Beyoncé reportedly delivered over 70 songs to Columbia for her fourth solo studio album. The dozen that made the cut, combined with their sequencing, make it plain that straightforward crossover-dance singles and cohesion were not priorities. Taking it in at once is mystifying, even when little attention is paid to the lyrics. The opening “1+1,” a sparse and placid vocal showcase, fades in with a somber guitar line, throws up occasional and brief spikes in energy, and slowly recedes. It’s the kind of song one would expect to hear during an album’s second half, certainly not as the opener -- not with the (fittingly) slight sonics and heavy lines like “Just when I ball up my fist, I realize I’m laying right next to you, baby.” Three additional ballads follow. Each one features its own set of collaborators and contrasts both sonically and lyrically. “I Care” rolls in on pensive percussion and low-profile synthesizer drones, surging during a cathartic chorus. “I Miss You,” alluringly bleak and hushed, is a codependent confessional. The only one that’s rote, “Best Thing I Never Had” is a bombastic kiss-off saved by Beyoncé’s ability to plow through it. From there, the album restlessly bounces between tempos and moods: a desperate midtempo chest thumper, a couple cyborg marching-band dancefloor tracks, an ecstatic early-‘90s throwback, yet more ballads. What’s most surprising is that a song titled “Party,” co-produced by Kanye West with a guest verse from André 3000, quickly settles into a low-watt groove and remains there. Wildcard interludes and a Euro-pop party-anthem cash-in would be the only ways to make the album more scattered, but the strength of most of the material, propelled by Beyoncé’s characteristically acrobatic vocal skills, eases the trouble of sifting through the disjointed assortment. No one but one of the most talented and accomplished singers -- one with 16 Grammys, nothing left to prove, and every desired collaborator at her disposal -- could have made this album. [A Deluxe Edition was also released.]
It's easy to dismiss Sade as makeout music for Calvin Klein Obsession models, but she created an impressive body of work over the course of a decade, a series of moody singles with cool jazz passion and the kick of good R&B. All the hits are here, of course, from "Smooth Operator" to "No Ordinary Love."
Eddie Huffman, Rovi
During the span of the '90s when R&B groups ran amuck on the pop charts alongside the boy band and teen idol phenomenons, Dru Hill captured more than their fair share of the audience, thanks in no small part to Sisqó's solo smash "Thong Song," which sustained their momentum for a little bit longer and broadened their audience beyond their loyal and established R&B fan base. And before the "Thong Song" entered the consciousness of mainstream America and desperate housewives everywhere, Dru Hill racked up a string of hits like "Tell Me," "How Deep Is Your Love," and "Never Make a Promise" that kept them in the top of the R&B charts for a good span of the late '90s. Those hits and more are included here, but after only issuing four full-lengths, the selections tend to run dry after a spell, hence the inclusion of Sisqó's two solo hits. That said, everything the casual listener could ever want or need is included on Hits. It's a good place to collect all of the important moments from the group's career if you hadn't been one of the countless fans who purchased all of their releases already.
Rob Theakston, Rovi
Perhaps the single finest moment in Sean "Puffy" Combs' musical career has been the production on this, Mary J. Blige's second proper album. The production is not exactly original, and there is evidence here of him borrowing wholesale from other songs. The melodic sources this time around, though, are so expertly incorporated into the music that they never seem to be intrusions, instead playing like inspired dialogues with soulsters from the past, connecting past legacies with a new one. This certainly isn't your parents' (or grandparents') soul. But it is some of the finest modern soul of the '90s, backing away to a certain extent from the hip-hop/soul consolidation that Blige introduced on her debut album. The hip-hop part of the combination takes a few steps into the background, allowing Blige's tortured soul to carry the album completely, and it does so with heartwrenching authority. My Life is, from beginning to end, a brilliant, wistful individual plea of desire. Blige took a huge leap in artistry by penning almost everything herself (the major exception being Norman Whitfield's "I'm Going Down") in collaboration with co-producers Combs and multi-instrumentalist Chucky Thompson, and everything seems to leap directly from her gut. Blige's strain is sleekly modern and urban, and the grit in it comes from being streetwise and thoroughly realistic about the travails of life. My Life, nevertheless, emanates from some deep, dark place where both sadness and happiness cohabitate and turn into one single, beautiful sorrow.
Stanton Swihart, Rovi
Michael Jackson had recorded solo prior to the release of Off the Wall in 1979, but this was his breakthrough, the album that established him as an artist of astonishing talent and a bright star in his own right. This was a visionary album, a record that found a way to break disco wide open into a new world where the beat was undeniable, but not the primary focus -- it was part of a colorful tapestry of lush ballads and strings, smooth soul and pop, soft rock, and alluring funk. Its roots hearken back to the Jacksons' huge mid-'70s hit "Dancing Machine," but this is an enormously fresh record, one that remains vibrant and giddily exciting years after its release. This is certainly due to Jackson's emergence as a blindingly gifted vocalist, equally skilled with overwrought ballads as "She's Out of My Life" as driving dancefloor shakers as "Working Day and Night" and "Get on the Floor," where his asides are as gripping as his delivery on the verses. It's also due to the brilliant songwriting, an intoxicating blend of strong melodies, rhythmic hooks, and indelible construction. Most of all, its success is due to the sound constructed by Jackson and producer Quincy Jones, a dazzling array of disco beats, funk guitars, clean mainstream pop, and unashamed (and therefore affecting) schmaltz that is utterly thrilling in its utter joy. This is highly professional, highly crafted music, and its details are evident, but the overall effect is nothing but pure pleasure. Jackson and Jones expanded this approach on the blockbuster Thriller, often with equally stunning results, but they never bettered it.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
In 2011, Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, released three free mixtapes, House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. Trilogy compiles them with remastered sound and adds three new songs. Tesfaye expresses unapologetically sordid feelings about drugs, partying, drugs, bad girls, drugs, strippers, drugs, good girls gone bad, and drugs -- all of which serve an identical purpose and get the same level of consideration. There are points throughout these works where Tesfaye is distinctively gripping, supplying deadly hooks and somehow singing for his life despite the cold blood flowing through his veins. When this package was released, he was gaining mainstream momentum with appearances on Drake's "Crew Love" and Wiz Khalifa's "Remember You." His potential is as obvious as his lyrics are toxic.
Andy Kellman, Rovi
Usher was a star with three number one hits before Confessions, but its critical and commercial success meant the music industry couldn’t dismiss him as a pop creation modeled after Michael Jackson. The album's conceit is a soap opera in which he cheats on his girlfriend and gets the other woman pregnant. He handles this tabloid affair with grace, portraying himself as a likable guy in a sticky situation instead of an unrepentant dog. Wisely, he sets aside this theme after twenty minutes and refocuses on R&B jams like "Bad Girl," a kinetic number built around handclaps, guitar riffs and his delightfully rhythmic falsetto. Usher runs out of good material before Confessions ends, but the best songs, including "Burn" and the teen love duet "My Boo" with Alicia Keys, more than make up for the weaker cuts.
Mosi Reeves, Google Play
An advantage Keyshia Cole has over a lot of her young contemporaries is experience. As a foster child growing up in Oakland, she went through a lot of downs, and from the sounds of The Way It Is, her first album, she's had her share of complex relationships. Cole had a hand in the writing of just about every track, and she has a number of major players -- Kanye West, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Ron Fair (Christina Aguilera, Mya), E-Poppi (Missy Elliott, Destiny's Child) -- in her corner. With only a couple exceptions, The Way It Is is about the ugly parts of a romantic relationship, so there's little room left for upbeat material. From the opener, "(I Just Want It) To Be Over," the album seems to be set up like a linear narrative about a crumbling relationship, but it doesn't quite play out that way, with the scenes shuffled out of order. ("Love," one of the positive songs, comes after the song where the punk gets dumped and before the song where he's called out for changing.) None of it's all that profound, but Cole sells it all extremely well, especially on "I Should Have Cheated," where she tires of an accusing and hypocritical lover ("I should go have my fun and do all the things you say I do"). Cole's voice is sweet and ringing, like a wiser version of Lil' Mo who has had to weather a tremendous amount of drama. She could be around for a while. ("Never," her hit song from the Barbershop 2 soundtrack, is included.)
Andy Kellman, Rovi
Don't Be Cruel was to Bobby Brown what Control was to Janet Jackson -- a tougher, more aggressive project that shed his "bubblegum" image altogether and brought him to a new artistic and commercial plateau. With "My Prerogative" and the title song, Brown became a leader of new jack swing -- a forceful, high-tech blend of traditional soul singing and rap/hip-hop that's also associated with Guy and Brown's New Edition colleagues, Bell Biv DeVoe. Brown had been a strong advocate of rap since his days with New Edition, and on Cruel, he did even more rapping than before. But for all the tough-mindedness he exhibited on his new jack hits, the charismatic Bostonian hadn't lost his love of sentimental, old-fashioned R&B romanticism -- and he definitely excels in that area on his hits "Every Little Step," "Roni," and "Rock Wit'cha." Much of Cruel was produced by the ubiquitous production/songwriting duo L.A. Reid and Babyface, who've often been accused (and rightly so) of taking a formulaic, cookie-cutter approach to R&B. But here, their work is never less than inspired.
Alex Henderson, Rovi
Coming on the heels of 2011's heralded Tumblr-only freebie effort Nostalgia Ultra, Frank Ocean's proper debut Channel Orange firmly establishes the singer/songwriter as one of music's most unique storytellers. His tales tend toward the hyper-personal and are so steeped in naive optimism—even in the face of tragedy and defeat—that they could easily be read as either deeply moving or incredibly cheesy. At their best, they're both. Frank and producer Malay blend and wear their musical influences proudly, finding a sonic middle ground between vintage Stevie Wonder and recent N.E.R.D. Unfortunately, they tend to favor the formlessness of the latter, as Frank's meandering narratives about drug dealers and users and Los Angeles brats gone wild supersede his concern for traditional hook writing and song structure. But, by the album's second half, this ceases to be a weakness. Late cuts like the taxicab catharsis of "Bad Religion" and "Pink Matter," an epic duet with Outkast's Andre 3000 that invokes the human life cycle and Dragonball Z, operate with such naked honesty that they transcend the need for form.
-- – Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play