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1 Thing: The Best R&B Of 2017 By Tara Joshi
Tara Joshi , December 6th, 2017 10:37

With the year drawing to a close, columnist Tara Joshi revisits the best releases from another rich year in the quietly radical genre

Kelela

R&B is never given enough credit as a radical or serious genre (partly, I suspect, because of its associations with some brand of femininity vs the hypermasculinity of hip hop) but some of its biggest players are very much thus. In 2017, R&B has encompassed more than ever, and while the brilliant Moses Sumney might object to being labelled as R&B, it’s also the case that a variety of artists who would self-describe as R&B are making boundary-pushing art. Whether it’s in taking ownership of blackness or queerness or sensuality, or delving into the political, or experimenting sonically – or even in immersing you in a sound that’s old and comforting – I’d posit that the best R&B is very often on the cutting edge, and this year’s strongest releases have been testament to that.

As we continue to fight for the legitimacy of certain sexual identities and for the rights of women especially to assert power in a world pervaded with toxic masculine sleaze – moreover, while we have to reinforce the validity of voices of colour under jarringly racist leaders – what R&B is doing is so important. Sometimes these are songs that speak truth to power, but more often they are songs that speak to romance and self-love and self-esteem – and these are things that feel increasingly important.

Whether you’re into quiet slow-jams or sugar-tinged upbeat numbers, or even leftfield electronica and boldly sexual lyrics, here are my ten favourite R&B releases of the year (compiled with some consultation from other esteemed tQ writers, and largely rehashed from what I originally wrote about them).

10. Miguel - War & Leisure (ByStorm Entertainment)

R&B’s current most cosmic player released his fourth album in the final part of the year, so I’ll admit I might not have had enough time with War & Leisure – possibly, it deserves to be higher up. Whatever the case, this is a record of lush and breezy psych-infused tracks that twinkle and bubble with polished production from the likes of Dave Sitek and Raphael Saadiq. For once the Marvin Gaye-meets-Prince sultry grooves don’t solely concern partying and pretty ladies (though there’s a lot of that), and there’s a subtle politics here. It’s not a full-blown woke makeover by any stretch, but the quiet urgency of closing track ‘Now’ is quite beautiful, lamenting the current US climate and calling for action – “Let’s not waste our common ground”. This is a gorgeous album that finds Miguel the most assured - and the most fun - he’s ever sounded.

9. Kehlani - SweetSexySavage (TSNMI)

Though its lyrics can be borderline empty and immature, Kehlani’s first proper album is a lot of fun, and struts with a confidence in the face of adversity – something which is reassuring to hear in the aftermath of her turbulent childhood and, particularly, her highly publicised mental health issues last year, which culminated in the former America's Got Talent singer attempting to take her own life. At its best, SweetSexySavage is a fabulous mish-mash of 90s/00s-style sounds: think glimmering beats, dapples of choral a cappella and warm vocals reminiscent of 3LW and TLC (the latter of whom are given a nod with the album title). After years at the hands of the press and derogatory, belittling comments about her legitimacy, ‘CRZY’ sees the artist defiantly take back control of her own narrative in beautifully catchy form. ‘Get Like’ has a sensual swagger, while ‘Gangsta’ (off the Suicide Squad soundtrack), brings an exquisite dissonance to the album’s closing. It's long, at 19 tracks, and slower numbers like ‘Hold Me By The Heart’ feel clichéd and unnecessary – but perhaps this can be attributed to Kehlani indulging herself rather than worrying about the criticisms of others.

8. BOSCO - b. (Fool’s Gold)

Opening with the sounds of a revving motorcycle, BOSCO’s b. project (not an album, but longer than an EP) is full of a certain unrelenting kineticism. The Atlanta artist has made a candid listen that bubbles with assured vocals and dreamy production that recalls 90s/00s sounds in the same vein as Brandy or even, to a point, Solange. The standouts come from Anna Wise-collaboration ‘We Cool’, all dream-pop guitars and nonchalant moments of sprechgesang over woozy harmonies, and ‘Cruel’, with its immersive synths and spangly keys.

7. Sonder - Into

There are not nearly enough R&B artists these days channelling those simple and sincere Boyz II Men vibes, which is why Sonder’s EP is such a joy. Made up of producers Atu and Dpat and singer Brent Faiyaz, this trio are bringing back ballad sounds very much in the 90s style. Tracks like ‘Too Fast’ boast the occasional deployment of soaring strings, and throughout the EP there is a sense of longing amid the gently compelling production – it’s intimate and romantic. This is not to say it’s corny, though: ‘Baldwin Park’ has rich pianos but glitchy drums, while ‘Searchin’ has a hypnotic, dissonant edge that puts it on the Timbaland spectrum. The latter features lines like “So don't let me put no pressure on you / if you don't think you’re ready / I'll only put pressure on it if you let me”, which feels a happy balance of chivalry and sexiness in the post-Robin Thicke “you know you want it” world. This is a beautiful EP.

6. Daniel Caesar - Freudian (Golden Child)

This slipped under my radar on its release, but Daniel Caesar’s music is the kind that makes you want to melt. The Canadian R&B-meets-soul singer’s debut album is replete with a rich, classic sound that delves dreamily into his uplifting gospel roots. Occasionally underpinned with organ warmth, his fluid vocals and impossibly romantic conceits are quite beautiful – in his Genius annotations he notes the marked difference between having sex and making love, and what he’s talking about on this record largely falls into the latter. All honeyed, sweet, and straightforward, Freudian is an album of sublime, timeless slow-jams.

5. Chloe x Halle - The Two Of Us (Columbia)

Atlanta sibling duo Chloe x Halle are perhaps names on your radar by virtue of one Beyoncé Knowles. The pair went viral with their cover of ‘Pretty Hurts’, Bey signed them to her management company Parkwood, and they appeared in Lemonade (as well as supporting Knowles on the European leg of her tour). Their engrossing debut EP, Sugar Symphony dropped last year, and mixtape The Two Of Us picks up where that left off. Opening track ‘Used To Love’ crescendos with clicks, a cappellas, and a hovering falsetto that all recalls Ibeyi – but just as you’re about to get too lost in the dreamy, wailing harmonies, the staccato sass of ‘Too Much Sauce’ begins, and the exciting feeling of defiance is pervasive. There are moments that recall the choppy, haphazard control of ‘Say My Name’-era Destiny’s Child, and the unrelenting sense of confidence, their striking vocal ranges, and the immersive production all make this a pleasure to listen to.

4. MHYSA - fantasii (Halcyon Veil)

The debut album from Philadelphia-based MHYSA has a brief cover of Beyoncé’s ‘Naughty Girl’ (the 48-second long a cappella ‘Tonight’), but the immediate comparison points are not with that particular R&B queen. The fact that the record ends with a striking, disarming take on ‘When Doves Cry’ - sweet vocals over production that sounds like bombs going off - feels more fitting: this is an album that embraces the diva’s blackness and queerness by being both sensual and strange, not unlike Prince. Indeed, it’s both vulnerable and sharp. Though a dark edge hovers throughout, one minute the album is full of glitchy abstracted production (such as on ‘Strobe’), the next it echoes slowly and smokily, pondering loneliness and whether an ex still thinks about her (the outstanding ‘Bb’), via juddering abrasive synths and the sounds of smashing glass on ‘You Not About That Lyf’. fantasii is an exquisitely put together album that highlights how, in spite of the music press’ tendency to consider R&B as a relatively basic pop form, it can be one of our most fearless and futuristic genres.

3. SZA - Ctrl (TDE)

SZA’s debut offers up a candid, confident airing of insecurities; be that via the prism of relationships - flings, being the other woman, and longer-term romances - or the prism of her own self-esteem. Though these are hardly unheard of themes in R&B, Rowe lends a gritty, surprising honesty to familiar areas through her sweet but assured vocals. Digital courtship is a recurring reference point on the album: in an age of social media and swiping, never has self-image been more ingrained into dating culture. SZA understands this craving for validation; as she puts it on ‘Garden (Say It Like Dat)’ - “You know I’m sensitive about having no booty, having nobody.” Whether she’s talking about shaving her legs or taking anti-anxiety medication, it’s hard to think of a recent R&B album that has captured the reality of being a young woman in such relatable, frank, affectionate tones.

2. Syd - Fin (Columbia)

In a 2016 interview with the Fader, Syd Bennett of The Internet/Odd Future fame spoke of her then-upcoming solo album in fairly casual, underwhelming terms: “For me, this is like an in-between thing - maybe get a song on the radio, maybe make some money, have some new shit to perform.” The truth is much greater than that though. Syd showcases her slouchy, wispy, sensual sound that is at once confident and vulnerable in herself and her queerness. In the case of anxiety vs braggadocio, the latter wins out, and it’s a joy to listen to - she seems to have taken notes from the Aaliyah school of seductively impressive R&B. ‘Body’ is thick with sexual humidity, emphasised with MeLo-X’s almost-sleazy production and Bennett’s serenely breathy vocals.

1. Kelela - Take Me Apart (Warp)

To lift directly from the interview I was lucky enough to do with Kelela for tQ this year, this is a record that deals frankly with relationships and sex – ‘S.O.S.’, for example, finds her texting a lover asking them to come around (“I could touch myself babe, but it’s not the same if you could stop and help me out”). There’s a visceral rawness to the whole thing, but none of it feels overbearing – instead, it’s delicate, deliberate, and highly curated, and reveals details and depths with each listen. Never as abrasive as her earlier work, sonically it flits intriguingly between sinogrime and sculptural soundscapes. It’s telling that some of the songs on Take Me Apart have actually existed for years, but are only coming out now – with striking prescience, as early as 2013 Kelela knew that she wanted tracks like ‘Enough’ and ‘Jupiter’ for an album, not the tape or the EP (“I knew when some things were born they just weren’t ready to be shared, because it didn’t fit the trajectory,”she told me. “This is not first season, this is deep in!”). In a year of spectacular and sensual R&B, Kelela pushed us further into creating something truly special.

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