Black Gold

Floetry's two Londoners helped prove that only the ladies know how to fuse hip-hop and R&B.

This was a magnificent year for R&B and hip-hop -- that is, if you shunned commercial radio, corporate music magazines, MTV, BET and all other mainstream, hype-dolloping media outlets. If you sought good music on your own, however, there was an astounding bounty there for the taking. So here's a rundown of the ten best things about black music in 2002 and a round-up of 19 great albums that you may not have heard about but should have:

1. The Neptunes ruled the music world. This year, Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams pulled off something that'll be discussed among industry types, music enthusiasts, critics and weird record-store clerks for years to come: They somehow attained a bold, artistic integrity while consistently clocking off commercial tunes for pop performers. While practically every song that appeared on black/Top 40 radio this year was produced by the pair, their best work was, ironically, still on the fringe. In Search Of…, their debut album as rap/rock/R&B fusion band N.E.R.D., is a dynamic piece of pop music anarchy -- sincere and silly, poignant and perverted, noisy and nervy, dead-sexy and dead-serious. And radio had no freakin' idea what to do with it. It literally had no equal when it was released in March (after several months of postponed release dates thanks to Hugo and Williams tweaking and retweaking their product), and it still doesn't. In Search Of… stands alone as the album of the year. While the Neptunes may be overexposed at this point, I will never get enough N.E.R.D.

2. Two-man hip-hop crews proved you didn't need a boatload of rappers to make a great album. A rapper showing up at the studio with his or her crew may seem on the face of it to be a good thing, but too often the result is just a roll call of mediocre MCs. That's why the two finest hip-hop albums of 2002 came from duos who concentrated on extolling the simple pleasures of the genre, as opposed to an MC-heavy free-for-all. O.S.T., the second album from People Under the Stairs, is just about as purely enjoyable as a hip-hop album can get; it jettisons the egoism and pretentious preening that mark far too many of today's rap releases in favor of simply bringing some giddy ditties to the table. Blackalicious took it to a quirkier, still more imaginative level with Blazing Arrow, which poses the question, can a hip-hop album feature guest shots from members of Jurassic 5, Ben Harper, Zack de la Rocha and Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori and still be considered a hip-hop album? The answer is yes. These two albums have a better understanding of the brotherhood of man than an album filled with the usual band of brothas.

3. Canada became cool, eh! As filmmaker Michael Moore recently, hilariously divulged in Bowling for Columbine, Canada is where it's at: a practically nonexistent crime rate, beautiful homes, respectful citizens, public officials who don't jerk people around. The land of the maple leaf is also churning out some pretty impressive soul singers. Despite criticisms that he's just a photogenic Stevie Wonder sound-alike (do you know any soul singers who aren't?), Toronto's Glenn Lewis released the most satisfying -- and most criminally ignored -- R&B album to come along in years, World Outside My Window. Meanwhile, Winnipeg white boy Remy Shand came across the border with a Stratocaster and a smoldering attitude when he dropped his funky debut, The Way I Feel. After listening to these albums, you'll be able to forgive the Great White North for giving us (insert name of vacuous pop diva, overintellectual power trio or bland riot-grrrl here).

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4. Hip-hop DJs finally got the respect they deserve. Whether it stemmed from the newfound success of the X-ecutioners with their album Built from Scratch, or the cult success of Doug Pray's DJ documentary Scratch, or the various releases from DJ/Rupture, RJD2, Z-Trip or Astralwerks' Constant Elevation compilation, the hip-hop DJ suddenly became more visible to the mainstream this year. Two releases scratched even louder than those projects about the importance of record wreckers. DJ Shadow paused long enough from his nonstop record archaeology to release The Private Press, his long-awaited second album, which placed hip-hop DJs on equal footing with those who spin techno, trance, electro and jungle. DJ Jazzy Jeff didn't take it that deep, but he did release perhaps the best album from BBE's "Beat Generation" series with The Magnificent, proving once again that rappers are nothing without the DJ laying down the beat. If only his old partner Will Smith had remembered this when he was Born to Reign.

5. Two neo-soul artists invented a new genre: retro-progressive R&B. The CD booklet for Musiq's second album, Juslisen, has a shot of a young kid (ostensibly Musiq) listening to records and eight-tracks on an old-school hi-fi. Similarly, the CD for Raphael Saadiq's Instant Vintage shows a photo of a preteen Saadiq playing bass. The snapshots show the reverence for the history of soul music that Musiq and Saadiq have had since they were young. Better still, this veneration shows in the grooves. Instead of bastardizing this legacy, as so many contemporary R&B artists have done, Saadiq and Musiq expand on it. This is most visible in their popular singles: Musiq adds clandestine acoustic guitar strums to "Halfcrazy," the year's saddest sad song, and Saadiq makes a tuba sound like the coolest instrument ever on "Still Ray." Musiq and Saadiq may be purists, but they're also experimental minds.  

6. One man and one woman did their damnedest to bring truth and awareness back to R&B. "Let's talk about the world, y'all," Me'Shell NdegéOcello sings on her fourth album, Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape. NdegéOcello's return is a jazzy, funky and utterly amazing revolutionary manifesto that addresses the politics -- racial, social, sexual -- people deal with every day. With The Colored Section, neophyte Atlanta soulster Donnie released a devious debut that subtly reveals the contradictions, historical gripes and saving graces of African-American culture. Both these albums reminded audiences that this is what R&B used to be, back when the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway pulled their heads out of the clouds and took a determined look at the world around them. Now the big question is, why can't it still be that today?

7. One man and one woman did their damnedest to bring wit and eloquence back to rap. J-Live was supposed to release his acclaimed debut album nearly four years ago, but he got lost in the major-label mix. So he started from scratch and dropped another debut this year: All of the Above, a collection of new compositions, soothed anyone who thought rap was running out of smart, engaging MCs. Around the same time, Jean Grae, formerly of Natural Resource, arrived to salvage a horrible year for women in rap (four words: "My neck, my back…") with Attack of the Attacking Things, a solo debut album that bristled with intelligence, insight and in-jokes from start and finish. Both New Yorkers to the bone, J-Live and Jean Grae are verbal and cerebral dynamos who will never be mistaken for sucka MCs.

8. The ladies figured out how to meld R&B and hip-hop right. The collaborative relationship between hip-hop and R&B has always been uneven at best. Let's be real here: If you were listening to a smooth Luther Vandross tune and Busta Rhymes erupted out of nowhere dropping his kamikaze flow (or vice versa), wouldn't you find the whole thing a little, well, off? Fortunately, some gals know how to have R&B and hip-hop cohabitate in one fluid stream of music. Lauryn Hill returned to the scene with a crateful of new songs and an agenda full of issues, and put them both on her universally hailed yet undeservedly discarded MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album. But it was the London-born team of "songstress" Marsha Ambrosius and "floacist" Natalie Stewart who managed to work wonders with their debut, Floetic, an intense, beautiful album that's both erotic and neurotic -- the Vertigo of black-music albums.

9. We learned to never, ever doubt a Soulquarian. Coming in the final stretch to wrap a neat little bow around this near-perfect year in hip-hop were two new offerings from Common and the Roots, members of the ever-expanding traveling band the Soulquarians. Electric Circus, Common's latest funk-rap ride, is as soulfully energetic as it is blissfully trippy -- a place where Prince, the Neptunes, Zap Mama, Jill Scott and London acid-jazz singer Omar can dwell together in harmony. But it's the Roots' Phrenology that should shock the hell out of any longtime Roots fan and even a few of their uneducated detractors. Full of fierce eclecticism and fuck-you bravado, Phrenology is the best Roots album since, well, each of the last three Roots albums.

10. It's official: This year the best rappers were white -- and emotionally disturbed! Not since 1991 -- the year that gave us (for better or worse) Vanilla Ice, Marky Mark, 3rd Bass, Jesse Jaymes and Young Black Teenagers -- have more talented, milk-colored MCs come out to play. There were the Streets, Cex, MC Paul Barman, Sage Francis and Northern State, a trio of white gals from New York. And let's not forget Eminem broadcasting his latest litany of personal grievances with The Eminem Show. But there were a couple of MCs who managed to out-emote Slim Shady this year. With the release of God Loves Ugly, Atmosphere's Slug crowned himself white rap's prince of pain and pity, asking for a pound and a hug in addition to the de rigueur groupies' panties. (Okay, okay, so he's racially mixed -- but he looks white, and hell, he's from Minne-freaking-sota.) But it was El-P -- rapper, producer and CEO of the much-hyped indie label Definitive Jux -- who made sure everyone felt his wrath with the ballsy and bruising Fantastic Damage. May the new year bring you guys a promising future -- and a Zoloft prescription.  

Ten more ignored artists that merit your attention, and why: Solomon Burke, Don't Give Up on Me (Fat Possum), for showing that old-school Philly can still bring the soul heat; Cee-Lo, Cee-Lo Green and his Imperfect Imperfections (Arista), for coming up with the classiest, freakiest, funkiest album since David Bowie's Young Americans; Goapele, Even Closer (Skyblaze), for writing these words: "You're so fuckin' romantic / I can't stand it"; Jazzanova, In Between (Rope-A-Dope/Atlantic), for keeping the memory of Kraftwerk alive; Jurassic 5, Power in Numbers (MCA), for showing there's still hope for L.A.; Mr. Lif, I, Phantom (Definitive Jux), for giving Prince Paul's A Prince Among Thieves some company in the hip-hop concept album department; Darius Rucker, Back to Then (Hidden Beach), for at least trying to slay the ghost of Hootie; Slum Village, Trinity (Past, Present and Future) (Barak/Capitol), for showing us Detroit isn't all about Eminem and the White Stripes; Supreme Beings of Leisure, Divine Operating System (Palm Pictures), for making disco cool again; Various Artists, Red Hot + Riot (MCA), for schooling navel-gazing Americans on the Fela Kuti legacy.

The Ten Worst Things About Black Music in 2002

1. Boyz II Men's Full Circle (easily the year's worst album)

2. Terrence Rafferty's god-awful GQ piece about neo-soul

3. The whole sordid R. Kelly business

4. The whole sordid South Park Mexican business

5. Ja Rule's relentless overexposure

6. The murder of Jam Master Jay

7. The death of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes

8. Whitney Houston's funny/scary (but mostly scary) Primetime Live interview

9. The newest accessory for rappers this year: their very own pet R&B singer (Ashanti, Truth Hurts, etc.)

10. The increasing irrelevance of black radio

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