At the end of last year, I hosted the release show for Skarr Akbar’s album “Fear, Love and Respect” at the Ottobar. He brought his collaborators EJ and Tony Bosco on stage to perform ‘Black Flamingo’ to the packed house. Skarr and EJ traded verses while Bosco took the hook: “Bmore vs. Everybody/ You go tell everybody/ … we gon bring trophies home.”
It was dope—but nobody expected the crowd to demand them to play it again. But they did. And a-fucking-gain. They played ‘Black Flamingo’ four times before the show went on.
Technically, that was still 2016, but that sense of forward motion— and, weirdly, hope— has characterized the music of the city for me this year. But the people at Skarr’s show weren’t just pumped for the song—it was the context of the song, a winner’s anthem.
In thinking about all the music I’ve heard since that night, it’s stuck in my mind and made me not want to do just a list of songs. I wanted great singles on great albums. So here is a list of my favorite Baltimore artists who have released dope singles that are also on dope albums, EPs or mixtapes this year—offered with the full disclosure and all of the conflicts that come from the fact that I also released music this year, and have been on a couple lists and have performed with some of these people, and know most of them.
And like that night at the Ottobar, who you bring makes a big difference too. Some of the projects here are strong collaborations, or are helped out by notable features. Tate Kobang’s ‘Ello’ features Swizz Beatz, Skarr Akbar’s ‘House of Flyin’ Knives’ features Wu Tang Clan’s Raekwon the Chef. Josh Stokes opens his CD with a Blaqstarr feature and TAGMG is one sick collab after another over Street Scott production, bringing back that rap-crew feel we’ve been missing. Whether you’re looking for a city anthem like ‘Black Flamingo,’ Greenspan’s infectious party anthem ‘Cool or Whateva,’ mellowing out to J. Pope’s smooth vocals or Bobbi Rush’s Micah E. Wood-produced ‘Island,’ this is what the artists in your city are putting out and most of it is not on your local radio station.
Skarr Akbar, ‘Black Flamingo,’ feat EJ and Tony Bosco from “Fear, Love and Respect”: See what I said above about this song. Yeah, technically, the album came out last year (Dec. 24) but the video and song, as a single, dropped early 2017. The video is a balance of darkness and positive energy in its own right taking place in a boxing ring. Directed by Akbar, it opens with an interview of Baltimore-bred boxing champ Gervonta Davis. “So this is for Baltimore?” the interviewer asks. “Of course, we been through a lot and umm, Baltimore due for a win,” Davis responds.
Greenspan feat. Breezaay, ‘Cool or Whateva’ from “Never Gon’ Die”
Produced by Michael J.R. who also sings an altered high-pitch “stuck in your head” type of hook, “Cool or Whateva” hits with a melodic upbeat tempo from the start and keeps going at that pace as it ushers in West Baltimore’s Breezay. “It’s only right this got a West Side feel/ ‘cause when you look at me and see this how the West Side feel/ All these dudes with these jewels ‘round they neck got chill/ I be with Green but that’s it, all the rest not real.”
TT the Artist, ‘Yo Bxrthday’ from “Bxrthday”: Whatever day your birthday lands on from here on out, you owe it to yourself to listen to TT the Artist’s EP “Bxrthday” at least three times that day. You should probably play it at least once for every close friend’s birthday as well. They’ll run it back themselves. This year, TT dropped music that has appeared on HBO’s “Insecure” and that brought her some much-deserved acclaim, but I think a lot of people missed this fun project that she threw out earlier this year. It’s got all the makings of classic Baltimore club music. ‘Yo Bxrthday’ is sexually honest, as much of club music is, with a straightforward hook: “I wanna fuck you on your bxrthday.” She’s currently working on a documentary titled “Dark City Beneath the Beat” that shines a light on Baltimore’s Club Music scene. Think of “Bxrthday” as one of the best previews possible for that project coming from the reigning Club Queen.
J. Pope and The HearNow, ‘How Long?’ from “Soul Searching”: “Soul Searching” is the long-anticipated album for fans of the band formerly known as J. Pope and Funk Friday with production from Wendel Patrick. ‘How Long?’ the only song done without Patrick, shows almost all of the talented band’s range, giving J. Pope the chance to showcase both her singing and rhyme skills. “Soul Searching” is definitely a push-play-and-let-it-rock type of project, giving you the pure, funky, soulful musicianship that can only exist among these friends who started out playing shows at Goucher. Their album release at Creative Alliance brought out a wildly diverse crowd of people, a reflection of the band’s fluidity and crisp execution.
Bobbi Rush, ‘Island’ from “Miles”: It’s almost impossible to watch the Audrey Gatewood-directed video of “Island” without wanting to watch it again. The simple yet beautiful peek into nature compliments the strength and sensitivity of Bobbi’s song—and her being. We’ve all been where she is in the first line: “Call you, makin’ my way to the bathroom/ I love you but I been drinkin too/ Sent you a message, didn’t get no reply/ I wonder why, I do this every time.” From there, you can just find yourself walking with her for miles of human experience on this appropriately-titled EP.
Movakween, ‘Gold Honey’ from “Florescence”: If you’re going to start a song off with a Sade sample, you’d better be coming with some fire. That’s exactly what Movakween does on this one. Haunting organ chords sit behind an orgy of harmonies and background vocals as Movakween delivers a Sade-esque performance that somehow is also all her own. In the the video, directed by Movakween, Keem Griffey, and Kyle Yearwood, three different versions of herself stand swaying and singing in the three open windows of a brick pagoda. Then, suddenly you realize it’s switched up to an Afro Futurism vibe, gold body paint and glowing eyes that touch and grab your anxiety, telling it to have a seat and listen. The mixtape “Florescence” backs up the notion that Movakween can sample or cover whoever the hell she wants, because she knows exactly what she’s doing.
Dyyo Faccina, ‘See me with the hands’ from “People Are Scared…”: “See me with the hands” is a phrase I grew up hearing. It was a street negotiation, a way to prove strength or solve an argument. “My rhetoric is heavenly/ I’m better than you’ll ever be,” the young Dyyo taunts his enemy in this song, following up with trash talk and threats like you would follow up the first blow in a fight with punches and body slams. In a day when a lot of men are quick to pick up a weapon—and against the backdrop of our city’s murder rate—this song fits perfectly on an album called “People Are Scared…”
Tate Kobang, ‘North North (Still Hangin’)’ from “Tate Ko”: This production collab between Tate and YG! Beats had a bunch of us rockin’ this summer with its dark yet upbeat and playful energy, “North North” is the bragging of triumph and continued pursuit of victory. Part of the video is shot in front of what’s probably one of the oldest Chinese food stores in East Baltimore, and Tate delivers loveable ex-coke dealer, ex-perc-poppin bars. “Nigga got famous still gang bangin/ Still with the same click nah I aint changin/ Same jeans for a week, no bitch I aint changin’.” He’s no new Black Thought, but we don’t need him to be. Tate Ko gives you that dark Baltimore, where we can dance to morbid shit.
TAGMG, ‘Whole Lotta’ from “Don’t Worry Now (The Flood)”: If I were to make a playlist, “Whole Lotta” would definitely be near Tate’s “North North.” The songs aren’t similar but they both wear that Baltimore shit-talk and swag like a badge of honor. Street Scott, King Dro, and Jase Kevion drop some witty, pretty laid-back verses over a track and hook that somehow still keep you hype. The crew love on “Don’t Worry Now” is something I personally miss from rap, where it seems it should always be that Nelly and St. Lunatics formula where everybody gets behind one dude while we just count money and stand behind him with our guns out. Everyone gets a piece on the album and if you ever get to see them live on stage together, the energy definitely translates as they trade center stage, delivering bars and almost effortlessly transferring the bounce to any onlookers.
Josh Stokes, ‘Say Word’ from “Who is Josh Stokes?”: ‘Say Word’ gives you a feel reminiscent of both Prince and George Clinton with synths that take you back to the mid ‘80s a bit. Josh Stokes is no clone, though. His voice and subject matter are all his own. Josh nails the writing, lead and background vocals, and production all over “Who is Josh Stokes?” Other favorites are ‘Higher Than Ever,’ and the light-hearted, inspiring ‘I Know a Place.’ Stokes can handle almost any tempo or topic with the soul of a freaky Southern Baptist choir director who hits the city on the weekends to drink whiskey and party with harlots. His energy is almost Jimi Hendrix-reminiscent in that you wouldn’t expect someone so young to sound the way he does, belting out aged runs and harmonic backgrounds that you find yourself repeating over and over again.