Best R&B Albums of 2018: Janelle Monae, Teyana Taylor, Jacquees – Rolling Stone
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10 Best R&B Albums of 2018

We rank the best R&B albums of 2018, including Janelle Monae, Teyana Taylor, H.E.R. and more

Teyana Taylor, Jacquees and Queen Naija were responsible for some of the year's standout R&B releases.

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Earlier this month, the singer Jacquees declared himself the “King of R&B” for his generation, eliciting a string of dismissive reactions from luminaries like P. Diddy and Keith Sweat. The debate was silly: Just three years ago, people were declaring R&B dead, and there is no pure singer right now putting up hits consistently enough for royalty status. But the reaction to the debate was important: People cared, a lot, about R&B, in a way they hadn’t for a long time.

If this year’s R&B field didn’t have a runaway champion, the genre still scored plenty of small victories, signs that R&B seemed to be finally figuring out many things that rap learned a long time ago. Hip-hop was initially forced to become popular outside of mainstream channels; H.E.R. has achieved over a billion streams without a ubiquitous radio hit. Rappers routinely record collaboration albums that help them reach new fans; Ty Dolla $ign and Jeremih whipped up some joint debauchery. Swagger has always been essential to rap; Jacquees has plenty.

As a result, the genre appears to be regaining some of its clout. It’s notable that Queen Naija, a YouTube star, decided to make R&B this year, since most social-media -personalities-turned-musicians try their hand at hip-hop. And it’s also notable that R&B launched two albums and a single from a third artist into the major general categories for the 2019 Grammys. These are good signs heading into next year. But before we get there, here are Rolling Stone‘s top 10 R&B albums of 2018.

10

H.E.R., ‘I Used to Know Her’

H.E.R. always excelled at creating atmosphere — her music is leisurely and soft, with few major dynamic shifts; her voice drips cooly from one track to the next. But on her two I Used to Know Her EPs this year, she started to perfect sturdy songs to complement all that woozy ambience. That group included “Could’ve Been,” a failed-relationship post-mortem with Bryson Tiller, “Carried Away,” a retro, bass-heavy groove that hints gently at the dancefloor, and “Can’t Help Me,” a folksy track that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Tracy Chapman era. H.E.R. is great at making music to fit into streaming service playlists; with more songs like these, she’ll be great at standing out from them. E.L.

9

Nao, ‘Saturn’

Contemporary R&B’s obsession with the lessons of late-Nineties neo-soul seems to grow with each passing year. On 2016’s For All We Know, the English singer Nao proved to be one of that style’s most astute disciples. But she moves past homage on her new album Saturn, incorporating afrobeats-inflected rhythms (“If You Ever,” “Drive and Disconnect”) and cheerful Eighties synth-funk (“Love Supreme”). She also proves herself a sterling duet partner: In “Saturn,” guest star Kwabs meets Nao’s sky-high soprano with a velvety baritone. At first listen, the chorus — “You’re just like Saturn to me” — seems a charming metaphor. Yet according to astrologers, Saturn is not the romancer but the disciplinarian of the cosmos, testing the mettle of every twenty-something on the physical plane. Those battle-scarred listeners will find plenty of comfort on Nao’s latest release. S.E.

8

Marsha Ambrosius, ‘Nyla’

Marsha Ambrosius, an R&B singer’s R&B singer, filled Nyla with odes to attraction. There’s “Bottle Fulla Liquor,” a fizzy, forceful record that could upend the right club on the right night, “I Got It Bad,” a polyrhythmic number in the vein of D’Angelo’s “Spanish Joint,” and “Let Out,” a candid, yearning ballad with great horn parts. But the killer works in a different mode: “Old Times” is an overwhelmingly bereft single focused on the downside of falling in love. Ambrosius sings with jagged force, worrying about her absent partner, fretting over distant police lights, not wanting to watch the news. For an artist with this much vocal ability, it’s harsh to hear her use her voice like a blunt instrument, and it works. E.L.

7

Queen Naija, ‘Queen Naija’

It was refreshing to see Queen Naija take a path to the airwaves that’s far more common in hip-hop than in R&B: The YouTube star turned a real-life break-up into a vengeful song titled “Medicine” and proceeded to storm the rap-centric SoundCloud charts. She picked up a major-label deal, and it turned out that “Medicine” worked as well with older listeners who tune into radio as it did with the young ones obsessed with SoundCloud: The single has spent multiple weeks at Number One in the world of Adult R&B. Follow-up “Karma” mined the same territory to lesser effect, but Naija’s debut EP contained “Butterflies,” a head-over-heels acoustic guitar ballad that suggests a long career after virality wears off. E.L.

6

The Weeknd, ‘My Dear Melancholy’

After the pop behemoth, Michael-Jackson-cribbing of 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness and the electronic surge of 2016’s Starboy, Abel Tesfaye’s surprise EP was a return to the mean. Brooding, acidic and vindictive, My Dear Melancholy rebukes one dissolved relationship (allegedly Selena Gomez) by uplifting a past one (allegedly Bella Hadid), and that’s what makes a line like, “Wasted times I spent with someone else/ She wasn’t even half of you” land with extra force. The Weeknd has spent his entire career documenting the various characters in his web. In a world of meaningless sex and never-ending highs, it’s refreshing to see Abel show a hint of regret, remorse, and dare we say it … love. C.H.

5

The Internet, ‘Hive Mind’

The Internet’s 4th LP is their most polished, full of tranquil Quiet Storm R&B and light-footed, live-band funk. The album plays as an extended conversation between lead singer Syd — her vocals are hyper-annunciated but gooey around the edges, massed and draped like a rumpled pile of sheets — and the bass lines of Patrick Paige II, which burrow, strut and stagger all within the space of a few bars. No one expected the rambunctious rap collective Odd Future to spawn a great soft-soul outfit, but that’s exactly what the Internet have become. E.L.

4

MihTy, ‘MihTy’

Ty Dolla $ign and Jeremih represent the last of a generation. They’re traditionalists still selling the promise of late 1990s and early 2000s R&B, even as their prolific streak of providing hits for others shaped the current musical landscape that threatens to swallow them. On MihTy, the two turn selfish and save their hook-making wizardry for a passion project of their own making. “New Level,” is the type of extra-ness R&B has been missing. Ty and Jeremih’s voices effortlessly swell, ad-lib, and harmonize with talent that few can replicate in the current rapper-turned-singer ecosystem. Their voices bounce over the delicate nursery rhyme “Take Your Time” and their falsettos crash upon melismas in “Goin Thru Some Thangz.” In 2018, the R&B throne was so vacant a would-be usurper could merely name himself king of the genre due to the dearth of worthy candidates. Mih-Ty is a consolidation of power. C.H.

3

Jacquees, ‘4275’

Before Jacquees was the self-proclaimed “King of R&B,” he was getting lost in the shuffle: The Cash Money-signed singer was known more for his remixes than his solo work. On his debut album, Jacquees proved that his vision is coming into focus. His quirks are all still there  — exaggerated vocal runs, meandering song structure and endless ad-libs — but between the bluster was humanity. “B.E.D.” might be the album’s biggest hit, but the heart of 4275 is “All About Us,” where the braggadocious singer finally lets his guard down. The track is devoted to his family, but as he sings “I’m having more success seeing all my ‘chievements/ When time get hard, we need someone to believe in,” it could easily be a metaphor for the genre that raised him. 4275 is an album of potential, and hopefully, this king can turn his trolling into inspiration. C.H.

 

2

Teyana Taylor, ‘K.T.S.E.’

Teyana Taylor’s transformation on K.T.S.E. is thorough. In 2014, she offered a conventional contemporary mix of rap and R&B, but this year, she was resolutely un-trendy, testing her range over samples from old low-rider soul records – including a version of Billy Stewart’s classic “I Do Love You” and the Delfonics’ confection “I Gave to You.” Taylor excelled in this setting, and K.T.S.E. ended up being the most fun of any of the albums from G.O.O.D. Music’s June release bonanza. The album ends with the four-on-the-floor rush of “WTP,” which offers a strong statement of purpose pulled from the documentary Paris Is Burning: “I want my name to be a household product.” A few more albums like this should do the trick. E.L.

1

Janelle Monae, ‘Dirty Computer’

Weaponizing Prince’s radically fluid funk-pop spirit for a new generation, Monae made a masterpiece that engaged politics without undermining the party. She invited seasoned masters to lend a hand, some old (Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder), some new (Pharrell, Grimes). But this is her show: angry, joyous and sexy, preaching queer, black and feminist empowerment, from the mic-dropping rap of “Django Jane” to the finale of “Americans,” an anthem of inclusivity that resonated hard in the run to election day, and seems only to grow in potency with each passing day. In an especially rough year, it was as inspiring as pop got. W.H.

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