1. Forget 50 Cent and Beyoncé. OutKast is really running the show. Okay, everyone probably has the album by now, and Speakerboxx/The Love Below will end up on a lot of critics' Top 10 lists. So why is it on my list? First off, I love the album. Secondly, it's a melding of prescient hip-hop and beguiling R&B that shows that no matter how mainstream this duo gets, they're always ready and willing to try something different.
2. Little Brother's The Listening (ABB) is one of my new all-time favorite hip-hop albums because this North Carolina trio, through their lyrics and their samples, celebrate black people's collective urban nostalgia. They basically made black listeners proud -- if not more proud -- that they grew up black. The same goes for Freeway, whose debut, Philadelphia Freeway (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam), was more powerful both lyrically and musically than any of the albums that starred his Roc-A-Fella brethren.
3. Good R&B singers don't have to wear wife-beaters. This year, the ones who kept their chests clothed were the ones who could carry a more convincing love song. With Subject (Virgin), his long-awaited debut, Detroit boy Dwele turned his Motor City charisma on many a stylish soul ballad. Meanwhile, Philly DJ turned soul singer Vikter Duplaix laid on the jet-setting charm with his full-length singing debut, International Affairs v. 2.0 (Hollywood). The album is aptly named -- it finds Duplaix crooning to all the global girls he loved before amid exotic rhythms and enticing synth work.
4. A few established musicians released stellar jam sessions studded with eclectic lineups. With Larry Gold Presents Don Cello & Friends (BBE/Rapster), the legendary Gamble & Huff session player (who's handled string arrangements for such folk as Teddy Pendergrass and Justin Timberlake) went front-and-center and introduced himself as a producer-for-hire. Gold's debut album had him composing a polished collection of tracks for old friends (Gerald Levert) as well as new talents (Kameelah). Another immortal, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, invited in the likes of Common and Me'Shell NdegéOcello for a soul-jazz chill-out session called The RH Factor: Hard Groove (Verve). Both were like Lucky Charms -- musically delicious.
5. The following may sound corny as hell: DJ Spinna's Here to There (BBE/Rapster) made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. A big part of that came from Spinna's inviting a bevy of artists (rapper Jean Grae, Soulive's Neal Evans and Eric Krasno, U.K. dance singer Shaun Escoffery) to play along. Slightly less warm, but still all-around fuzzy, is Here Comes the Fuzz (Elektra), Mark Ronson's debut. The New York DJ came with a relentless party mix tape that had everyone from Rivers Cuomo to Q-Tip to Freeway throwing in their two cents.
6. You want really alternative R&B? Look to Europe! Micro-soul trio Spacek finally had a chance to shine on this side of the pond with their elegant, techno-torch-song-packed U.S. debut, Vintage Hi-Tech (!K7). Georg Levin also made a sweet splash stateside with Can't Hold Back (Sonar Kollektiv), a collection of classy, jazzy, retro R&B numbers. Oh, did I forget to tell ya that Levin is a white boy from Berlin?
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7. It just doesn't pay for a mature, black soulstress to release a third album. Two onetime It Girls of pop music released junior discs that were tragically ignored. Erykah Badu's World Wide Underground (Motown) found the Texan solidifying her position as the sensual revolutionary of neo-soul, while Macy Gray once again reveled in her eccentric brand of homespun R&B with The Trouble With Being Myself (Epic).
8. A couple of DJs introduced highly evolved brands of beat science. In San Francisco, licensed mixologist J. Boogie released J. Boogie's Dubtronic Science (OM), a stream containing rivulets of lounge, dub, jazz, hip-hop and soul. Over in Detroit, John Arnold came with some knowledge of his own -- Neighborhood Science (Ubiquity), to be exact, filled with theorems and postulates derived from house, techno, broken beat and, once again, soul. Both albums showcase the music of the artists' residencies more than the artists themselves.
9. A couple of hip-hop adventurers danced with ambitious concepts. Philadelphia's King Britt released an album that's part MC showcase and part musical treatise on the decaying of Mother Earth. And be geared toward Martians. But that's kinda what his Adventures in Lo-Fi (BBE/Rapster) was all about. As guys like Dice Raw and Capitol A dropped in to rhyme and flow, hip-hop's space cowboy wove it all together for an intergalactic audience. Meanwhile, Prince Paul released another concept album, Politics of the Business (Razor & Tie). Sadly, many critics didn't get Paul's multilayered joke about how rap music has become so predictable that a trailblazer like Paul could make an album full of subpar beats with old pals like Guru, Chubb Rock and Biz Markie just slumming rhymes. It may have been too ambitious for audiences to grasp, but we all should know by now this is what Prince Paul is best known for.
10. For the second year in a row, the best MCs were white. Okay, this always gets me in trouble with fans who can't believe I could possibly call any pale-skinned MC the best when cats like Nas are still walking around. Those people probably haven't heard Aesop Rock's Bazooka Tooth (Definitive Jux), 'cause if they had, even they would have to admit that the guy is on some otherworldly shit. Basically a full-length attack on the senses, Bazooka Tooth is a wild, weird marvel that'll make anybody who listens to it play it again -- if only to try to figure out what the hell Aesop is talking about. And while Atmosphere did drop another gem this year with Seven's Travels, we really dug fellow Minneapolis hip-hopper (and albino Muslim, if there is such a thing) Brother Ali and his sharp, ferocious debut, Shadows on the Sun (Rhymesayers).