R&B albums often dominate at the end of the year, commanding a huge Christmas-presents-buying audience. And 2011 has been no exception, as Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, T-Pain, Robin Thicke and many others issued new discs. Here's a roundup of the Top 10 R&B releases for November and December.
Betty Wright may collaborate with Lil Wayne and Joss Stone on Betty Wright: The Movie, but she proudly identifies as a mature woman, not a girl aiming for a second childhood. She hearkens to her late '80s hit "No Pain, No Gain" with hard truths, from advising her girlfriends in relationships on "In the Middle of the Game (Don't Change the Play)" to advising a nephew in the streets to find "A Real Woman." Questlove produced the album, but don't expect lush avant-neo-soul typical of The Roots. He's on Wright's territory, and that means gritty, gospel-inflected old-school soul.
For Anthony David fans who only recently discovered him via his urban-AC hit “4evermore,” #LocationLocationLocation helps fills in his backstory. The first three tracks are new, including the tour diary “Rolling Mojo”; another three are remixes of tracks from his last album, As Above, So Below, including a deep house remix of “4evermore”; and the rest culls from the 2010 live EP The Setup. It’s the latter cuts that shine brightest, as David performs catalog highlights like “Kinfolk” and “Georgia Peach” for an enraptured audience in his native Atlanta.
If Robin Thicke had lived during the Rat Pack era, he would have killed it on the supper-club circuit. He exudes smoothness on much of Love After War, from the power-to-the-people neo soul of "The New Generation" to the brash '70s-inspired soul of "I'm An Animal." In spite of those up-tempo numbers, his specialty remains silky ballads, and he offers plenty here, including the title track, "Boring" and the bossa-nova-inflected "Lovely Lady." Even rascally Lil Wayne sounds kittenish on "Pretty Lil' Heart." Thicke isn't breaking any new ground here, but why would you want him to?
Mary J. Blige can never recreate the experience that was My Life. The Queen of Soul has evolved since that 1994 classic, and nowadays she sings quiet storm ballads more often than hip-hop soul. That said, My Life II is her most vital album in years. It's hard not to get a rush of giddiness when she teams with Nas for "Feel Inside" and its Wu-Tang-sampling beat, and "Ain't Nobody" and "Next Level" recall Mary in her prime. Yes, there are plenty of sappy self-help numbers like "The Living Proof," but after two decades in the business, this R&B legend has earned the right to make them.
With love-drunk lyrics and throbbing club beats, much of Talk sounds like Rihanna recorded it while joyously spinning in circles. Don't worry: she's still a naughty girl, too -- more than ever. But in place of Loud's themes of strength in submission, Riri climbs on top this time, making demands, acting the aggressor, even requesting you suck her "Cockiness." Her "Red Lipstick" marks her claim on hip-hop masculinity, rather than on a man, but even her self-presentation as a "Birthday Cake" feels like a finger-snapping command. Talk is a sexy, confident play on notions of power.
One of T-Pain's least appreciated talents is his lyrics. When he hooks up with a girl on "5 O'Clock," he describes the scene vividly; Wiz Khalifa's phoned-in verse underlines how well-written T-Pain's is. But his main shtick is that infernal Auto-Tune. He uses it as a bludgeon on rEVOLVEr, from the club banger "Turn All the Lights On" and the mildly outrageous "Mix'd Girl" to the booty-time ballad "Sho-Time (Pleasure Thang)." When he offers the surprisingly naked piano soliloquy "Drowning Again," he proves that he could have artistic life after Auto-Tune -- if only he'd embrace it.
If you didn't get the similarities between the cover art for Trey Songz's Inevitable and his 2005 debut I Gotta Make It, then "Top of the World" makes the connection plain: The teenage prodigy has grown into the prince of R&B. Aside from that impressive declaration, this 20-minute EP consists of sketches and experiments. He seems inspired by ambient R&B stars Drake and Frank Ocean on "I Do," while "Sex Ain't Better than Love" has an erotic guitar intro and drum machine kick reminiscent of Prince's '80s reign.
Soul Time collects a few of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ many non-album tracks. Two of them are among the group’s best: “What If We All Stopped Stop Paying Taxes” is a convincing argument for civil disobedience in the tradition of Fred Wesley’s “You Can Have Watergate,” and “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” includes a string section alongside Jones’ tale of Christmastime in the ghetto. Also worth a listen is a faithful rendition of Shuggie Otis’ “Inspiration Information” and the 2006 track “Longer and Stronger,” on which Miss Jones celebrated her 50th birthday.
It's impossible not to retrace Winehouse's troubled path across these unreleased tracks and alternate takes. That's the point of Lioness, one it makes both gracefully and uncomfortably. The juxtaposition of older material (a ringing "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," the resonant "Valerie" rework) with cuts from her lost third album is jarring: That glowing voice is exhausted, slurred on new songs like "Like Smoke" (a stopgap Nas cameo doesn't help) and the Tony Bennett duet (eerie echoes of Billie Holiday here). "Wake Up Alone" is haunted by the Amy we loved: lovely, jazz-hued, intimate, sad.
"Ladies, the wait is over," Tyrese announces on "I'm Home" from Open Invitation, his first album in five years. Save for the aforementioned "I'm Home," which has a verse from L.A. rapper Jay Rock and a quiet storm tone reminiscent of Drake, the model-turned-singer-turned-Transformers star keeps it simple with bedroom adventures that will get the "beats back knockin', the beds back rockin'." His passionate vocals will make you believe these fantasies, but imagining his stunning looks while he sings them can't hurt, either.