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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.

Maxwell,'blackSUMMERS'night'
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Maxwell,’blackSUMMERS’night’

The second installment of an album trilogy Maxwell began in 2008, blackSUMMERS'night is a stunning testament to the Brooklyn-born singer's talents as a vocalist as well as a shrewd yet openhearted observer of romantic tensions. Opening with the simmering "All the Ways Love Can Feel," where Maxwell's feather-light falsetto snakes in between brushed drums and gently blasting horns, SUMMERS shows how being an R&B classicist doesn't necessarily mean that one's hemmed in by a certain type of style: The glimmering "Lake by the Ocean," the percolating synth-jazz of "III" and the squalling guitars of the pleading "Lost" all fit seamlessly into his smooth aesthetic. His deeply felt vocal performances and unparalleled ability to ride a groove for just the right amount of time make for an album that can be luxuriated in. M.J.

Alicia Keys, 'Here'
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Alicia Keys, ‘Here’

On her most political album to date, Alicia Keys sings from the perspective of a black everywoman with undiminished optimism. Her subjects on Here are many: the angry, struggling woman at the center of the heartbreaking "Illusion of Bliss," the city of New York as personified as a young dreamer on "She Don't Really Care/1 Luv" and the gay couple on "Where Do We Begin Now" that worries about leaving the closet. Much like her widely publicized decision to abandon heavy makeup in public appearances, she strips down her music and largely communicates through her own strident piano chords, save for the occasional homage to classic NYC rap like Raekwon's "Spot Rusherz" ("The Gospel") and Nas' "One Love" ("She Don't Really Care"). There is a bit of spoken-word braggadocio as she declares over the latter, "The chair that I'm sitting on is a throne/Perfection kneels at the seat of my soul." However, her true victory is identifying and empathizing with others, and finding hope that the world, despite all its problems, is changing for the better. M.R.

Blood Orange, 'Freetown Sound'
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Blood Orange, ‘Freetown Sound’

With Sierra Leone and New York City as the backdrop, avant-R&B trailblazer and indie-rock expat Blood Orange explores change and justice in the face of discrimination. The songwriter born Dev Hynes explores identity from multiple angles, from his parents' relocation from West Africa to London ("St. Augustine") to the experiences of a friend and trans woman in Los Angeles ("Desirée"), all above a percolating stew of experimental jazz, synth-pop and Eighties hip-hop. A collage of sounds and ideas, his journey is complemented by samples from iconic drag-ball flick Paris Is Burning, slam poets like Ashlee Haze, and features from Carly Rae Jepsen, Debbie Harry and more from his star-studded Rolodex. B.S.

Solange, 'A Seat at the Table'
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Solange, ‘A Seat at the Table’

Indebted to both vintage soul and contemporary indie rock, A Seat at the Table is a love letter to self-sufficiency in the face of incredible pain and a manifesto for modern black womanhood. Above dreamy synths and muted drums, the youngest Knowles sister rockets into the neo-soul pantheon, demanding that the curious "Don't Touch My Hair" and reminding everyone that "this shit is for us." Collaborators like Kelly Rowland, Q-Tip, Master P, Lil Wayne and Knowles' own parents unlock their own experiences to create a smooth, experimental soul masterpiece that unsettles as gracefully as it heals. B.S.

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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