5.

A self-described “project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing,” A Seat At The Table is an album about race and being black in America. It’s personal and political. It’s informed by black culture, family and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Musically, A Seat At The Table is made of soul, R&B, pop and funk. Its gossamer style is delicate and rich. Spoken word interludes frame the album: encouraging words from Master P of No Limit about how he got to where he is, Solange’s father talks about racial threats and her mother about how being pro-black doesn’t mean anti-white. These statements allow Solange to write less directly from a black woman’s perspective for others like her.

Production is by Raphael Saadiq. Guests include Sampha, Lil Wayne, Kelela, Andre 3000, The Dream, Sean Nicholas Savage, Q-Tip and the likes of Kwes, Kindness, Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, Nia Andrews and Dirty Projectors Dave Longstreth contribute. There are multiple highlights from the Andre 3000-featuring synth funk of ‘Junie’, the synth drawl of ‘Don’t Wish Me Well’, the woozy R&B of ‘Weary’, the piano soul of ‘Mad’, the vulnerable vista of ‘Cranes In The Sky’ and the subtle power of ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’.

“Be leery ’bout your place in the world,” she sings on ‘Weary’, yet Solange keeps it serene in defiance of what seems right and wrong around her. A Seat At The Table isn’t something to be unpacked in a week, or even two. It’s an album of defiance, empowerment and beauty.

Buy from Tower Records


4.

Chancelor Bennett’s single greatest feat this year was that verse on Kanye’s gospel song ‘Ultralight Beam’. It is joyous, uplifting, full of light. Coloring Book is a continuation of that idea drawing on his faith in religion and love for community. Chance relishes his uniquely independent status by giving the music away without a label by threatening to bring goons to the record label office courting him on ‘No Problems’. Except Chance doesn’t have a hurtful bone in his body. Coloring Book is a spread of joyful music with acknowledgement of the harshness of reality that takes in the tragic (‘Summer Friends’) , gospel (‘Blessings’ , ‘Angels’), dance bangers (‘All Nite’) and slow jams (‘Juke Jam’). Chance’s faith is all-encompassing but there’s a spirit and authenticity that is infectious enough for heathens.


3.

18 years after their last album, A Tribe Called Quest re-appeared with what may be their best ever release. When a band reforms, they often lose their youthful energy and spark but it never left Tribe. Here’s a rap group who sound as fresh and individual as they did the first time round – nostalgia doesn’t come into it. Q-Tip sounds 23 years of age, not double that. Jarobi raps more than he ever has since their debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Phife, who died during recording, reaffirms his legacy as one of the best MCs.

The jazz samples, the interplay, the beat drops, the synergy between Phife and Tip is magically still there from the moment those keys come in the first song. Real masters of ceremonies have had years of practice and it’s heartening to hear they never lost it.

Buy from Tower Records


2.

It’s fair to say the wait was worth it. Expectations were high but when Blonde debuted two days after the visual album Endless, it surprisingly felt unburdened with expectation. Blonde takes time to reveal itself. The atmosphere is muted, the instrumentation minimal, beats and percussion are largely ignored. Even the calibre of the marquee guests on this thing are put into the deep background – to the point where you may not even realise Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are on it until you’ve read the credits. Only Andre 3000 (who appeared on Channel Orange too) gets to leave his mark, thrillingly so.

Ocean’s sweet voice is one that is rare; consuming, soulful, nimble, honey-toned and it responsible for all of the highlights here. ‘Pink + White’ is beautiful sunshine soul, ‘Solo’ is buoyed by one of the year’s most memorable choruses over barely more than an organ. others, ‘Self Control’, feel like acoustic demos with some bare production until harmonised Frank drops in the memorable outro. Other tracks meander aimlessly yet Ocean continues to magnetise the listener like ‘Skyline To’ (where Lamar exists but is barely heard) while interpolations of songs from Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Elliott Smith appear adding familiarity. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon sings outro on ‘White Ferrari too’.

Blonde is all about Frank and his interactions with friends, family, strangers, crushes. A guy living the high life, a clichéd love of fast cars with a new openness about his sexuality. Blonde feels like the result of someone in transition, adjusting to a new life while looking back on the old one that made him. A nostalgic boy, a sensitive man. Blonde is an avant-leaning minimal R&B album of significance. The year’s most hyped record revealed itself in subtle ways.


1.

Brandon Paak Anderson was everywhere this year. With Knxledge as Nxworries, on tracks from Kaytranada, Tribe, Schoolboy Q, Mac Miller, Snakehips and ScHoolboy Q. Yet, the Californian songwriter, producer and singer’s second album Malibu released at the end of January has remained his finest work.

Malibu has a jazz-smudged funk, soul and R&B feel to it. It is an album dominated by nostalgia, romance and a troubled family. He can rap like Kendrick, sing like Curtis Mayfield, play drums like the best of them and spin a groove with panache. Already a competent producer on his own, Paak enlists beats from Hi-Tek, 9th Wonder, Madlib and Kaytranada and guest verses from Schoolboy Q, The Game and Talib Kweli. They drop in and add colour but it’s Paak that remains at the forefront. Malibu and Paak shine with greatness, warmth and light.

Buy from Tower Records.


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