It’s near the end of April, and as a music journalist, I have been privy to listen to a number of albums in differing genres. Even so, I have a soft spot for R&B, but am also very hard on it. Despite my criticisms, R&B and I have a relationship like a Whitney Houston song written by Dolly Parton: “I Will Always Love You”. That said, after listening to a number of R&B albums, I ranked 20 from 2014 (EPs and mixtapes included) in order from favorite to least favorite. Here goes nothing!
It took a juggernaut to knock John Newman from the top spot of the R&B rankings – his Tribute is a sensational album. However, SZA’s Z, an alternative R&B effort too is a truly special album with quite the innovative spirit, something so often absent from R&B these days. If anything, SZA needs to be receiving her just due. Previously of SZA I penned:
Ultimately, Z is a home run. With so many R&B albums that come and go lacking that ‘extra special something’, Z has it. Weird, yet beautiful, Z seems like a step in the right direction in which R&B should go. That isn’t to say that an alternative R&B album like this is the perfect blueprint, but it also doesn’t confine the genre to clichés or limiting trends. SZA is definitely a supremely talented young artist to watch.
“UR”; “Child’s Play”; “Julia”; “Green Mile”; “Sweet November”
Brit-soul definitely has something special about it – it’s as if overseas, the idea of retro-soul isn’t far-fetched or considered un-trendy or ‘old school’. While Tribute doesn’t have the abstractness of alternative-R&B or the trendiness and gimmickry of contemporary R&B, it does have legit authenticity, carried by an artist who can just flat out blow. Previously, I summed upmy review of Tribute as follows:
Ultimately, Tribute epitomizes musical excellence through and through. In an age where many question ‘where the soul has gone,’ Newman shows that soul music is still very much alive. For any further questioning if the British soul movement was a thing of the past in it self, well, question no more. John Newman is legit as they come and he has top-notch material working in his favor on this affair. For pop and R&B fans alike, Tribute should easily tickle your fancy.
“Tribute”; “Love Me Again”; “Losing Sleep”; “Out Of My Head”; “Cheating”; “Down The Line”
G I R L
Pharrell Williams second solo album G I R L eclipses his debut (In My Mind) easily. G I R L is one big ball of fun ultimately, with the quirky, incredibly talented artist flexing his muscles (and they’re big my friends, LOL). While it leans more danceable/groovy as opposed to relying on ballads, the material is solid and definitely enjoyable. When I had the pleasure of reviewing G I R L, this is how I concluded the review:
Ten tracks deep, G I R L benefits from its brevity and overall lack of filler. Sure, it’s not a perfect album, but ultimately, Pharrell Williams delivers an effort that plays to his musical strengths and is pleasant to the ear. He doesn’t over-sex R&B like so many of his contemporary and younger male artists tend to do; he keeps things classy. Mature and enjoyable, G I R L is definitely a winner worthy of numerous spins… or a high play count on the iPod, LOL.
“Brand New”; “Hunter”; “Happy”; “Come Get It Bae”; “Gust of Wind”
As I continue to listen to August Alsina’s full-length debut, despite giving it plenty of accolades, sometimes I think I should’ve bestowed even more. A 3 ½ star rating is a great one in my book/most critics, but perhaps Alsina’s Testimony deserves at least 4 stars. Here is what I previously wrote about Testimony when reviewing it:
Ultimately, Testimony showcases the great amount of potential that August Alsina has to offer as an artist. Vocally, Alsina easily has the pipes to succeed. Additionally, he has the backstory to truly fuel the fire. Sure, Testimony isn’t a perfectly crafted album, but it’s better more often than not. There are plenty of notable songs – filled with pain as well as the triumph of resolve. Maybe it’s not beautifully poetic, but isn’t grittiness a different take on beauty (or something like that)?
“Make It Home” ft. Jeezy; “FML” ft. Pusha T; “Ghetto” ft. Yo Gotti; “Benediction” ft. Rick Ross; “I Luv This Shit” ft. Trinidad James
Verdict: ★★★½ ★★★★
Days & Nights
John Newman may be the Brit getting the most buzz, but Daley shouldn’t be slept on – dude can flat out blow. Sporting a piercing, soulful tenor, Daley has some sick pipes. Daley can definitely count this music lover as a fan, something I attempted to convey enthusiastically in a previous review:
All in all, Days & Nights is an exceptional full-length debut from Daley. What is unfortunate is that there isn’t more buzz surrounding the Brit R&B standout. With such mad pipes, Daley deserves much more recognition. Regardless of his commercial lot, Daley has it going on strongly on Days & Nights.
“Time Travel”; “Blame The World”; “Love And Affection”; “Alone Together” ft. Marsha Ambrosius; “Pass It On”; “Broken”
Lift Your Spirit
“Go ahead and tell everybody…I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man”. Aloe Blacc may not be “the man” in regards to the second coming of R&B, but his big-time hit was enough to bring some added relevancy to the genre. The album Lift Your Spirit ultimately was quite appealing, a sentiment I conveyed within my final thoughts of my review:
Ultimately, Lift Your Spirit does just that – it makes you feel happy. There are no deal breaking moments to be found, with consistency characterizing the album overall. Calling Lift Your Spirit an innovative affair would be an overstatement, but praising it for its solidness wouldn’t be in the least. Vocally, Aloe Blacc is a balanced singer who knows when to pull back and when to flash, which helps to make Lift Your Spirit so appealing throughout. It is the sensible R&B album that is ‘pop’ enough to crossover – just look at “The Man” for proof of that.
“The Man”; “Love Is The Answer”; “Chasing”; “Ticking Bomb”
2014 is the year of Brit-R&B, and this music journalist is digging it. Sam Smith is the most ‘pop’ of the big three (Smith, Daley, and John Newman), but maybe British pop is naturally more soulful, at least in recent times. Regardless, Nirvana definitely builds some serious buzz for Smith’s debut album. Of Nirvana, I summarized it as follows:
All in all, Sam Smith sets his career up soundly on this introductory EP. Vocally, Smith joins a talented class of British vocalists in 2014: John Newman (Tribute) and Daley (Days & Nights). Smith more than holds his own in such elite company, making him one of the artists to watch closely this year. Nirvana EP receives my blessings for sure.
“Safe With Me”; “Nirvana”; “Together”
Give The People What They Want
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
Traditional soul is hard to come by in 2014, particularly as R&B takes a more physical, less genuine turn. Give The People What They Want doesn’t follow this script, and even if it isn’t innovative given its inspiration from the 60s and 70s, the album feels incredibly refreshing. Of the superb Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings effort, I previously wrote:
Ultimately, Give The People What They Want is a fantastic album period. Brief at only 34 minutes and consistent from start to finish, there is truly little to criticize. Sharon Jones sounds superb throughout, as do the Dap-Kings. It’s not innovative, but the fact that Jones and company hearkens back to the classic sound, that is refreshing enough in itself.
“Retreat”; “We Get Along”; “You’ll Be Lonely”; “People Don’t Get What They Deserve”
Though it is neither flashy nor heroic, Recovery is a sound and enjoyable R&B album. Perhaps the biggest flaw of the album and artist Algebra Blessett is neither is well known or highly publicized. Still, my closing thoughts on Recovery were:
All said and done, Recovery is a fine R&B album, particularly to be released in a quiet January. There is a classiness and coolness about this effort that is appealing. Algebra never over sings; she always gives just the right amount of oomph and emotion to connect with the audience. Recovery is nothing flashy, but it doesn’t need to be. It is what it is – a narrative that a many of folk have experienced in real life, not merely an R&B album. Kudos Algebra – kudos.
“Recovery”; “Nobody But You”; “Struggle To Be” ft. Q. Parker; “Paper Heart”; “Mystery”
Calling The Truth Ledisi’s best album would be an overstatement. Don’t get me wrong, The Truth is no slouch, but comparing it to juggernauts like Lost & Found or Turn Me Loose may be a bit much. Still, the ten tracks that grace the LP are generally all worthwhile and do show Ledisi ensuring she doesn’t box herself in as only one type of artist. Maybe “That Good Good” (for example) is exactly the right answer, but it’s not that far off or too ‘left-of-center’ either. Overall, Ledisi gets it right once again. We (the fans) wouldn’t expect any less.
“I Blame You”; “Rock With You”; “Lose Control”; “Like This”; “88 Boxes”
Starts With Love EP
Sometimes the best albums come from little known artists. Breezy Malone is no household name, but her EP Starts With Love was a treat nonetheless. For those craving the reinstatement of neo-soul, Breezy’s your gal. Of Starts With Love, I previously wrote:
What’s the best way to describe Breezy Malone and her Starts With Love EP? How about calling it simply on point. Malone has a sensational voice and seems to ‘get it’ in regards to truly preserving R&B in its truest form. Starts With Love is a brilliant start for this multifaceted, multitalented artist. Hopefully, things are only beginning for Breezy; she’s a star who truly needs to shine.
“Feelin’ Some Type of Way”; “Love Face”; “Who Do You Love”
Almost Us – EP
What is sad is that few know who M&O are (formerly Milo & Otis), yet it is understandable. The Chicago duo is embracing the alternative R&B movement, transcending labels on their second EP, Almost Us. While Almost Us may go too far out there for more traditional R&B listeners at times, ultimately, it just might represent the future of the genre. I summed up Almost Us as follows:
Ultimately, Almost Us offers the listener a wonderful exemplification of the new school of R&B, with all its ambitious eclecticism. All eight songs have redeeming value, which is a testament to the musicianship of the duo. That said, sometimes it could be argued that M&O play it the slightest bit too ‘cool’ throughout the effort – sometimes it is a bit too ‘chill’. It is nitpicking – nitpicking that could be easily fixed if there were bit of a ‘push’ or extra bite. Still, if you enjoy your music with some unpredictability and incorporating a couple of styles, Almost Us is certainly the right listening opportunity. Hey, it definitely receives my praise and blessings.
“House”; “Run”; “Hollow”
Love, Marriage & Divorce
Toni Braxton & Babyface
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. That’s the sentiment I gathered from Toni Braxton and Babyface’s duets album, Love Marriage & Divorce. A well-rounded effort, neither artists particularly goes out of their respective comfort zones, and nor do they necessarily need to. Ultimately, the pros outweighed the cons in my mind:
All in all, Love Marriage & Divorce is a pleasant R&B album. It’s not what you might pen as an innovative tour de force, but it is very well done overall. Vocally, both Braxton and Babyface sound incredible, particularly being past their artistic peaks. It likely isn’t an album that will appeal to the present generation of R&B listeners who prefer more eclecticism and hip-hop stirred in, but for the traditionalist and ‘grown folks’, Love Marriage & Divorce should be right up their alley.
“Roller Coaster”; “Hurt You”; “Where Did We Go Wrong”; “Heart Attack”
Ashanti has often left me desiring more artistically throughout her career. While BraveHeart wasn’t a masterpiece, it was a respectable and enjoyable effort from the contemporary R&B chanteuse. Of BraveHeart I previously penned:
Ultimately, BraveHeart ends up being a surprising affair. It’s by no means perfection realized, but its also nowhere near being a train wreck of any sorts. BraveHeart is a solid and enjoyable R&B album with truly little pressure on it. Honestly, what did Ashanti have to lose after a six-year hiatus? Nothing. BraveHeart won’t reignite her career commercially, but critically, it finds the singer in a much better spot than she was before. Perhaps the biggest flaw of BraveHeart is the lack of ‘selling it’ – better promotion certainly brings better awareness. It is what it is though.
“Nowhere”; “Runaway”; “Scars”; “Never Should Have”; “I Got It”
Well, first things first, Candice Glover can sing. She proved this on American Idol as well as on debut album Music Speaks. Unfortunately for the sound Music Speaks, the material itself isn’t enough to amplify Glover’s status commercially or artistically. Here were my final thoughts on Music Speaks:
Ultimately how does Glover’s Music Speaks stack up comparatively to former Idol debut albums? It’s respectable, though not classic. There is enough solid material and magnificent vocals from Glover to make the album sound and enjoyable, but there is nothing that makes it a contemporary masterpiece. The greatest pro in regards to Music Speaks is its potential; that potential is certainly grand.
“Cried”; “Die Without You”; “Same Kinda Man”; “Damn”; Thank You”
Ruben Studdard’s sixth album Unconditional has numerous pros working for it. That said, it also only features a couple of originals and trends ‘safe’. Here was my rationale for my verdict for the Velvet Teddy Bear’s latest:
Verdict? Unconditional Love is an enjoyable, if safe album that finds Studdard at the top of his game vocally. After years of experience, albeit somewhat underrated following his commercial success, Studdard is a much better vocalist at this point in his career. Unfortunately, Unconditional Love will likely only play to more mature fans and won’t win back the audience who was thrilled with say “Sorry 2004” or even the Big Boy anthem “What Is Sexy?” Still, if “Superstar” was Studdard’s true ‘ace in the hole’, then maybe Unconditional Love as a whole is just what the doctor ordered. Personally, my opinion lies somewhere in the middle.
“The Nearness of You”; “Love, Love, Love”; “If This World Were Mine” ft. Lalah Hathaway; “My Love”; “Unconditional”
Many contemporary male R&B artists have definitely put all their eggs into one basket in 2014 – sex. Talk Dirty, much like Sextape that comes later in this list, is definitely appropriately titled so you know what you’re getting. Still, I’m a bit concerned of the possibility of overexertion…LOL. I summarized my review of Talk Dirty as follows:
Ultimately, Talk Dirty is average at best. It has its moments, but it also seems to put its eggs too much into one basket – specifically booty. Much like Derülo’s Future History, Talk Dirty seems to lack cohesion; it’s missing something. There is nothing wrong with Jason’s voice – he can sing – but his music just doesn’t lend itself to making a genuine connection as a listener. That said, nothing eclipses “Talk Dirty”.
“Talk Dirty”; “Vertigo”; “The Other Side”; “Marry Me”
Ty Dolla $ign
Beach House – EP
Like Jason Derülo before him, Ty Dolla $ign relies on sex to fuel the fire. Because of this, Beach House doesn’t necessarily bring ‘innovation’ to the table, but that doesn’t make it a bad effort – particularly for an EP:
Overall, Ty Dolla $ign shows he has great potential. If the street savvy of Beach House isn’t a deal breaker, it can be considered quite enjoyable. Still, the rub is that Ty Dolla $ign seems to put all his eggs in one basket – sex and more sex. Beach House’s unfavorable view towards the relationship versus it’s liberalized view about hooking up and lacking respect for women (misogyny) is questionable morally and even as a listening experience. Still, the potential is abundant, with some fine-tuning when a full-length album arrives.
“Work”; “Paranoid”; “Wood & Leather”
The main reason that CJ Hilton’s Sextape doesn’t sit any higher on this list is that it is a mixtape as opposed to being a proper album. Sure, it thrives off its salaciousness, but with a blunt title like Sextape, the listener knows what they are getting themselves into. Of Sextape I previously wrote:
Sextape has its moments for sure. It is apparent that Hilton has done his homework from R&B masters of past, known for the sex appeal of their music. Among my favorites moments from Sextape is the penultimate cut “I Luv It”, which is exceptionally produced and overall kind of addicting. Of course, the earlier “Down” is none too shabby, even if it plays up clichés that have played out within the R&B playbooks for years. But honestly, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Even if “Down” is somewhat ‘tried and true’ thematically, “Come” has that cool, modern R&B sensibility about it. Hilton also doesn’t pass up the opportunity for the double entendre, a goal that seems atop the list of many contemporary artists regardless of genre.
“Take Off Your Clothes”; “Down”; “Come”; “I Luv It”
I wasn’t beaming that much after listening to SoMo’s self-titled debut album. Even so, I did hear the potential for sure, particularly in the slick club track “Fire”. My summarizing paragraph from my review of SoMo read as follows:
Ultimately, SoMo lacks an emotional connection. Sure, SoMo sings of very relatable topics in love and sex, but something about the delivery as well as the material leaves the listener feeling empty. The cupboard isn’t completely bare on this album, but it’s definitely nowhere near full. Next round, SoMo will need to step up his game to make a truly thrilling, distinctive artistic statement. Here, he settles for trendy urban music that leaves its audience with a sentiment of “so what”. Now, it is time for the YouTube star to develop into his own.
“Show Off”; “Fire”; “Ride”; “Red Lighter”