Dec. 27, 2002-
Rhythm of Life
By John Murph
Is there still a message in the music of R&B? Well, if you were looking for one in the mainstream over the past year, you were hard-pressed to find much beyond sappy love songs and sexed-up braggadocio. Sure, you might have heard an obligatory 9/11 tribute or two, but for the most part mainstream R&B just kept on with the same boilerplate beats (most of which were supplied by the ubiquitous Neptunes) and lowest-common-denominator lyrics. Although the major labels do release a decent record once in a while despite themselves, the R&B fan who refuses to be satisfied by mediocrity has no choice but to turn to the indies. Below is some of this year's best R&B in which high artistic standards--both musical and lyrical--outweighed commercial pandering:
1. Instant Vintage, Raphael Saadiq Singer, bassist, and producer Saadiq labeled his music "gospeldelic" rather than neo soul, and with this master stroke of a solo debut, he more than justifies the necessity of the moniker. Borrowing from five decades of black music history--from doo-wop all the way to hiphop--Saadiq balances sexed-up joints such as "Body Parts" and "Excuse Me" with stirring sociopolitical cuts such as the autobiographical "Uptown" and the urgent "People," resulting in modern R&B of the highest order.
2. Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, Meshell Ndegeocello Right from the opening line--"You sell your soul/Like you sell a piece of ass"--it's evident that singer-songwriter/bassist Ndegeocello isn't gunning for mainstream success. Intermixing funk, jazz, hiphop, and vintage spoken-word vignettes, Cookie could have been a mess in less talented hands. But in Ndegeocello's, it's a stroke of mad, uncompromising genius.
3. The Colored Section, Donnie OK, Donnie's fetishes for Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway are a bit distracting. But The Colored Section nevertheless manages to transcend its obvious influences. Maybe that's because Donnie pairs his passionate wail with insightful examinations of black consumerism ("Big Black Buck"), hair politics ("Cloud 9"), and metaphysics ("Masterplan"). He even delivers an inspired post-9/11 dance-floor groove, "Our New National Anthem," making his debut full-length one of the most beautifully optimistic R&B discs to drop in ages.
4. Spiritually Speaking, Blaze Spiritually Speaking sounds as if it had been made during the twilight between late-Saturday-night clubbing and early-Sunday-morning church service. On this brilliant CD, the duo of Kevin Hedge and Josh Milan fights for the soul of house music as if their lives depended on it.
5. Red Hot + Riot, Various Artists The Red Hot Organization does it again with another magnificent all-star benefit/tribute CD, this time focusing on the AIDS crises in Africa and the late Afrobeat originator Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Dead Prez, D'Angelo, Wunmi, and others give it up in a manner totally befitting the Nigerian government's biggest pain in the ass.
6. Star Kitty's Revenge, Joi After a long absence from the music scene, Joi returns with a third album that plays out like an updated soundtrack to Looking for Mr. Goodbar. She sings of a scuzzy world of deadly liaisons, chemical addictions, and pimp-and-prostitute relations with the conviction of Mahalia Jackson singing the Lord's Prayer.
7. Episodes in Color, Monday Michiru The daughter of a sax player and a pianist, Michiru, although hardly known in the United States, is a formidable and ubiquitous force on the international jazz and R&B scenes. On this CD, which features heavyweight jazz players such as guitarists Adam Rogers and Dave Gilmore, saxophonists Seamus Blake and Donny McCaslin, and pianist David Kikoski, she turns in her finest effort yet. Against haunting string arrangements that recall the influential work of Charles Stepheny, Michiru waxes soulful about family values ("Generations"), inner peace ("Mysteries of Life"), and global politics ("Talk"), resulting in a disc that is destined to be a cult classic.
8. Diverse, Joseph Malik A young male R&B singer who isn't trying to sound like Stevie, Marvin, or Michael is always welcome. With echoes of Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, and Horace Andy, Malik sings of parental abandonment ("Mother's Son"), spiritual deliverance ("As I Rise"), and psychological disorientation ("I Am Drifting") amid evocative soundscapes of jangly acoustic guitars, spacey keyboard effects, Afro-Brazilian percussion, and deep-house beats.
9. In Between, Jazzanova As producers, the members of this Berlin-based sextet are at the top of their game, creating mind-boggling epics from what seem to be millions of tiny samples. On In Between, high-profile guests (Ursula Rucker, Vikter Duplaix, Doug Hammond) and improvisations on various genres (jazz, hiphop, R&B, broken beat) resulted in a near-perfect deep-house soundtrack to 2002.
10. Beautiful Tomorrow, Blue Six Like a new pair of Diesel jeans, Beautiful Tomorrow makes you feel sexier just by putting it on. Producer Jay Denes creates spacious sonic spaces in which silken-voiced chanteuses Lisa Shaw, Catherine Russell, and Monique Bringham transport you to a world filled with beauty, romance, and a little danger. On first listen, it all sounds too stylized for its own good, but through hooky songcraft and emotional-independence-themed lyrics, Denes & Co. manage to imbue their record with some real substance.