African-American pop's had a wild ride over the past two years. In the Top 40 division, business is booming: Destiny's Child has virtually remade the best-seller list in its image, selling more records than Jesus and becoming more popular than the Beatles (or whatever). And it's no accident: Whether or not she admits it, Beyoncé Knowles has emerged as her generation's Diana Ross, taking control where so many surrender it and treating her band mates like the dependent women of her dreams. Michael Jackson's also been planning carefully: His first album in an eon, Invincible, drops on October 30, though the Rodney Jerkins-helmed first single, "You Rock My World," is online right now at michaeljackson.com. It's not a mind-blower, but it does show that contrary to popular folklore, Jacko's not been asleep or comatose or worse since he disappeared into his own myth. (Its fleet-footed rhythm suggests he hasn't ignored the approach of his would-be heir, the young British two-step star Craig David, either, whose recent Born to Do It is some pure retrofitted Off the Wall-type shit.)
Meanwhile, in the R&B department, recent creative advances have been tempered by the death of one of the form's brightest stars, Aaliyah. It's too soon to tell if her departure, which arrived way, way too early two weeks ago, will dampen or stoke the fires of her peers. But it certainly has cast a shadow over three new albums by three artists who cover a lot of the scene's ground. Mainly, it seems to ask us to try as hard as we can to leave something beautiful behind.
Bilal's definitely doing his part: His gigantic debut, 1st Born Second, attempts to fuse the old-school set (the Soulquarians, et al.) with the new (the Timbaland posse). It often works, yielding an earthy sort of future-funk that seems to want to define an entire mode of existence in just over an hour, whatever it takes: live instruments, samples, singing, scatting, the occasional MC, Dr. Dre's bad ass. It's easy to see Aaliyah looking down at this and wondering why she didn't get a guest shot. Conversely, it's easy to see her wondering why Usher, a young star who shared her ability to appropriate the mainstream's resources, was content to make as little headway as he does on 8701, his third album. Lead single "U Remind Me" is above average in an R. Kelly sort of way (something the young Aaliyah would have appreciated), but elsewhere he just lets his abs and his pretty eyes do the work for him, slipping into bland loverman mode and squandering relatively banging work by the Neptunes and Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis.
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Finally, Mark Anthony Thompson, on his second record as Chocolate Genius, might well be Aaliyah's spiritual grandfather. The cracked soul/funk/rock/blues he makes might've appealed to the singer as a way to take her material--always, like Thompson's, about the scary knot tied between love and faith--to the stretches of infinity. Sadly, only she knows how well that worked.