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20 Best R&B Albums of 2016

Frank Ocean, Solange, Alicia Keys and more

20 Best R&B Albums

Frank Ocean, Solange and Alicia Keys made some of the best R&B albums of 2016

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As Beyoncé's unprecedented performance at the Country Music Awards showed us, R&B continues to be the heart pumping blood into American music – but the genre has never seen more curious days. Anderson Paak and Dawn Richard expanded into new regions of earth and space; veteran artists like Alicia Keys and Blood Orange joined a new charge that could no longer be apolitical; and King and Childish Gambino blasted bravely into the past. And what better balm for the Worst Year Ever than two releases by the formidable Knowles sisters? Here's the year's best.

Frank Ocean, 'Blonde'
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Frank Ocean, ‘Blonde’

In the four years following his triumphant 2012 debut, Channel Orange, Frank Ocean fans aggressively begged, pleaded and meme'd the low-profile superstar for new music. This summer, Ocean answered with the gauzy visual album, Endless, followed by Blonde: an intoxicating missive from the depths of his blue period. Heavily steeped in codeine, gaunt instrumentals are gingerly spaced between gospels ("Solo," "Godspeed"), a doting voicemail from his mother ("Be Yourself") and pouty soliloquies for loves long gone ("Ivy," "Self Control"). He slips in an epitaph to Trayvon Martin ("Nikes"). Legends like Kanye West and Beyoncé make oddly understated appearances along with support from indie faves Alex G. and Rostam Batmanglij. The result is challenging and unique. S.E.

Beyoncé, 'Lemonade'
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Beyoncé, ‘Lemonade’

"Lemonade" is fire and water, solid and solvent. Its release into a strange, post-Prince universe spoke instantly to its duality, of its ability to both soothe and incite. Of all of her talents, pop perfectionism and tireless originality remain Beyoncé's strongest assets, but her most palpable one – the wall she wordlessly maintains between us and her – cracked just enough to peek through, never enough to break. Her ability to bridge a singular experience – that of a (possibly) cheating husband – to an intricate network of trauma and violence specific to black women speaks to her effortless ability to connect. It's what she does best, after all: bringing us together – around TV, huddled over smartphones, across tables, via bandwidths. And so she does yet again, so that we may talk lineage and love, fathers and fuckups, and the pain that tethers them all together. M.O.

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