Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Toli Music Awards 2004

So the September 30th deadline for Grammy nominations is fast approaching and it's time to review the music class of 2004. We'll exclude Lauryn Hill and the Fugees who couldn't get their act together on time (or maybe their marketing teams decided for a Christmas push); similarly the word is that Omar has just completed his new album and previewed the first track on Giles Peterson's show last week but that will be next year's campaign. Unfortunately too, it looks like D'Angelo's creative block will extend for at least another year as he's fast approaching Michael Jackson like minimalist hermetism (5 years between albums?)

Before I give my liner notes though, a reminder of last year's picks:

On to the short list of contestants

As others have noted, the big musical meme this year was "The Return of Prince" (see this piece also), he performed at the Grammys with Beyonce, did the most mind-tingingly explosive guitar solo at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where he was inducted, released the 20th anniversary edition of the Purple Rain movie, toned down the 'difficult' stuff, seemed comfortable in his shell and with married life, not to mention that he had the the best tour (probably also the most lucrative this year) where he played a lot of guitar, emphasizing the pop-rock side of his work instead of the Fender-Rhodes soul, jazz/funk stylings and Jehovah's Witness' zeal of 2001's The Rainbow Children. More importantly he produced the kind of stripped down one-man-band album that he hadn't released in a long while.

Musicology has a bunch of perfectly constructed songs: the title track is prototypical James Brown, Sly Stone and Bootsy Collins, Reflection - unhurried acoustic guitar. What do you want me to do - a little perfect pop song like he used to throw out with ease (see The Ballad of Dorothy Parker, Pop Life or Raspberry Beret). Once D'Angelo's Untitled (How does it feel) reminded everyone of the kind of lush ballads that Prince used to produce, His Royal Badness needed a comeback and "Call My Name" fits the bill. On the Couch - a hilarious blues like "If I had a Harem" that he performed during the Lovesexy tour. And for me, Dear Mr Man is akin to Sign O' The Times, social commentary with a funky beat. A great album if somewhat nostalgic: like he says on the title track:
"Don’t U miss the feeling music gave U /Back in the day?"

I've already gushed at length on Amel Larrieux's live performance. Suffice to say that her album, Bravebird, is similarly artful. A dozen hypnotic and personal songs about family and love. Soul, hip-hop, jazz, folk, classical and even middle-eastern influences infuse this album with such style. The ballads are lush (Beyond), it's very danceable (Brave Bird, Sacred) and head-nod-dable (Congo - ) and the beats are ethereal. If Tricky had a case of Pre-Millenium Tension, then tracks like Giving Something Up and Say You Want it All are a case of Post-Industrial angst for the 21st century. Timbaland, Missy Elliot and the Neptunes can step aside, this is how it's done: spare, naked funk, with some trumpets floating in and out punctuating the point and the voice as an instrument inside, over and under the track. Omar's Best By Far was the last album that got me as excited and that is saying much. The peaks and valleys are in the right place, there's wonderful vocals and it is all grounded in soul and a personal musical vision - these are auteurs. All in all, a very powerful and emotional outing.

The Tipping Point is not a typical Roots album and purists might prefer Things Fall Apart which had a looser feel or Phrenology which was more experimental.

This has to do with the way it was recorded: first, weeks of jam sessions with a whole host of artists they enjoy and respect and then studio recreations of the best bits - a process that might mean something gets lost. Also as a band, they decided to showcase lead MC, Black Thought, who wasnt' getting the kudos he undoubtedly deserved rather than the normal hip-hop band 'feel' they are known for. My own feeling (see my longer review) was that this approach was inspired and a great success.

They've certainly hit a groove. It's like Prince circa 1986-7 when the Miles Davis horns came into his arrangements on the Parade. They've done the kiss-off album (Phrenology as Around the World in a Day) to throw off fairweather fans. They are now going for the vituousic and this works perfectly. Could a Sign O' The Times be in the offing next?

I suspect that this will be the album the critics will latch to and for good reason. It's a strong sophomore return from "Jilly from Philly". The subtitle is "Words and Sounds Volume 2" but there is less overt poetry than in the first album.

I saw her live in early 2000, months before she blew up and crossed-over to the big leagues. The show, at lowly Avalon, was a revelation and personal affair, think Prince at First Avenue as he previewed the tracks from Purple Rain in early 1984 just before the hysteria broke out. It was basically grungy college students and a lucky few who had heard the word. Six months later, the venue had changed, she sold out the Fleetcenter Pavillion. The black bourgeoisie was out in full effect to support their girl and this was a capitalized Event. She'd also crossed over and so Boston's finest were on display. Soccer moms felt comfortable dropping Jenny and Biff off to listen to our Jill. It was a celebration but less personal.

She still strives to maintain that unassuming girl-next-door feel but I suspect she can't quite resist the larger-than-life Diva pose when she takes charge of audiences these days. Who can blame her if both audience and record company canonize you as "The Real Deal (tm)".

About the music. First, the remixers are going to have a field day. This is the soul equivalent of Jay-Z's Black Album: there's something for everyone and you can take it in any direction. She is a very stylized vocalist, striving to make each song feel different and unlike much of the cookie-cutter "R&B" you hear on the radio. For example, on last year's collaboration with Common on I am Music and Heaven Somewhere she was sounding like Portishead's Beth Gibbons while the other divas (e.g. Mary J. Blige) were standard soul.

She keeps the same production team, A Touch of Jazz and James Poyser, who lay down great backing tracks for her to play with. She's now married and very happy with that; it shows in the writing and the confident, celebratory feel of the album. Also note that she's still obsessed with food; I guess an album without a mention of grits would be out of the question

The standouts: I'm Not Afraid - a female manifesto with some vicous beats. Bedda at Home will destroy any dancefloor and make homeboy exclaim: "That's what I'm talking about!!" as he jiggles his butt. Family Reunion - perfectly captures the late summer barbecue feel and would have been this summer's jam if she'd gotten the album out earlier. This is bravura songwriting and a great performance.

Van Hunt has given us such a lovely soul album. It reminds me of Bobby Womack, Al Green and Curtis Mayfield with a twist of Sly Stone. I guess amongst his contemporaries you'd have to put him alongside Dwele, Donnie, Tony! Toni! Tone!, Lenny Kravitz, Maxwell, and Rashaan Patterson. I mention all of these names to give an idea of the caliber of the man. Supremely confident, Van Hunt writes and produces himself ala Tony Rich Project. He's Down Here in Hell (With You) is a beautiful, beautiful song; you feel you've grown up with this song. Similarly with Her December or Anything (to get your attention) which are genius. The craft in the song-writing and arrangements is evident as in the lazy and plaintive blues stroll of Seconds of Pleasure or Who will Love me in Winter. The voice sometimes tends to the falsetto. There's also a rock tinge that keeps you on your toes: this isn't your garden variety R&B, this is soul music, grown-folks music, the stuff that you listen to late nights in Q's Jook Joint with your honey and some good friends, the soundtrack of laughs, friendship and love. He's the real deal, I definitely want to see him live.

I'll always throw in some UK soul into the mix. This is an album that will hit the States next year and will sell lots even if the record company is incompetent. Tell others that I hipped you to this before everyone got into it. The blurb:
The result of a five year search by former Fine Young Cannibals songwriter David Steele to find the perfect singer, Fried combines Steele's undeniable talents with that of 23-year old New Orleans gospel singer Jonte Short.
People will compare Jonte's voice to Macy Gray if only because it's so different from the norm. But it's nothing like Macy or Aretha Franklin or anyone else that you've heard. It's angular and it's salty and I love it. The arrangements are great, it's like a great Al Green or Sam Cooke album that your mum would be singing in the shower, or when she came home and took her shoes off. A musical massage ala Leon Ware.

Like Sade, the first lady of soul is back and it's an event. In the same way that I'll kill for a good Alexander O'Neal or Cherelle album, I run to my record store (actually its the One-Click thing) and buy an Anita Baker joint sight unseen (hearing unheard?). A decade since her last release, she comes back with ten new classics. Thankfully this is not your easy listening or smooth jazz deal, this is a real Anita Baker soul album. 'Nuff said: it's great, go buy it.

In the tradition of Fela, this New York/Nigeria Afro-beat collective bring acerbic social and political commentary (on Bush, Ashcroft, Imperialism) laced with funk, salsa and the infectious African groove. Sharp percussion and horns blend into something that grows on you immediately. 70 minutes of fun, of humour, of dance music. There are shifting beats and shifting tempos like those old highlife albums from the 50s. Musical inventiveness pervades the piece; you won't be able to sit down. About the only thing flaw is the lack of some female voices in the call and response. James Brown may have had Bobby Bland singing Git on Up, but he also knew that you needed some Memphis Soul babes in the background. Fela, Femi Kuti, not to mention Koffi Olomide tour with with electic female dancers and backing singers. It's not just eye candy or showmanship; it informs the tenor of the performance. Where are your girlfriends, fellas?

Kanye West is clearly deserving of producer of the year since he's had essentially a song in the top 10 all year writing for Twista, Dilated Peoples, Slum Village amongst others). I enjoy his sensibility and the musicial direction on the album a lot. The beats are original, the samples are well chosen, it's hip-hop grounded in gospel and the great soul singers of yore. I like the fact that a backpacker can make it to public acclaim, wearing formal jackets and as opposed to track suits or baggy pants. I like especially that a hip-hop artist (or any artist) can get get away with a Number 1 hit overtly about religion (Jesus Walks) with marching bands.

The only thing is that he just doesn't have the flow or the voice; Black Thought would massacre him in a battle. And even though he's very intelligent, I'm not one for this fake anti-intellectual pose: college dropout? Come on... Nevertheless, this album has sold a ton and has brought him much acclaim. He deserves it; it's exciting that something this focused can break out.

Having obviously seen what the Philly connection did last year for Les Nubians with whom she toured, Zap Mama go wholeheartedly for the Philadelphia production and the result is great. Collaborating with Erykah Badu, Common, Talib Kweli, Bahamadia and QuestLove of The Roots, this is essentially a Soulquarian joint, rooted in Philly. What's not to like, my favourite collective come through again. The track with Scratch (ex Roots), Wadidyusay? is acappella heaven: Congo pygmy music meets hip-hop beatbox mastery. There's less of Africa here than in the past and as in Les Nubian's masterpiece but it's a wonderful album set for much repeated listening.

Another solid, if commercial, album from Miss Mahogany Soul, much loved by all the big girls out there (if Jill Scott goes on about food, Angie is concerned with body image). I say commercial because she brings on Snoop Dogg as a guest. Still she's one of the hardest-working female vocalists. It's a long album There's very little filler but at the same time there isn't much experimentation. On the other hand, there are at least 10 songs that are club classics and dance floor bangers. And of course any album featuring Antony Hamilton and Betty Wright is all right by me. Not to damn her with faint praise though, I sometimes wish that she'd occasionally let someone else do the production and/or writing, Jam and Lewis perhaps.

Two complaints tangential to the album itself: the acoustics were horrible during her concert in Boston, in fact her opening act, Lyfe, had better acoustics which says something about her road crew and sound engineers. Second, what is it with record companies trying to copy-protect CDs especially of soul singers? First the Anthony Hamilton album and now Angie Stone. These artists need the bucks and copy protection will turn buyers away and annoy them. Anyway remember to press the shift key when you insert the cd into your computer. Just on principle, I ripped it and am sharing to the world.

What can you say about Bjork who goes acapella on this round. No instruments, just layers of voices as percussion, harmony or with some jarring squeals. Like Zap Mama too, she enlists a Philadelphia and ex-Roots Beat-box guru, Rahzel, the so-called "Godfather of Noise". Well Bjork is her own self and there is no one quite like her in pop music. Nod your head to this Icelandic ear candy.

Le funk. Gritty funk. Sweaty funk. Nasty funk. Hard funk.
I Funk. You Funk. He Funks. We Funk.
Conjugate the verb to funk please.
George Clinton would definitely tweak to this.

Give it up for Jigga for Izzo, for Hova... His last album? A retirement party for the man at the top of the game? Say it ain't so. Remixed so many times that you need Google to keep track of things (see DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album - Jay-Z meets The Beatles White album - or The Purple Album - Jay-Z meets Prince). This was bumping in jeeps and clubs everywhere, even in your cousin's dodgy Honda Civic. Get the Dirt of your Shoulder, ignore your 99 Problems, Change Clothes if you like. What More Can I Say.

Honorable Mentions

Dizzee Rascal - Boy in Da Corner

A hungry MC from London, voracious on the microphone. Place a Cockney accent over garage and drum and bass breaks and a street sensibility emerges. "Fix up, Look Sharp" was infectious.

The Streets - A Grand Don't Come for Free

His conversational style takes some getting used to but is a winner.

Joss Stone - The Soul Sessions.

Strictly speaking this came out last year but I only dug it recently. She does have the voice, now if they'll let her do more of her own songs. I understand a new album is in the can and hope that her promise comes through. There's so much goodwill for her plus she's a marketeer's dream: white, English voice with a voice like Marlena Shaw.

And so on to The 2004 Koranteng's Toli Music awards

Album of the year
Winner: The Roots - The Tipping Point

This would be a three-way tie by all accounts:
Prince simply because he had the best show and a decent Prince album in any year would be at the top;
Amel Larrieux because she got me excited about the possibilities of music and her album is superb;
The Roots because the five song sequence of Star, Guns are Drawn, Stay Cool, Web and Boom has to be the strongest of the year. Rendered live they took no prisoners not to mention the outtakes, Din Da daa and Melting Pot which are club gems.

Since I have to give the award, The Roots have it.

Soul album of the year
Winner: Amel Larrieux - Brave Bird

I love you Jill Scott but Amel's sophomore outing is the greater work. Be consoled that both you and Angie Stone will sell 2 million more albums than Amel...

Producer of the year
Winner: Kanye West

Well Kanye West had more hits than even the Neptunes so he gets the nod. Anyone who brings back Chaka Khan breaks and was collaborating with Rick James knows what he's doing.

Best New Artist
Tie: Fried and Van Hunt

I can't decide this one so it has to be a tie between the two self-titled debuts: Fried and Van Hunt. Perhaps, I should split this up by geography: in the United States, let's have Van Hunt, outside it should be Fried. Best Live Performance
Winner: Prince
Say no more... Even the Fleetcenter's passable acoustics couldn't deny the strength of Prince's show and the tightness of his band, The New Power Generation (Maceo Parker on saxophone, Greg Boyer on trombone, and the ever-sexy Rhonda Smith on bass and Candy Dulfer, you know "When I want sax, I call Candy", that Candy, not to mention the monstrous John Blackwell on drums, Renata with the jazz stylings on keyboards and Reverend Mike Scott sharing rhythm guitar duties). This was partying like it was 1999. Amel Larrieux lurks of course...

Other good shows: Femi Kuti (when's the next album coming?), Orchestra Baobab - a great party, Kekele (laidback Congolese Rumba) and Gladys Knight (with one Pip).

So there we have it: a comeback, some breakthroughs and lots of musical excitement to keep me spending my hard-earned Lotus cedis. Not a bad year in artistic achievement. Erykah Badu and D'Angelo what's your response?

[Crossposted at]

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