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The year in culture 

The highlights and lowpoints of 2002 in music, film, art, and more

Hip-hop/R&B: Symmetry in Blackness
Hard to believe it was only a few years ago that Atlanta artists, producers and labels dominated urban music. Things started drying up around the time L.A. Reid's success in Atlanta bought him a job in New York, thus shuttering the city's urban-music hub, LaFace. But if that year, 2000, was the start of Atlanta's hit-making slide, 2002 was the year the bottom fell out.

Consider: If you're perusing Billboard magazine's list of the Top 100 albums of 2002, you'd be at No. 93 before you reached its first (and only) entry by an Atlanta artist released this year, Tweet's Southern Hummingbird. The five others on the chart were holdovers from 2001: Ludacris (No. 10), Usher (16), John Mayer (41), OutKast (57) and India.Arie's debut (96). And the only disc from a local label that made it -- besides Ludacris' Def Jam South/Disturbing Tha Peace release -- was So So Def's Lil Bow Wow record (also released in 2001) at No. 63.

Sure, local producers like Jazze Pha (Trick Daddy, Nappy Roots) and Teddy Bishop (Aaliyah, B2K) did well this year. Usher bloomed into a major star. And part-time Atlantan Scarface offered a surprisingly strong late-career comeback with The Fix. But all told, 2002 was the slowest year for Atlanta hip-hop and R&B in a decade. No new OutKast releases. Ludacris dissed by Pepsi. Goodie Mob hurting physically and institutionally. She'kspere's label floundered. Jermaine Dupri lacked a major release, then got a visit from the IRS repo-men.

And, of course, there was Lisa Lopes. While her tragedy brought Atlanta music-makers together in mourning, it also marked the end of an era.

Of course, what's on the charts and in the news only gives part of the picture. On the up side, a quartet of local releases suggests there's plenty of life outside the national spotlight: Joi's Star Kitty's Revenge; Cee-Lo's Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections; India.Arie's Voyage to India; and Donnie's The Colored Section. None of them earned superstar sales or airplay. But all featured sophisticated and progressive black music that, to varying degrees, looked to the past and imagined a future beyond hip-hop posing. And that future, they're glad to prophesize, includes well-crafted songs.

India.Arie's record (the highest-profile and weakest of the bunch) is the most polished, with its adult contemporary gloss and easy elegance. But it's also the most earnest -- sometimes didactic, often cliched, but (unlike so much out there) it's full of only the best intentions.

Cee-Lo's is the most eclectic, with its extra pilings of rap, funk, jazz, blues, gospel, psychedelic soul, and even doo-wop and country. But it also provides this year's biggest shoulda-been pop hit, "Gettin' Grown."

Joi's is the wildest, with slabs of futuristic techno-pimp funk butting up against pull-no-punches soul-diva sass. But it's also the most personal, with its tribute to her deceased father and guest spot from her 4-year-old daughter.

Donnie's is the most retro, with its unabashed Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway liftings. But it's also the most soulful and politically conscious -- something virtually unheard of these days, and something we need now more than ever.

It may be trivia, but 2002's most notable foursome of releases creates some interesting symmetry in this most symmetrical of years. Two men and two women. A pair of one-word names, and a pair of two-word names joined typographically. One of each sex affiliated with Southeast Atlanta's homegrown Dungeon Family (Cee-Lo and Joi) and two with the more cosmopolitan scene that surrounded Midtown's Yin Yang Cafe (India.Arie and Donnie). The men are both the sons of two preachers; the women are both the daughters of a professional athlete.

What does it all mean? Maybe having parents in the spotlight made fame a less alluring goal, and their childhoods provided the values (church) and financial luxury (pro sports) to want to create art without considering commerce?

Who knows? But if symmetry works to create a sense of wholeness, then urban music in Atlanta did just fine in 2002 -- whether or not the rest of the world took note.
-- RONI SARIG

THEATER: Top 10 Plays
Madame Melville. Horizon Theatre. A Parisian educator's (the splendid Carolyn Cook) dalliance with a young American student provides an indelible lesson in culture, tenderness and joie de vivre.

2. Gypsy. Actor's Express. Cabaret crooner Libby Whittemore brings the showmanship of a showbiz veteran to this darker interpretation of the classic musical, finding the denial behind show tunes like "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

3. Proof. Alliance Theatre. Mathematical genius gives way to mental illness in Susan V. Booth's funny and sensitive staging of the Pulitzer-winning play.

4. Breath, Boom. Synchronicity Performance Group. This strikingly violent, street-level depiction of girl gangs and women's prisons works like fine journalism in immersing the audience in a far-removed culture.

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