On The Download: Holiday Hip Hop / R&B Roundup

The period around Thanksgiving & Christmas usually features a flurry of fourth quarter releases from all of the major labels and this year there was an especially crowded field. Specifically, the hip-hop and R&B genres offered up a number of high profile releases. So, which of these albums are worth picking up in order to get you ready for the 2012 (yep, I said ‘12) Grammy Awards? Here’s a roundup of the season’s best new releases…

Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”:
There’s a very good reason why Kanye West’s latest album has been topping just about every music publication’s “year end” list as the #1 album of 2010 – quite simply, because it is indeed a masterpiece. No less than five tracks – “Dark Fantasy,” “Gorgeous,” “Power,” “Monster” and “Runaway” – are classics which should stand the test of time. While upon first listen, “Runaway” seemed to this critic like a self-aggrandizing musical experiment, upon further listen, it became clear that the track is a piece of such intense Jungian self-analysis that it truly represents a turning point in Kanye’s career from a boy who couldn’t control his temper, to a man who was beginning to truly understand his place in the world.
Top Tracks: “Power,” “Monster”

Nicki Minaj, “Pink Friday”:
Perhaps no artist in history has had so many radio hits before actually releasing an album. Nicki Minaj exploded onto the hip-hop scene in 2010 and is arguably now already the biggest female name in the genre. Her much anticipated debut does not disappoint. Exploding with the ego-filled self-empowerment anthem, “I’m The Best,” the album segues into its hardest track, “Roman’s Revenge” feat. Eminem; a track that disses female rapper rival Lil Kim (which occurs on about five different tracks throughout the album) and yet still somehow works in references to the kids’ game Dungeons & Dragons. Track after featured-artist-filled track, “Pink Friday” delivers. Included are the previously released “Check It Out” feat. Will.i.am and the Annie Lennox-sampling “Your Love.” “Did It On’em” is a hard guilty pleasure and “Blazin’” feat. Kanye West beautifully samples ‘80s band Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” The album’s pinnacle? – that would be “Fly” feat. Rihanna… a ballad from two of the top leading ladies in the industry today, who complement each other beautifully.
Top Tracks: “I’m The Best,” “Fly”

The Black Eyed Peas, “The Beginning”:
The first two things you need to know about “The Beginning”… it’s a completely different sound for the group and it’s not as commercially friendly as “The E.N.D.” The sample-driven latest from the 2011 Super Bowl halftime performers continues their rapid trajectory from hip-hop to future denizens of club-land. Lead single (the “I’ve Had The Time of My Life” sampling) “The Time (Dirty Bit)” is no doubt the album’s best track. The Fergie-forward “Whenever” should impact at radio – it’s this album’s “Meet Me Halfway,” and has the best melody from this collection of tracks. The retro disco-laden “Fashion Beats” would have felt at place on Madonna’s 2006 “Confessions on a Dance Floor” album. “Do It Like This” could literally be “Imma Be” part 2. The Deluxe Edition has three bonus tracks, including the ‘80s sounding “The Situation,” in which Ferg channels her best Dale Bozzio (of the band Missing Persons). And don’t forget Oprah Winfrey Network anthem, “Own It”… it’s on there too, in case you forgot that the Peas are the most integration-friendly band out there right now.
Top Tracks: “The Time (Dirty Bit),” “Whenever”

Ne-Yo, “Libra Scale”:
The smooth sounds of Ne-Yo are back on his fourth full-length studio album – a thematic journey into a comic book world that draws on a number of influences that most noticeably includes a tip of the hat to idol Michael Jackson (you might even swear you’re listening to MJ on tracks such as “Cause I Said So”). The album’s title is an ode to balance – something which is certainly achieved on this effort. It’s been almost seven months since the release of lead single, “Beautiful Monster,” so if the album was delayed in order to get things just perfect… it has succeeded.
Top Tracks: “One In A Million,” “Beautiful Monster”

Keri Hilson, “No Boys Allowed”:
Miss Keri’s sophomore album (out December 21) is one of the last big new releases to hit stores in 2010, and it’s certainly worth its weight in gold. Although second single, “Pretty Girl Rock,” which she debuted on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, was a bit soft, and first single “Breaking Point” felt a bit bland, the rest of the album delivers. One only needs to check out the video for third single, “The Way You Love Me,” to find the dirty girl counterpoint to the pretty girl in the aforementioned track (said video is so dirty, in fact, we’re not even going to link out to it… Google it yourself – you’ll see what we’re talking about!) – this song is so hard, it’s difficult to believe that it’s even Keri. Other standout tracks include “Lose Control (Let Me Down)” and “One Night Stand” feat. Chris Brown. A Deluxe Edition features four bonus tracks, including two collaborations with longtime collaborator Timbaland. With “No Boys Allowed,” Keri has lost none of the edge that was ever-present on her first album, “In A Perfect World…”, and she should continue her radio dominance well through 2011 (and beyond).
Top Tracks: “Buyou” feat. J. Cole, “The Way You Love Me” feat. Rick Ross

Jazmine Sullivan, “Love Me Back”:
This multiple-Grammy nominated neo-soul singer Missy Elliott-protégé from Philly is also back with her sophomore album. Nominated for her eighth Grammy two weeks ago for lead single “Holding You Down (Goin’ In Circles),” this former Best New Artist Grammy nominee is not holding back in her quest for R&B world dominance. The album’s real gem though is second single, “10 Seconds,” a ballad reminiscent of Mary J. Blige at her most powerful. Jazmine goes upbeat again on “Don’t Make Me Wait” and “Love You Long Time,” and rounds out the album with a series of powerful ballads, including standouts “Excuse Me” and “Stuttering” (perhaps a good theme song for Oscar contending film, “The King’s Speech”?). Album closer “Luv Back” is a fun treat with which to end.
Top Tracks: “10 Seconds,” “Love You Long Time”

Rihanna, “Loud”: (excerpted from our previous review)
Barbadian-born pop superstar Rihanna is back with her fifth full-length studio album, “Loud,” and with it comes a return to top form from her “Good Girl, Gone Bad” days. In fact, on lead track “S&M,” the rousing kick-off track to the album, she even pays homage to her biggest album to date: “I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it,” she sings. It’s a playful sexy Rihanna at her best (think a more sexual “Shut Up and Drive”)… and it sets the tone for a collection of fun tracks, which should gain back any fans that she may have lost from 2009’s foray into a different sound with “Rated R.” “Loud” is certainly closer to “Good Girl, Gone Bad” than to “Rated R,” but it’s unlikely to hit the same highs of the former. The bottom line – “Loud” is filled with radio-friendly hits — including the currently ubiquitous lead singles, “Only Girl (In The World),” and “What’s My Name?” Track 3, “Cheers (I Drink To That),” is currently my favorite track on the album. The soon-to-be-everywhere drinking anthem successfully samples Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You” in a catchy round, which will make even the most hardened critic crack a smile. Track 4, “Fading,” is a down-tempo track which instantly reminded me of her 2008 hit “Hate That I Love You.” And later on in the tracklisting, “Complicated” features some of the singer’s best vocals ever. So, the first five tracks on “Loud” = Five huge radio hits… Got it? Good.
Top Tracks: “S&M,” “Complicated”

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