Favorite Albums of 2017
2017 was a complicated year for me musically. I was still stuck on so many of the outstanding projects that had been released in 2016, like Beyoncé's most crtically acclaimed album yet Lemonade, that I barely paid attention to new releases or what was charting. The albums I was anticipating the most disappointed me, like Lady Gaga's Joanne which took country music too literally, and Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. which didn't feel as coherent or creative as what I had come to expect. I still haven't listened to "Despacito", and don't know the words to "Bodak Yellow" (which I could live without). But, this year did have some gems, and I found that actually narrowing my favorites down to 10 took some work.
#10 Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Soul of a Woman
I was introduced to Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings in the fall of 2016 when their song “100 Days, 100 Nights” was featured in the Netflix series Luke Cage. To close out the season finale, you see Miss Jones, along with her band the Dap-Kings, performing the track in the nightclub Harlem's Paradise. The mid-60’s or 70’s funk and soul style led me to believe that this was just another classic song released well before I was born, but I was intrigued and wanted to hear more. I was greatly surprised to find that the vintage soul music was more recent, and Jones had only been releasing projects since the early 2000’s. It being less than a year since I discovered this amazingly talented woman, I was deeply saddened to hear of her passing in late November after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She suffered a stroke while watching the 2016 Presidential Election (Side Note: She was adamant that Trump was the cause of her stroke).
This battle with cancer is what makes Soul of a Woman even more astounding. Released posthumously on November 17th, Sharon Jones’ voice is as strong as ever. The album oozes charisma as she croons about dreams, and freedom. On the encouraging track, “Come On and Be A Winner” she sings, Sometimes people/Will treat you like a worn out shoe/But they don't know that you can't lose. Sharon Jones is the epitome of strength and perseverance, from working as a corrections officer to achieving her dreams of being a singer at the age of 40. She then battled cancer, and still never wanted to stop singing. Soul of a Woman is on this list not only because of the great music and the throwback feel-good vibe that this project delivers. But also because of the great loss that we experienced with the passing of Sharon Jones. We must give talented artists like her their flowers while they are with us. Rest well Miss Sharon Jones, and in your own words “sail on”.
· “Just Give Me Your Time”
· “Pass Me By”
· “These Tears No Longer For You”
The Ascension LP
As an avid Soundcloud listener I am always elated to see these artists release full length projects, available on larger platforms. Following months of listening to “hallelujah, soul star” singer Brik.Liam dropped a full length LP titled The Ascension. The theme of being on the Cloud 10 and not settling for Cloud 9 blends with the smooth atmospheric storytelling he provides the listener. “If you’re missin’ your ex/But you know they ain’t the best/Bump this jawn to capacity and shuffle to the left” he says on the track "SLS". And the way he masterfully intertwines classic tracks like “Can We” by Brandy and “I Get Lonely” by Janet Jackson is out of this world. Brik.Liam is definitely an artist I will be watching closely.
Higher (Can’t Lose)
Even (feat. Calvin Lockett)
Alright (feat. Naomi Parchment)
#8 Tamar Braxton
Bluebird of Happiness
I've never been a Tamar Braxton fan. Her ostentatiousness and overuse of gay slang had me steering clear of her music for a long time. But is it really possible to be black, gay, and not have a friend who's a self-proclaimed "Tamartian"? A friend, who shall not be named, called me every name in the book until I broke down and listened to her album Love and War. I couldn't help but enjoy it, especially the closing track "Thank You Lord" (R&B albums that end with a gospel song are always great).
When news broke that Tamar was dropping a new album I was sort of excited, as someone who appreciates real vocalists I wanted to hear what Tamar would bring to the table. And she really came through in every way, with the exception of that tragic album title. Songs like "Wanna Love You Boy" and "Pick Me Up" are feel-good bops that I couldn't help but love. And Tamar was not playing around on the heartbreaking tracks "Heart In My Hands", "Blind", and "My Man". These songs hit you, one after the other, and are vocally insane. Considering the recent events in her own marriage, Tamar made every word believable.
I found myself listening to this album every single day, as a sort of guilty pleasure. It's great from start to finish. Tamar said this will be her last album, but hopefully not, she really hit the mark with Bluebird of Happiness.
Don't let 2017 end without adding "My Man" to your "I Know He Cheated" playlist.
· The Makings of You
· Wanna Love You Boy
· My Man
#7 Daniel Caesar
I first heard about Daniel Caesar towards the end of 2016. When he released the music video for his first single "Get You" it seemed to appear everywhere I went. Everyone was re-posting it saying "I want this to be my wedding song" and I had to admit, it was a great track. When he released his debut album in August of this year, one of my best friends was adamant about me listening to it, but it was a busy time in my life and I brushed it off. The next time I heard about Daniel Caesar was when the Soul Train Awards aired. He performed with Kirk Franklin, Ledisi, Le'Andria Johnson, and MAJOR. I was pleasantly surprised that he really had a voice, and began to appreciate his unique sound. The next day, the album was on repeat.
Daniel Caesar is a church kid, and it's evident on tracks like "Neu Roses (The Transgressor's Song) and "We Find Love". And he finds a way to beautifully incorporate that gospel sound without overdoing it. "Best Part" featuring H.E.R. is what a duet, with two talented vocalists, should sound like. The album is simple, the lyricism is gorgeous, and the full body of work is cohesive. Daniel Caesar delivered something timeless. Freudian is something you can imagine playing on vinyl every morning. Support a great artist and give Daniel Caesar a listen.
· Best Part (feat. H.E.R.)
· Neu Roses (Transgressor’s Song)
Take Me Apart
There really isn't much to say about Kelela's album. She is an artist who has been dropping gems since her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me and features on the Saint Heron compilation album. Take Me Apart is a continuation of this creative magic. It's lush and atmospheric from start to finish. It's futuristic and dreamlike. Kelela has a sound of her own, and has perfected the formula of crafting a cohesive body of work that takes you on a journey. This album is a must listen.
· Take Me Apart
#5 Lalah Hathaway
Lalah Hathaway’s 8th studio album is a stark departure from her 2015 live album that earned her 2 Grammy Awards, setting the record for most consecutive wins in the R&B category. On this album Lalah strays away from familiar love songs, usually accompanied by traditional R&B instrumentation, and ventures into a more "alternative R&B” sound. But while the production definitely has a more electronic feel, Lalah’s voice is still smooth as butter, and enticing while singing “Say you want the real thing/But do you even know/Don’t talk about it, be about it" on the track “what u need” featuring Tiffany Gouche, who produced the entire album. Lalah is more forward, explicit, sexual, and you could even say demanding than she has ever been.
She is one artist that is never afraid to be political. On the visual to accompany the title track “honestly” you can see footage from Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter protests, Standing Rock, and of Colin Kaepernick. It also features children depicting famous images, from the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, to the monk who burned himself alive in June of 1963 as a martyr for fighting all forms of oppression. In an interview with Forbes, Lalah had something to say for critics of her politicism, who want her to “stick to music”:
“It is my right as a human being and as an artist that’s a part of my job and obligation is to tell you what I see.”
I’ve been enamored by Lalah’s voice since hearing her use of polyphonic overtone on Snarky Puppy’s 2014 song “Something” a rework of Brenda Russell’s “It’s Something” which she also covered on her self-titled first album. It’s deep and rich, and she doesn’t overdo it. Her harmonies are sickening, and her runs are always perfectly placed and never overkill. The daughter of legend Donny Hathaway, Lalah has developed a lane for herself, and this album adds to her already impeccable discography. It’s surprising, but necessary, Lalah is still an artist who is evolving. And though many people see her as a veteran in the game, I can appreciate her wanting change, and the ability to execute it well.
change ya life
call on me
#4 Jay Z
Jay-Z is far from my favorite rapper, and my knowledge of his catalog is a result of his marriage to Beyoncé. He is the queen’s husband at most in my eyes. I’ve always rolled my eyes at the rumors about infidelity (even after Lemonade) because I don’t tolerate Beyoncé slander. I will never be able to call myself a hip-hop head, but I enjoy good music. So the night that 4:44 dropped I pressed play as a Beyoncé fan, but removed my headphones as Donny Hathaway’s voice faded, singing “Someday we'll all be free”, with a newfound respect for the 48-year-old rapper.
4:44 is controversial, vulnerable, and almost conversational on tracks like “Smile”, “4:44”, and “Legacy”. Hearing Beyoncé harmonize with my favorite gospel vocalist The Clark Sisters on “Family Feud” was a treat, and it earned Beyoncé her 63rd Grammy nomination. This album is something I can appreciate for the simple fact that Jay-Z was able to evolve this late into his career. He did so without it being a bad attempt at trying to sound “young”. He didn’t need to put that one member of the Migos that (kind of) sings on the hook, or enlist the charting power of Drake or Future. With a record so personal he calls on his mother, his wife, and his oldest daughter, Frank Ocean (who Jay stuck with when hip-hop artists were wary of working with him post-coming out), James Blake, and Damian Marley. This record was subtle, and somewhat sample-heavy, but done very well. After Lemonade I honestly didn’t know how to feel about Jay-Z, but this record showed us that it’s never too late to learn and grow from your mistakes.
· Family Feud (feat. Beyoncé)
· Blue’s Freestyle/We Family (feat. Blue Ivy Carter)
#3 PJ Morton
Before diving into a deeper review of this album I just would like to speak it into existence that “First Began” will be my wedding song. It’s honestly the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. This track is the first song on PJ Morton’s first solo-released album. This album is extremely reflective, and I could feel myself floating inside his mind with each track that covered love, fame, and most interestingly religion. PJ is the son of Bishop Paul S. Morton who is a legend in the gospel community, and being a preacher's kid myself I could identify with having an idea of religion that could possibly conflict with my family’s views. He basically is saying that people need to stop blaming God for their own trash views.
You can find encouragement on tracks like “Alright” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”. A track like “Go Thru Your Phone” is an interesting perspective coming from a straight male. He talks about fearing what he’ll find going through his significant others phone. And the album ends with a fantastic cover of the Bee Gees' “How Deep Is Your Love’.
Sonically, this album is what I look for in great R&B. While not completely traditionally, it doesn't stray too far into the sharp, highly electronic "alternative R&B" that plagues today's radio stations. And PJ Morton is a great vocalist, his voice is smooth but strong. Gumbo is an album that will never get old.
· Everything’s Gonna Be Alright
· First Began
The day that my brother pulled up the music video for “Cocaine” by The Internet on our small desktop computer, where the Internet connection cut off every time the landline phone rang, my life was altered. I saw two girls in a romantic relationship under the influence of an illicit substance, and there was something so daring and carefree about it. As a child raised listening to mostly gospel music, I have to thank Tumblr and Syd for my growth. Syd has never held her tongue, whether that be during her time with the Odd Future collective (and afterwards defending claims that they were homophobic, which I still haven’t settled my opinion on) or while embarking on her solo career where she had to defend the visual for “Cocaine” itself. “Fin” itself is even more daring. Syd is singing about fame, money, relationships, and sex from the perspective of a gay woman. Whispering that “Tonight I'm gonna swim in it, dive in it, drown in it" on the one minute and ten seconds long track appropriately titled “Drown In It”, Syd is not afraid to be both vulnerable and raunchy. The Fader’s review of Fin “Syd’s Solo Album Is A Reminder That Pleasure Can Be Political Too” puts into words exactly why artist’s like Syd making music as pointed as this is so important:
Pleasure has always been political, but today it walks a knife’s edge. At a time when racism, misogyny, and homophobia are institutionalized to a terrifying degree, carving out a space for feeling good is more than necessary. As American rhythm and blues artists back in the ’40s knew only too well, it’s one way to stay strong in the face of oppression.
After listening to a track like “Body” you might find yourself grabbing your phone and texting someone you know you have no business engaging, for a late night rendezvous. “All About Me” reminds you to “take care of the family that you came with”. And “Got Her Own” is an ode to independent women. Fin has been my 12 track motivational soundtrack to 2017. In the midst of relationships, school, and trying to #SecureTheBag2017, Syd’s words are a constant reminder that the grind never stops. Do yourself a favor and go into the new year with this album on queue.
· Smile More
When you think of female rap over the past couple of years, conversations surrounding it have had very little to do with the actual art. The main focus has been on the beef, who-wore-what-better, and who-has-what-stats. And while I can’t say that I haven’t entertained the foolishness, it’s frustrating since there are so many talented rappers (who happen to be women) who have put out amazing music and been pushed into the shadows in lieu of the reality show-esque drama.
As a storyteller myself, I can’t help but gravitate towards music that resembles something of a well written story.. And if there is one thing that Rapsody can do it’s write bars that will draw you into another world, leading you down whatever path her pen takes. Following her immaculate 2016 mixtape, Crown, the North Carolina rapper released her second studio album Laila’s Wisdom. I was hooked on the first listen, with the opening track sampling Aretha Franklin’s cover of Young, Gifted, and Black. This album is in honor of her grandmother, Laila, and all about passing down the wisdom that was given to you.
With features from top MC’s like Kendrick Lamar and Black Thought, and singers like BJ The Chicago Kid and Musiq Soulchild I knew the album would be dynamic, but even among all of that greatness Rapsody still shines the brightest. She is a true lyricist, and adapts to every switch in theme and style. From spitting fast on tracks like “Power” and “Sassy”, to truly performing on the final cut “Jesus Coming” where she delivers multiple perspectives concerning a mother losing her child to gang violence. Towards the middle of the album there’s a track titled “Black & Ugly”, which is all about self-confidence and loving the skin you're in. With all the charisma in the world she spits “Confidence of a porn star the day I cut the horns off/Took all my demons threw em down hill in a buggy/Then stood on top the hill and did the milly rock and dougie/Screamin’ only God can judge me”. In an interview with Rap Genius she discussed the industry and consumers obsession with appearance. As a female rapper, rather than people caring about the content of the music, they’re obsessed with looks.
This song deals with me just as a woman, like, a woman that’s not naked and I’m not of the lighter complexion. And it deals with what people like to push as beauty.
I remember reading comments and tweets and being like, “ah she ugly.”
I saw a tweet not too long ago, somebody was like, “Yo check Rapsody out,” and a person was like, “What she look like?”
And it’s like what that got to do with the music? This was just on some personal stuff like just how hard it is for women to come up because it’s about our image and what we look like and how we shaped and not about the music.
There are comedic spots on this album, along with heart wrenching segments, and times that your heart will flutter. This album has to have solidified her as one of the greatest voices in hip-hop at the moment, and the critics agree. Once again, while the general public was rambling about other Grammy nominations, Rapsody received two of her own in the “Best Rap Album” and “Best Rap Song” categories. I’m hoping that maybe people will recognize her talent if she wins a Grammy, but it shouldn’t take all of that. Rapsody is #1 of my Favorite Albums of 2017 list because this album is excellent, and her voice in hip-hop is necessary. We need more people in hip-hop who tell real stories, along with music we can turn up to. Don’t go into 2018 without knowing who Rapsody is.
· You Should Know
· Jesus Coming