Adele has my tear ducts and Future’s got my bop and dreams of trapping, but R&B has my soul. So while other year-end lists speak to a more wide-ranged look at 2015 musically, I wanted to specifically focus on what’s proven to be another great year for R&B. You can debate amongst yourselves over sales and radio airplay, but the focus here is quality. I tried to make a diverse list for every type of fan. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to use your iPhone to listen to music anyway.
Jazmine Sullivan: Reality Show
The Philly-bred singer-songwriter went conceptual for her third studio offering, adding depth and nuance to the babymamas, down-ass chicks, reality stars, butt-inflated Instagram models, and other woman often depicted in music and media as caricatures rather than the complex human beings many prove to be. (Just like anyone else. Imagine that.) There are so many different types of gems to be found on Reality Show, but with Sullivan at the helm, they each share great storytelling and even better vocals.
Jeremih: Late Nights
If you feel like Jeremih’s third album, Late Nights, was supposed to come out 100 years ago, you’re not that off base. Following one delay after another, Late Nights was released randomly in December to the gratitude of all those who’ve been waiting since his 2012 mixtape, Late Nights with Jeremih.
The thing about Jeremih is that what he does barely constitutes as singing to me. He more or less just reads sexts aloud to music. Even so, it’s oddly what makes him so engaging. This album is not flawless, but it’s damn good. It shouldn’t have taken this long to be released, but the replay value will help make up for some of the delay.
Tamar Braxton: Calling All Lovers
The youngest Braxton sister and thriving television personality has vented frustration to fans online about the performance of her latest album, but to be fair, she has every right to. Calling All Lovers (which is her third album) is her best, most cohesive work to date. She sounds fantastic, and for the most part, these are songs that sound distinctly Tamar. Finally. Once her health is better, perhaps she can start the New Year giving this album the push it deserves. Even if she doesn’t, she ought to be proud of what she’s accomplished, because it’s exactly as good as she feels it is.
Tamia: Love Life
Tamia never stopped recording, but she did go the independent route in recent years— which means more control over her product, but sometimes makes it harder reaching longtime fans and casual listeners (especially when you refuse to do a reality show). On Love Life, she returns to a major label (Def Jam) and seamlessly walks the fine line between staying contemporary and true to one’s signature sound.
Look no further than the infectious and flirty first single “Sandwich and a Soda,” and its follow up, “Stuck With Me.” The album itself overall is one glorious song after another about being in one happy ass relationship. You may not have landed your Grant Hill yet, but this is a nice album to listen to and draw inspiration from as you try to shake off your Lamar Odom. (Too soon?)
Teedra Moses: Cognac & Conversation
It took Teedra Moses more than a decade to release her sophomore album. After all that waiting, thankfully at least the album itself is good. Teedra’s voice is soft but still powerful. I will always want her to be bigger than she is now, and subsequently, more appreciated for what she gives to R&B, but at least I have my second album. I’m hoping the third will come sooner than later, and I hope the name of it is just as Black as Cognac & Conversation.
If you heard of the 22-year-old before her hit single, a wave of frustration will hit you when Tinashe is referred to as the “ ‘2 On’ girl.” Much of that has to do with knowing the platinum-selling song, while catchy, does not even come close to highlighting what makes Tinashe such an increasingly intriguing artist.
For those who missed out on her three solo-produced mixtapes and her delightful major label debut, Aquarius, there was her next release, the Amethyst mixtape. There’s an emotional intelligence to her music than many of her age group lack—male and female alike. She’s got something special there. I hope more people pay attention by the time her sophomore album, Joyride, is released early next year.
Eryn Allen Kane: Aviary: Act 1 EP
I first heard Kane’s voice on Being Mary Jane as her ethereal “Piano Sing” played in the background of the popular BET drama. The other songs on her four-song EP are perfectly in line with that song. Over minimalist production, Kane’s voice—ever-soothing and pleasant—shines, offering a preview of what will hopefully be one of many strong musical efforts to come.
The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness
This may offend some, but to me, The Weeknd was always an acquired taste. His music often sounded like the last round of sex you have before committing suicide. Yet, as we’ve since come to be reminded again and again this year, the Toronto native was determined to take his sound (which already had a cult following) to the masses. That led to him working with the likes of Max Martin, who in turn helped him keep his signature sound, only packaged in a way that’s more accessible.
I am a huge fan of Miguel. Like, I-remember-his-songs-on-MySpace level of fandom. And I found Miguel’s sophomore effort, Kaleidoscope Dream, to be one of the best R&B albums released this decade. That said, I actually forgot all about Wildheart, so it feels weird to include it here. It’s not bad per se, and it certainly has plenty of good on it. Say, “Coffee,” “The Valley,” “Simple Things,” and definitely “Face the Sun” with Lenny Kravitz.
But if it ain’t all that, why am I including it? Well, process of elimination, beloved. Usher’s come back is locked away in somebody’s closet. Trey Songz still hasn’t realized he just needs to keep remaking Ready. Chris Brown refuses to learn the virtue of editing. I have no idea what happened to Frank Ocean.
Tyrese Gibson: Black Rose
The former Coca-Cola crooner may act like he’s “real R&B’s” personal Jesus, but if we’re being honest, hubris aside, he sings down and his latest album is quite good. Just block out his tweets and enjoy.
Leon Bridges: Coming Home
The singer went from bussing tables at a Tex-Mex restaurant to a major label debut album in only a relatively short amount of time. However, if you take one listen to the 26-year-old’s debut album, the transition makes sense. Bridges sounds more like the rhythm of blues of his grandparent’s generation. But his soulful tone and retro musical aesthetic make him uniquely modern and forward thinking in his approach when compared to his contemporaries. Some are doing a solid job of trying to push the genre forward. However, Bridges is taking it back to basics, reminding us that in purest form, the genre is breathtakingly gorgeous and impactful.
Ty Dolla $ign: Free TC
It’s been quite the wait for Ty Dolla $ign’s first studio offering, but for many, it was well worth it. Ty Dolla $ign sort of comes across to me as the musical lovechild of Nate Dogg and Aaron Hall from Guy. It works for him and much of Free TC. Unfortunately, like many contemporary R&B singers heavily influenced by hip-hop, the misogyny present on the record is somewhat cringe-worthy. Maybe some personal growth will sway that on future offerings, but if you can bop past it (or at least skip the tracks guiltiest of that bad habit), Free TC is a solid debut for an increasingly interesting kind of singer.
Mila J: The Waiting Game
My fear right now is many of you have absolutely no idea who I’m talking about. For the few of you that do, you’re immediate response is “Jhené Aiko’s sister.” That she is, but if you are a fan of ratch-’n’-B—and trust me, I sure am—this mixtape is the move. I sure hope she figures out how to make a splash next year, because I don’t want her to end up being the Ray J to her baby sister’s Brandy. Mila J is good; she should at least be Solange.
Erykah Badu: But You Cain’t Use My Phone
Badu is literally the gift that keeps on giving. Her conceptual mixtape is such a delight. She’s always managed to take a classic song and make it all her own (revisit her live album) and But You Cain’t Use My Phone is no different. There are literally very few things more pleasing to the ear than her rendition of “Hello” with André 3000. The only complaint I have is the Drake impersonator she features, who I have since referred to as “Flake.”