Here’s a list of 25 notable R&B albums this year. I reviewed most of the titles for various outlets; those reviews are attached where applicable.
1. Beyoncé, Lemonade
2. BJ The Chicago Kid, In My Mind
BJ the Chicago Kid’s major label debut follows years of yeoman work for LA rappers like Schoolboy Q, for whom he sang the chorus on the hit single “Studio.” However, his In My Mind eschews R&B formulae. On “Church,” he sings, “She says she wants to drink, do drugs and have sex tonight/But I’ve got church in the morning.” He finds solace in the Biblical story of the Hebrew prophet “Jeremiah,” delivers a roots soul track reminiscent of D’Angelo on “Turnin’ Me Up,” and his “Falling on My Face” resembles Bonnie Raitt’s adult contemporary “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” “Cupid’s too busy in the club,” laments BJ on album standout “The New Cupid.” While his ideas don’t always translate into great songwriting, his attempts to balance love and spirituality makes In My Mind a worthy listen. (Rhapsody – February 15, 2016)
3. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
4. Charles Bradley, Changes
On his third album, Charles Bradley burns hot. The New York soul singer renders his voice into a hoarse scream, and then an equally raspy half-shout, and manages to convey decades of hard living into the frames of three-minute songs. Much of Changes is familiar territory for him and his fans, but there are a few surprises. “Ain’t It a Sin” is a pip of a funk track that contrasts sharply to the slow, bluesy soul that marks much of this album. His backing group, the Menahan Street Band works in a few curveballs, including a horn section on “Nobody But You” that turns a hook from Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” into stoned soul. But the centerpiece is “Changes,” a Black Sabbath cover that Bradley turns into an epic of weariness and heartbreak. (Rhapsody – March 30, 2016)
5. Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”
For his third album, Awaken, My Love!, Childish Gambino delves into the kind of grungy stanklove that OutKast once indulged in on their magnum opuses. When its first track, “Me and Your Mama,” was sent to websites last month, listeners were stunned at the epic six-minute track, its soaring gospel chorus, and the raggedly intense spirit he summoned with ease. (Some already anticipated his evolution – he debuted the project during his PHAROS Festival at Joshua Tree, CA last September.) While the rest of the album, produced by longtime collaborator Ludwig Göransson, doesn’t quite equal that first, sensational single, it’s still an inspired detour from a multi-talented hyphenate who has already dazzled us this fall with his critically acclaimed comedy/drama, Atlanta. (Rolling Stone – December 1, 2016)
6. K Michelle, More Issues Than Vogue
It’s unfortunate that the mainstream press and pop radio continues to dismiss K Michelle as an “adult R&B” singer – a stereotype that she pushed back against recently in a revelatory Huffington Post interview. In reality, she’s one of the most fascinating and unpredictable musicians in R&B right now, and someone who has far outgrown her initial fame as a luminary of VH1’s celebreality programming block. (For the curious, you can still catch K. Michelle: My Life on the cable channel.) Her latest, More Issues Than Vogue is proudly campy and deeply poignant, from the album artwork that shows her blowing a bubblegum with a man trapped inside it, to the way she coos “Not a Little Bit” as she reluctantly lets go of a lover. She dips into mono-pop with Jason DeRulo on “Make the Bed,” countrypolitan pop with “If It Ain’t Love,” sashays with Miami sexpot Trina (who delivers a burner verse) on “I’m Rich,” and pops game over an interpolation of OutKast’s epochal funk jam “SpottieOttieDopalicious” on “Got ‘Em Like.” “I need stacks, otherwise motherfucker you can get back,” she says, mockingly. She doesn’t take any mess, but she’s still got a heart of gold. (Spin – April 14, 2016)
7. Alicia Keys, Here
On her most political album to date, Keys sings from the perspective of a black everywoman with undiminished optimism. Her subjects on Here are many: the angry, struggling woman at the center of the heartbreaking “Illusion of Bliss”; the city of New York as personified as a young woman with roots in “Egypt/She was a queen in Cairo” and living fast over a vintage boom-bap loop “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv,”; and the gay couple on “Where Do We Begin Now” that worries about leaving the closet. Much like her widely publicized decision to abandon heavy makeup in public appearances, she strips down her music and largely communicates through her own strident piano chords, save for the occasional homage to classic NYC rap like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Spot Rusherz” (“The Gospel”) and Nas’ “One Love” (“She Don’t Really Care”). There is a bit of spoken-word braggadocio as she declares over the latter, “The chair that I’m sitting on is a throne/Perfection kneels at the seat of my soul.” However, her true victory is identifying and empathizing with others, and finding hope that the world, despite all its problems, is changing for the better. (Rolling Stone – November 22, 2016)
8. KING, We Are King
9. Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
10. Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits
This is a classic producer album, not in the post-millennial, Mark Ronson-writing-a-hit-song sense, but the kind of thick, woolly tapestries that Quincy Jones made in his pre-Michael Jackson days. There are a few boldfaced names here – Robert Glasper’s signature glissando keys opens “Curly Martin,” while Kamasi Washington’s saxophone sheets of sound punctuates it. Yet it’s mostly Martin, fresh from his triumph assembling Kendrick Lamar’s world-beating To Pimp a Butterfly, and a few session musician friends showing off what they can do as they explore California vibes as easily as David Axelrod once fused soul-jazz with big band orchestration. Why not a little house music via “Think Of You”? And who cares if “Oakland” sounds a little bit like Childish Gambino’s “Telegraph Ave.”? From the down-home blues of “Patiently Waiting,” where Uncle Chucc pairs with the Emotions (yes, the Emotions of “Best of My Love” fame); to the Vocoder G-funk of “Push” and the too-smooth yacht jazz of “Valdez Off Crenshaw,” Martin and co. do what they want, and the listener is all the better for it. (Rolling Stone – December 16, 2016)
11. Maxwell, BlackSUMMERS’Night
Maxwell’s long-anticipated return after a seven-year silence brings endlessly intricate meditations on love. He sings, “love is the medicine” on “Lake by the Ocean,” and realizes, painfully, that a woman he just broke up with may be his soul mate on “Of All Kind.” “Gods” unfolds into a romantic argument, and he admits on “The Fall,” “Feel like I’m average/The pressure’s so savage.” The arrangements are just as complicated, and incorporate dub reggae (on “1990x”), lovers’ rock (“III”), and spacious, jazz-like tempos. Maxwell’s honeyed voice, and the way he coolly alternates between his anguished speaking voice and an ecstatic falsetto, matches the airy sound of the music. But make no mistake: blackSUMMERS’night is an album about romantic crisis, and it’s as beautiful as it is emotionally tumultuous. (Rhapsody – June 29, 2016)
12. Laura Mvula, The Dreaming Room
Laura Mvula’s 2013 debut, Sing to the Moon, was an extraordinary mélange of chamber music, cabaret pop, big band jazz, singer-songwriter plaints, and British downtempo. As a soul masterwork made of ornately vintage threads, it left listeners grasping for past iconoclasts to compare her – a lot of Nina Simone, a little Roberta Flack – because she sounds like no one else right now. Smartly, Mvula doesn’t turn The Dreaming Room into a mirror image of her classic bow. Instead, she tries to bridge the gap between the highbrow classicism of Sing to the Moon and the electronic thrust of post-millennial pop. On “Angel,” Laura Mvula sings about the end of her marriage with unsettling optimism and a bright and soaring choral pop voice, and while a grainy cowboy guitar and keyboard washes strum beneath her. “Phenomenal Woman,” her enthusiastic tribute to the feminist spirit, pulses hard like a New Wave pop banger, but also betrays Mvula’s weakness for chanting universal themes that threaten to turn into simple bromides. Her collaboration with disco-funk genius Nile Rodgers for the Ibiza peak of “Overcome” strikes a similar theme of perseverance with more impact. (Spin – August 12, 2016)
13. Nao, For All We Know
British R&B singer Neo Joshua has charted a slow yet inexorable path to her own startling breakout moment. She entered as one-fifth of The Boxettes, a quintet that earned some notice for its imaginative mix of pop vocal, a capella melody and beatbox skills. “So Good,” Nao’s Aaliyah-esque stunner with the enigmatic AK Paul, anchored a 2014 debut EP of the same title, and precipitated a cameo on Disclosure’s Caraval and, this year, a songwriting credit on Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman. Last fall, Samsung licensed “Zillionaire,” the squelchy electronic funk stormer from Nao’s February 15 EP. Now, Nao’s full-length bow, For All We Know, burnishes her status as one of the UK’s brightest new talents with an hour of clubby and emotionally complex wonderworks.
Nao’s girlishly dulcet voice resembles the limpid tones of Aluna Francis. But while the latter’s AlunaGeorge embraces post-millennial electronic pop a la DJ Snake’s hit EDM remix of “You Know You Like It”; Nao burrows into subterranean soul, and the kind of murky nu-funk and woozy bass heard in nightclubs and via British tastemaker labels like BBE. “Inhale Exhale,” which was first released on the February 15 EP, shakes along a hypnotic platform stomp and fizzy gusts of synth melody. For “Get To Know You,” London soul revivalists Jungle assemble a scratch guitar stroll filtered to sound like a RZA banger. And “Happy” rolls on bulbous bass synths and a shimmering candy hook reminiscent of 80s R&B legends Shalamar. Despite its release on Sony imprint RCA Records, For All We Know is a refreshingly noncommercial dance record. (Spin – July 26, 2016)
14. NxWorries, Yes Lawd!
If Anderson Paak’s Malibu is a smorgasbord of styles, then this side project with beat tape aficionado Knxwledge burrows in on a singular, ear-worming sound. With a title inspired by Paak’s mid-song shout on last year’s crate-digger favorite “Suede,” Yes Lawd centers on raspy-voiced pimp boasts, and gangsta leanin’ soul samples that Knx loops, chops and sautés into minute-long bursts of inspiration. “Baby get your shit together, we hittin’ the town,” sings Paak on “Wings.” “I hope I never have to cut you off,” he laughs over the smoothed-out jazz-funk “Best One,” then sheepishly adds, “I love you.” Sure, Yes Lawd is a frothy confection, but Paak delivers his outrageous lines with such winning charisma that you can’t help but enjoy it. “Khadijah,” where he sings how “the whole world got me vexed” and searches for nirvana in the arms of his wife, suggests that he knows there are more important things in the world than a woman that knows how to cook grits. (Rolling Stone – December 13, 2016)
15. Frank Ocean, Blond(e)
R&B fans may grouse that, much like its predecessor, Apple Music labeled Blonde as “Pop.” But unlike channel ORANGE and its 70s singer-songwriter stoned soul tones, this truly sounds like a post-millennial pop record, from its computerized ambience to a diverse list of contributors that include French electro-house producer Sebastian (who tells a silly little tale on “Facebook Story”) and a lyrical reference to Elliot Smith’s “A Fond Farewell” on “Seigfried.” The presence of Kim Burrell’s gospel testimonial near the end of “Godless” feeds into the minor narrative of urban pop heroes like Chance the Rapper, Kanye West and others re-engaging with spirituality.
When his words are clear, Frank Ocean sings about desperate youth, bloodthirsty babes, and the intoxication that results. “We’re not kids no more,” he sings over “Ivy” and its Twin Peaks-like glow. He sounds brazenly erotic when he asserts on “Solo,” “I’ll be your boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight.” But on one of the album’s highlights, “Seigfried,” he sings plaintively, “I couldn’t gauge your fears/I can’t relate to my peers/I’d rather live outside/I’d rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here.” He aims to be someone different from the norm, but hesitates on defining what that means.
As an hour-long drift into Ocean’s consciousness, Blonde blooms with too-pretty moments like “Pink + White,” which features a maternal, wordless backing vocal from Beyoncé. Its melodic haze often threatens to blur into aimlessness. Yet Ocean convinces us to trust his vision of modern youth in a time where the world may lie at your fingertips, yet you can still be murdered if, as he sings on “Nikes,” you look just like Trayvon Martin. And when he sings, “Maybe I’m a fool” on “Seigfried,” his deep husk can’t be interpreted as anything other than the sound of soul. (Rolling Stone – August 20, 2016)
16. Anderson Paak, Malibu
For anyone who first heard Anderson Paak during his star-making appearance on Dr. Dre’s valedictory album Compton, discovering his breakthrough solo album Malibu must be like finding a Jacob Lawrence painting at a Compton swap meet. But those of us who have followed the Oxnard musician since his first nationally distributed project, 2014’s underrated Venice – or even early works like O.B.E. Vol. 1 – this drumming, rapping, and singing dynamo has simply evolved from a Low End Theory outlier to a multi-talented composer for the New West Coast. He sings of growing up on free lunches and afterschool TV on “The Dreamer.” He coos seductively on “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “I know in the morning/The sunlight covers your wounds/But I’m hoping I look the same as the way you always knew/Baby of course I flew.” Throughout, he portrays himself as a free bird that shouldn’t be caged, whether he’s shifting from the juke joint funk of “Come Down” to the deep house of “Am I Wrong,” or stealing hearts with the most winning vocal performance since Kendrick Lamar twelve months ago. (Rolling Stone – December 13, 2016)
17. Jordan Rakei, Cloak
For those of us who didn’t know about Jordan Rakei’s 2014 EP Groove Curse; or overlooked his hazy yet sonorous vocal on “Masterpiece,” a deep cut on Disclosure’s Caraval; this summer’s Cloak is an unexpected delight. The Australian-raised, UK-based singer-songwriter has a quietly insistent tone that’s utterly unique, and displays a impressive emotional range, from the achingly lonely despair of “Lost Myself” to the bubbly optimism of “The Light.” And like fellow countrymen Hiatus Kaiyote, he dazzles with sounds that lie somewhere between neo-soul, jazz-funk and downtempo. If there’s a quibble, it’s that Rakei sings so softly and alluringly that he occasionally descends into murmurs, a lovely quality that often obscures the exact meaning of his poetically drawn lyrics. But that doesn’t keep the album’s best track, “Midnight Mischief,” from being one of the most thrilling depictions of seduction heard this year. (Spin – August 12, 2016)
18. Dawn Richard, Redemption
19. Rihanna, Anti
Rihanna’s first album in over three years is a beguiling and enigmatic departure. Only the power ballad “Kiss It Better” sounds typical of her pop career up to know. The rest of Anti offers contrary moods and styles: the mellow soul of “James Joint,” a murky duet with SZA on “Consideration,” a 60s pop throwback in “Higher,” and a duet with Drake on “Work” that winds and swings with a Caribbean lilt. At its center is a cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Ol’ Mistakes” that Rihanna turns into a louche, frustratingly vague and yet absolutely magnetizing tour de force. Throughout, Rihanna performs with a confident looseness she’s never had before. It’s thrilling to hear her thinking her ideas out loud. (Rhapsody – February 4, 2016)
20. Solange, A Seat at the Table
21. Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution
“Emily” is Esperanza Spalding’s inner spirit or id. This childlike imaginary friend and titular character of Emily’s D+Evolution finds her fullest expression on One” and “I Want It Now,” the latter on which she sings, “I want a party with rooms full of laughter.” Musically, comparisons to other iconoclasts like Janelle Monae and St. Vincent abound, and some will hear echoes of Joni Mitchell in her The Hissing of Summer Lawns phase. But the jazz bassist’s prog-like fusion of jazz, rock and soul is her own, and yields delightful songs like “Judas,” and the heavy and lumbering “Earth to Heaven.” The tumbling, askew rhythm of “Elevate or Operate” spotlights her crackling band, which includes drummers Karriem Riggins and Justin Tyson, and guitarist Matthew Stevens.
22. Tigallerro, Tigallerro
Back in the early to mid 2000s, former Warner Bros. signee Eric “Erro” Roberson was the biggest indie star you never heard of. Despite scant press attention, he shifted tens of thousands of neo-soul collections like The Vault and Left on his Blue Erro Soul imprint while rocking deep house clubs with his classic 12-inch “Don’t Change.” His pioneering DIY efforts were later followed by the Foreign Exchange, the North Carolina collective built by Netherlands future jazz producer Nicolay and backpack-rapper-turned-singer Phonte “Phontigallo” Coleman who parlayed 2008’s Leave It All Behind into a 2010 Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance. Tigallero brings two generations of R&B together into a fan-appeasing soul summit. They compose a breezily casual thirty-minute roundelay of grown-folks love jams, from a dapper testament to monogamy on “Grow This Love” to the Philly soul-quoting gangsta lean and God shout-outs on “Something.” On the album’s funniest moment, “Thru The Night,” Phonte resurrects the rap persona that briefly turned his late, lamented group Little Brother into a hot mid-Aughts commodity when he rants about the dangers of cheating on your wife. “So many try to be Mr. Man,” he raps, “But when the bullshit hits the fan, you really telling your kids you risked it all for that bitch off of Instagram?” (Spin – August 12, 2016)
23. Tweet, Charlene
Back in 2003, Tweet briefly shined as part of the Missy Elliott and Timbaland universe with delights such as the shameless auto-erotica of “Oops (Oh My),” and the Bhangra-sampling seduction of “Call Me.” Her, ahem, hummingbird-light voice drew frequent comparisons to Aaliyah, whose tragic 2001 death in a plane crash was still fresh in our devastated minds. Like so many R&B performers from that era, she seemed to disappear as quickly as she emerged, and her 2005 album It’s Me Again was followed by a near-decade of silence as she recovered from personal addictions and recommitted herself to God. (In 2013, she put out an EP, Simply Tweet.) One of the pleasures of Charlene is how we can now enjoy Tweet, now years removed from the burden of carrying Aaliyah’s legacy, as a startlingly unique voice in her own right, a fact that we sometimes forgot during her brief reign on Billboard. The way she weaves her fluttering vocals around songs like “Magic” and “Addicted” is rapturous. The acoustic guitar arrangements and fluttering yet smooth soul are simple and sturdy enough to focus attention on her spiritual minded delivery, and how she can turn a nearly wordless “Dadada…Struggle” into a thing of beauty. Another highlight: Tweet and Missy Elliott reunite over the throwback vibes of “Somebody Else Will,” as these newly revitalized queens emerge older, wiser, and as engaging as ever. (Spin – April 14, 2016)
24. Adrian Younge, Something About April II
Something About April II reflects Adrian Younge’s ascending reputation. Raphael Saadiq, Bilal and former Stereolab vocalist Laetitia Sadier lend vocals. On “Magic Music,” Younge drops a riff from “Sirens,” the Something About April instrumental sampled by Jay Z. Younge’s idiosyncrasies haven’t changed much between that 2011 track and its sequel. His arrangements unspool like jazzy sketches, and his vocalists often struggle to draw clarity out of the shifting tempos. However, there’s a nice, fuzzy guitar riff that opens “Psalms,” “Sandrine” soars from Loren Oden’s sweetly charming whispers, and Sadier and Bilal’s duet on “La Ballade” is a delight. (Rhapsody – January 19, 2016)
25. Yuna, Chapters
After two critically acclaimed but commercially ignored albums, Malaysian star Yunalis Zara’ai finally broke through to the U.S. market when adult R&B radio warmed to “Crush,” her lovely courtship duet with Usher. Yet there’s more to Chapters, which is segmented like pages torn from a diary, than its occasional starry cameos or its production from Robin Hannibal (of Quadron and Rhye), Fisticuffs, and other alt R&B heavyweights. On “Lanes,” she pivots on an argument that ensues after her lover posts a night of clubbing on Instagram. “Why do you keep telling me you’re self-destructive?/I’m getting tired of your lies and your excuses,” she sings. “If you’ve got a good girl then appreciate it.” Her emotional sincerity is underlined by her quiet yet insistent voice, and she often sounds like she’s whispering as she lyrically dismantles her ex-lover’s arguments. Much of Chapters finds her falling out of love, but there are a few happy moments in this beautifully broken valentine: “Best Love” sways with a light disco pulse, and “Time” is a snapshot of her sometimes-painful adolescent years, and her mother’s comforting words, “It takes time…it’ll be fine.” (Rolling Stone – December 13, 2016)