Twenty Best Albums of 2011: #’s 7-9

9. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

The former leader of beloved nineties hip-hop trio Digable Planets shares the mic with fat-bottomed beats instead of confreres Doodlebug and Ladybug, and his intelligence and alliterative wordplay get the aural update he deserves. Here’s hoping he gets a commercial one soon.

8. Marsha Ambrosius – Late Nights and Early Mornings

Like Jill Scott, she overdoes the masochism — more burning less yearning next time, please. In the latter category she offers “Far Away” and covers her own “Butterflies,” which Michael Jackson recorded as a great late-period hit. As for the former, there’s the sigh-anchored title track and the gentle, lovedrunk “Your Hands.” Ambrosius’ R&B hit boasts an enviable command of composition and dynamics; she gives songs their precise emotional weight. If the pop audience didn’t take, blame her label for not pushing the daft “Hope She Cheats On You (With a Basketball Player)” up their noses.

7. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’

Expert, polished, and well-timed, 2008’s much-praised The Way I See It was too close to necromancy to my ears. Stone Rollin‘ is where the Tony! Toni! Toné! auteur brought off a sui generis hybrid: R&B prog, with Mellotron flourishes; and the slashing rhythm guitar, tautness, and closely miked drums of what Al Shipley, in an excellent call, someone conversant with the Yardbirds and the Who. Each track bursts with ideas, tended by Saadiq, a multi-instrumental threat whose high, pinched vocals are finessed by the material (he should hire someone else to drum though). I don’t have any idea what Saadiq does next. Someone put him in a studio with Avey Tare and talk sense into the boy.

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