The Best R&B of 2013

The best R&B albums of 2013 feature long-time stalwarts and compelling new voices, ones that harken back to the genre’s rich past as well as those that project a bright future for it.

 

Artist: John Legend

Album: Love in the Future

Label: Sony

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John Legend
Love in the Future

John Legend said in an interview this year that he thinks Love in the Future might be his best record yet and there’s a good chance he’s not wrong. If Get Lifted, his 2004 breakthrough smash, sometimes felt like the chronicles of a young star obsessed with sex, this set sometimes feels like the diary of a grown man obsessed with his wife. And as everyone from the Beatles to Michael Jackson have proved, maturity can be one hell of an attribute to stumble across when it comes to songwriting.

“The Beginning…” has the balls to actually sample Sara Bareilles and then get away with it as the singer croons about the most important meal of the day with metaphors abound. “Caught Up”, meanwhile, is moody and minimal, most likely a product of Kanye West‘s constant influence that runs rampant throughout the bulk of the songs. There’s a reason for that, of course — the singer noted that he’s never worked closer with the Chicago rapper than he did here — and the results are both exciting and interesting. Yeah, it’s no secret that the guy knows how to craft a piano-based ballad that tugs at your mother’s heartstrings, but who knew he could sound this…fresh?

Thus the reason for Love in the Future being one of the year’s best: It’s a surprise. While John Legend could have been on auto pilot from here on out, riding on the wings of “Ordinary People” and “Green Light” until the air becomes too thin, this guy had no problem exploring the fringe of worlds for which he’s not typically known. If this set is supposed to put a cap on his first decade as a solo artist, the next ten should be awfully compelling. Colin McGuire

 

Artist: John Newman

Album: Tribute

Label: Island

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John Newman
Tribute

Released in October, John Newman‘s Tribute did well in almost every corner of the earth not named America, where it is still awaiting release. It’s a shame, too, because this, a blisteringly emotional debut from the wise-beyond-his-years 23-year-old, needs to be heard worldwide. With a vocal style that borrows from fellow Englishman James Morrison and an accessibility not unlike Robbie Williams, Newman’s tones are unique and versatile, a welcome change of pace in a world becoming far too reliant on cutting, copying, and pasting.

Yet while his next of kin might be an obvious revelation, his raw talent is almost unparalleled. If Newman can’t win you over on the visceral “Losing Sleep”, on which the singer resorts to a near-shout to get his point across, check out the warm funk of album-closer “Day One”, an aggressive, moody three minutes as addicting as they are dark. None of this means he can’t pull off the ballads, either. “Down the Line” gives little more than a piano, some strings and that voice — that painful, longing voice — and succeeds without doubt.

If 2013 was the year John Newman broke through into a good bit of Europe’s broken hearts, 2014 ought to be the year the western world takes notice. The guy is a master at writing songs that beg to be played in arenas, and Tribute, if nothing else, proves that the artist behind them is certainly worthy of the stage. Colin McGuire

 

Artist: Kelly Rowland

Album: Talk a Good Game

Label: Republic

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Kelly Rowland
Talk a Good Game

Talk a Good Game shows Rowland emerging at long last from the shadow of her frenemy and former comrade in Destiny’s Child, Beyonce. For this album, Rowland worked mainly with famed hit-maker Terius Nash, aka the Dream, who helped write Beyonce’s mega-anthem “Single Ladies”. But Rowland didn’t aim for the big pop smash on Talk a Good Game. Instead, she worked to create an album about coming to terms with your lovers, your past, and yourself.

The album centers on the song “Dirty Laundry”, a piano-driven ballad reminiscent of R. Kelly’s “A Woman’s Threat”. “Dirty Laundry” gives Rowland the chance to voice long-held feelings and finally expel demons. She sings about being jealous of Beyonce’s success, the difficulties faced by women in the recording industry, and a possibly abusive relationship. She faces her pain and takes an important step towards overcoming it. Talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk is another matter entirely. On her latest release, Rowland does both.

At other moments on the album, Rowland samples Joni Mitchell, channels Stevie Wonder or ’90s hip-hop soul, and brings in rappers (Pusha T, Wiz Khalifa) not as aids, but as foils. It’s not a surprise to hear her bounce back with vigor — after all, Rowland sang, “I’m a survivor” — but that doesn’t make it less enjoyable. Elias Leight

 

Artist: Trombone Shorty

Album: Say This to Say That

Label: Verve

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Trombone Shorty
Say This to Say That

Come for the Saadiq, stay for the Meters. No, but really: Trombone Shorty‘s Say This to Say That is without question the artist’s most complete record to date, and none of it could have been possible without the help of the former Tony! Toni! Toné! leader or, for that matter, a reunited version of one of funk music’s best-kept secrets. Troy Andrews might be a bunch of things, but above all else, he’s a hell of a groove machine, and try as you may, there is no way you’re sitting still while listening to the majority of this record.

“Long Weekend” is the song of his life, a throwback to a feel Bruno Mars made fashionable again with “Treasure”. No cheeky video and pop-star push? No problem. The tune’s unmistakable funk and stuttering drum fills every few measures more than make up for it. “Get the Picture” then slithers through with a perfect amount of laziness, recalling the heat of Stax Records and the soul of James Brown as Andrews makes his play for a headlining slot at a 1960s Apollo party. “Vieux Carre” is the best of what we know Shorty can do: A percussive, drum-line-esque backbone with enough bright horns to keep an attic out of the dark, even if nobody pays the electric bill.

Say This to Say That proves that the Saadiq/Andrews marriage is one made in rhythm and blues heaven. Turns out, Raph’s touch has been the missing link between Trombone Shorty and a special kind greatness. Now, how long until we are blessed with whatever “That” may be? Colin McGuire

 

Artist: Jessy Lanza

Album: Pull My Hair Back

Label: Hyperdub

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Jessy Lanza
Pull My Hair Back

Canada’s Jessy Lanza loves mixing electronic textures with R&B’s frank expressions of feeling. Working with Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys, Lanza creates tracks oozing pinpoint, breathless falsetto, and thick, bludgeoning bass. The percussion, all manners of snaps, clicks, and flat, ’80s-sounding slaps, keeps changing. This injects a shifty feel of unease into the proceedings, hinting at movement and tension beneath a calm surface.

The title track is a master class on funky minimalism. “Pull My Hair Back” starts with a slow stream of programmed drums, gradually incorporating things as it goes — a synthesizer sustaining single notes for long periods, spare keyboard, something hollow sounding and unidentifiable. When Lanza climbs the scale and launches into the hook, she’s joined by some low-end and a few other instruments, all playing simple patterns. It creates an undeniable explosion of emotion, but never breaks the mellow spell. The result for the listener is described by the title of another track: “Giddy”. Elias Leight

5 – 1

Artist: Bilal

Album: A Love Surreal

Label: eOne

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List number: 5Bilal
A Love Surreal

The man born Bilal Sayeed Oliver was listening to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as the seeds for this record were planted, and yes, it shows. In fact, not only does it show, but it single-handedly leads to the suggestion that A Love Surreal may just be the artist’s most expansive set yet. And for a guy who loves stretching the parameters of traditional soul music beyond its accepted incarnations, that’s quite the notation.

“Butterfly” is the closest to free jazz Bilal has ever gotten, and that’s not to suggest he’s never been close. Backed by a sparse piano, the singer transforms his commanding falsetto into shapes impossible to categorize and at nearly seven minutes, it redefines the word progressive in the rhythm and blues vernacular. “West Side Girl” picks the beat up, but keeps the simplicity front and center, assuring its spot among the most accessible tunes here. “Winning Hand” then trots along with its glove-like groove and layered vocals to remind listeners that there’s far more to digest than a mere first taste.

Then again, that’s what makes Bilal — and, for that matter, A Love Surreal — so fascinating. He’s not bound by the rules of tradition, nor is he a product of expectation and environment. Mr. Oliver is his own person indeed and there may not have been a more transcendent R&B record throughout all the calendar year. Surreal isn’t just the right word; it’s the only word. Colin McGuire

 

Artist: Raheem Devaughn

Album: A Place Called Loveland

Label: Ingrooves

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Raheem Devaughn
A Place Called Loveland

Raheem Devaughn believes that a man singing love songs in falsetto has eternal appeal, and that the formula doesn’t need to change much — only receive a few updates here and there. He puts his money where his mouth is. A Place Called Loveland is Devaughn’s fourth album, and he’s become more comfortable over time, making this release one of his most concise and tuneful.

The song “Pink Crush Velvet” illustrates all Devaughn’s abilities. It’s got two components — a rising and falling synthesizer buzz that updates the up-and-down melody from countless Stax ballads and a big set of keyboard notes reminiscent of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones”. Devaughn orchestrates his own call and response, moving between pleading, precise falsetto, and a lower, more earthly register. He shows impeccable vocal control and a modern sensibility, but the old folks will understand it too, despite — or because of — its risqué content: “Pink Crush Velvet” does not refer to flowers or upholstery.

There are a handful of other songs, including “Wrong Forever” and “Complicated”, that achieve a similar trick, building around structures that have grounded soul for more than 50 years, but changing a beat here, or a bass sound there. By attaching himself to tradition but remaining unafraid to tweak it to suit his needs, Devaughn ensures his longevity. Elias Leight

 

Artist: The Internet

Album: Feel Good

Label: Odd Future

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The Internet
Feel Good

With Feel Good, the Internet quietly released one of the most ambitious — and appealing — R&B albums of the year. This is their second album, and hopefully now the group will be known for something besides containing the one girl in the rap group Odd Future (also Odd Future’s DJ). Syd tha Kyd is both those things, but she’s also part of a project that creates impressive, distinctive work in its own right.

Feel Good runs the gamut from neo-soul to classic funk to murky, wandering tunes — one song title here is “Wanders of the Mind” — that morph and evolve in front of your eyes (and ears). The three-and-a-half minute single “Dontcha”, all sputtering bass and sweet, high vocals, is the ear candy that invites you in.

This can be a bait and switch, though: three of the songs are longer than seven minutes here, and one stretches past ten, reinventing itself several times. The bass frequencies are suitably thick, the rhythm flickers, synthesizers and electric keyboards lurch and buzz, unfolding easily and unhurriedly. If Aluna George seem the epitome of the modern, harbingers of what is yet to come, the Internet represents a gentler bridge to the future. Their path is built around a sturdy, all-encompassing, timeless concept: exploring the possibilities of groove. Elias Leight

 

Artist: Janelle Monáe

Album: The Electric Lady

Label: Bad Boy

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Janelle Monáe
The Electric Lady

You can’t have a Best Of R&B list in a year Janelle Monáe decides to put out an album… and not have her on the list, can you? Well, even if you could, The Electric Lady is good enough to make sure that doesn’t happen. Fun, smart, bombastic, and wildly ambitious, the set establishes the singer as a force that not only will be around for a while, but also as an entity imperative to pay attention to, no matter what year, no matter what setting.

Trying to pick highlights is like deciding who the best player on the original Dream Team was. There’s the Solange collab “Electric Lady” that transports listeners right back to the mid-’90s radio soul of Brandy and Monica. There’s “Givin Em What They Love”, which features a cameo from Prince, stopping by to remind the universe that the two are forever kindred musical spirits. Then, of course, you have the Migel duet, “PrimeTime”, that proves Ms. Robinson can slow it down with both triumph and tradition. Oh, and if you thought she only works well in a couples setting, there are plenty of singles to go around — see the intergalactic funk of “Ghetto Woman” or the serious vocal chops featured throughout “Look Into My Eyes” if you still have doubts.

It’s a wild ride, The Electric Lady, but would you seriously expect anything even remotely tame from such an individual artist as Janelle Monáe? At one point, you feel like you are tuned into AM radio while the next, you’re wondering if Blackstreet will be lingering around the corner, and even then it’s not long until you begin to think the whole thing is just one big soundtrack to a weird dream. But then again, that’s what she does best: Weird. And dream. Colin McGuire

 

Artist: AlunaGeorge

Album: Body Music

Label: Island

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AlunaGeorge
Body Music

It’s hard to think of something sounding more up-to-date, or even futuristic, than Body Music, the debut full-length from AlunaGeorge. Only the three-song EP released in advance of the album gave away the surprise. Body Music sifts through various strains of electronic dance, hip-hop, synthesizer funk, and R&B from the late ’90s and early aughts, when the genre was simultaneously at an experimental and commercial peak. The music of AlunaGeorge is omnivorous and forward moving, suggesting that the past is interesting — after all, it spawned the present — but not a source of constraints or rigidity.

Who needs guitars in 2013? Body Music is thin, propulsive, and mostly created by the machines. There’s sing-song chanting in “Best Be Believing”, vocal distortion in “Bad Idea”, pure swagger in “You Know You Like It”, touches of Aaliyah homage, moments of layered vocals cohering in a sugary rush. The only misstep is a cover of Montell Jordan’s 1995 hit “This Is How We Do It”. But AlunaGeorge smartly makes the tune a bonus track. One thing doesn’t seem to be so different in the future: love songs, and interpersonal relationships, remain paramount, so R&B, in some form, will always have a place. Elias Leight

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