Deep Black

Listeners had to travel far beyond mainstream to find sublime black music in 2002

2002 was a good year for R&B and hip-hop – but only if you shunned commercial radio, corporate music magazines, MTV, BET and all other mainstream media hype-dolloping outlets. If you sought good music on your own, there was a nice bounty there for the taking.

1. The Neptunes ruled the music world. This past year, Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams accomplished something that'll be discussed among industry types and music enthusiasts for years: They fostered artistic integrity while consistently producing commercial tunes for pop performers. In Search Of . . . , their debut album as rap/rock/R&B fusion band N.E.R.D., is pop-music anarchy – poignant and perverted, dead-sexy and dead-serious. And radio had no freakin' idea what to do with it.

2. Two-man hip-hop crews proved you didn't need a boatload of rappers to make a great album. The two finest hip-hop albums of 2002 came from two 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, jettisons the pretentious preening that marks too many of today's rap releases in favor of giddy ditties. Blackalicious took it to a quirkier, more imaginative level with their second album, Blazing Arrow. These two albums give a better understanding of the brotherhood of man than the usual band of brothas.

3. For the future of soul music, visit Canada, eh! Despite criticisms that he's just a photogenic, Stevie Wonder sound-alike, Toronto's Glenn Lewis released the most criminally ignored R&B album in years, World Outside My Window. Meanwhile, Winnipeg white boy Remy Shand came across the border with a Stratocaster and a smoldering attitude with his funky debut, The Way I Feel.

4. Hip-hop DJs finally got the respect they deserve. Whether it stemmed from the success of the X-ecutioners with their album Built From Scratch, or the cult success of Doug Pray's DJ documentary Scratch, the hip-hop DJ suddenly became more visible. DJ Shadow paused long enough from his record archaeology to release The Private Press, his long-awaited second album, placing hip-hop DJs on equal footing with those who spin trance, electro and jungle. DJ Jazzy Jeff didn't take it that deep, but he did release perhaps the best album from London's BBE's "Beat Generation" series with The Magnificent, proving once again that rappers are nothing without the beat.

5. Two neo-soul artists go retro-progressive. The CD booklet for Musiq's second album, Juslisen, shows a kid (ostensibly Musiq) listening to records and eight-tracks on an old-school hi-fi. Similarly, the booklet for Raphael Saadiq's solo debut, Instant Vintage, has a photo of a preteen Saadiq playing bass. Both of these snapshots show the reverence Musiq and Saadiq had for soul music when they were young, and still have now. Better still, this veneration shows in their grooves.

6. Welcome back truth and awareness 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 funky and revolutionary manifesto that addressed the politics – racial, social, sexual – people may or may not know they deal with every day. With The Colored Section, neophyte Atlanta soulster Donnie released a devious debut that revealed the contradictions, historical gripes and saving graces of African-American culture.

7. Wit and eloquence return to rap – imagine that. J-Live was supposed to release his acclaimed debut album nearly four years ago, but he famously 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 old and new compositions that soothed anyone who thought rap was running out of smart, engaging MCs. Around the same time, Jean Grae, formerly of Natural Resource, came in this summer 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 to finish.

8. The ladies knew how to meld R&B and hip-hop right. Let's be real: If you were listening to a Luther Vandross tune and Busta Rhymes erupted out of nowhere dropping his kamikaze flow, wouldn't you find the whole thing a little off? Fortunately, some gals know how to make R&B and hip-hop cohabit fluidly. 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 quickly 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.

9. When in doubt, always trust a Soulquarian. Coming in the final stretch to wrap a little bow around this hip-hop year were two new offerings from hip-hoppers (and members of the ever-expanding traveling band the Soulquarians) Common and The Roots. Electric Circus, Common's latest funk-rap ride, is as energetic as it is trippy, where Prince, Jill Scott and London acid-jazz singer Omar can dwell together in undisturbed harmony. But it's Phrenology, the wild new album from The Roots, that should shock the hell out of any Roots fan, and even a few of their uneducated detractors.

10. It's official: The best rappers are white – and emotionally disturbed! Not since 1991, the year that gave us Vanilla Ice, Marky Mark, 3rd Bass, and Young Black Teenagers, has there been a year where more talented, milk-colored MCs came out to play. Eminem broadcast his latest litany of personal grievances with The Eminem Show, but two MCs easily managed to out-emote Slim Shady. Slug, of the Minneapolis duo Atmosphere, crowned himself the wigger prince with God Loves Ugly, asking for a pound and a hug when he wasn't asking for his groupies' soaking panties. And El-P – rapper, producer and CEO of the much-hyped indie label Definitive Jux – made sure everyone felt his wrath with the bruising Fantastic Damage.

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