If the recent past has brought the excitement of an identifiable movement, whether that be the “alt-R&B” explosion of 2011 or the ratchet R&B of 2014, then this year marked a return of social consciousness. Whether motivated by the “wokeness” of social media, Black Lives Matter or a tumultuous and ultimately disastrous presidential election, the year’s major soul artists explored issues of racial, cultural and sexual identity with little care as to whether their efforts were rewarded on the Billboard singles charts. Here are the 10 best albums R&B had to offer.
Frank Ocean, Blond(e)
No one could have anticipated that Frank Ocean’s long-awaited follow up to channel ORANGE would be a mostly ambient affair that resembles a dream sequence in a David Lynch film. Yet for all its willful inscrutability and cryptic lyrics, Blond(e) rewards repeat listens. Frank Ocean renders his identity as a young black pop star coming to terms with his sexuality into an emotional piece that sounds as extraordinary as his life must be.
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
By creating a genre-blurring thrift shop of West Coast funk and crate-digger hip-hop, Anderson .Paak scored the R&B answer to Kendrick Lamar’s new West Coast sound that other L.A. stars like Ty Dolla $ign haven’t quite managed. As dynamic as he sounds on album highlights such as the juke joint burner “Come Down” and the yearning “The Dreamer,” Malibu sounds like a prelude to the Dr. Dre-assisted major label debut set to (hopefully) arrive in the years to come.
Solange, A Seat at the Table
Solange’s first new music since her True EP arrived by surprise in October, and it immediately became the kind of talking point that her sister Beyoncé’s Lemonade had turned into months earlier. The cover art alone — Solange’s lengthy, kinky hair marked by duck bill clips — led to a million Instagram tributes.
Maxwell’s career is the epitome of a persistent (and for fans, frustrating) trend among R&B stars to take their sweet time making music. There is an unhurried, jazz-like quality to his first album in seven years that masks its central theme of a romance coming undone. “All the Ways Love Can Feel” and “Lake By the Ocean” are two of the most vibrant neo-soul ballads he has offered us, while “Of All Kind” is one of the most painful.
Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution
Esperanza Spalding has always had a wispy voice that sounds like she’s singing nursery rhymes while it also pops up and dips down like the frets on her bass guitar. But with Emily’s D+Evolution, she goes full-on Joni Mitchell circa Hejira, except her band adds a rock heaviness that Mitchell never quite managed with Jaco Pastorius. “Judas,” “One” and “Good Lava” are the results of crossbreeding jazz fusion with grunge aesthetics.
Dawn Richard, Redemption
Four years after her Armor On EP stunned the music scene, Dawn Richard’s bewitching fusion of clanging EDM, dance pop and contemporary R&B has virtually become its own genre. Save for tracks like “Lazarus” and “Valhalla,” Redemption isn’t as heavy on the medieval metaphors that led some critics to call her music “Dungeons & Dragons R&B,” but it still has some stunning flights of fancy. “LA” blends an old-school loop with heavy laptop compression, electric guitar and Trombone Shorty’s horn, and somehow, it works.
Nao, For All We Know
On her debut album, British singer Nao fused the synth-funk sensibility of the early 1980s with the R&B-inflected electronic pop reminiscent of hitmakers like AlunaGeorge and Katy B. The result is wholly satisfying, thanks to terrific songs like “Fool to Love,” “Happy” and “Get to Know Ya” — all underlined by the kind of quality songwriting that makes them more than just nightclub bangers.
Alicia Keys, Here
This may be Alicia Keys’ most topical album to date. There is an interlude with “Elaine Brown,” the former head of the Black Panther Party, and she ruminates over the dangers of her native New York on “She Don’t Really Care_1Luv,” and portrays a gay couple struggling to emerge from the closet on “Where Do We Begin.” Even “Blended Family (What You Do for Love),” where she reassures the children of her husband Swizz Beats that she loves them, is a pushback against gossipy speculation that she might have a beef with his ex-wife. Throughout Here, the personal is political.
This is an incredible comeback from a woman best known for her 2003 hit single with Missy Elliott, “Oops, Oh My.” Her light, yet silky falsetto has matured in the years since, and on Charlene — her real name is Charlene Keys — she performs songs that show off her voice to stunning effect. “Magic” burns as serenely as a hearth fire while “Dadada…Struggle” sounds like an epiphany as she contemplates a breakup. Many of the songs have spiritual undertones, the result of becoming a devout Christian.
Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits
Terrace Martin worked as a saxophonist and producer on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly before scoring his own homage to West Coast vibes; the result is album that sounds as if it could have been composed in the 1970s. Working with musicians and singers like Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington and The Emotions, he brews soulful jazz, funk and blues into a warm tapestry of tunes, from “Valdez Off Crenshaw” to “Tribe Called West,” that blur together like an afternoon joyride with the top down.