocative title suggest bringing folks like Angela Davis and Talib Kweli ("Hot Night") and June Jordan ("we love you!"), Countee Cullen and Etheridge Knight ("6 Legged Griot Trio") in conversation with each other. Like Common's Electric Circus, this is music for a NewBlack world.

The Colored Section: Donnie
Got to give props to fellow critic Kandia Krazy Horse for initially piquing my interest in Donnie. Though the vocal familiarity to another Donny is clear, it gets forgotten when ears connect to the strident political messages contained throughout The Colored Section (Giant Step). "Big Black Buck" is lyrical genius as Donnie takes the metaphor of the proverbial big black buck (think Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder) and recasts it in the name of late stage capitalism and niche marketing. Those who bought Saadiq's concept of "Gospeldelic" would be urged to take a gander at "Masterplan" and then contemplate why homie is on a major and Donnie had to go it the indie way. The lyric "I'm not a nigger, I'm a Negro/When I become a nigger, I'll let you know" (from "Beautiful Me") should become the anthem for the next generation of NewBoHos. And speaking of anthems, damn if "The Colored Section" can't be the new "Negro National Anthem". The Colored Section represents Donnie thinking out loud and truth to power ain't been this soulful since that other Donny walked the earth.

A Charmed Life: J-Live
J-Live has always gotten love from the underground cats, a bunch of whom were name dropping him to me some three years before All of the Above dropped. Somethin' about this SUNY-Albany cat, who got his degree, now teaching the younguns in the NYC educational system, while representin' hip-hop on the real. His debut The Best Part got disappeared in some label take-over drama, but J-Live went back to lab and All of the Above is the product. Major props for the brilliant "One for the Griot" which gets the messenger at the crossroads, Signifyin' Monkey thing right (somebody send Skip a copy in case he preparing a 15th anniversary edition of The Signifying Monkey). Jazzy Jeff gets in the mix on the ethereal "A Charmed Life" (also included on Jeff's disc), J-Live's spin on hip-hop "you the love of my life"-"Brooklyn, NY to wherever you at, this is autobiographical, taking you back/with no time for refrains, I barely got enough time to explain how hip-hop captivated my brain". True dat.

The Loveland Sessions
So this last choice is a bit controversial as it is a project that has yet to see the light of the legitimate marketplace and likely will never be available at your local CD supermarket. While that alone would make this choice untouchable, the fact that it's a project from the now notorious Robert Kelly makes it even more so. Understand that I don't condone the bootlegging of music nor the purchasing of bootlegged material, nor do I condone child sodomy. R. Kelly's Loveland Sessions have been available on the streets for close to a year. But those who know me and my work, know that I got an R. Kelly jones, largely because his best stuff is world's beyond that of his generational peers (can't even think of a 30-somethin R&B performer who matches Kelly's skill at song writing, producing, arranging and bringing the flow save N'degeocello and she ain't really an R&B singer) and also because, like the best of the Soul Man tradition, Kelly wears his contradictions, especially the most demonic ones, on the proverbial album sleeve. Though the "Loveland" sessions begin to surface around the time that Kelly was indicted, every indication is that this is material that was completed before the indictment ("Heaven I Need a Hug" for instance was recorded after the charges came down). Anybody who was surprised by the criminal charges aimed at Kelly ain't really been listening to his music as bruh been tellin' us for years that he been into some shit. I have little doubt the charges against Robert are true, but I also believe they were part of a past that Kelly has been slowly divorcing himself from. The Loveland Sessions is simply the most brilliant and sophisticated music that Kelly has ever recorded and the best indication that the drama of the pre-TP-2 era is in fact part of a difficult and yes criminal, maturation process. The Loveland Sessions find Kelly in love with his wife, in love with his life and owning up to his sins. Given this, it is lamentable that Kelly and his label have decided against releasing The Loveland Sessions (because of bootlegging) and have chosen instead to release the forthcoming Chocolate Factory, which if the lead single "Ignition" is any indication, won't be worthy of purchasing, let alone bootlegging.

Extended Riffs

Slum Village's "Tainted" -- at their slum beautiful best.

Camron's "Oh Boy" -- the best Roc-a-fella single since "Hard Knock Life"

Public Enemy's "Gotta Give the Peep What the Need" -- simply the best PE since "Fight the Power"

Laura Nyro's Gonna Take a Miracle, New York Tendaberry, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (Re-issues) -- time to give the genius her due.

Jay Z's The Blueprint 2 -- contains some of Jigga's worst excesses. Always got to respect Jigga's work ethic, but brotha needs to be leaner next time around. Even still "All Around the World" and "Poppin' Tags" (with Big Boi, Killer Mike and Twista) is young Hove at his best.

Nas's "Made You Look" -- the Nas we all thought we heard when we popped in Illmatic like we hearing him for the first time.


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