Emotions ran high in 2017 – and, as usual, R&B delivered like balm to a burn. The genre that birthed rock & roll came full circle in the sensuous psychedelia of Miguel’s War & Leisure and the avant-blues of Moses Sumney’s Aromanticism; Thundercat and Kelela let their freak flags fly; newcomers Khalid and SZA decorated the Billboard Hot 100 with their pop theses on growing up; and Sharon Jones posthumously crowned her career with an incredible farewell.
With The Drum Chord Theory, Matthew Martin eases back and puts his feet up. It’s been an epic six years for the producer-instrumentalist – scraping away at new sounds and, eventually, scoring a Grammy-nominated album, Ego Death, in 2015 with his band the Internet. On this pleasingly eccentric solo record, Martin emphasizes hazy, lazy bass, jazzy percussion and jumpcut edits for his boyish musings on romantic misfires and, well, taking acid. Its lack of coherence is its charm, and the music fares surprisingly well as playful test runs of crooked grooves that may straighten out later on (or not). At one point, Martins wonders of women, “We just want to know what the fuck you want? Is that hard?” Weaving freely from track to track, The Drum Chord Theory seems to playfully ask that same question of Martins himself. M.O.
Jhene Aiko’s most memorable moment of the past few years – that notorious “eat the booty like groceries” line on Omarion’s 2014 hit “Post to Be” – suggested that her next album would be more of a sex-drenched affair. Yet Trip is just as atmospheric and woozy as her earlier solo work. Far more focused than 2014’s disappointing Souled Out, she dabbles with psychotropic drugs under the guidance of an ever-present, disembodied male voice, while mourning the death of her brother, resulting in music full of sadness, sensory overload and wonderment. Gauzy sing-alongs with Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee on the melodically charming “Sativa” and current rapper-boyfriend Big Sean on the roller-skating boogie-funk of “OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive)” won’t boost her reputation for sometimes-vaporous vocals. But by effectively connecting a descent into self-medication – one which eventually turns frightening – with real personal loss, she’s made an album that feels timely and, perhaps, timeless. M.R.
Mary J. Blige returns to familiar yet not unwelcome territory: the R&B queen standing tall amidst a broken romance that could have shattered her; instead, it has empowered and enlightened her, making her more formidable in every way. But its resemblance to past Blige watermarks like 1994’s My Life isn’t the only reason her 13th studio album might her best in more than a decade. The autumnal production boasts sinuous bass grooves (“U + Me [Love Lesson]”) and drilling, propulsive drums; Blige portrays a woman with hard-won experience, full of life, steeped in deep melancholy. “What a hell of a year/If I make it through hell and I come out alive I’ve got nothing to fear,” she sings in a wavy, half-rap flow on “Thick of It.” Her introspection feels unvanquished, as if she knows she is turning the page towards a brighter future. M.R.
Released initially as a single YouTube post, this mixtape from the Beyoncé-approved teenaged sister act flips through styles of R&B like they’re Instagram filters, showcasing the duo’s spectral harmonies and boundless curiosity. The ornately detailed a cappella “Dum Dum Dum,” the funk-tinged two-step “Worries” and the pillowy call-and-response “All I Ever Wanted” play like fascinating glimpses at the duo’s scratchpad. Fully realized tracks like the triumphant “Tra Ta Ta” and the gently insistent come-on “Poppy Flower” show how they’re already pulling soul in exciting new directions by seemingly operating on the sort of instinct that comes from having a blood relative (not to mention pop’s reigning queen) at your side. M.J.
A year prior to his full-length debut, Baltimore newcomer Brent Faiyaz went platinum with D.C. rapper GoldLink on their collaboration “Crew” — which later got a leisurely remix endorsement from Gucci Mane. But Faiyaz takes that sparkle and buffs it to a shine with his remarkable work on Sonder Son, an enthralling piece of musical memoir. By the grace of his buttery falsetto, Faiyaz levitates ordinary scenes like being scared to give a bad report card to his mom (“I could see the tears fall from her eyes/Her child was always in something,” he sings in “Home”). The vulnerability in his voice goes stern during the guitar-driven “First World Problemz/Nobody Carez,” where he mulls over consumerism after a hard day at work (“We keep on trying/To have everything/We’ll end up dying over anything.”) The grit subsides in the Usher throwback “Talk 2 U,” as Faiyaz lets a lover know he isn’t here to finesse; he’s just here to be real. A regular dude who has lurked on the margin between rap and R&B, Faiyaz is maturing as a musician and as a character with every record he releases. S.E.
H.E.R. operated in the shadows for much of 2017 – she’s actually 20-year-old Gabi Wilson from Vallejo, California – but her position of mystery afforded her some secret strength on this debut full-length, which collects her EPs from the past two years, as well as selected B-sides. Wilson showcases her fluttery alto over downtempo R&B that veers from weak-kneed (the seductive “Lights On,” which shouts out “D’Angelo and penthouse views”) to steadfast (the now-or-never ultimatum “Still Down”). That versatility allows her to inhabit an Everywoman space so convincing that it inspired a fairly legitimate answer record. When Wilson was still incognito, her slow-burn cover of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late‘s “Jungle” indicated that she might be a student of Drake’s (in the Weeknd tradition). However, the tendency toward enigma at this music’s center only adds to its unique potency. M.J.
On “Not Ashamed,” from Majid Jordan’s second album, the young Toronto duo of singer Majid Al Maskati and producer Jordan Ullman (co-writers of Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Coming Home”) find their definitive sound – and it’s frankly startling. Amid a pillow-soft collage of peppy drum pads, robotic chatter and clipped synth lines, Al Maskati coos sweetly but plainly to a careless lover, “Not ashamed of the way you ignore me,” and “Prove yourself to me, ’cause I’m not the type to give it up for no reason.” Wait, huh? As far as pop-soul dudes go, it rarely gets this genuinely vulnerable or feathery. Strangely, the twosome’s label OVO Sound seems to think they need guests to buck them up, releasing singles featuring labelmates Partynextdoor and Dvsn. But when left to their own humble, pleadingly sincere devices – as on regretful opener “Gave Your Love Away” – Majid Jordan are, without question, the Best Kids on the Block. C.A.
On the follow-up to his impressive 2014 debut Soul Power, this Michigan-born, Los Angeles-based vocal stylist (and ex-CeeLo Green back-up singer) works a sensuous, raspy moan and sweet falsetto that brings to mind the funky masters of yore – not just his namesake Curtis Mayfield, but also Isaac Hayes and Bobby Womack. With a production and conceptual assist from producer Danger Mouse, Harding surrounds himself with the glossy strings and chunky, psych guitars that defined funk’s late-Sixties/early-Seventies hot buttered era, but brings his own fierce, steely-eyed energy. The flinty title track is a stay-strong motivational anthem for anyone enduring a dark night of the soul, whether in love or in life; “Welcome to My World” is a celebration of sensual pleasure, as well as its limits; but “Till the End” brings it all together with a genuine and witty exchange between an on-the-road Harding and his droll partner back at home. M.J.
Ty Dolla Sign is the jovial uncle-on-the-grill of R&B, controlling the backyard vibe in his shades and house shoes, grabbing whatever beat or guest swings by, building catchier songs with each successive libation. Importantly, though, Ty Dolla is also one of the hardest-working, craftiest artists in pop. No longer just a foul-mouthed DJ Mustard sidekick, he flows casually over acoustic or digital instrumentation, nudging his rasp forward so you know he cares. On Beach House 3 – little relation to his inferior Beach House 1 and 2 mixtapes and Beach House E.P. – the rapper-singer moves from melodic riffs to hooks to shit-talk with effortless panache. Sure, YG steals “Ex” with his zing, but this is Ty’s party, and he never stops spooling out giddy album tracks like “Droptop in the Rain” that shame most artist’s actual singles. C.A.
“Am I vital, if my heart is idle? Am I doomed?” asks the California multi-instrumentalist and arranger of deep blue emotions Moses Sumney on his debut album, the fluttering, existential expanse known as Aromanticism. Here, Sumney’s warm delivery and open-ended, time-lapse songs develop under looming soundscapes of soulful strings, synths and Thundercat’s searching, impulsive bass. Deftly easing from minimalist electro-soul to aching indie folk cushions his passionate refusal of romantic permanence. With tracks like “Make Out in My Car,” and “Plastic,” Sumney seeks momentary sensual pleasure and emotional comfort but doesn’t believe that it can, or needs to, continue. For a genre dependent on its audience’s devotion to the concept of romantic love, Sumney posits that one could learn to live well with loneliness. M.O.
Drunk is the latest and greatest endpoint for ever-evolving Los Angeles bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, who has spent his solo career trying to find the lighthearted sweet spot between George Duke’s jazz-funk and Michael McDonald’s yacht rock. The latter’s appearance (along with Kenny Loggins) on “Show You the Way” must be sweet validation for Bruner, who adeptly sidesteps goofy kitsch in favor of breezy sunshine grooves that update late Seventies-and-early-Eighties fusion for a generation open to whatever’s fresh (and who have been prepped by his experimental peers in Los Angeles’ Low End Theory scene). Most of all, Drunk is really funny. “You stuck me in the friend zone/That’s that bullshit,” he sings over dazzling synth stabs and keyboard bass on “Friend Zone.” “Don’t call me after 2 a.m. unless you givin’ some/’Cause I got enough friends.” Joking about reckless nights (“Tokyo”) and a dedication to cats (“A Fan’s Mail [Tron Song Suite II]”) suggest a carefree life of international tours and artistic fervor. But the final three tracks – a suite that describes an alcoholic episode – adds a surprisingly dark undercurrent to Thundercat’s delightful vision of funky self-expression. M.R.
Part of Kehlani Parrish’s talent as an innovative R&B artist lies in her soft yet sandpapery voice. She evokes an inner toughness that isn’t impenetrable: She feels, but she can wound you, too. “Piece of Mind,” which alludes to her widely publicized suicide attempt last year, finds her at her most fragile, yet alive and pushing forward. She shrugs about her penchant for breaking hearts on “Keep On,” and “Do U Dirty” finds her growling, “I’m a do you dirty/You think you love me now/I think you should be worried.” She presents herself as a fully engaged and self-aware artist, and she pours her heart into music that transforms acoustic arrangements, sinuous synthesized landscapes and throwback R&B tropes – allusions to past classics from Akon, New Edition and others abound – into a glossy portrait of a young woman on the verge of greatness. M.R.
High off her Grammy-nominated success in the Odd Future offshoot the Internet, singer-songwriter-producer Sydney Bennett takes a sharp turn away from the funky live production of her neo-soul group and towards more low-key synthscapes on her solo debut. Assuming the swagger of a mob boss, Syd luxuriates in the braggadocio of “All About Me”; and again, with producer/consigliere Steve Lacy riding at her side, she cruises the strip club in “Dollar Bills.” She (happily) meets her match in the independent-woman jam “Got Her Own” before slinking into the pleasure principle on “Body” and its more salacious sibling, “Drown In It.” Fin is a slick, seductive exploration of queer sensuality and power, marking another milestone in Syd’s glowing career. S.E.
A treasured contributor to R&B’s inner circle (Beyoncé, Drake, Solange, Kanye West), singer-producer Sampha Sisay emerges as their peer on this ethereal debut album. Buoyed by his breathless delivery, Process has a weightless, hypnotic quality for an album born of such profound introspection over the costs of death and the vagaries of grief. A health scare of his own drives Sampha to open the album gripped by anxiety: “Sleeping with my worries,” he relates on “Plastic 100°,” “I didn’t really know what that lump was.” But it’s the death of Sampha’s mother (from lung cancer) that both haunts and inspires Process‘ deep emotional recesses. Anguish and loss converge in a miasma of samples and harmonies on the dark, desperate fantasies “Blood on Me” and “Under”; but perhaps the album’s most affecting songs (“Timmy’s Prayer,” “[No One Knows Me] Like the Piano”) are its most spare, with Sampha’s voice a steadying presence, even while he’s crying out in despair. M.O.
Love is best when it’s lush — or so Daniel Caesar wants to remind us. And on his stunning debut album, Freudian, the young Toronto singer-songwriter makes love the epicenter of his musical universe, relating the swell and frustration of a new relationship as if he’s testifying about heaven and hell. He even adapts two gospel songs – Kirk Franklin’s “Hold Me Down” and Kyle David Matthews “We Fall Down” – into vulnerable, lovelorn plaints and uses the Toronto female vocal trio CaDaRo Tribe to act as a choral echo. “Every time I go inside of your protected/Place with reverence/I’m reminded of a time I was neglected/It seems you’re heaven-sent,” he marvels on the sultry “Take Me Away,” coaxing his guitar to speak in tongues as Syd coos in a delicate falsetto. Elsewhere, other female voices (Kali Uchis, H.E.R.) join in the rapture. Despite the songs’ dreamy reverie, Caesar’s accompaniment on guitar and keyboards provides a clear-eyed, organic foundation, as do producers Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett, protégés of primary Drake collaborator Boi-1da. M.O.
Kelela emerged from dance and beat culture’s wing of soul-yearning originals, and her debut album, Take Me Apart, is a career-making manifesto – boldly envisioned, ambitiously sung and lyrically pointed, like the headier dance-floor partner to SZA’s Ctrl. Opener “Frontline” states the terms – Kelela coolly depicts a maddening relationship – as Jam City sketches a darkly swirling, expectant mood (before they both freak the percussive “Why you testin’ me?” outro). Then it’s off on a series of delicately wrought rhythmic vignettes – the misty fantasia of the title track (with Jam City, Arca, Boots, et al.); the swoony fatigue of “Enough” and jittery stand-off of “Onanon” (both produced by Arca). But “LMK” is the peak, a rattling, twinkling love-in-the-club prowl (via Jam City), where Kelela’s heart is vulnerable, but her mind’s in charge (“It ain’t that deep, either way/No one’s tryna settle down”). C.A.
On his fourth studio album, Miguel unites his funk-explorer side and his pop-craftsman side (not to mention a handful of other sides too), balancing stretched-out grooves with sparkling hooks, and dystopian unease with unbridled carnality – a fitting soundtrack for 2017’s constantly whiplashing news cycle. But what makes War & Leisure even more of a pleasure lies in the utter joy that Miguel derives from singing – his vocals leap out of the mix when he’s really feeling a track, like on the opening of soaring, pop-soul tour de force “Pineapple Skies” (which basically serves as an ode to Prince); or on the chorus of rumbling Latin banger “Caramelo Duro”; or with his scats, raps, ad libs and upper-register whoops on the masterfully paced groove of “Banana Clip.” M.J.
This is the final album Sharon Jones made before her death last fall, recorded with her longtime backing band, the Dap-Kings, in stolen moments between chemotherapy treatments. She was an irreplaceable talent, and her loss can’t help but change the way one hears the gospel show-stopper “Call on God,” the brass-driven workout “Sail On” and the tender farewell “Pass Me By.” At its heart, though, Soul of a Woman is a joyful album. It makes you feel lucky that we got to share a planet with her voice for as long as we did. S.V.L.
After a trio of promising EPs and a prominent feature on Rihanna’s Anti, the budding alt-R&B star showed what she could do on a full-length LP. SZA unravels through largely improvised meditations on love and sex and all the promise and abandonment that can result from both. From a side-chick manifesto (“The Weekend”) to the appreciation of a rom-com icon that mulls the singer’s own self-worth (“Drew Barrymore”), SZA flourishes in her own hazy spotlight. B.S.
The year’s most distinctive new voice was a teen star, not a trap star. His conversational vocals staked out a new kind of R&B: laid-back but charged with wide-open emotional struggle, as well as hooks that stuck. He sang about kids who didn’t have money or cars; who still lived with their parents (and worried about coming home smelling of weed); who longed for human contact to go along with a love stirred by subtweets and texts. Hits like “Location” and “Young, Dumb & Broke” were alive with fresh possibilities – including the possibility of combating outmoded stereotypes. “I’m an African-American man with an Afro, who isn’t your typical athlete – who wasn’t as masculine as other guys,” Khalid told Rolling Stone. “And now people are looking at me like, this is ‘The American Teen.'” J.L.