Music

All The Best R&B Albums Of 2017, Ranked

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.

R&B as a genre has had a rough couple of years. Once staples of Top 40 radio and chart mainstays, rhythm and blues and soul music have taken a backseat to warbling rappers, “urban”-influenced pop singers, and an EDM explosion that have relegated the artform to “adult contemporary” stations and supermarket slow jams compilations.

However, as many licks as the much-maligned genres have taken, R&B and soul have never quite thrown in the towel and have, slowly but surely, begun laying the foundation for a resurgence. While rougher-edged voices have straddled the line between R&B and hip-hop, some — like Ty Dolla Sign — are starting to lean back toward the former in an effort to differentiate themselves from the glut of crooning “rappers.”

Meanwhile, the recent resounding successes of Beyonce and her sister Solange opened the door for more exploration of diasporic sounds and political messages. Frank Ocean’s rapturous comeback in 2016 has led to an outbreak of similarly talented tenors exploring more cerebral themes and deeper emotions, like Brent Faiyaz and Daniel Caesar.

R&B never really went anywhere, but it seems to be making a comeback all the same. These are the artists currently carrying the flag for rhythm and blues as it continues its return to pop culture prominence.

15. Beach House 3, Ty Dolla Sign

Ty Dolla Sign is always walking a delicate balance, whether it’s the fine line between sultry and romantic, or traversing the fine line between his distinctive and powerful vocal performances and the overwhelming potency of the instrumentation and production he constantly finds himself cruising on top of. For Ty, whose catalog is littered with spectacular achievements of harmony and melody, Beach House 3 is the finest mix of all his complexities and contrasting elements.

Mostly, Beach House 3 is gratification for all of those who have the utmost belief in the talents of the versatile, singer, rapper, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. Ty weaves his way around and through impressive guest appearances from a star-studded cast of co-stars like Future, Lil Wayne, YG, Swae Lee, Pharrell, The Dream and more. Dolla Sign remains distinct, mixing up his own vocal enough to diversify the entire album, making it so there’s never a dull moment, even as it clocks in at a hefty 20 tracks.–Eddie Gonzalez

14. Audiology, Elijah Blake

On Audiology Elijah Blake stretches his artistic limits, flexes creative muscles you never knew he had, and experiments with an adventurous sonic palette that swings from big band, funky soul to tropical, reggae-infused pop.

However, he also remains grounded in the traditional R&B that made his bones in the midst of this experimentation, which gives him a self-assured foundation from which to attempt his more daring stylistic excursions.

On “Technicolor,” he does a reasonably good Prince impression, praising a lover in the style of The Purple One over a synthy extravaganza of ’80s platform-heel pop-funk. With “11:59,” he tries on the watery, filtered style of PBR&B stalwarts like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean to sexy effect.

With all of his bouncing around, it would seem like it’d be difficult to find a groove or ensure that the varied shifts in tempo and mood hang together as a cohesive body of work, but Blake ties it all together with an atypical penchant for multi-layered, elaborate vocal arrangement. While many of his contemporaries are content to simply stick to a simple range of octaves and notes, Blake unleashes a dazzling array of runs from his default cinnamon tenor to the honeyed falsetto that makes even the most jaded listener swoon.–Aaron Williams

13. Trip, Jhene Aiko

It’s a tall order, giving the world 90 minutes worth of music and 22 tracks in the era of dwindling attention spans but that’s exactly what Jhene Aiko did with her breezy, personal and revealing second album Trip. Accompanied by a 20-minute short film, the album arrived without warning, Jhene’s first solo offering in over three years. Inspired by the psychedelic trips associated with LSD, shrooms, and weed, Jhene floats on increasingly spacious, airy productions, perfectly selected for her delicate vocals and relaxed tales of love and highs of all sorts.

On Trip, Jhene lives a carefree existence and is clearly madly in love with her music — probably her current, doting boyfriend and collaborator Big Sean — as she constantly unfurls tales of infatuation. “It’s been another perfect day with ya,” she sings on “While We’re Young,” one of the album’s many highlights. “Wanna lay with ya / Spend the night with ya / Then spend my life with ya,” she says before later adding, playfully and gleefully “We should rush and do something dumb.”

It’s almost as if Jhene spent the last three years waiting to collect the experiences of love that she needed to honestly belt out the lyrics on Trip, and thankfully for the listeners and herself, she collected more than enough to fill a gorgeous new record. — E.G.

12. The Morning After, DVSN

There’s a reason DVSN’s mature follow-up to their critical darling debut Sept. 5th was selected for Uproxx’s RX honors. It does everything good R&B should do. It touches all the right nerves. It reminds you of lost love. It rekindles the hope for new flames. It thrills with singer Daniel Daley’s vocal prowess. It soothes with producer Nineteen85’s complex, downtempo beats.

But Morning After does one better. It improves on every facet that made Sept. 5th an instant fan favorite. The classic R&B-sampling beats rely less on the samples to generate the desired vibe, living less on the borrowed glory of those old-school jams by burying them deeper in the mix. This allows Nineteen85’s instrumentation and trappy drums to take center stage, rather than reminding you of your middle school dance.

Daley matures lyrically as well. He sounds less preoccupied with the sophomoric mistakes of his early twenties and more focused on the potential of lasting love. “I don’t want sh*t that I can’t share with you, baby,” he declares on the back half of “Nuh Time / Tek Time,” eschewing the usual OVO “player for life” ethos and embracing the possibility of deeper, more meaningful relationship based on commitment rather than just sex or convenience. It’s the album you almost wish Drake would make, but if he did, he wouldn’t be Drake. Fortunately, we have DVSN to deliver the grown-up observations on love and life that we never actually want the 6 God to even attempt.–A.W.

11. The Space Between, Majid Jordan

Majid Jordan specializes in hazy, house-y dance floor anthems and more upbeat, rhythm-oriented compositions than many of the artists on this year’s best of list. Rather than focusing on vocal virtuosity or lyrical depth, the two-man band from Toronto keeps the vibes thematically simple — less blues, more rhythm.

Their 2016 self-titled debut was solid but failed to impress with a self-conscious split between assured, mellow dance-pop and moodier, darker fare that undermined their more uptempo efforts.

In contrast, The Space Between is a much more confident follow-up. Majid Al Maskati and Jordan Ullman have grown into their sound and seemingly embraced their status as the groovier, more lighthearted sect of the house of OVO, leaving the navel-gazing and maudlin self-reflection to label honcho Drake and emo lowlife Partynextdoor.

They spend less time playing into the impassioned lover-man vibes of labelmates DVSN — who guest here on dusky, “let-me-buy-you-a-drink-from-across-bar” fantasy “My Imagination” — and more of it setting the mood for earlier-evening festivities.

Whereas many of the OVO cohorts rely mostly on pillow talk and regretful recollections of sabotaged rendezvous, The Space Between is primarily concerned with the night of the chance meeting, the glance from the far side of the room, the initial ask, everything that happens before midnight, when the drinks first start to hit. As Maskati practically begs on the title track, all he wants you to do is “live in the moment” with him, the very definition of the space between.–A.W.

10. Ash Ibeyi

Ibeyi’s second album is by turns eerily haunting, inspiringly uplifting, and deeply emotionally moving. The Afro-Cuban twins continue their mixing of traditional sounds of their ancestral Yoruba heritage with more conventional R&B touches, and the result is something that taps into the Afrocentric ideals of the modern wave of urban music while delving more deeply into the diaspora than any other body of work to be released since the most recent wave of pro-Black projects began in earnest early last year.

“Deathless” featuring jazz revivalist Kamasi Washington addresses police brutality and racial profiling with a personal, conversational narrative that pulls the listener into the moment. “No Man Is Big Enough For My Arms” is a feminist diatribe, a response to the rise of regressive sexual politics. It rebukes and repudiates the regrettable, demeaning attitudes of men like Donald Trump while declaring the inherent worth of women and girls with a sample of a Michelle Obama speech reminding us that the true measure of a society is how it treats its women.

The highlight of the album for me is “When Will I Learn,” with its tribal rhythm and its message of resilience. It’s a spiritual successor to Kanye West’s “Say You Will,” borrowing inspiration from both its production and vocal engineering techniques to create something otherworldly.–A.W.

9. Strength Of A Woman, Mary J. Blige

Mary J. Blige is such a staple of R&B (or “hip-hop soul,” if you will), that it still amazes me that her return album was so seemingly overlooked — especially when it touched all the staples of a Mary J. Blige album and then exceeded the expectations that come with them.

Even more incredible is how Soul Of A Woman contains one of the very, very few Kanye West appearances of 2017 — and it’s actually an alarmingly good one, portending positive things for 2018 on the Kanye-watch front — as well as one of the similarly spare Missy Elliott verses (paired with a Quavo feature, no less), and still somehow managed to make less noise than some “mumble rap” debuts. This is a travesty and one that should have been rectified sometime around Memorial Day, but since it wasn’t, here’s your chance to collect a late pass and jump back on the Mary J. bandwagon.

The former queen of urban radio is every bit as feisty, effervescent, petty, loving, and independent on Soul Of A Woman as she’s ever been. There are the requisite angry breakup songs, the “I can do bad all by myself” declarations of self-love, and dancefloor-packing, steering-wheel-drumming, sing-along-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-in-the-shower anthems you’ve come to expect from the Mary J. playbook, but with an update in the form of neck-cracking, bass-laden, modern production and the singer’s best vocal performance in years. It’s okay if you missed out before, but now that you know, it’s time to fix that mistake — right now.–A.W.

8. Free 6lack, 6lack

6lack almost didn’t make this list. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve a spot on one of our “Best Of 2017” lists, it’s a problem of classification. Like Jidenna’s The Chief on our rap list, Free 6lack could have easily qualified for a spot on either. Like many of his contemporaries, 6lack so smoothly eases between the lanes, it’s almost like the dotted line between them doesn’t even exist.

With that being said, Free 6lack is not party music, like much of hip-hop, dating back to the genre’s earliest recordings. It’s 2:00-AM-just-leaving-the-club-drunk-dialing-that-one-person-you-probably-shouldn’t music. It’s moody and dark and mood-setting, more at home on a “get the drawers” playlist than on any compilation of lyrical miracles.

I know those aren’t necessarily the most primary components of R&B, but they work as well as any other guideposts. Besides, tracks like “Free” and “Luvin’ You” inspire more in the way of body-rolling than head-nodding in my experience. Free 6lack doesn’t ask you to throw your hands up or “bounce to this”; it slithers up behind you and whispers seductively in your ear to let go, to rock your hips and sway in time. It’s confessional, yes, but also mysterious, in a way gaudier, more ostentatious rap productions are usually not.

The deluxe version that 6lack released last month only builds on the sonic framework established by the original’s base tracks with straight-up R&B bangers like “In Between” with Banks, then throws the original rappa-turnt-sanga, T-Pain, on its closer like a ceremonial passing of the torch from one generation to another. Who am I to argue with Teddy Pain? Free 6lack is R&B, and one of the best examples of the hybrid form that’s become the standard for the genre in 2017.–A.W.

7. Sonder Son, Brent Faiyaz

For many, 22-year-old Baltimore crooner Brent Faiyaz is simply the star of “Crew,” one of the biggest songs of 2017. But on his debut album Sonder Son, the singer with the soft but distinctive voice proved he is so much more, and left a mark on the industry as one of the burgeoning stars to look out for in the years to come. Over the album’s 12 tracks, Faiyaz juggles various discussions, cooing about love, singing bitterly about his troubled past, belting out passionate, heartfelt words of inspiration and optimism about his future.

Most importantly, Faiyaz is inherently human, despite the platinum plaque he collected for “Crew,” and he makes that apparent throughout. “I don’t give a damn about what they think, as long as I pay rent,” he sings, in a relieved and satisfied tone to open up “First World Problemz/Nobody Carez,” immediately rooting the album in normalcy and giving the whole album a relatable tone. “I don’t even whine ’bout my paycheck,” he continues, sounding like every other struggling 20 something. “I know it is short, but I’ll make ends.” It’s a refreshing outlook from a star in the making, and with his soothing, lush vocals on every track, it’s a calm and relaxing listen, whether your check is short or not.–E.G.

6. SweetSexySavage, Kehlani

Growing up and finding yourself, your identity, your sexuality and finding love aren’t easy tasks. Growing up and finding yourself with the world watching is practically inhumane, but that’s the situation 22-year-old Kehlani Parrish found herself in the past few years. So while she dealt with toxic relationships, depression, her search for identity and everything else that comes with being a teenager and becoming an adult, she did it in front of cameras and infinite, nameless pundits, skeptics and critics.

Clearly, her release for all of that tension and scrutiny was her music, and on her debut album SweetSexySavage she detailed all of her growth and her search for self over nineteen heartfelt tracks. She felt, at times, like a girl, struggling to become a woman, and a woman miffed by the youthful mistakes of her past. With no guest appearances, Kehlani was left to her own devices, belting out boisterous celebrations of her growth, sullen tales of heartbreak and everything in between. On SweetSexySavage, Kehlani found pieces of herself, and thankfully she recorded the journey.–E.G.

5. Drunk. Thundercat

If you weren’t paying attention, you might mistake Thundercat as simply another member of the small cohort of Los Angeles-based musicians “bringing jazz back.” After all, his work with Kendrick Lamar on the seminal To Pimp A Butterfly is considered by many to be a master class in jazz showmanship and improvisational brilliance.

However, to claim that Thundercat was simply an accomplished bassist is selling the multifaceted producer, singer, musician, and artist unconscionably short. Drunk is less a collection of midnight jam sessions than it is an excursion through the creative, convoluted, Adult Swim-fueled musings of one of music’s smartest, funniest, most charismatic minds.

From half-coherent mumbling about the eventual onset of the post-college existential ennui typical of the millennial generation on “Captain Stupido” to a spirited diatribe reproaching so-called “nice guys” for complaining about being relegated to the “Friend Zone,” Thundercat tackles a wildly varied array of sounds and song concepts including not just jazz, but funk, soul, hip-hop, and even yacht rock. It’s how Drunk can trip easily between head-spinning Kendrick Lamar verses to guest appearances from Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald and still come across as a solid idea. Anything and everything sounds that way at 2 AM — especially when you’re drunk.–A.W.

4. Freudian, Daniel Caesar

Somewhere around track six of Freudian, an evangelic hymn called, “We Find Love,” I usually find myself getting carried away. No, maybe “carried away” is the wrong term. Transported. Not conveyed to another time and place so much as overwhelmed by the sense that I’ve been there before.

Daniel Caesar’s debut full-length has a way of doing that, of washing you in its intense sensory qualities that you aren’t sure if you’re experiencing his memories or your own. Maybe it’s that powerful church organ (complete with accompanying choir, naturally) on “We Find Love.” Or perhaps, it’s his full-throated emotion on “Blessed,” the song that is the inspiration behind a spate of marriage proposals at his concerts (and on immensely popular HBO dramedies) that ensconces you so firmly in the moments of your life that have molded and refined your ideas and ideals of love, of commitment, of loss, of recovery.

Just when you’ve found yourself completely swept away in the current of images and the flood of affect, Fruedian downshifts with the soothing bedroom ballad, “Take Me Away,” and Caesar is taking the backseat to Syd’s seductive coo, firmly securing you right back in the here and now with its immediacy and intellect. Freudian wrestles with the balance, the push and pull, the id and ego, throughout its all-too-brief 40-minute runtime, living up to its title in every way but one; unlike the famed psychologist from which it takes its appellation, Freudian is no fraud.–A.W.

3. Soul Of A Woman, Sharon Jones

It’s always hard to write about an artist’s posthumous albums from so close to when they pass. It’s spooky, to be honest. Especially when it comes to a singer as timeless as Sharon Jones, who makes the kind of music that you’d find on a “golden oldies” compilation alongside Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, or Otis Redding.

Jones actually achieved success later life than most would expect, her first record came out when she was 40 years old, yet she was able to carve out a substantial career in a relatively short time making live-band, classic soul songs that evoked the spirit of the decade she was born as opposed to the one she began recording in.

Soul Of A Woman continues that vein of creative inspiration, with hi-fi, scratchy vinyl tunes that could fool your parents into breaking out the red lights and digging out their bell-bottoms and polyester. While the backing tracks opt for funky guitar licks, conga rolls, and brassy embellishments, Jones anchors the whole project with her savvy, streetwise takes on romance and heartbreak. Her lyrics are a clever update of the plainspoken innuendo of days long past, but her voice sounds as ageless as those of the singers she’s most clearly inspired by.–A.W.

2. American Teen, Khalid

Far, far too many publications stick artists with the “voice of a generation” tag far, far too soon, leaving those artists trapped with expectations that they simply cannot live up to. This isn’t that.

The difference is, I’ve seen with my own two eyes the level of impact Khalid has and just how far he’s come in the just 12 months since “Location” began its slow burn on El Paso radio stations last summer.

Picture this: A small stage is tucked in a darkened corner of the exhibit hall at the Long Beach Convention Center in November 2016. A tall teen with an even taller haircut and a gigantic beard performs his three songs to a crowd of fewer than one hundred spectators, with songs like “Young, Dumb, And Broke.” Their attention is rapt; his performance is sure and even if a bit withdrawn. He reveals why: It’s his first show ever.

Fast forward to June 2017. That same teen is the season opener for Santa Monica Pier’s Twilight Concert Series. The pier itself is damn near shut down. The crowd stretches for a half mile down the beach on the stage side of the pier. Their frenzied reactions to the start of every song are the same for the entire hour of his set, the energy never once ebbs.

Khalid is speaking to and for his people, his peers on American Teen — and they love him for it. If that’s not worth calling him the voice of this generation, nothing is.–A.W.

1. War & Leisure, Miguel

As a total listening experience, War & Leisure is engrossing from the first, reverb-drenched guitar strum to the final phaser-effected melody. Miguel has made a career out of creating intricately-arranged, passionate send-ups to the thrills of the flesh. Those are present on this album as well — “Come Through And Chill” ranks high on the list of greatest casual hook-up anthems ever recorded — but Miguel can’t help but looking around as well. The election of Donald Trump to the office as President has made many question the character of this country, especially minority groups who’ve seen the events the torch-bearing Nazis in Charlottesville, and have heard the President’s dog-whistle calls for the erection of massive walls on our southern border. On the closing number, “Now” Miguel pleads for action. “Let’s not waste our common ground / We will fall for standing and watching, all in silence.” It’s a powerful message, to say the least, and a necessary one.–Corbin Reiff

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