2016 --- I hate you so much right now.

You were weird, wild, petty, and problematic. I don't want to think about you much again, more like I do not want to think of all the grossness and cruelness that you were. I'd rather remember the beauty that hid inside your shadows, the melodies that rose above your screams, but even that's hard to do considering that you didn't work for me on an aural level either.

2016 was probably my worst music year. I really hate saying this but it's true. A lot of albums and artists just flat-out disappointed me, or just didn't engage me in the way I wanted them too. Maybe it's because I turned 30 this year and can't connect with what the young whippersnappers are into? Or maybe I was too much in mourning for all the cool geniuses we lost in the world of sound? Or maybe I just made bad choices --- as I am prone to do. I don't know, but I was tossed in a frigid wave of indecision and jadedness throughout the year, finding solace in vintage sounds more so, and feeling removed from whatever newness I was supposed to be fawning over.

Still as bleak as this all sounds, I wasn't lying about there being beauty in the shadows as there were a select few albums and artists who rose to the occasion for me, and spoke on my level, giving me something I could feel. On another plus, 2016 was also was the Blackest, and most feminist year for music yet, which was good, great even, and before you ask, no I did not drink the "Lemonade" as there were other, more thirst-quenching drinks at the bar to sample that were more my flavor.

Though this selection of favorites is small, I do have (as usual) a lot to say about them, so without further ado, this is what moved and grooved me this year. So let's be kind and rewind...

(In no particular order)

+ + + + +

The Heart Speaks In Whispers - Corinne Bailey Rae 
Release Date: May 13th 
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What a difference six years makes...

When we last heard from Corinne Bailey Rae she was nursing her wounded heart on 2010's The Sea, an album made in the aftermath of her husband, musician Jason Rae's tragic death. Flash to now, it's no more good morning, heartache, as Corinne courts to change on her third outing, The Heart Speaks In Whispers. For some artists going back to start, or retreading worn emotion is not a wise move, but for Corinne rewinding through her past lent to a refocus on her future, giving Heart its soul, and Corinne the chance to evolve better than ever.

Unlike the inky churn of heartbreak that embodied The SeaHeart yearns to break free from such gloaming. Just look at the album cover --- Corinne, beige and blue, suspended in motion, attempting to breakaway from the darkness, fusing herself amid kaleidoscopic watercolored light --- this is a transition, a way to merge her past selves to understand the woman she has become now, a woman who is on the road to meeting healing halfway.

While the twinkle-eyed young girl who peddled down a wide-open country road to introduce her summery breakout single, "Put Your Records On" is really no more, some of that optimistic glow comes up amid Heart's spacious grooves and poetically sound lyricals. She lounges in sensual bliss on the '70s love groove of "Green Aphrodisiac", and giggles soft in afternoon delight on "Horse Print Dress". At times she's also still churning in that aqua, pensive and unsure, as she proceeds with cautious optimism on "Hey, I Won't Break Your Heart", collides into conflicting bygone emotions on "Been To The Moon", and consoles herself on the bittersweet act of change on the episodic cosmic climb, "The Skies Will Break".

Corinne also knows we don't always heal alone, as she shares this cathartic journey with guest stars Esperanza Spalding, KING, and Moses Sumney, and they provide her the healing, rhythmic base to liberate new spaces of sound and technique for her, giving permission that brings her guard down to embrace pulsating soulful pop this side of "Tell Me" and space-y heavy funk oddities like "Taken By Dreams".

As she eases out in "Caramel", it isn't love that makes you brave, but pain, and if there is life and love after heartache, Corinne Bailey Rae has been there, done that, shifted out of darkness into dusk, living to tell the tale, as she redefines that age-old saying that time truly does heal all wounds.

Highlights: Green Aphrodisiac, Been To The Moon, The Skies Will Break, Caramel, Tell Me, Hey I Won't Break Your Heart, Horse Print Dress

You Got The Luck [EP] - Sidibe
Release Date: May 9th
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Quoted from review: 
Like Soul Siren, You Got Luck is for those who like their soul to transcend genres, as well as remain rooted in the traditional. From the cumulus-parting of ethereal opener "You Wanna Love Everybody" to the steamy and seducing Janet Jackson-esque "Maybe", Sidibe takes you on a sublime n' soulful wanderlust that blends in house, funk, and world music with the casual accessibility of R&B and pop, all of it caressed with Sidibe's angelic coos and come-hithers. It's truly a collection to get lost in not just by the various temperaments in Sidibe's vocals, but by how absorbing the music is, with the Eastern flavors of "Everything I Wouldn't Do" and the intertwining of '70s-era jazz fusion and '90s era neo-soul of the title-track being the key standouts of such experimentation. 

Highlights: You Wanna Love Everybody, I'm Only Dreaming, Maybe, Everything I Wouldn't Do 

Chapters - Yuna 
Release Date: May 20th 

Quoted from review: 
With "Live Your Life", the Pharrell Williams production from 2012 gave her the 'cred' and put her on notice for those who like their rhythm and blues on ice. Her sophomore set, 2013's Nocturnal, burst with indie pop and folk influence, but the inclusions of alt-R&B and Hip-Hop tastemakers Chad Hugo and Robin Hannibal on production gave her an edge that made songs like "I Want You Back" and the single "Fallen" ruminations in the modern blues. So hinting at R&B reincarnation ain't a new bag for Yuna, in fact, she has made the complete transition, courting the right spark with Chapters.

I'll be real and say that not everything present on Chapters is a page-turner. As the mood swings from rapture to dejection, Chapters can get a little preoccupied in its morose and monochromatic soundbed, at times doing little to no favors for Yuna when it comes to tonal control. Yet like all good literature, Chapters does linger in the mind after the last word is uttered, urging you to re-read and experience this understated collection anew.

Highlights: Crush (feat. Usher), Best Love, Lanes, Unrequited Love, Manniquen, Best Of Me

Coconut Oil [EP] - Lizzo
Release Date: October 7th
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As the 2016 Election left a bad taste in my mouth, with Trumpocalypse on the (unfortunate) rise, I need something for the self-care soundtrack during this odious time. Something rebellious. Something that stands tall in its steel-gaze determination and makes me want to (and to paraphrase the GOAT in my lifetime, First Lady, Michelle Obama) go high, while everyone else aims low. Lizzo's "Worship" may not call-to-arms the revolution, but as it shimmies and shakes on a braggadocios fervor and mambo-swiveling beats, rallying with cries of "I'm lit, don't mess with it!", it's Teflon spirit celebrates the fact that the biggest protest of all is to stand in your truth.

Swathed in self-love, "Worship" is one of the many bangers on Lizzo's big-label debut, Coconut Oil, an EP that lives up to its namesake as it is nourishment for growth and a salve to soothe body, mind, and soul. On six-tracks the Minneapolis-bred missy takes a little time for herself, sometimes getting lost (or losing her phone) along the way, trying to deal with this thing called Life. Whether she's preening in the mirror, feelin' on what stares back at her ("Scuse Me") or laying down the law to a lover as she wines on percolating Afro-trap riddims ("Deep"), in the end, Lizzo knows that self-love is that real love that is essential and worth celebrating 24/7/365.

Highlights: Worship, Deep, Scuse Me, Coconut Oil

HEAVN - Jamila Woods 
Release Date: July 8th
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Soulful Chi-Town singer and poetess Jamila Woods had this to say about her debut full-length collection, HEAVN:

HEAVN is about black girlhood, about Chicago, about the people we miss who have gone on to prepare a place for us somewhere else, about the city/world we aspire to live in. I hope this album encourages listeners to love themselves and love each other. For black and brown people, caring for ourselves and each other is not a neutral act. It is a necessary and radical part of the struggle to create a more just society. Our healing and survival are essential to the fight. 

As if I could even add to that...but HEAVN does expertly appraise what growing up Black and Girl entails, with pointed snapshots on invisibility ("Bubbles"), self-preservation ("Lonely Lonely"), personal ownership ("In My Name"), and the tenacity to fight for our unique place in society ("Blk Girl Solider"). Like Emily's D+EvolutionCoconut OilTelefoneA Seat At The Table, and a bevy of albums that follow the #BlackGirlMagic tradition, HEAVN too rests in naked determination to not be boxed in, shouting out loud and shaking the foundation with verbal acumen, abolishing stereotypes of how a Black female artist should raise her voice, and craft her sound. This album is utter sisterhood, utter 'Blackness', that digs deep for those she's reaching out to, but in turn is a source of knowledge for those who never realized this school of thought existed.

After having a successful run as one-half of Milo and Otis, backing fellow Chi-Town luminaries Chance The Rapper and The Social Experiment, and with a prominent feature on Macklemore's controversial, "White Privilege II", Woods gets to have her say here, tapping into a groundswell of genres that nod at Erykah Badu, feature such acts as Noname and Peter Cottontale, and range across the R&B and hip-hop spectrum.

If we all get to our own private heavens, let it be this sonically sublime and this socially aware as HEAVN, to where we bloom beautiful and authentic as our own true selves, as Jamila Woods has done within her own art. 

Highlights: HEAVN, Blk Girl Solider, Lonely Lonely, Bubbles, Emerald St., Lately, LSD

Telefone [EP] - Noname 
Release Date: July 31st
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Quoted from review: 
The 10-track player, which features guest spots from Raury, Eryn Allen Kane and Saba, unfolds as a conversation within, a social studies of self and surroundings. There are some heavy duty topics here --- addiction, police brutality, relationships, familial bonds, the transition from child to adult --- and they are timely, and necessary in all of their expression. Aside from the abortion realness of skewed lullaby of "Bye Bye Baby", where mother and baby trade dialogue, "Casket Pretty" stands out as the most brutal truth that is spilled on the record, as its lyrics drum up the emotional strain, mistrust, and the constant violent images we've witnessed on timelines and TV concerning unarmed African-Americans being unjustly gunned down by the men (and women) in blue. ("All my n----s is casket pretty/ain't no one safe in this happy city/I'm afraid of the dark blue and white/badges and pistols rejoice in the night").

Not all is grim and weeping on Telefone. Optimism blooms on the gorgeous, "Yesterday", as it opens the album like a promising, serene morning, with Noname reminiscing about lost love ones, and how such losses, the "little things that saved her soul" taught her about the deeper corners of love and life. Sharing love with another, with personal ground rules in tow, is nicely rendered on "All I Need". On "Reality Check" while rejecting the mainstream and highlighting the creative roadblocks that lent to why Telefone took three years to compile, but the song is motivational in how Noname persists with her art in the fashion she does, Eryn Allen Kane quelling doubts with her genial hook ("Don't fear the light, that dwells deep within/ You are powerful, beyond what you imagine/Just let your light glow"). The albums consensus is that there is light at the end, keep following.

Highlights: Casket Pretty, Yesterday, Reality Check, Bye Bye Baby, Sunny Duet, All I Need

Stranger Things Have Happened - Clare Maguire 
Release Date:

Quoted from review: 

Stranger Things Have Happened is the album Maguire should have made when the hype was up and she had some room to stretch her legs in the median of Winehouse's rising popularity and Adele's first take. Still Maguire's white girl blues ain't like Adele, nor does it match with the heavily intoxicated world-weariness of the late Miss Winehouse. Maguire has a crystal clear classic tone that is more of a "Holly Golightly in flux" vibe than a back-breaking bluewoman. "Faded" opens the album with this kind of flair. It has parallels to Feist in its lounge act, but also beguiles with 'smoking room only' jazz quality. When the strings needle in, the song is clinking champagne glasses filled with muddied, salted tears. It's stylish, but still so raw.

Tinges of '60s era soul and psychedelia crop up amid the album's stripped back sound, more specifically on the elegiac and epic title track, even a stabs at gospel are compiled (the tambourine testify "Here I Am"), but Maguire is in her element more so when she's torching it up, forgoing the theatrics to be as nuanced and subtle as she allows herself taking us through a journey of love and the wicked turning of tables.

Lead-off single, the elegantly fragile "Elizabeth Taylor" is a perfect example of this as she storytells the turbulent love life of the legendary actress, but in some ways its also Maguire's tale to weave and be woebegone. In a recent (and pretty riveting) interview with Noisey, Maguire divulges not only her struggle with substance abuse, but confesses that in the weeks after becoming clean she found herself shackled to a toxic romance that left her reeling in depression. For a time Maguire couldn't even get out of bed, her pain was just too raw, and she too vulnerable to move a muscle. In fact, "Swimming" was recorded right from her bed, this after a musician's friend's insistence, and in its latticed guitar work, you can sense Maguire coming undone.

Highlights: Stranger Things Have Happened, Elizabeth Taylor, Swimming, Falling Leaves, Faded

Sugar Symphony [EP] - Chole x Halle 
Release Date:

Quoted from review: 
With their debut EP, Sugar Symphony (and its total eye candy cover --- dig on the homages to Run DMC's King of Rock and the classic baby-breath coif of Minnie Riperton), Chloe x Halle hit a sweet spot where alt-R&B, electronica, and trap collide. Their restrained, yet gorgeously haunting vocals garnish the heady mix to peerless effect, all of it wrapped in a sense of awareness towards pop music aesthetic. "Drop", their debut single, is a prime example of such a understanding as the excellent and startlingly mature track crawls through a nocturnal fog of dense beats, the sisters voices echoing eerie like restless ghosts. All it takes is one listen and your spine will chill --- in a good way.

Highlights: Drop, Lazy Love, Thunder 

New Skin - JONES 
Release Date: October 7th 
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Some say that soul is dead. That it's on life support with R&B lying in state next to it. Sometimes I believe this considering how thin and limited the talent pool for the genre(s) are, and how careless it gets handled. For a time now, soul and R&B have forgotten themselves, too busy being ratchet, electronic, trapped. New Skin is almost a cathartic shedding of such practices, stripping soul down to its bare elements, but still polishing it up to give it glow and definition.

With the first spin, New Skin evokes the immediate cool, crystalline calm of fellow Briton, Jessie Ware, as its packed with similar spacious soul/pop balladry, some of which aren't as arousing in their slow cadences as what unfurled on Ware's pair of Devotion and Tough Love, but New Skin does have an exquisite, nimble beauty to it when a second helping is initiated. The ease of JONES' caramel-coated tone, and how palpable and pliable it is, is what evolves the material, allowing it to really express the potent emotions that are embedded in. Such standouts like the tender, "Waterloo" and brooding opener "Rainbow" are songs you feel, songs that linger due to their effortlessness. Breakout single, "Hoops" feels even more naked, and candid when enveloped inside New Skin's confessional booth.

JONES has also nicely latticed melancholia with a little bit of desire here, as not every song hides in a shroud of doubt. "Out Of This World" rides its crash of synth waves, as "Walk My Way" embraces a cheerful bounce, but they don't compare to the sublime tranquil of HONNE-produced, "Melt" with its warm guitars and delicious harmonies. "Melt" is an inkling, much like her one-off "Air", that hint at her diversion among the monotonous pack of her electro-soul pop peers, this pair being even above some of the more sub-par material here.

Enchanting is this debut, and while it won't necessarily turn the tides, it does breathe life and purpose back into the lost art of the soulful serenade.

Highlights: Melt, Hoops, Rainbow, Waterloo, Walk My Way, Lonely Cry, Wild

Nothing's Real - Shura 
Release Date:

Quoted from review: 
What might cause an eyebrow to raise is that Nothing's Real is a Millennial's reflection of the era. All of what's on here is second-hand nostalgia that is vicariously lived through Molly Ringwald's eyes, as Shura is 25 years young, and didn't even breathe a breath in the decade she captures right down to the neon piping and its fraught kinetics. She's so detailed, so dead-on that you wonder if Shura has had some sort of collision with the time-space continuum, and she's either time traveling or she's older than she's actually stating, on that immortal-being steez.

Shameless it all is, but Nothing's Real while marinated in the processed synth n' splendor and reading from the textbook of every John Hughes high school drama ever, doesn't feel like its exploring the sound because Shura is getting her Columbus on. She's not stating with this that she eureka! discovered how to work synths and programmers like a Baby Howard Jones, but more so she's giving credence to it timelessness, and noticing how well the past can work in the present.

Nothing's Real also basks in its archetypal Britishness, as its theatrical and examines matters of the heart with allegorical and anthropological flair this side of ABC and Spandau Ballet, digging deeper than what is on the plasticity of its pop veneer. The opening title track is epic in the sense of its dramatic instrumental entrance with shooting star synths, sweep of strings, echoing Duran Duran and ABC's sensibility to combine Chic with Roxy Music. The glorious back-to-back duo of "Tongue Tied" and "Make It Up" owes itself to the languid lullabies and thatched drumwork of Teases & Dares-era Kim Wilde. And for just a spell Shura hops a flight across the Atlantic to the City of Angels as the effervescent "What's It Gonna Be?" swings in the Cali harmonies of Lindsey Buckingham, and "What Happened To Us?" is ocean sprayed The Bangles style.

When I use words like 'intimate' and 'familiar', I mean it. Nothing's Real is an album that for all of its vicariously lived nostalgia, its discussions of being detached in relationships, and Shura going out of body to do autopsies on herself, this is and album that feels faithful to self, to life, to growing up and being in a mixed cocktail of emotion about it. These sounds, these feelings, these are Shura's...and they are well, myself, and everybody who has come to that craggy mountain climb called adulthood.
Highlights: Make It Up, Nothing's Real, 2Shy, What's It Gonna Be?, Tounge-Tied, Kidz n' Stuff, Touch

For All We Know - Nao 
Release Date: July 29th
To deep freeze soul and still in the end evoke warmth takes some skill, a skill that Nao has mastered on her debut, For All We Know. Here the songs are heavy with heartbreak, but in turn, they hint at dappled optimism, with the sugar-sweet tone of Nao's coos alluding to such possibility. Also a disparate mix of genres --- slick gut-quaking funk, skittish UK bass, pulsing deep house --- all ride that seamless fine line, each one fusing into the other to form a hard candied, homogenized sound.

But who is Nao to be so precise, so on-point in lyrical and figurative favor, and doing so on her first full-length release? She's British newest electro-soulster who drew attentions in the underground with her EPs and variant guest spots for acts such as Mura Masa and Disclosure, paying her dues with ease. Here on For All We Know, Nao gets to stretch and sprawl out more, and at 18-tracks deep it does feel overly ambitious, but the overall flow is as if we're flies on the wall to a experimental, well-drafted jam session that lasts into all hours of the night.

As it has hooks for days, For All We Know owes its melodic structure to '90s R&B. Vocally, Nao has got the rhythm of Brandy down, while the helium-pitched bluesy 'twang' is a misbegotten Billy Lawrence coming back into the fold (All you gotta do is hear "Happiness" to catch my drift...). Such similarities are hard to bypass, and foretell to how this album will be digested by '90s kids. The imitation is flattery forming, and makes the nostalgic daytrip some kind of bliss, as songs like the squishy TLC-esque  "Happy" and the Jungle-produced "Get To Know Ya" barreling in on snarling guitars and lizard-licking bass, making a groove that is undeniably still rocking flannel and door-knocker earrings. Even "Adore You" has Nao reviving the angle of the male-female duet, a staple of the '90s R&B, as Abhi/Dijon orbits around her, recalling such iconic Mars-Venus pairings as Mary J. Blige and K-Ci HaileyBabyface and Toni Braxton.

Nao may harbor a soft spot for the sounds of her youth, but she isn't soft on experiment. Jai Paul's brother A.K. Paul assists on the guttural thrusts of "Trophy", a track that is a collision course of their divergent styles and a reunion of the purple-hued passion they ignited on 2013's "So Good". The iconic opening cries on Kate Bush "This Woman's Work" are reawaken on "In The Morning" but Nao doesn't echo long, as she owns her message, owns her sound creating work that is full of fire, but also knows when to place itself on ice.

Highlights: Happy, Inhale Exhale, In The Morning, Get To Know Ya, Girlfriend, Feels Like (Perfume), Bad Blood

A Seat At The Table - Solange 
Release Date: September 30th 
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There is a method to Solange's magic.

Ever since the 2012 release of her critically acclaimed short-player, True, Solange has come of age. Constantly shape-shifting and revitalizing through whatever venture she sees fit. It's been fun to see her resume swell, see her assert herself as a social media warrior, curate an alternative art-y circle with her Saint Heron outfit, marvel at her evolution with fashion (I have a Pinterest board to prove my obsession), and just see her be the all-around culture cool girlfriend we wish to clink mimosa glasses with.

Climbing out of the shadow of her sister (do we have to name her name again?) was no easy feat, impossible even as people can't stop talking, but Solange has surprised us all by flourishing left of center, carving out her niche, and now drawing out her own seat at the table.

With such growth, such inner-introspection, A Seat At The Table goes beyond being a musical think-piece on the last few years that have unfolded in front of our eyes. Its a stance that --- and to paraphrase the fighting words of our illustrious First Lady, Michelle Obama --- expresses the lows, but aims to go high. Examining the facets of the historical and societal ills that have been inflicted on Black-Americans while also celebrating in our truths and triumphs. But it's a mellow fire this time, built on a soundtrack of moody blues and powder plush soul, but it's still fire, intense and searing. An album that is so serene, so delicate, but so nourishing that it will make your soul, and your 'fro grow a few inches.

From the supple serenity of "Cranes In The Sky", to the taunt proud stance of "F.U.B.U." with Master P and Mama Knowles' wisdom infused in-between, A Seat At The Table is unapologetically BLACK as it is unapologetically HUMAN, going beyond a think-piece, a tweet, or a Tumblr repost, and hitting straight to the marrow through a stylized crop of self-care anthems meant to not only to express frustration, but to rise above it. 

Highlights: Cranes In The Sky, Don't Touch My Hair, Borderline (An Ode To Self-Care), Don't You Wait, Don't Wish Me Well, Junie, Where Do We Go, F.U.B.U (For Us, By Us)

Emily's D+Evolution - Esperanza Spalding
Release Date: March 4th 
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So few times I've agreed with whoever receives those coveted gilded gramophones called Grammys, and one of those few times was when Esperanza Spalding was awarded for Best New Artist in 2011. Spalding's win was a jolting and pleasant surprise from my end, but on the opposite pole, her win was met with antagonism as Spalding had "derailed" the teen idol domination of Justin Bieber, and brought in questioning of the Grammy's ruling for new artists, changing the rules as a result.

The Best New Artist honor is a promise. It's a prediction and an expectation on the future course of music and its evolvement. Spalding on the outset may appear to be an artist who took on the "Best New Artist Curse", as she doesn't register with fervor on mainstream's often smoked and mirrored radar, but the joke has been on the doubters and those Bieber fans who grossly wanted Spalding to "die in a hole", as Spalding prefers to be detached from the gloss of fame. Lost in oblivion is what Spalding prefers as its great for the complexion, the brain cells, and for the cultivation of her music. She may have a fan out of President Barack Obama, worked with Janelle Monae, Bruno Mars, and the late Prince, and even has befriended jazz legend, Wayne Shorter, but Spalding isn't someone who preens her feathers for such name drops --- she isn't about justifying her art through accolades and her famous connections --- she has transcended above that.

Emily's D+Evolution is such a transcendent conversation piece. On it, Spalding abandons her jazz roots to embrace her alter-ego "Emily", not here to people please. For Spalding, the bespectacled n' braided "Emily" isn't a docile creature of habit, more so she is an eclectic vessel that flexes experimental and creative gifts, candidly saying things that she, herself might have refrained from in mixed circles. "Emily" is confrontational and boisterous, someone who flips and flutters the bird, challenging the system with strong views on race, class, gender, and faith.

She raises fist skyward on "Funk The Fear" and stands up for her right to exist on the racially-socially charged, "Ebony & Ivy", a largely spoken word assessment of the racial dynamics of collegiate life, that winks towards the complex call-outs of Kendrick Lamar. The zig and zag of the Frank Zappa-esque "Good Lava" is Emily in a swirl of bobbing bass licks that dare voyeurs to have an unapologetic front row seating at her self-possessed femininity and sexuality as they watch "this pretty girl flow". A playfulness is present in these tracks, some harboring a childlike whimsy that is frayed with a bratty edge, like "I Want It Now", a song culled from the 1971 classic Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, that through Emily's notion, becomes a thrash metal tantrum, making the foot-stamping fit Veruca Salt had in The Nut Room a docile affair.

Still there is calm in this storm as Emily sports an earth mama nurture evoking introspection as she seeks to find enlightenment and personal connection within the world, embracing all its essences and offers. "Earth To Heaven" has her assessing her faith and the continual conflicts it brings as she treks on her quest for salvation.

What's impressive is that there isn't a name for what Spalding is exuding throughout this project. Prog-rock, psych-blues...an overuse of hyphens will pepper explanations, but the beauty of this album is that we haven't invented a category for it, its that free range, that label defying.

Confident and sly Emily may be Esperanza's middle name, but it's an altogether new persona for the once-jazz darling, a persona that she's eagerly trying to get to know in order to understand herself better. Spalding isn't the first, and she certainly won't be the last artist to utilize an 'alter ego' to challenge the creative status quo, but her personal journey, to give voice to a once voiceless entity from within, is not just gimmick or about waving the freak flag as high as it can go, but a conscientious survival mechanism for her art.

Highlights: Judas, Unconditional Love, Ebony & Ivy, Earth To Heaven, Funk The Fear

We Are King - KING 
Release Date: February 5th

Quoted from review:
In the chaotic maze of R&B and its many personalities, We Are King invites a calmer and languid conversation towards how the genre blends with dream pop and electronic ambiance. While not sounding unlike anybody, their sound has the obvious hallmarks of soulful 1970s and 1980s quiet storm. In some lights, they sprawl out in their songs like Anita Baker did so rapturously, while waxing romantic harmony a la Earth, Wind & Fire. KING are sensuous as they are restrained, courting to spark the candlelit magic Babyface and Secrets-era Toni Braxton supplied the 1990s with. Buttons on the sleeve these influences are, as their nostalgia forms its own memories with modern chillwave in their mix that allows them plenty of breathing room to not float too high from the 21st Century aesthetic.

We Are KING doesn't have a distinct structure. It's sonically suspended in an almost drug-induced, meditative mood where the songs seem to melt into each other as if in a liquid stream-of-consciousness. Every corner of the album is filled with thick, full, and luscious sound, leaving no white space in its wake, feeling as if we're frolicking in the floral and fauna of a digitized biome. At times chirps of synths and the occasional horn blat slice through the sonic foliage, this a testament to producer Paris (who plays every instrument on the album) and her playfulness to bolster such attributes all while nicely enclosing everything with the supple vocal blending of Anita and Amber. Such a rich structure finds homage on how jazz and old school funk albums riff off suite-like material, playing out less as singular song, but as an atmospheric experience. Even holdovers from The Story are extended, elongated into even more intoxicating affairs, and if you've kept the EP on heavy rotation like I, listening to them here feels like reuniting with old friends.

For the lovers, the dreamers, and those who want some romance and tenderness resurrected in the conversation of modern rhythm n' blues, We Are KING lays out its terms of endearment well, commending being carefree and humane in a digital age, urging us all to take time out to put the phones down and smell the flowers every once in awhile --- you know for old time's sake.

Highlights: The Greatest, Supernatural, Red Eye, In The Meantime, Oh Please, Carry On, Love Song

Rewind: Favorite Albums + EPs Of 2016

Quoting myself as the sentiment still carries...

Many words are used to describe the word "song" --- melody, ditty, tune, aria, earworm, anthem --- but what does the word mean beyond its definition? 

At the end of every year whenever I'm in the process of compiling this particular list, I ask the same questions: What are the songs that encouraged me from within? What are the songs that felt ripped from the pages of my own journal? That cradled me in comfort when I needed it most? That had me recall good times and bad ones too? That had me thinking and re-thinking? That have me dancing on the ceiling or wiping tears away? That made me feel joyful to be a woman? What are the songs that made me essentially feel throughout the year? 

In no particular order, here are the femme anthems of 2016 that answered all of those questions and then some... 

+ + + +

Melt - JONES

Awakens all senses with its tender hooks in tranquil guitars and JONES' velveteen vocals. Even though it's designed summer soft, I'm listening to this one all-year-round.

Falling - Lulu James 

Like a hymn you want to recite 24/7/365.

Mediator - AlunaGeorge 

Nocturnal jazzy coolness that doubles as a great song about being there for your girl when she's down and out. Aluna Francis' voice is totally suited for this kind of chill-out that graduates from the School of Sade.

Worship - Lizzo 

Self-confidence in a brassy n' sassy package. You're guaranteed to feel 10ft tall when you put this on and strut down the runway that is life.

Focus - Emily King

Channels the charm of Prince, but Emily King has her own melody to sing here, and it's one lovely serenade.

Body Talk - Foxes 

Sultry 1980s power pop in a svelte 21st Century bottle. Like the Kim Wilde song that never was.

Crush - Yuna (feat. Usher) 

Usher serenades as if it's his My Way days, while Yuna announces herself as a new breed of R&B chanteuse, both reviving the idea of the romantic duet. If someone is smart, a duet album between these two should come into fruition as Usher has (finally) found his match.

Judas - Esperanza Spalding 

Has the feel of Joni Mitchell's lost weekends where the '70s icon made jazz and folk into strange, yet intriguing bedfellows.

Hurts - Emeli Sande

One tuff power ballad. It's kind of frustrating for me that Emeli Sande loads her albums with meandering softball material, but then turn around and light a firecracker like this, proving she's one of our most capable and emotive vocalists today --- even besting "the other Adele".

Had To Feel Something - Cosmia

Cosmia's silken alto is hypnotic and this song rattles you right down to the soul.

Elizabeth Taylor - Clare Maguire

Fraught 1960s pop balladry that is about as dark and sharp as Dame Taylor's eyebrows.

The Greatest - KING

It's eerie? purely coincidental? that KING would give props to the life and legacy of champion heavyweight Muhammad Ali in the year of his passing, but once you become awash in the 8-bit digital display of its video and the laid-back synthesized Nintendo grooves, it transmutes to a truly fitting tribute that right hooks with soulful acuity as Ali himself.

Truth - Gwen Stefani 

On an album that doesn't sound much like her, "Truth" shows Gwen Stefani at her classic, vulnerable best.

Cranes In The Sky - Solange

A beautiful mediation about self-care. Go on Solo, soar above those metal clouds and preach on.

Phenomenal Woman - Laura Mvula

Ms. Mvula sprinkles some of her #BlackGirlMagic on a buoyant Afro-Beat anthem that embodies Maya Angelou's seminal poem in name and essence.

Make It Up - Shura

With a fragile and wistful heart, Shura serves some chilled-out synthpop that feels oh so 1987.

If You Let Me - Sinead Harnett (feat. GRADES)

The theme song of your worst heartbreak ever. This has got to be the most devastating ballad of the year.

Green Aphrodisiac - Corinne Bailey Rae

It's obvious that the ladies of KING are behind this as it rock-a-byes their brand of electronic California soul, but Corinne brings her own sultry boho enchantment to this, throwing a little love Neo-Soul's way for the 21st Century.

Gorgeous - Muhsinah

Muhsinah ambitiously gave us an EP a month, and you bet it was hard to narrow down which songs stood out as there was something to like off of each set, but this? This won out as the title says it all...this song is truly and unequivocally, gorgeous.

Thinking Of You - Mabel 

As if being Neneh Cherry's daughter was cool enough, now she comes out with the crazysexycoolness that is this ode to the first flutterings of schoolyard crushes.

Blk Girl Solider - Jamila Woods 

I'm more in 'formation' with this. A theme song for those of us who pray at the church of #BlackGirlMagic.

In Common - Alicia Keys 

Though this subdued digitized love letter didn't make the cut on the socially-sound Here, I preferred this over every song on that album --- I'm a strange one, remember that.

Fuck With Myself - BANKS

A little bit of selfishness does the self-esteem good and BANKS teaches us how by going beyond touching herself in the literal sense, to getting in touch with her inner awesomeness on a dark electronica track that would make Bjork proud.

Second Nature - Stalking Gia

There is some serious supple beauty amid these basslicks.

Rewind: Favorite Songs + Singles Of 2016

As if 2016 wasn't cruel enough, George Michael has sadly (and unfairly) left us. He was 53.

We often say that music doesn't know color, that one race does not 'own' a genre, but along comes society and historical transgression and it interjects and reminds, trying to prove and disprove otherwise. From time to time I hear my skinfolk grumble about "culture vultures", White artists who wear Blackness as a costume, or who are misinterpreted in media as being 'soulful' as a means to erase and minimize the presence of actual Black artists. I would name the culprits of such a skewed and offensive practice, but it's easier to say that George Michael is not among the names of those who 'soul' for all the wrong reasons.

George Michael was no 'culture vulture' to the soul and R&B cannon. Let's get that straight right off. He wasn't an Elvis or someone who was just passing through Afro-Amerilandia due it being a fad or as a means to "toughen up" or "urbanize" their image for hits and cred. He was a soul boy right out of the gate, beginning in his early days with Wham! True, "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)" was no "Rapper's Delight", but George Michael was one funky and floectic White boy. In my eyes, and to my ears, George Michael was aligned with Teena Marie, Lisa Stansfield, and Daryl Hall ---- artists who respected soul music, Black music, and the people who fostered it --- transcending above that pesky "blue-eyed soul" category with every note sung and written.

When George Michael won a American Music Award in 1989 for Best Soul/R&B Album for his seminal debut, Faith, some soul purists and legends weren't here for it. A lot were upset that a handsome Greek bloke from England, who served floppy, frosted hair realness, and made a 5 o'clock shadow sexy could ever be in the same league as Stevie, Marvin, Smokey, Michael, ectera, but when George Michael got up to the podium to accept the award, he was humble and genuine --- traits that seems lost on some of today's artists --- and he not only praised the genre, but showed sincere gratitude towards Black radio, the Black fans, who consumed his music and made it possible for him to be the first (and today, the only) White artist to win in that category, and have an album chart #1 on the R&B charts. His sincerity and approach to soul/R&B music, to pop music, to "however you wanna label it" music, made him a true legend on a level that some will try to reach, but never will.

It also seems almost weirdly calculated that this year we'd lose three male musicians who not only transcended music beyond boundaries, but whom all redefined masculinity in the public frame. While David Bowie and Prince's gender-bending is not quite aligned with George Michael being openly gay, but George dispelled stereotypes and stigmas of what it meant to be a gay man in the spotlight during his career and it set a new kind of precedent. Even when homosexuality was considered a death kneel to your career --- and almost came to pass for George himself when his 'open secret' was thrust out of the closet in the 1990s --- even though not ideal or pretty, George stood in his truth, becoming a marquee LGTBQ pioneer in his own right to where his sexuality almost ceased to matter in the end.

Still, even with his bad boy swag, Madonna was kind of on the button to label George "the diva, himself", and an honorary "diva" he is, as what White boy singer do you know could hold it down with Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, the greatest divas of all-time, without getting their wig skewed?

Yep, George Michael was our diva, our (soul) man. #RestInParadise

+ + + + +

So to say goodbye to George the Audio Diva way, let me round out a list of my favorite George Michael moments when he either channeled his 'inner diva' by way of cover songs or shared the stage with the fairer sex....

If I Told You That (with Whitney Houston) (The Greatest Hits, 2001)

I Knew You Were Waiting For Me (with Aretha Franklin) (Aretha, 1986)

I Can't Make You Love Me (Bonnie Raitt cover) (MTV Unplugged, 1996)

Learn To Say No (with Jody Watley) (Jody Watley, 1987)

These Are The Days Of Our Lives (with Lisa Stansfield & Queen) (from Tribute To Freddie Mercury: Live At Wembley, 1992)

Ain't Nobody (Rufus & Chaka Khan cover) (Rock In Rio, 1991)

As (Stevie Wonder cover) (with Mary J. Blige) (Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best Of George Michael, 1999)

Love Is A Losing Game (Amy Winehouse cover) (Back To Black, 2006)

Bonus: Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me (with Elton "Honorary Diva" John)(Caribou, 1974)

Rememberance: Ladies & Gentlemen...The Diva Himself, George Michael

This is story about control, my control, control of what I say, control of what I do, and this time I'm gonna do it my way, I hope you enjoy this as much as I do. Are we ready? I am. 'Cause it`s all about control...and I've got lots of it.
Too easy it is to give Madonna the credit for reinventing the 'disco diva' for the 1980s. Too easy it is to say Madonna was the sole influence towards a future bumper crop of female vocalists who would peg their stance on having a mind for business, and a bod for sin. Too easy it is when Janet Jackson is standing there, tapping her foot, tossing a look with lots of side and lots of eye.

Stiff competition Janet gave Madonna when Control emerged in 1986. Not only was Janet, 20 years young, a talented singer, songwriter, and dancer like Madonna, but she also had whip-smart wit and a tendency to not just turn the boys on, but turn them off as well. Sure Janet's 'luck' of pedigree benefited her, and made her more acclimated to the pop market, but she still had to work at convincing a leery public that she wasn't just aping off the shadows of her well-known brood of brothers --- and work at dispelling doubt she did.

Far from being coy or subtle, Control is where Janet Jackson's restlessness is quelled by a lioness roar. Unlike the funeral processions of Adele that dread the maturing process, Janet approached her roaring twenties with a funky and fussy finesse. If any type of tear was shed over the lost of adolescence, Janet's salty liquid orb was over the sheer optimism at what laid ahead for her as she came of age.

Growing up in the spotlight as the youngest in her famous family no doubt prompted the eager urgency as its difficult to have people pinching your cheeks telling you how young and cute you are, when your mind and hormones are telling a different story. Not wanting to be caught in the limbo of child and adult for any longer, Janet decided an act of rebellion was in order. Rebellion came in the form of marrying  DeBarge member, James DeBarge at the ripe age of 18, the hope that a little band of gold would be her ticket to automatic adulthood. A few months and a quick annulment later, Janet realized that marriage wasn't what made one into an independent adult, nor did it give her the detachment she sought from her familial ties. She had dove head first with eyes shut, all without looking at the growing young woman in the reflecting pool who needed more time to learn about who she really, and truly, was.

For Control, Janet opens her eyes, looks around and realizes that if she was going to get to adult, and have everyone else turn to the next chapter with her, she would have to set her independence on her own terms and without influence from outside sources. Still, a lot was at stake for Control to achieve for Janet beyond breaking away from her famous family's namesake and the managerial tutelage of her autocratic father, Janet had to also prove that she was also a separate entity a part from her elder, more-celebrated brother.

Though Thriller had cooled its jets by the mid-1980s its success hadn't buckled, nor had its influence as the album had altered not just the Black music paradigm, but hopped, skipped, and Moonwalked all over pop culture, making Michael Jackson become one of the main reasons why crossover success for Black-American artists is possible to this day. Such pioneering accomplishments had the littlest Jackson meeting with high expectation. She didn't necessarily have to follow the exact pattern, but she did have to uphold it and then some. To say the pressure wasn't on, clocked to high, is a misdiagnosis.

Control, in a sense, is the real "debut" of Janet Jackson. Not to dismiss her 1982 self-titled debut (and the belated disco era dazzle of "Young Love" and New Wave coolness of "Come Give Your Love To Me" that resides on it...), but Control isn't methodical, work-shopped fiction. On it she's not being pulled by strings or sweetly singing material that does little to reflect her personal viewpoint or extinguish her personality. On Janet Jackson and 1984's Dream Street, Janet wasn't really Janet, she's just chewing bubblegum and still looking at her Diana Ross posters, still waffling between being a serious music artist and portraying fictional characters on popular sitcoms like Good Times and Diff'rent Strokes, and the television adaptation of the hit film, Fame. Her individual being hadn't come to fruition quite yet, and she needed a nudge toward discovering herself in the midst of her artistic talent.

That nudge came from former Prince protégés, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Decked in tailored suits, shades, with fedoras atop juiced jheri-curls, Jam and Lewis had bad boy appeal from the outset, the contrast stark next to Janet's soft pop cherub appearance. Out to 'corrupt' the Michael's little sister Jam and Lewis appeared to be, but Janet had been enamored with the swag and sound of the twosome since the age of 16 after she had witnessed them in concert during their stint as key backing players of the Morris Day-led ensemble, The Time. Jam and Lewis were later infamously booted from the group by Prince during a 1981 tour, but the two took the lemons and made lemonade and forged ahead as a duo, tapping into their own brand of the "Minneapolis Sound", applying the sound's mechanical mélange of funk, soul, and New Wave to a series of up-in-coming R&B talents, namely Alexander O'NealThe S.O.S. Band, and Cherrelle.

Jam and Lewis' production reign during the 1980s and beyond almost reads like an elaborate revenge plot against Prince, and in some technical senses it was. The two are of the most well-known "protégés" from the Paisley Park factory, and really, "protégés" is a loose term for them, as Jam and Lewis had their own ideas and their own distinctive sound that diverged from Prince's greatly. While most of Prince's disciples were never truly allowed to let their own personalities breakthrough, Jam and Lewis' sound brand was so pliable and innovative enough that it was able to ease well into a wide-range of genres, even at times, improving upon an artist's aesthetic.

It bears mentioning that Jam and Lewis were responsible for transmuting The S.O.S. Band from a archetypal female-fronted post-disco act to a hit-laden chilled-out electronic soul act, just as much as they thawed out The Human League, and steered Cherrelle into making funky dancefloor burners that wore their female empowerment on its sleeve. Jam and Lewis had made even Pia Zadora at one point sound credible, making it clear that they were the "Secret" element, the architects of sound whose musical intellect and penchant to change the conversation of any artist they got their hands on was an ideal framework for Janet to mature into her music, and their entry would prove to be the smartest and most adult decision Janet made for her career. In telling Spin in 1987, Jam and Lewis were all she had her eye on when it came down to pressing the reset button on her music:"I wanted this album to be my success, not my family's, and Jimmy and Terry helped me get it." 

Get it they did.

After moving to Minneapolis and getting acquainted with Jam and Lewis, their "Minneapolis Sound", and their Flyte Tyme crew (which included other Time members Jellybean Johnson and Monte Moir), Control became a reality. Released in early 1986, the album did fairly well chart-wise even for its #102 debut position, as by the end of the year it had reached gold status, finding placement on the top of the Billboard and R&B/Black Album charts. Such success lent critics to raise a curious eyebrow, as they were interested in not just Michael's little sister, but Michael's little sister who had come out to spread the news she might be a Jackson, but not the Jackson you think she is.

As far as debut albums go, close to perfection Control is. Every element that is meant to push Janet forward as an entity outside of namesake works.

It's true success lies in the merging of Janet's passion towards her mission, and Jam and Lewis' studio mastery at allowing Janet to discovering her true person within the melodies. Elaborating to Spin, Janet said, "What you hear on the album is a result of all the jamming that they did right in the studio. All the music is pretty much them. But the lyrics, the vocal arrangements, the keyboards, the synthesizers, that's where I came in." Janet knows what she wants, how she wants to say it and convey it, and Jam and Lewis are happy to oblige, and the combination of their working repertoire bears an electrifying product.

Time isn't stalled in asserting Janet's new declaration of independence, as after Janet in a feather-soft voice asserts her purpose ("This is a story about control, my control, control of what I say, control of what I do, and this time I'm gonna do it my way...") the title track blasts in, passionate and humble, but still with grit and edge, riding high on synths and digitized R&B beats, Janet gaining more and more confidence as the song churns along. By the time the song ends we know she's got her own mind, she wants to make her own decisions, and she wants to be the one in control, dammit, so for the rest of the album we need to sit down and shut up, as Janet's got the floor.

(There's a neat Easter egg in the "Control" video where actress Ja'net DuBois, who played Janet's TV adopted mother on Good Times, makes a cameo as Janet's concerning mother. This a wink to further push that Janet had liberated herself in more ways than one.)

Boasting brash keyboards and latticed percussion, "Nasty" is Janet continuing to not bat her eyelashes or play cutesy. So ruff, so tuff, "Nasty" is, as it scowls and pounces, easily clawing its way to the #3 position on the Hot 100. Janet would divulge in later years --- and after numerous misinterpretations that this was a man-hating anthem --- that "Nasty" came about when she had felt powerless against a group of men who were harassing her outside of the Flyte Tyme studios during the recording sessions for Control. For its equally rowdy music video, which featured choreography from a then-unknown Paula Abdul (who also made a brief appearance in the video), Janet re-scripts her ordeal, capturing the ultimate feminist fantasy of 'taking back the night'.

Throughout, Janet tosses attitude and literally breaks up the bromance as she struts confident down a city street, not afraid to dance among the large gathering of guys, later on dancing with them as equals. You can't help cheering her on when she puts her foot down and gives an acidic tongue lashing for simple chivalry ("My first name ain't baby, it's Janet if you nasty!"), gaining full authority of the situation. In this moment, and forever more, she's Miss Jackson, sexy and aggressive, and she was for real.

"Nasty" was a turning point, and not just for Janet as R&B music itself also benefited from the recourse. "Nasty" has an accurate reputation for being the first taste that the public got of the New Jack Swing sound, a sound movement that would steer Black music away from electronic funk to an edgier, industrial, hip-hop influenced sound that screamed Black machismo. Such raw masculine fervor is why the face of New Jack often is associated with the bad boy smirks of Bobby Brown, stylish fade coifs of Guy, and the wounded loverman croons of Babyface and Keith Sweat. Women, though present, didn't factor into the genre until Karyn White, Pebbles, TLC, and even Abdul herself came into focus, but often times they weren't lauded with similar accolades or taken with such seriousness as their male counterparts. "Nasty" can be argued as the first successful New Jack record --- and by a woman no less --- as it changed the sheets on R&B's soundbed for the remainder of the decade, predicting the course of the genre's aesthetic in the later decades to come.

To a lesser extent, 'filler' track, "You Can Be Mine", keeps "Nasty" and its message sharpened, as Janet amid a web of fanfare synths lays claim to a guy who catches her eye, voicing that he could be hers if he'd just make a move. Less forgiving, Janet severs the olive branch on the impressive #4 chart-topper, "What Have You Done For Me Lately" as she once again challenges the men folk, only this time she's side-eyeing her current beau, chastising his trifling behavior and measly excuses, wondering where the mutual love has gone.

Culled from an idea Jam and Lewis were working on for one of their own projects, "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" is no doubt a blunt kiss-off track towards Janet's ex-husband, and the video plays into such shade, once again evoking a battle of the sexes with Janet dancing all over a handsome face, playing soft and hardball to a tee.

Of all the songs present, "What Have You Done For Me Lately" is Janet's most "sista girl" moment, its tone evident right when that comical opening monologue starts. The snap and swing of the song's phrasing falls in line with the intent that Janet, Jam, and Lewis wanted to make Control, "the Black(est) album of all time". Reciting to Rolling Stone in later years, Jam would confirm that they all wanted Control to not only appeal to a crossover market, but that it'd be an album found "in every Black home in America".

Control does relish in its unapologetic Blackness by way of mode --- it's far from sterilized soul, no never mind what the heavy artillery of synths present --- but it in large focuses on the oft ignored power of the Black American female. If you listen closely, the album for all of its fierce directness and awareness of a patriarchal society, plays like an musical affirmation to the thoughts and feelings that Black women as a collective have, bringing forth these ideals to the mainstream. Though not scholastic by any means, and nowhere near as deeply reflective as a piece of prose penned by bell hooks or Audre Lorde, Control gives a pop peppered Cliffs Notes look at the anatomy of the Black woman without the one-dimensional stereotype. Unlike her peers, Whitney Houston and Anita Baker, Janet didn't take the softer route when it came to expressing the facets of her femininity, she was direct that she was a woman first, Black second, and that there would be no slumbering on her watch about that.

Hyperbole such theories could be as Control is really for Janet herself to express her own individuality and harness her identity outside of familial influence, but over the years Control harbors special meaning for those who feel they are female and Black, as Janet asserted that a Black woman could be sensitive as she was tough, resourceful as she was gaining scholarship, and that just because Madonna was out there being sexually and personally empowered in her music didn't mean that a woman of color wasn't and couldn't express the same ideals. It's why Madonna kind of chewed her nails for a moment --- as for all her awkward race talk that made her want to appear 'down' --- she didn't possess the Black woman narrative, and thus couldn't speak for or with Janet.

Loud and clear Janet was about her love for being a Black woman, and her hunger for control was written bold across the album, but what's interesting about this album is that it's not just about those things. Staking claim on her independence doesn't mean she out there trying to talk down to her parents, going on reckless alcohol-fueled nights on the town, or having sex out of view from parental hawk's eyes --- those things don't make you an independent adult --- but with age and maturity, Janet now has choices and options, she has to walk her talk and make conscious decisions.

"The Pleasure Principle" is where Janet is thinking things through about what type of 'nasty boys' she's wanting to spend her precious time with. Calling someone "picky" is a knee-jerk reaction to those who just have standards. I've heard it many times, all said in my mother's guilt-riddled voice ("You'll end up alone, you'll be so unhappy!!!"), but Janet being a recent divorcee knows that what may look good on paper doesn't translate to "love of a lifetime". Some ground rules are put in place during this moment as Janet notices how material and superficial the guys around her are, and swayed she isn't by the smooth talk or the good looks. You can picture the guy, with a Carlton Banks smirk, dripping with '80s semi-yuppie charm, and Janet closing the door on his smug face. She doesn't have time for that kind of deception.

The Time disciple, Monte Moir is responsible for autopsying such deception, culling the song's ideas from Janet, and placing them into a sterling frame of stark funkiness and drum machine nirvana, making for one of my favorite songs on Control. Though just as assertive as "Nasty" and "What Have You Done For Me Lately", "The Pleasure Principle" reached #14 on the pop charts, making it the sole single off of Control that didn't make the top 10. Yet, as a consolation prize, its video bests all the other videos from Control's visual cannon.

"Pleasure Principle's" video could've written itself due to the storytelling lyrics, but its victorious in its surprise at displaying Janet alone in a loft-warehouse, executing a free-form ballet that is one of the slickest and best dance routines put to video. No fancy wardrobe is even needed as Janet is casual in an over-sized tee, jeans and Adidas low-tops, coming across as the coolest chick on the block. Notorious it is also at being the one Janet video that caused a lot of broken vases and furniture (and angry parents) in homes across the World. Case in point: there is a wobbly dining room chair in our house that didn't survive "The Battle of The Pleasure Principle Moves" thanks to my piss poor dance skills as a kid. (Sorry, Mom...it wasn't Dad this time.)

Some of the coolness of Control wanes a bit when "He Doesn't Know I'm Alive" needles in on that unmistakably '80s sax. This isn't my particular favorite moment on this set, in fact, its the album's one flaw as it is devoid of all of all the assertive nature this album trumpets so loudly. An insecure, kind of frazzled devotion to love it is, which cracks Janet's warrior princess crown a bit, but the only nice thing I can say about it is that Janet does hit some angelic high notes on it. The song surprisingly works best when sung by others as Dev Hynes-alter Blood Orange and indie pop group, New Look have both released unique, crisper reinterpretations of it to better effect. Still, this song escaped from Janet's Dream Street album and I want it to go back there.

Sugary sweetness with a splash of defenseless works best on "When I Think Of You", a charming number that sprinkles a little sugar and has Janet's heart aglow with the prospect of being in love. A far cry from steamy bedroom numbers Janet will be known for, but it's the mother to tracks like "Because Of Love" and "Love Will Never Do (Without You)", where Janet just relaxes in the throes of romantic bliss, in love with love.

As much as Janet has demanded a right to not be pampered or disrespected, she still wants to be loved, and tenderly so. Sexual liberation as a metaphor for artistic control is not a unfamiliar function in pop music, but "Let's Wait Awhile" and "Funny How The Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)" make for an interesting suite as the former puts the brakes on engaging in sexual intimacy, while the later is about giving in and fully blossoming amid a sensual act of love making. The choice for this is crafty, and maybe I'm reading too much into it (as I often do when it comes to track sequencing...and life in general...) but I love the contrast, the conflicting duel of emotions, because whether she's letting her guard down to a lover or not, Janet is once again still in control.

It's why I disagree with writer Margo Jefferson when she passed off Janet as "the hardest-working sex toy in show business" in her critical essay, On Michael Jackson. Um, did she even listen to this album? Did she hear the transitional poignancy of these two songs? I often wonder if that particular reaction is just a impulsive retort to that infamous SuperBowl incident which gave everybody the eager chance to wag their finger at a woman who was always an easy target of sexual ridicule. It was quite hysterical how prudish and holier-than-thou America got in 2004, and disappointing how Janet's treatment of the incident fell squarely on her shoulders, while her male "accomplice" Justin Timberlake came out unscathed (though a recent Twitter drag corrected such ill, unleashing 12 years of pent-up anger, with still no apology from Timberlake himself). True, Jefferson is just serving her opinion, and like most social and culture critics she no doubt believes mainstream female pop musicians aren't worth defending, but her comments are still female-on-female shaming at its worst.

On "Let's Wait Awhile" Janet isn't twisting her purity ring with worry on her left hand, making some grand declaration of abstinence. None of the sanctimonious virginal jargon is uttered, nor does it turn into the type of pseudo-Christian rhetoric you hear when you live buckled in the Bible Belt. From a aware, and mature position Janet is coming from with the song, as she's honest and responsible enough with herself to know that she's not ready to become intimate. Yet, when she decides to become intimate on "Funny How The Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)" she's a willing participant, enjoying the pleasure her lover brings her to where she asks for another go 'round. To switch on and off in lust, wasn't a contradiction, but a normality, a true naturalness, to embrace intimacy at this mature level.

"Funny How The Times Flies" is Janet's 'Sade moment' for sure, as it moves at a slower and steamier cadence purring provocative, as it lounges in afterglow. From an aural standpoint, "Funny" is also where Jam and Lewis flex knowledge on how a soulful 'ballad' works. As much they become known for their funk workouts, Jam and Lewis really turned the slow jam into something past filler in the 1980s. Their previous concoctions like Cherrelle's "Will You Satisfy", Alexander O'Neal's "If You Were Here Tonight", and Dynasty's "The Only One", while underrated, are a far cry from the over-sexualized lyricals we hear too often today as they are songs that possess depth within passion, within sentiment.

Janet may be adopting Donna Summer-styled moans and groans of pleasure, mumbling French nothings in her lover's ear, but like Summer did a decade ago on the seminal, "Love To Love You Baby", she does every innuendo-filled line without sounding cloying and cheap. It would take a few more years before Janet teased with even greater titillation ("Twenty Foreplay" and "Anytime, Anyplace") and expressed her sexuality in even grander, more risque gestures (1993's .janet), but "Funny How The Time Flies" is where her reputation for sex kittenism begins and where Janet puts distance between her youth on the sexual tip.

She's now W-O-M-A-N with fanfare, the circle of control complete.

+ + + +

This year I have closed the curtain on my twenties, turning 30 years-young, and sharing age with Control. While Rhythm Nation and Velvet Rope are my two favorite collections from Janet, I still feel that Control molded and shaped me more so, and even today, continues to do. The first time I listened to Control was at 10. I had pulled the album out of my father's record collection and at first listen, the music, the vibe took me completely off-guard. At that age I hadn't formed the correct words, organized the right thoughts towards the events that unfolded in front of my young eyes.

Feminism, gender inequality, rape culture, body autonomy, personal agency, independence  --- those terms weren't in my growing vocabulary just yet, but introduced to them I had been, from how teachers blew off my concerns over a boy pulling my braids, to when I was called 'bossy' when I demanded the girls be allowed to play during a 4th grade baseball game, to when I was harassed in high school by a boy who took my "no" as "you're playing hard to get", to how I felt oftentimes finding myself the only Black woman in a room of white faces. Still I hadn't formed 'eloquent' words and thoughts in order to express myself and often times I remained quiet because of this.

Then there was this thing about "independence".

As much as I was a huge Michael Jackson fan in my youth, finding a big sister muse within his sister, Janet, proved to be a special, almost life alternating case for me. She was speaking on my 10-year-old level with this album, she 'got' my impatience of wanting to 'grow up', to be taken serious (yes, I was a very serious 10-year-old) as an only child who was often surrounded by lots of adults. Pairing this album with Spice GirlsSpice, TLC's Crazy Sexy Cool, and Mariah Carey's Butterfly, Janet became yet another big sister in my head, who was teaching me about the early expectations of womanhood and the current undertones I was becoming privy to.

Still, I was listening to Janet in a backwards fashion, and it was an interesting, almost jarring position to be in, as by the time I put the needle on Control, Janet was IN control. She was sexually awoken and had expanded upon her style and sound, ruminating over deeper social themes and personal matters. So to see her actually gain control 10 years later from the initial declaration gave me clearance that yes, it was possible for a woman, a Black woman, to assert herself and demand to be heard and respected, and to fight for her own independence.

At the time that I bought my own copy of Control, I had also recently purchased Velvet Rope. As Janet was 30 at the time of Velvet Rope, despondent and a little dejected over fame and her personal life, I listened close and heard that she still felt the need to not prop up the white flag, she still had that wide-eyed 20-year-old inside, cheering her on, even when the rainstorm raged in her mind. This is why I retain such a fierce devotion towards Janet and her music, she was often showing in her own way how to fight for your space, your identity, when life knocked her down, she still managed to regain the utmost control.

Of course I know, now, this is a pop star image to sell, an image to give an impression. Janet will be richer and more connected than I'll probably ever be, but I always feel that Pablo Picasso is right in saying that art is the lie that helps us realize the truth. Whether Janet meant it or not, was acting like the pop star she is where fantasies and illusions are sold to the highest gullible believer, there was some truth to the method, truth in her actions, and truth to the declarations of independence.

It's remarkable that Control, 30 years later, still evokes such emotion, such liberation within it's frame for those like myself who just wanted the permission to own our own way.

Rewind: The Declaration Of Janet Jackson's Independence

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