Music

The Best R&B Albums Of 2016


Editor’s note: The point of more extensive genre lists is to help give shine to albums that wouldn’t make it into the overall best albums list. So, despite the rap-specific list — where ranking is still next to godliness — we’ve opted to leave the albums that appeared on the overall best list off the genre-specific lists. But even for rap, some albums made the cut for their impact on the that sphere without cracking the best of list. After all, the point of these lists is to examine the way music has changed or moved throughout the year, and our year-end framework will continue to reflect that impetus. Though it is meant to highlight the best work in this genre, hopefully, you can also make some discoveries through this list.

20. Tory Lanez, I Told You
This Canadian upstart has fielded more than a few shots this year from Drake and his fans for hijacking the OVO sound, but perhaps it could be argued just as easily that the two merely draw from the same inspirations. After all, they both spent time in the southern United States throughout childhood. Even if there’s not a lot of R&B/rappers making major headlines from the province of Ontario, between Drizzy, The Weeknd, and now Lanez, Canada is better represented in the hip-hop world than many formerly major music cities in the US. Back to I Told You, though, which is Lanez major label debut, the record follows a more traditional linear storyline complete with skits, which are mostly very bad, and fourteen luscious, falsetto-driven songs that outshine Drake’s singing voice even at his peak “Hold On We’re Going Home” levels. If Lanez can ditch the skits and differentiate himself a bit more from Toronto’s two biggest stars, he will easily be the most exciting R&B artist working in Canada — or the US for that matter.—Caitlin White

19. 6Lack, Free 6Lack
6LACK came in as a late-game entry into year-end lists when he released his Free 6LACK project in November. For many, the 11-song release was the formal introduction the 24-year-old member of the Atlanta collective LoveRenaissance, and he made a strong impression on his debut by crafting songs that were dark, intoxicating but above all relatable.

The singer-songwriter refers to his sound as being “monochromatic” with the desired effect being to create a level of relaxed cool for listeners. “I wanted it to be aggressive, but I also wanted it to be calming,” he said of the project. “I want people to feel something. Regardless of how personal it can be at times, and how intense the message is, it still soothes you.”

Apparently, fans took note of the vibes. “PRBLMS” and “Ex Calling” racked up over eight million plays on SoundCloud alone, the bulk of which came before the project released. Tracks like “Ex” and “Luving U” are preoccupied with the constant tug of war that goes on with relationships while “Worst Luck” finds 6LACK facing himself in the mirror as the reason why things go sour. He sings, “I swear no matter what I touch it breaks.” His honesty in his lyrics is one of the album’s strongest qualities, alongside his mastery of hooks and melodies.

Above all, Free 6LACK’s most impressive quality is how the emerging artist paints a picture of life as he knows it: the struggles to break free from his previous label, him being homeless at one point and, of course, the heartaches. Everything centers around the dark clouds that hung over his life and career for the past few years. But, 6LACK need not worry because what Free 6LACK shows is how bright his future is about to become.—John Gotty

18. Yuna, Chapters
Even if Usher is no longer the undisputed king of R&B, a look from a mastermind like him is still an important indication that a new artist has something special. So when Yuna enlisted him for her sultry hit duet “Crush,” it was time to sit up and pay attention to this Malaysian singer. Chapters is the third international release from the musical prodigy, who began writing songs in her home country at the tender age of fourteen, and has spent the last sixteen years building a global reputation. Considering her other guest star is Jhene Aiko, you could say that Yuna has earned the respect of important R&B players, but the thing about Chapters is she doesn’t even need the star power boost. She wields her own voice with the precision and grace of a veteran, but writes with the tender bleeding heartedness of a rookie. Throw on “Unrequited Love” the next time you’re nursing a one-sided love, or “Too Close” if you’re feeling jaded after a devastating heartache. I’m not guaranteeing Chapters will fix either situation, but damn if there isn’t comfort in hearing your misery reflected so masterfully.—C.W.

17. Alicia Keys, HERE
Alicia Keys made headlines this year for her decision not to wear makeup to a high profile entertainment event… which is a sentence no one should ever have to write. Sure, she had a good reason, and dismantling the standards of heteronormative western beauty is a cause I can definitely get behind, but this kind of stunt around an album release always feels a little… thirsty. On HERE, Keys cranks it up to eleven, looking far beyond feel-good R&B to interrogate the injustice that lurks around every bend, translating the pain of others into uplifting, soulful cries that can’t be silenced. It is an album full of intensely earnest, compassionate songs that clearly have great intentions but rarely transcend the confines of their respective causes. Odds are, though, if you put it on in the car for your mom she will be thrilled. Every year should have an album like that.—C.W.

16. The Weeknd, Starboy
There was a legit reason for concern when the tracklist for The Weeknd’s Starboy was released. The project was 18 tracks long. That’s a huge deal for an artist who typically keeps it short and sweet.

His first three mixtapes — House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes Of Silence — were all nine songs apiece and two out of three are crowned classics. His debut album, Kiss Land, boasted ten songs. His breakout album, Beauty Behind The Madness, pushed it a little with 14. But 18? Those many songs stacked together could’ve been released as a double-LP when compared to the number of tunes on Abel’s previous projects. While Starboy boasts hits, its length is also its weakness as it points out the misses and brings down the average of an otherwise solid album.

Abel shines brightly on numbers like “Die For You,” “Ordinary Life,” “Attention,” and “True Colors.” The content is much deeper than what The Weeknd is typically known for by fans who only know him as the guy who made a catchy pop song about sniffing cocaine. Where Starboy stumbles is when he rehashes sounds we’ve heard from him previously. He traps himself in the one-trick pony box with songs like “Six Feet Under,” a lazy number that’s pretty much “Low Life” meets Beyonce’s “Six Inch Heels,” a song Abel coincidentally helped pen for Queen Bey. The similarities to Michael Jackson are also a little too apparent on the released singles and “A Lonely Light” as well as “Rockin” and border karaoke as a result.

Overall, the album has more hits than misses. The difference is those great songs outpace the less than stellar ones by a sizable distance. Perhaps if the Starboy had cut down his latest effort by five or six entries, it would have made for a much more consistent listen.—Delenda Joseph

15. Maxwell, blackSUMMERS’night
2016 was a year that saw people taking R&B in a number of new and exciting directions. Dawn Richard continued to be one of the most criminally underrated and interesting artists of the decade, Nao broke out with a collection of alien funk and Blood Orange impossibly improved. Maybe it was only in a climate like this that we could appreciate something like Maxwell’s blackSUMMERS’night so much.

It wouldn’t make a good Slate pitch or click-generating feature story but the classics are classic for a reason. And this album of throwback soul from a neo-legend was all the reminder we needed. It deals in that same stalwart bedroom music that Maxwell has made since 1996, which itself harkens back to the music of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Even the title is a callback to his last album, 2009’s BLACKsummers’night

Maxwell is never going to get the critical adoration of his more bohemian counterparts like D’Angelo or Erykah Badu. That’s music that comes with a narrative beyond “beautifully composed and wonderfully sung.” Not to take anything from those two artists, but there will always be journalists who love a story that’s already told for them. It makes fulfilling word counts that much easier. You can’t do that with Maxwell because really great boudoir jams are hard to explain outside of the moment, but they’ll always be necessary. And we’re glad that Maxwell gave us these to work with.—A.G.

14. KING, We Are King
When was the last time you listened to an LA-based R&B trio anchored by twin sisters? I’m guessing the answer is “never,” but that needs to change today, because KING’s We Are King is that compelling. It’s so good that the Grammys recognized it as one of the best Urban Contemporary albums of 2016. A loose translation of that Grammy category could be “modern R&B,” and the self-styled descriptor of “electro-soul” sure seems to work here. KING is Amber Strother, Paris Strother, and Anita Bias, and though they put out an EP back in 2011, We Are King is their first attempt at a full-fledged thesis from the completely independent trio. These tracks are as delicate and intricate as seashells, but they’re sturdy too — they serve a purpose. We Are King sounds like it’s being piped out of an underwater castle from the ’70s, but the songs are warm and golden in their wetness, there is no silver chill here, and since that sound characterized most of R&B this year, KING end up sounding like they’re in a league of their own. Then again, they are; back in the day, Prince asked King to open a show for him, the fact that they’re being honored in the year that legend died feels like a good and right continuation of his legacy. Listen to We Are King when you are ready to embrace future soul.—C.W.

13. Laura Mvula, The Dreaming Room
Laura Mvula sprang on the scene in 2013 with her incredibly operatic, graceful debut Sing To The Moon. At the time, I worked for a site called Pigeons & Planes and had the honor of profiling her for them, a piece that’s still one of my favorite features to date. But time soldiers on, I work elsewhere now and Mvula is back with an even more experimental record that once again showcases her classical voice, then fans it out into a million harmonies that seem to keep unfolding forever like a peacock tail. An appearance from Nile Rodgers on the lead single “Overcome” leds Mvula an air of funk that is unexpected but very welcome, even if the rest of The Dreaming Room hews closer to the lullaby simplicity that made Sing To The Moon so compelling. This album evokes the same feelings in me as freshly fallen snow — it is exquisite, inexplicable, and somehow, magically, here. It is music for dancing under the moon, it is music for dreaming beyond the windowpane.—C.W.

12. Gallant, Ology
Gallant has been percolating on the Soundcloud back burner for a minute, so if you’re just discovering this golden-voiced R&B king in the making, then you’ve got some catching up to do. Luckily, his debut album Ology collects most of the tracks that have trickled out over the last three years, introducing the world to the young talent, who wrote every song contained here. The best synopsis of his talent though comes in “Bourbon,” a blazing track that boils existential crises down into the simplicity of bourbon in a coffee cup, sweeping to the highest of spiritual highs before coming back down to a basic human need for stability. When an artist can span those two extremes in a single track, it’s time to sit up and pay attention to their entire oeuvre.—C.W.

11. Usher, Hard II Love
Usher has been through the ringer. Though he may not currently be the reigning king of R&B, there is something to be said about the longevity of this man’s career, which has barely faltered through his ex-wife’s heart attack, divorce, three-year-long custody battle, the death of his step-son, the hospitalization of his own son, and finally, his quiet new marriage to longtime manager Grace Miguel last year. That was the last decade for Usher — and you barely heard a blip about it right? That kind of fortitude is exactly what makes Hard II Love, Usher’s eighth studio album, just as impactful as his early work. It’s full of the same out-of-this-world crooning and crafty lusting that made him one of the biggest R&B stars in the country about a decade ago, and it’s not like he’s ever really fallen off either, just rescinded a bit as he becomes a legend in his own right. Young Thug shows up on the big Master P hat tip of a single “No Limit,” and Future’s appearance on “Rivals” is one of his best guest verses of the year. But deeper cuts are the real gems here — the pulsing “Let Me,” the self-deprecating title track, and the not-over-you desperation of “Crash.” Don’t write him off just yet, when it comes to Usher it seems there truly are no limits.—C.W.

10. Tinashe, Nightride
Alt-R&B — like all “alt-” suffixed things — isn’t as far removed from its base as it would like you to think. While purveyors of the form do throw in the occasional odd texture or riff, releases in the genre still largely come back to the bread and butter of R&B and pop music, more generally: love and sex. Even the mini-genre’s biggest star broke out due to his ability to discuss a different type of sexuality.

And like Miguel and Frank Ocean before her, Tinashe’s latest album Nightride is very much about sex. But she does her level best to earn that outsider distinction, spicing up her slinking tracks with jarring, stuttering drums and layers upon layers of ethereal vocals. Lush and intricate production is nothing new to R&B but when the backing vocals and drums start running backward on “You Don’t Know Me”, no one is going to confuse it for Silk.

Even the album’s most straightforwardly sexual track “Company” manages to come at the premise a bit sideways. Tinashe propositions a partner over a palate of chiptune music — which easily lands in the Top 3 least-sexy music styles in the history of the universe. But thanks to her all-pervading weirdness, the general alt attitude in every nook and cranny of Nightride, it just works.

All of these choices that Tinashe made leave us with an album that can be described in the same way as the album’s cover: definitely off-putting, absolutely sensual and undeniably out there.—A.G.

9. Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
It’s only when I hear an album as gorgeous as Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate that I resent the celebrity-driven nature of music in 2016. Kiwanuka is plainly, a musical genius, and yet this record has gotten very little attention. It’s worth noting that the British label who releases his music also hosts Bat For Lashes aka Natasha Khan, whose latest The Bride was at the #4 lot on our pop albums list. Of course, neither Khan or Kiwanuka are celebrities per se, but their stately, single-minded dedication to the craft of music is enough to elevate their art sans publicity stunt. Names like Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers come up when trying to address Kiwanuka’s genius, while lead single “Black Man In A White World” proves he will not shy away from asserting political sentiments in the midst of his elegant, refined orchestral soul. Try the title track here, “Love & Hate,” or the opener “Cold Little Heart” to gain a full understanding of the extensive compositional skills on a Kiwanuka album. Every thread, every string and every harmony come together with astonishing grace. Considering he’s addressing the two most important emotions on the face of the earth — which are separated by just a hair of hurt in a heart — his attention to detail is appreciated.—C.W.

8. Jamila Woods, HEAVN
God bless Chance the Rapper for giving the gift of a national stage to the likes of Noname and Jamila Woods. Neither woman should need the cosign of Chance to get the recognition they deserve, but for artists toiling away, trying to break out, a huge look from someone with his momentum can be the difference between languishing in the wings and assuming their rightful place on the throne. The two team up on Heavn‘s second track “VRY BLK” and that song, along with “Blk Girl Soldier” firmly cement this tape’s devotion to the black female experience. Throughout the record, Jamila intersperses personal narration and vignettes that rejoice in female blackness and also emphasize the intensive mourning that she and her community have been through in Chicago due to inequality, corruption and injustice. HEAVN is a hazy, magnificent ode to one woman’s lived experience in Chicago, and it enlists so much of her musical community there that we get a sense of the spiritual here on earth. Woods finds slow-burning brightness and resilience despite the darkness all around her, and that light is an important part of 2016’s story, too.—C.W.

7. Bruno Mars, 24K Magic
2016 was the year I fell hard for Bruno Mars. Before I heard “24K Magic” I thought I was too cool for this funk revivalist with pompadour and Grease era wardrobe. Reader, all that was before. On 24K Magic Mars has refined his retro-pop future-soul formula so perfectly that not even an eye roll can dissipate the joyous power of a hookup anthem like “Chunky” or the over-the-top balladry of “Calling All My Lovelies.” Truly though, it is the slot-machine-jingle “24K Magic” swagger that makes this whole record. It’s the gateway drug that introduced me to listening to Bruno Mars in earnest, and I will never go back.—C.W.

6. DVSN, Sept 5th
Drake’s Midas touch continues to turn other artists so golden you wonder he doesn’t feel more threatened by their success. R&B isn’t generally my area of expertise, so the sultry magic of DVSN’s debut album had to be suggested to me by someone who had ulterior motives (use your imagination), but after my initial skepticism wore off I was floored by the quicksilver sex jams on Sept 5th. The duo behind DVSN, Daniel Daley and Nineteen85, released several singles last year prior to the album, the best of which appears here too, “Try / Effortless.” It’s a song that sums up the weird binary of a love that blooms without a thought but demands immense effort to keep alive. That song along with the bedroom-ready opener “With Me” might be my two favorite R&B songs of the year. Of course, you’ll get a taste of DVSN on Drake’s Views track “Faithful,” so it seems like no, he isn’t threatened in the slightest. Four or five times through Sept 5th will have you wondering if he actually should be.—C.W.

5. BJ The Chicago Kid, In My Mind
It took time but BJ The Chicago Kid finally had his breakout year in 2016. If any artist earned their spot, it was definitely BJ after he spent the past few years providing hooks every time another artist called his name. But, In My Mind was his time to shine and, when he did, people took notice, including the Grammys, who penciled his name in for three different nominations.

His second solo effort boasted features from his TDE family Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, Chance The Rapper, Big K.R.I.T. and more. but the main attraction was undoubtedly BJ. He managed to craft a record that eschewed Auto-Tune trends and overly macho lyrics in exchange for thoughtful songs and soul drenched ballads that reflect his Motown label’s roots in the genre. “Love Inside You” is a certified baby-making jam that showcases his vocal range. The Marvin Gaye tribute, “Turnin’ Me Up,” is a smooth cut that lends itself to two-stepping with a companion while “Church” is an uplifting tune that could find its way into a house of worship on any Sunday — or any other day of the week for that matter.

What In My Mind best showed was that BJ’s an accomplished singer and a songwriter able to wrap his pen around topics ranging from love and romance to religion and family. The record was one of the year’s most sincere works and a perfect introduction to an artist who’s been waiting to welcome them into his world.—J.G.

4. Dawn Richard, Redemption
Dawn Richard wasn’t content to release one new album in the last two years. The former Danity Kane star has gone all out in establishing her new futuristic R&B lane, and between 2015’s Blackheart, this year’s Infrared EP, and the stunning pinnacle Redemption, she’s basically built out her own solar system. Not to mention she kicked this all off with 2013’s Goldenheart, the record that began to introduce her synthesis of EDM’s enormous beats and her own unstoppable singing. Redemption sounds like the music that X-Men’s Storm would play on the spaceship she created out of lightning to escape a disintegrating earth. There is nothing like it, and for that reason alone, you should expose yourself to Richard’s universe.—C.W.

3. Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits
Thanks to his contributions to a little record called To Pimp A Butterfly, Terrace Martin’s name has reached the upper echelons of the hip-hop and R&B world, despite the fact that the traditional, jazz-fused soul he creates tends to linger on the fringes of the spotlight. Maybe that’s why Butterfly felt so important in a way — it thrust creators like Martin into the limelight generally reserved for celebrity rappers, and built up a renewed wave of interest in performers like Kamasi Washington and Thundercat in its wake. But we’re talking about Terrace right now, and Velvet Portraits is so rich it eclipses any ideas you might have of Martin as a side man. He is completely in control of the show, here, fleshing out jazz and soul into a record so warm and magnanimous that the Grammys nominated it for Best R&B album of the year. Martin deserves to win that award next year, full stop. My money is on his victory, so get familiar with the work in the meantime, and give a smug told you so to your friends when the night finally arrives.—C.W.

2. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
Freetown Sound came out during an especially dark week this past summer. The spotlight on police shooting of unarmed black men dominated the news for several days in a row, then a protest against this continued, unjust epidemic turned violent in Dallas and resulted in even more tragic death. Tensions were high, and the country needed something to soothe wounded hearts. Into that space came Blood Orange and Freetown Sound, one of the most tender records of the year. Dev Hynes as repeatedly resisted characterizations of the record as “political,” asserting that the issues of sexuality, police violence, and racism are part of his day-to-day life — this is a personal record in that sense. And the distinction he is making is part of what the record itself argues, that artists of color receive respect and recognition for their work without turning it into a talking point. Freetown Sound is a personal album in the deepest sense. It is named after the city of Freetown in Sierra Leone, where Hynes’ father was born, and when it was first announced Hynes said he envisioned the record as a reference point for those whose identity doesn’t fit neatly into a box, who had been told they were “not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way.” In this way, Freetown Sound is a love letter to the past, present, and future selves of Americans who are desperately seeking the chance to be seen as people, not statements.—C.W.

1. Nao, For All We Know
If the rise of Dawn Richard didn’t signal the inevitable union of electronic music and R&B, then this glitchy debut from British powerhouse Nao will. Itchy house and footwork rhythms appear like playthings in Nao’s songs, submerged or dominated by her squeaky, shivery vocal hooks and lyrical acrobatics. But Nao isn’t just a singer — she’s the lead writer and producer on every single track save two, Royce Woods Jr. is behind the boards on final track “Feels Like (Perfume),” and Jai Paul’s brother A.K. Paul takes the reigns on “Trophy.” Of course, the mark of a true genius is knowing when to yield to another; that final song is the glittering, funky finish to an album of wiry, lush desire-anthems that snake around each other without feeling repetitive, and “Trophy” gets a little grimier and industrial than Nao does on her own.

Though she’s clearly at home self-producing, Nao’s voice remains the most compelling tool in her arsenal. She uses it to launch throaty, helium-filled ballads of tenderness skyward, then to narrate her pain as she watches them inevitably deflate into heartache. It’s not that Nao doesn’t care that her overzealous desire will probably get her heart broken, it’s that she can’t seem to stop herself from tumbling headfirst into love, consequences be damned. So her voice carries us with her through the travails, which pair hair metal swagger and her bubblegum falsetto. Her voice is high-pitched without veering into grating, and soulful without any buttery undertones, which is rare.

For All We Know unfolds with the serious, introspective joy and earnestness of a child who has just begun to understand what sacred is. To Nao, love is sacred, and her prayer is a sex anthem full of fiery feeling. She is insistent that her desire deserves an answer, no matter how all-consuming it may be. There isn’t a trace of the demure here, but she’s never petulant either. Standout “Get To Know Ya” harnesses both sides of her flexible vocals, twisting her passion until it’s a cool-tempered trickle instead of a firehose, but later she opens up on songs like “Happy,” a song of such single-minded devotion and love that may only be rivaled by my own love for the funk of this bass line.

Across eighteen tracks, several of which are snippets of voice memos, Nao never falters, strutting fearlessly into the unknown on a wave of ’90s and early ’00s R&B that fuses with future electronic production so seamlessly it sounds like Nao invented her own genre. A couple more listens through and you’ll realize, for all we know, she has.—C.W.

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