In 2015, the Weeknd went pop, the Internet went big and Janet Jackson went back to the duo that helped her explode in the Eighties. Leon Bridges and Kali Uchis breathed new life into vintage sounds while the electronic fusions of Kelela and FKA Twigs made a contemporary genre nearly unrecognizable from the past. Here's the year's best in R&B.
"Classification and organization is ruining the minds of our generation," Willow (as in Willow Smith) announces at the outset of Ardipithecus, an album she surprise-released this month. Naturally, the album is deliberately difficult to pin down; it's paranoid and defiant, harsh and soothing, a surreal dream narrated by the gasping, fantastical, yet somehow matter-of-fact teenager at its core. The veering between genres — the harshly scraped synths of songs like "dRuGz," the slithering funk of "Cycles" and "Wait A Minute!," the darkly effervescent "Waves Of Nature" — only adds to the atmosphere of otherworldliness outlined by Willow's dark, heady lyrics. M.J.
Mizan K's terrific six-song EP debut is stark and frank. At numerous times it's just her and her keyboard, confessing neuroses and finding faith that they will subside. The Ethiopian-born New York musician makes confessional songs that resemble the winsome and melancholy electro-pop of Erlend Øye and Junior Boys as much as left-of-center R&B voices like Solange Knowles. She comforts a depressed friend on "Awe" as she sings, "All the color, the golden of the sky/How could you see it, if your darkness never lights." And she knows how to make songs that make you move, too: "Looking For" casts her as the seductress over a throbbing club beat, but her "what are we looking for" chorus reveals unease over whether she'll be embraced or rejected. M.R.
Though her roots are firmly planted in Pereira, Colombia, Kali Uchis' true essence resides in an old school malt shop somewhere in Motown, U.S.A. The Sixties soul aficionada took her first stab at pop stardom with her sultry, decadent EP, Por Vida, boasting an A-list production team that includes Tyler the Creator, Kaytranada and Diplo, among others. Still, Uchis' bubblegum slow jams require few bells and whistles: Her pouty, Betty Boop-ish charisma in "Lottery" and breezy reggae inflections in "Riding Round" steal the show. S.E.
"'Til the end of time, it's a well-known fact/Behind the greatest man is a virtue of a woman," Raheem DeVaughn sings on his fifth album's gently swinging ode to the feminine "Queen." The rest of the sensual Love Sex Passion bears his thesis out; from the blissed-out sex jam "Black Ice Cream" to the sweetly balladic "Terms of Endearment," this album is as much about DeVaughn's adoration for women as it is his expansive view of romance. It takes an honest approach, with the lush "When You Love Somebody" taking an unflinching look at what romance can do to the psyche: "Love will make your lady scratch up your brand new Mercedes/Love will have you drunk texting your ex-girlfriend at 3 a.m. in the morning." M.J.
Twenty-year-old Nineties R&B enthusiast Kehlani Parrish began 2015 as an under-the-radar critical darling and ended it an iTunes smash, a major label signee and a Grammy nominee — not bad for someone who technically hasn't released an album. On her second mixtape, she echews the reverb-y, soup-y haze of modern R&B in favor of the decidedly vintage idea of showing off your soaring pipes and occasionally breathy delivery. She's a mix of Chilli's silky voice with Left Eye's middle-finger attitude on kiss-offs like "How That Taste" or warnings like "Yet"; and the minimal, clicking hi-hats of producer Jahaan Sweet find a cozy midpoint between the shuffle of classic Aaliyah and the jitter of contemporary trap rap. C.W.
August Alsina seeks to revive the street-conscious soul of early Aughts R&B acts like Lyfe Jennings. It's a lonely crusade: There are few current R&B singers that address real-life problems with his passion and consistency. On This Thing Called Life, he sings the chorus from the Isley Brothers' "Choosey Lover," but also pays homage to "drop-tops and old-school Chevys" on "Hip-Hop." He bridges the divide between rap as a cultural touchstone for black manhood, and soul as a means through which men can communicate their innermost feelings. He sings of the young people on "Dreamers" who can't imagine a life better than drug dealing or stripping for cash. There is the memory of his dead brother, who is a constant presence in his music since his excellent debut EP Downtown: Life Under the Gun. He sings, "I'm a let my soul cry," and he doesn't apologize as he adds, "Hope you don't think I won't ride for mine." M.R.
In five songs, London singer/dancer FKA Twigs stokes her vocal performance from the once delicate, quivering flame it once was on last year's acclaimed LP1, to a fervent, powerful blaze. Birthed of and named after a feminine energy she calls "Mellissa," motherhood seems to be the central theme in Twigs' latest work. M3LL155X kicks off with tributes to her adoptive mothers from the LGBT ballroom community ("Figure 8," "Glass & Patron"); her body's transformation from a vessel of male greed to a vessel of inspiration ("I'm Your Doll"); her pact to cultivate a fair-weather relationship into committed bliss ("In Time"); and her gradual crawl from mothered to "Mothercreep," an alpha-female role she'd been waiting to inherit all her life. S.E.
Bilal's fifth full-length has the sort of deliciously dry-sounding production found in bins of 40-year-old soul sides, but its mindset is very of the moment. There's a razor-sharp political edge to tracks like the questioning "Satellites" ("Just another day/On the satellite, time traveling/Watching the corrupt people/As they corrupt other people") and the Kendrick Lamar-assisted "Money Over Love," but his music remains loose-limbed and stretched-out. In Another Life is a meditation on life and love that nods to the best aspects of old-school funk, particularly the possibility afforded by a lot of instruments and a lot of talent. M.J.
A future-imperfect griot wining around the margins of the R&B village, Kelela matches the halting keen of her emotional rhythms to the digital gasps of her producers (Arca, DJ Dahi, Kingdom), as if she's on a playfully heated search for a glimpse of humanity among the genre's horny, corny, passive-aggressive bully boys. On the freestyle-fleet single "Rewind," she's believably shy and bold; amid the spacious sparkle of "All the Way Down," she "don't give a fuck" about convention as a ghostly drum splash echoes. But it's on the otherworldly sub-rumble of "Gomenasai" ("I'm sorry" in Japanese), produced by Nguzunguzu's Ma, where she takes control, redefining "vulnerability" in a relationship as when both partners agree that she's on top. C.A.
Jeremih Felton's second official full-length is earnestly salacious and boldly romantic — a rarity, even for R&B. On "Planez," his tongue-trippin' freak-rap instantly lifts you up 35,000 feet; then on "Oui," he asserts, "My baby knows, where my baby goes, I go," before yelping "Ah yeah!" and free-associating in tribute. Skin-tingling with the gulps and slurps and licks of orgiastic after-parties, Late Nights: The Album refines the maximal, risqué risks of his career-making 2012 mixtape (also titled Late Nights), and cuts through the hypnotic fog of last year's art-trap EP No More. Even when the singer tires on the aching "Worthy," he's never dismissive or brutish. And unlike the Weeknd's crass, morning-after gloom-view, acoustic closer "Paradise" unfurls a choral backdrop of strings and piano for a cozy comedown. C.A.
After this lavishly conceived and arranged debut, singer-rapper-producer Ty Dolla $ign should be considered D'Angelo's heir as R&B's pre-eminent visionary. If not, mark it down to musical home training — D'Angelo's a devotee of Seventies uplift and Eighties sensuality, while Ty was weaned on the less-hallowed Nineties-gangsta ethos of partying with and/or mourning homies, while debating stripper-pole politics. But here, that's no hindrance. On an album dedicated to his younger brother Big TC — who's serving a life sentence for murder — there are hooky pleasures for days, with a varied cast (E-40, Jagged Edge and Babyface in classic form), a choir, an orchestra and Ty's effortless falsetto. Kendrick Lamar rips a flow ("L.A."), Future and Rae Sremmurd animate the darkly bubblicious "Blasé" and on stunning centerpiece "Miracle/Wherever," Big TC croons over a prison phone, joined by his brother testifying like a gospel vet. C.A.
"Girl, just go with it, lose control," sings Syd the Kyd, who applies a similar ethos to the Internet's blend of basement soul. The band has grown as musicians by evolving from a two-person project — Syd and keyboardist Matt Martians — to a six-piece band with lyrical contributions from Nick Green. Ego Death is more vibrant than the slight and underdeveloped alt-soul of their past two albums: Steve Lacy's chicken-scratch guitar colors the songs with a comfortably slack indie-rock tone and their sound has an easygoing beat reminiscent of early Aughts future jazz. At the center is Syd, who is turning into a great bandleader that can sing about love and heartbreak with irresistible cool. Whether missing a girlfriend as she embarks on another flight on "Gabby" or cooing, "You fucked up" on "Just Sayin/I Tried," Syd is the magnetic presence of Ego Death. M.R.
Janet Jackson's comeback was one of music's most gratifying stories in 2015. Unbreakable was refreshing and sultry, a forward-thinking statement of purpose from one of pop's most important 20th Century figures. In some ways, the triumphs of Unbreakable were inevitable: Nipplegate was, thankfully, gone from pop culture's rearview mirror, and she was reunited with her golden-era collaborators Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. But instead of simply rehashing the sighing bluster and booming beats of her biggest hits, Jackson applied her knowledge of what makes a great song and, more crucially, of what makes herself tick. The warm, expansive tracks, even as they took on the world's ills ("Shoulda Known Better") and questioned her own place in it ("Take Me Away"), felt invitingly lived-in. The triumphant closer "Gon' B Alright" caps off the album with a knowing nod in the form of a joyous group dance toward whatever trials life might bring next. M.J.
More a visitation than a proper album release, Ms. Badu's mixtape was inspired by the late J Dilla (see her 2008 song "Telephone") and powered by her trippy gender-flip of Drake's coy, double-standard whine on "Hotline Bling" (here retitled as "Cel U Lar Device"). Positing the phone as a mystical talisman — both wondrous and perilous — on these mesmerizing versions of others' tracks (from the Isleys to Egyptian Lover), she plays the fickle host, tossing out warnings, side-eyes, Nubian glossolalia and irresistibly teasing coos. Unlike the dense, instrumental sprawl of her New Amerykah records, Badu takes a lighter, wittier touch, but still immerses you in her actively musing sound world. On the closing collaboration with ex Andre 3000 (who raps about his aura hopping out of his torso with desire), she turns Todd Rundgren's Seventies piano treacle "Hello It's Me" into a can-you-top-this? display of dazzling oral pleasure. In other words, fuck a sext. C.A.
When will the world be ready for Dawn Richard? Whereas her unique artistry was somewhat stifled in the radio-aspirational girl group Danity Kane, 2015 sees her inching closer and closer to her proper fate as an R&B trailblazer. Richard traverses dense, intergalactic soundscapes, fortified by cinematic, orchestral arrangements with touches of marimbas and other tropical accents. In "Billie Jean" she cunningly topples the legend of Michael Jackson's desperate babymama, rewriting her as a confident, menacing succubus: "Billie Jean, yeah I'm a sex fiend/I'm not your girl, I'm just your wet dream." Meanwhile "Adderall/Sold" flashes the pockmarked underbelly of drug-addled fame with the line "All that glitters is sold." The glitchy sprawl and dark pop fables of Blackheart uncover Richard at her most visionary. S.E.
Before this year, the biggest hits to burst from the versatile, virtuosic pipes of R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan were "Need U Bad," a song about needing a man like oxygen, and "Bust Your Windows," a song about leaving him with a pile of broken windshield shards. While no single on her first album in five years had the impact of those two, Sullivan proved herself even more capable of painting love's joys and messes as vivid tableaus. Like Lauryn Hill or Mary J. Blige, she has a voice that can ping-pong from an assured croon to a stressed rasp, adding the proper level of drama while exasperated at a cheating lover (played by Meek Mill), treating lovesickness like drug withdrawal or demanding that her man pay attention and "maybe take a bitch to dinner" on the New Wave rave-up "Stanley." She's a one-woman off-Broadway show, cycling through evocative characters with emotion and chops. C.W.
You'd be forgiven if you thought you were listening to a lost soul record from the mid-Sixties when you first threw on Leon Bridges' debut – the similarity is uncanny, right down to the earthy recording quality. But Bridges, a young singer-guitarist from Fort Worth, Texas, is after more than just a well-crafted retro sound. Coming Home is the best kind of nostalgia trip, freewheeling, loose and more interested in good times than mere reverence. On "Twistin' And Groovin'," Bridges gives Sam Cooke a shot of Texas blues fire, and he splashes psychedelic fuzz on the hip-hugging dance tune "Smooth Sailin'." If Cooke had tried singing a song with a title "Brown Skin Girl" in 1963, his crossover chances would've been sunk; 50 years later, Bridges imagines a utopian past where he could've done it with pride. And on "Better Man," when he tells his baby, "I'll swim the Mississippi River if you'll give me another start," you'll want to jump right in behind him. J.D.
Sonically, Miguel's tastes run all over the map, but the emotion at the core of his third album is one that's been crucial to soul music for ages: love. Miguel's approach to the world resembles an openhearted love, one that celebrates the physical pleasures of sex (as on the porn-y "The Valley") as well as the emotional joy of self-acceptance (the musings of "What's Normal Anyway"). Miguel's musical approach borrows as much from the fever dreams of the Smashing Pumpkins (credited on the swirling "Leaves") as it does from the murmured sweet nothings of R&B's biggest stars. That attitude, combined with his unflinching gaze at the human condition, results in an album-length exploration of the self in which journey and destination are one. M.J.
Canada's Abel Tesfaye redefined what it means to be an R&B auteur with his breakthrough second LP. After a series of mysterious mixtape releases built around weeded-out goth moodiness (and one half-baked major-label debut, in 2013), he went for full-on Top 40 grandeur this time, without diluting any of his eerie allure. The sumptuous Max Martin joint "Can't Feel My Face" got America dancing to a sex-as-cocaine metaphor, thanks to a joyful hook Michael Jackson could have moonwalked to; "In the Night" amped up the violent undercurrents of MJ circa Bad while still feeling like a party; and bleary ballads like "Earned It" and "The Hills" spun gossamer sensuality into unlikely hit singles. Who else but the Weeknd could make a line like "Only my mother could love me for me" work as pillow talk? It's just that kind of raw honesty that makes him such a revolutionary player. J.D.
A year after Black Messiah appeared at the end of 2014, D'Angelo's third album remains as sublimely enigmatic as the man who spent over a decade creating it. The sound he makes with his band the Vanguard is muddy and blurred, partly as homage to greats such as Sly & the Family Stone. When he sings, "It Ain't That Easy," he's not only referring to love and commitment, but also the resilience of black life. The band churns through the funk-rock of "The Charade" like a Prince & the Revolution deep cut as D'Angelo sings, "All we wanted was a chance to talk/Instead we got our bodies lined in chalk." He's clear-eyed about the mortal threats facing him, but he never loses hope. Black Messiah is much more than a sum of influences: While looking to his elders for inspiration, he's scored a soundtrack for the national mood in 2015. M.R.