It’s tempting to reduce the first half of 2016 to one album. Nothing else targeted the sweet spot between radio-friendly urban pop and pointed statements on race, sex and politics quite like Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a whirlwind of romantic tumult and feminist pride. But Rihanna’s Anti certainly tried, at least when it comes to ambition. Anti won quite a few fans with a mishmash of woozy alt-R&B tropes, arena power ballads, Motown-styled backbeats and, most enigmatically, a note-for-note cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Ol’ Mistakes.” Her sonic shifts don’t quite add up into the masterpiece she’s aiming for, but she maintains a terrifically magnetic presence throughout.
Both are typical of how the best R&B this year so far merely uses soul music as a starting point and defining element. Anderson Paak’s Malibu begins with his gospel-raised voice and, less frequently, a rambling rap style honed alongside subterranean crews like (the sadly defunct) Hellfyre Club; and then rambles across crate-digger beat loops and pimp-ish brags. His persona seems more rooted in indie hip-hop, at least for those unfamiliar with indie-soul predecessors like Sa-Ra Creative Partners. His L.A. colleague, saxophonist and producer Terrace Martin, wove rich Velvet Portraits out of Seventies black music styles, from simmering soul-jazz to hard cop-funk. BJ the Chicago Kid’s In My Mind ended a four-year wait for his major label debut, and gratefully thwarted expectations that it would be boorish sex jams on par with his cameo on Schoolboy Q’s “Studio.” Instead, In My Mind tries to find a balance between a secular life and Christian piety. His Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Cupid” is a shining moment.
Yet even that paradigm got stretched to its limits. U.K. singer-songwriter Laura Mvula is often depicted as a disciple of Nina Simone – she sings in a higher register than the late High Priestess of Soul, but her cadences are strikingly similar. More importantly, The Dreaming Room is just as iconoclastic: It bears elements of choral and soundtrack music, neo-New Wave, and even grime. Then there’s Esperanza Spalding, whose dazzling Emily’s D+Evolution revisits the Seventies jazz-fusion ethos of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira and the flower-power soul of Minnie Riperton’s Adventures in Paradise. Her update of jazz idioms seemed fresher than Robert Glasper’s Everything’s Beautiful remixes of sundry Miles Davis studio material. Glasper’s Black Radio formula of contemporary jazz and neo-soul is starting to sound a little predictable, although it’s still a worthy listen thanks to imaginative turns from Erykah Badu (on “Maiysha”) and Hiatus Kaiyote (on “Little Church”).
As for the kind of contemporary R&B heard on the radio, well, there wasn’t much of it, at least in full-length form. It’s unknown whether promised new albums from Frank Ocean, Usher (whose Flawed is rumored to drop in July), Tinashe, Kehlani, and other BET Jams staples lie in the not-too-distant future. For now, there’s Eric Bellinger, who continues to flood the market with same-sounding mixtapes like Eventually; and Jacquees, whose Mood and Lost at Sea mixtapes with Birdman find him continuing to search for momentum beyond Datpiff.com.
In the meantime, there is K. Michelle’s More Issues Than Vogue. With her leaps between Nashville-styled country, the kind of liquor-soused sing-rapping favored by Drake and emotionally naked balladry, the LP may be a little scattershot. But it’s a ton of fun, not least due to the heel clicks and finger-snaps that comprise her “Rich” duet with Yo Gotti and Trina. Tweet’s Charlene is a marvelous swirl of acoustic soul and dulcet odes to romance and spirituality, as well as a marvelous comeback from a woman whose 2003 Southern Hummingbird debut seemed like an early Aughts fluke. After three years in major label purgatory, Ro James finally broke through with a black radio hit in “Permission,” a Willie Hutch-sampling throwback that underlines his Eldorado debut. And Yuna’s Chapters, which boasts cameos from Usher and Jhene Aiko, demonstrates that the Malaysian pop star is an insightful lyricist who only needs a stellar single or two to earn mainstream attention.
Farther afield lay the idiosyncratic Adrian Younge’s Something About April II, his latest testament to deep funk and psychedelic movie soundtracks. After years of acclaim for singles and EPs like “Mister Chameleon,” critically lauded trio King released their dream-like synth-soul debut We Are King. Dawn Richard‘s Infrared is a minor suite of electronic pop that merely sets the stage for her triumphant return to major label contention with Red*emp*tion this fall. And does anyone remember Amerie? Formerly known for the go-go brilliance of her 2005 classic “1 Thing,” the singer has renamed herself Ameriie, and her self-released Drive EP includes plenty of bubbly jams that deserve a wider audience.