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Favorite Albums of 2023

Mind Of A Saint – Skyzoo

Fully thematic albums can be a mixed bag. If an artist’s concept is too complicated or obscure, listeners will lose interest. Conversely, if it’s too loose, artists open themselves up to criticism for poor execution. Brooklyn MC and ATL restaurant owner Skyzoo’s latest release, The Mind Of A Saint: A Soliloquy by Skyzoo, is a master class in pulling off a conceptual album without breaking character or losing steam (no easy feat). The album is told from the point of view of drug kingpin Franklin Saint, a character in Snowfall, a drama co-created by the late John Singleton, set in 1980s Los Angeles at the start of the crack cocaine epidemic. Throughout the 10-song affair, Skyzoo’s penchant for crafting lyrically rich, rewind-worthy Hip Hop loaded with easter eggs shines as brightly as ever, with an almost mind-boggling level of attention to detail. Whether it’s telling the engineer that he’s not used to the studio as he’s from a “different life” on the song “100 to One” or describing Franklin telling his friend Leon about working on an album on the intro to “Brick by Brick” (“Yo Saint, I know you’re going to get all poetic”), he fully commits to his character.

Signature – Joell Ortiz & L’Orange

Between his multisyllabic rhyme schemes, agility and penchant for piling writerly details, rapping has never been a problem for Joell Ortiz — and it wasn’t on his mostly solid 2021 album, Autograph. There, his raps were generally sharp, with the project’s main issues being indistinct production and spurts of formulaic song tropes that occasionally halted its momentum. Those issues are almost entirely erased on Signature, a reimagining courtesy of soul production maestro, L’Orange. This time, Ortiz and L’Orange cut trite mid-2000s sounds and a few generic songs for a tighter, more emotionally intense offering. As sharp as it is tidy, the Autograph remix edition is an exercise in efficiency and sonic imagination, with the latter being a courtesy of a production dynamo who keeps it anything but stale. In the end, L’Orange left his mark on Signature by penning his own, making this version of Autograph a lot more legible.

GLORIOUS GAME – Black Thought & El Michels Affair

Coming off the critically acclaimed Cheat Codes — a runner-up for the DX Best Hip Hop Album Of 2022 award — Tariq Trotter, better known as Black Thought, once again asserts his Zeus-level pen with Glorious Game, a collaborative LP with El Michels Affair (headed by one of his fave producers, Leon Michels). Playing out as a stage-worthy one-person show, Thought remains endearingly personal throughout the tightly curated 31-minute project, walking us through the sights, sounds, smells and sensibilities instilled coming up in the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia.

Flying Or Falling – Jorja Smith

The first few years of Jorja Smith’s career have been a whirlwind. At just 20-years-old, off the strength of a couple of brilliant singles, the British singer found herself delivering a show-stopping performance on “Get It Together” from Drake’s More Life album. With rumors that the two briefly dated — which Drake seemingly addressed on Scorpion a year later — Smith entered a hellish news cycle that she couldn’t escape. Just before that, Smith released her debut Lost & Found, which showcased her mature songwriting and her supple vocals as she easily made her way through piercing ballads and jazzy experiments. She had found her forte, but with such little life experience and so much thrown at her all at once, it’s understandable that her follow-up album falling or flying took over five years to arrive. Half a decade can lead to a lot of changes in a person’s life, which Smith ponders on the lead single “Try Me.” Her anger combusts on the hook where she sings that “Nothing is ever enough” as she denies having ever switched up on anybody. The song fiercely allows Smith to let her emotions pour out, hinting that she’s got a lot on her chest she needs to let out. However the zeal with which she approaches the rest of the album is mostly relegated to the front half.

Michael – Killer Mike

The moniker Killer Mike conjures a lengthy list of descriptors: searing truth-teller, 2nd Amendment-advocate, activist, MC. His new LP, Micheal, Executive-produced by No I.D., is an eclectic, heartfelt swirl of majestic soul and songwriting that’s as piercing as it is intimate. For this one, Mike explores tragedy and love with a mix of naked sincerity and the types of detail that usually has to be extracted from memory. As he’s explained in multiple interviews, this isn’t Killer Mike, it’s Michael Render, a human being that’s more than the sum of whichever labels we try to prescribe him. At about 54 minutes, Michael is a dense, but efficient body of thoughts and sounds, one embedded with instrumentation and gospel choirs you’d find in Black churches across the South. Of course, soundbeds like those are natural for Atlanta rappers of a certain age, but in this case, the dosage is more sizable — Mike’s deliberate move to incorporate the music of his childhood while paying homage to the culture that raised him.

Never Enough – Daniel Caesar

Never Enough functions as a break-up album, but it also marks a redemption arc for a flawed man with equally flawed views to make a case at proving he’s matured. He apologized for the YesJulz comments and took the time to come to terms with hurting people both in his fandom and in his personal life. The growth shows, especially on “Buyer’s Remorse” and “Pain Is Inevitable,” though a lengthy runtime and inconsistent themes can sometimes feel like Caesar had two different visions but combined them into one sprawling project covering four years of absence.

What I Didn’t Tell You – Coco Jones

With her powerful vocals, smooth beats, and introspective lyrics, Coco Jones’ What I Didn’t Tell You (Deluxe) showcases Coco’s versatility and musical range. From soulful ballads to upbeat pop tracks, the album offers something for everyone and highlights Coco’s growth and evolution as an artist. If you’re looking for a powerful and impactful listen, What I Didn’t Tell You is definitely worth checking out.

Fountain Baby – Amaarae

Fountain Baby feels like the culmination of her musical odyssey and desire to play with the tropes of genres that hadn’t fully grown yet. Much like how Hip Hop and R&B have been pushed and mangled into a bevy of sounds that make the genres bleed into all forms of music, Amaarae bends Afrobeats to her will, morphing the music of her heritage and the distinction of what it means to be a Ghanaian female artist. She’s unafraid of uncharted territory and willing to step outside the conventional box Americans place on Afrobeats, all while broadening the umbrella of dance music. Whether she’s experimenting with rock ensembles (“Come Home to God”) or staying true to Shekeres and goblet drums (“Big Steppa”) that are the backbone of Afro sounds, each song expounds on the next to bring a warm, organic feeling back into mainstream modern dance music.

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