What comprises R&B in 2016 so far? It’s the kaleidoscopic mélange of hip-hop, electro pop, and soul that Anderson .Paak creates on his Malibu, as well as Rihanna’s enigmatic, Caribbean-inflected pop experiments on Anti..Paak also represents an L.A. black music renaissance that continues to bear fruit. It seems that every two years, a movement of artists rejuvenates R&B, and for the moment, they seem to hail from the stylistically diverse City of Angels.
But there are more unusual delights to this list than just the zeitgeist. Esperanza Spalding’s fabulous jazz fusion concept piece Emily’s D+Evolution proves that the Grammy Awards made the right call when they crowned her Best New Artist of 2011 instead of Justin Bieber. And three albums in, K. Michelle has become one of the most exciting and unpredictable voices in the genre.
Here are 10 R&B albums from the past few months that demand your attention.
Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Anderson .Paak’s career has entered overdrive: Malibu is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed albums, he just signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label, and his SXSW appearances earlier this month were among the most talked-about of the festival.
He sings and raps so casually that listeners often have trouble pegging him to a genre, and his easygoing street style seems to evoke Southern California’s laid-back vibe as easily as Dre’s patented G-funk. As a portrait of young L.A. in 2016, Malibu is a keeper.
B.J. The Chicago Kid, In My Mind
Bryan James Sledge’s endlessly delayed follow-up to his 2012 low-fi R&B gem Pineapple Now-Laters reveals him as an old soul, not the smoked-out hip-hopper who sang the hook on Schoolboy Q’s “Studio.” His show-stopping track with Kendrick Lamar, “Cupid,” evokes him as a man dazed and disillusioned by his generation’s nightlife meat-market antics. There are other lanes he explores, from the Biblical song “Jeremiah” to the pop ballad “Woman’s World,” that portray him as an artist more complex than the usual R&B tropes.
Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution
Esperanza Spalding is a whimsical performer whose work draws in a wider audience than her given genre, jazz, usually allots for. Her latest is reportedly sung through an alter ego that represents a childhood inner voice, and owes its sound to the prog-rock fusion of Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Joni Mitchell’s work with Jaco Pastorius. Despite those thematic conceits, this is a really fun album, and its best tracks like “Devolution” and “Judas” don’t require a course in jazz history.
Michelle, More Issues Than Vogue
Even those of us who realized K. Michelle was much more than the modern personification of Millie Jackson couldn’t have expected her increasingly frequent forays into country pop, or her duet with electronic pop singer Jason Derulo on “Make the Bed.” Part of the fun of More Issues Than Vogue, in addition to its expected wink-wink campiness, is hearing her grow increasingly ambitious in her music.
Rihanna’s first album in four years is full of highs and lows, from the smoky and mysterious “Consideration” with alt R&B diva SZA, to the bland power ballad “Kiss It Better.” It may not be her best work — and, indeed, debate continues among fans over whether she’s better as a singles artist anyway, although I will comp for Loud as a pop gem. However, Anti is undoubtedly her most unusual and beguiling release to date.
KING, We Are King
This R&B group has teased us for years with drips and drabs of music, including the 2011 EP The Story EP that got them noticed by Prince, and random singles like “Mister Chameleon.” Their long-awaited debut is a sumptuously synthesized quiet storm that hearkens to the era of the S.O.S. Band. It includes many of those previously released tracks as well as new ones like “Native Land.”
Adrian Younge, Something About April II
Adrian Younge has created his own psychedelic soul universe and Something Like April II is just the latest manifestation. Unlike the all-instrumental edition, this sequel features vocal performers like Laetitia Sadier of the late and much-missed indie-pop group Stereolab, among others. Her duet with Bilal on “La Ballade” is highly recommended. Next up: The Midnight Hour, a collaboration with Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest that drops later this year, and has already been sampled by Kendrick Lamar for “Untitled 06” on his Untitled Unmastered.
Anthony Hamilton, What I’m Feelin’
At this point, any new music from Hamilton can’t compare to his vaunted catalog. His yeoman work as a top backing singer in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s (particularly Nappy Roots’ “Po’ Folks”), and his classic first two albums (Comin’ Where I Come From and Ain’t Nobody Worryin’) are hard to beat. However, there are a few gems on his new album, which finds him playing with the genre with the Funkadelic-inspired “Save Me,” and the fuzzy synth-funk of “Ever Seen Heaven.” There’s not much for fans that miss his socially conscious tracks, but “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” has the same earthy, home-cooked charm as past hits like “Charlene.”
Many will remember Tweet as the Missy Elliott protégé who charted in 2003 with “Oops (Oh My).” Her return to music after a decade-long hiatus is a modest delight, and her signature light trills and songbird voice sound great on “Magic” and “Somebody Else Will,” the latter which reunites her with Elliott for one more run.
Majid Jordan, Majid Jordan
This Canadian duo’s R&B-inflected electro pop debut has arrived two years too late after Drake appropriated their “Hold on We’re Going Home.” But let’s not turn Majid Jordan into a referendum on Drake’s struggle to turn OVO Sound into a hit-making machine on par with Kanye’s GOOD Music and Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment. There are some good tracks here, like the warm synth pop of “Something About You” and the light disco-house thump of “Learn From Each Other.”