Soul

Malibu (CD)

Anderson .Paak has been the go-to guy to feature when artists have wanted their tracks to have a certain something special. His voice is a malleable instrument than can be gravelly or velvety smooth, able to deliver fast-paced raps and pour out soul syrup in equal measure. Though his debut, Venice, drew plenty of attention and acclaim, he’s now been lifted up into the upper echelon of R&B artists working today, thanks to a series of high-profile collaborations with Dr. Dre on his comeback album, Compton, on which Anderson .Paak consistently threatened to steal the show on his six tracks. He takes that opportunity and knocks it out of the park with Malibu, a gorgeous psychedelic swirl of lush neo-soul backdrops and alternative hip-hop tracks, featuring a cadre of high-profile guest apperances (Talib Kweli, ScHoolboy Q, The Game). Gorgeous tracks like “The Birds” evoke the classic soul stylings of a Marvin Gaye or Al Green. Yet he keeps things current on the jazz-inflected hip hop of a track like “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” or thumping banger “Come Down,” keeping in line with the likes of Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. As the lines further blur between the experimental and mainstream, vintage and current within hip hop, Malibu masterfully strings these styles together for an accessible, highly listenable album that should make Anderson .Paak a deserved star in his own right.

Read more
Beauty Behind The Madness (CD)

Alternative R&B artist The Weeknd has gone from underground sensation to worldwide phenomenon, thanks to critical success of albums like House of Balloons and his association with acts like Drake. Beauty Behind the Madness steps up the energy from 2013’s Kiss Land, which wasn’t a bad album but failed to fully capitalize on his indie cred. No such thing with Beauty, which comes on strong and doesn’t let up. The gloriously hedonistic “The Hills” manages to build a radio-ready R&B slow burner while folding in the more experimental elements upon which Abel Tesfaye made his name—a digitally clawed-up croon, atmospheric backdrop and strange effects, like a sampled horror-movie scream acting as a chorus cue. “Earned It,” used in 50 Shades of Grey, goes the other route, a cool jazz ballad with classy strings and lyrics that are more suggestive than crude. “Often” dazzles with its ghostly production, and Tesfaye keeps the party moving on the MJ-ish “Can’t Feel My Face.” Lyrically, Tesfaye leaves something to be desired in the way he sings about women—he’s better off in the parts of “Tell Your Friends” that just focus on doing drugs and funny wordplay (“I'm never rocking white, I'm like a racist”). Throughout Beauty, Tesfaye’s sound is flawlessly constructed, and his voice has grown remarkably from its breathy beginnings to a confidence level that would make him appealing even without his estimable songwriting and production skills. Beauty Behind the Madness is the album that finally, truly announces Tesfaye’s arrival as an A-lister. It’ll be tough to find a more entertaining (or inventive) R&B album released this year.

Read more
Coming Home (CD)

From the first notes of his sweet, soulful viral hit, “Coming Home,” you can tell you’re listening to the emergence of a huge new talent. Leon Bridges calls to mind a young Sam Cooke with his heartfelt R&B, produced with analog grit for a timeless sound that feels like a huge breath of fresh air in these days of maximally produced radio pop. You can really here the warmth to Bridges’ voice on the waltzing “Brown Skin Girl,” letting his vocals pour over the guitars and saxes like syrup. But Bridges’ guitars and style are also raw enough for the garage kids, kicking up plenty of dust on tracks like “Flowers” while showing enough restraint to keep things classy. He doesn’t stray much from the template set by his influences, but he doesn’t need to when the resulting music feels so vital. Perhaps more than any other contemporary artist, Bridges makes what was old sound new again on his remarkable debut.

Read more
Black Messiah (CD)

The long-awaited Black Messiah caps off 2014 as the year’s best soul album. But to call it soul or R&B would be reductive. Even more so than D’Angelo’s previous two albums, the excellent Brown Sugar and neo-soul masterpiece Voodoo, Black Messiah eschews any preconceived notions of what R&B, pop, music in general should be. Black Messiah draws upon a rich history of black music, notably blues, jazz and gospel and funk, and blows them out into billowing, smokey jams that seep under your skin, work their way into your veins. “Ain’t That Easy” rides hard on The Vanguard’s hip-hop beat and raunchy funk chords, while D’Angelo delivers an impassioned vocal and conciliatory lyrics like a sleek modern-day update of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” “1,000 Deaths” lays out Black Messiah’s other theme, starting with a powerful passage by an African American preacher that rails against the presentation of Jesus as a white savior. Over The Vanguard’s stuttering, skronking beat, D’Angelo’s multitracked vocal paints a harrowing picture but makes its most memorable couplet a rallying cry for the oppressed (“A coward dies a thousand times/But a soldier only dies just once), ending in an ecstatic, Prince-worthy cry and Hendrixy guitar explosions. Like Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah albums, or (aesthetically) like Kanye West’s Yeezus, Black Messiah is remarkably adventurous throughout. “The Charade” shuffles along a beat reminiscent of Radiohead’s “There, There,” dazzles with springs of sitar and builds to a thick climax. Similarly, “Back to the Future (Part I)” and “II” breaks up a future-funk suite about breaking up, keeping you engaged with its heady groove. Black Messiah’s more accessible moments make for some of the loveliest songwriting D’Angelo’s put to tape, with lush devotionals like “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” and “Really Love” and the jaunty alien jazz of “Sugah Daddy” making for perfect mixtape material. D’Angelo definitely kept us waiting a while for this one, but his remarkably consistent catalog to this point shows that the best things come to those who wait. Truly, Black Messiah is a densely layered soul masterpiece.

Read more