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R&B Albums And Singles Of 2014 With Alex Macpherson
Alex Macpherson , December 18th, 2014 11:32

Alex Macpherson looks over the last 12 months in R&B and gives us his top ten singles and top ten albums

"I've been very bored with R&B," snapped K Michelle when I interviewed her a few weeks ago. She went on to take aim at 1) white artists continuing to displace black artists on the radio and in the mainstream consciousness, 2) misogynist bro-R&B "talking about [women] like we're trash" courtesy of the likes of Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign, and 3) "everyone whispering over trap beats - barely singing!"

K Michelle went on to release the best album of 2014 in any genre in its closing month, partly by consciously clapping back at all three trends. Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart? found the Tennessee singer focusing her rage in the wake of a break-up while expanding her increasingly virtuoso range: over country, blues, rococo piano ballads and the kind of powerhouse anthems that brought to mind Bond themes, she excavated assorted forms of self-loathing and brokenness with a rare defiance - while retaining the sharpness to assert her right to feel whatever and fuck whoever she felt like. In its closing stretch, searching for a way to reconcile her need to love hard with the reality of the men she encountered, she turned first to Frankenstein fantasies ('Build A Man'), then to celebrity fan fiction ('Drake Would Love Me') and finally abandoned herself to a kind of wry acceptance: "God, I get it - I'm a mess and I admit it," she sang triumphantly in conclusion.

Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart? was a traditional R&B album in many respects, but also one that went against 2014's grain - not least because K Michelle's complicated, contradictory realness was in marked contrast to the too-cool low-key personae elsewhere. Not that this was inherently a bad thing. Prior to her major label signing, Tinashe had paddled in the shallow murk of indie-R&B on her self-consciously dark mixtapes - but her debut album proper, Aquarius, barely set a foot wrong. Tinashe managed to envelop you in atmosphere, but crucially remembered a) that atmosphere alone doesn't make for great production – cuts such as 'Far Side Of The Moon' and 'Indigo Child' were packed full of surprising, shifting details; b) to leaven her brooding with bangers, most notably the ubiquitous '2 On' but also the irresistible 'All Hands On Deck'; and c) to write some goddamn tunes. By contrast, Jhené Aiko mined similar aesthetic territory but wound up only with a snooze; her Souled Out barely stood up on its own terms, let alone the eyebrow-raising Sade comparisons that Aiko attempted to will into the discussion. Meanwhile, certain corners of the internet took Tink to their hearts, but on her Winter's Diary 2 mixtape she only showed real character when rapping; her singing voice is a barely existent wisp that can maybe carry two feet in front of her, and while this may be what those from a dance background who still see the singer as a tool within the production want of an R&B singer, I'm with K Michelle: it all makes me crave blood and guts and loudness.

It's probably not good form to pit sister against sister, but in the emergence of Mila J in Aiko's wake - technically a re-emergence, though it's not as if anyone noticed her the first time round - we finally found, amid the crowd of wannabes throwing around Aaliyah's holy name as though they had a right to it, someone who shared some of the R&B legend's actual characteristics. Aaliyah always had attitude to go with her understated cool, and a similar terse snap fuelled both of Mila J's terrific breakthrough hits in 2014: 'Smoke, Drink, Break Up', in which getting wasted proved the healthier addiction, and 'My Main', a paean to female friendship that felt extremely necessary in a year when the good girl vs bad girl binary seemed to be pushed harder than ever by male counterparts. (The decision to allow Ty Dolla $ign, whose misogyny was consistently offensive more because of its roteness than its existence, a guest spot on it, was baffling: I've spent much of the year since its release googling for an appropriate remix. [stares at Nicki Minaj meaningfully])

Getting wasted was also key to the uncertainty at the heart of another of the year's best radio hits, Teyana Taylor's 'Maybe' - a song that seemed to land, then hang, on the possibility of love at first sight as a ghostly distraction from the drunken, slurring reality. Taylor's performance wobbled neatly between impassioned and inelegant, but she too was sharp enough to turn the bro-R&B tables back on the dudes with a snarky little 'Or Nah' flip.

Probably the most exciting youthful trend was the bumping, snappy R&Bass - a subgenre that took the immense promise of DJ Mustard's dominance on rap radio and carried it to its frustratingly rare R&B conclusion. Tinashe's '2 On' - and, at the tail end of the year, Jordin Sparks' 'It Ain't You' - were brilliant anomalies: Mustard bringing danceable uptempos back to rap and R&B was most welcome but, it seemed, he preferred to grace dudes with his G-funk-for-2014 beats. Luckily, a slew of copyists emerged in his wake, and like a fake designer bag on a market stall, the fake Mustard banger proved to have a charm of its own. Critics Crystal Leww and David Turner wrote the essential primer to R&Bass in October; to their selections I'd add Danity Kane's 'Lemonade', which connected the dots from Mustardwave back to 2002-era Neptunes with its 'Grindin'' sample, and 2NYo's exuberant 'Roll With Me'.

All of this meant an uncertain backdrop for veterans, increasingly squeezed out of R&B's youth-oriented landscape and faced with the choice of playing safe to their own generation (and being ignored everywhere else) or clumsily attempting to jump on the latest trends. Except that wasn't really the choice at all, as demonstrated by the range of directions the genre's elder statesmen and stateswomen headed out in. Toni Braxton and Babyface, having spent a few years in the wilderness, kicked off 2014 by going back to their classic roots to make a grown-folks album about grown-folks issues, a wry and disappointed look at marriage that showed the young'uns that heartbreak is as raw in your 40s as in your 20s - but that your own imperious quality only ripens. D'Angelo brought the year to a close with the surprise semi-beyoncéd release of his long-rumoured third album, a sprawling and intricate work that it's still too soon to make any kind of sensible judgment on - the man spent 14 years making it, and I'm not going to do him the dishonour of making my mind up after 14 hours - but which is proving rather wonderful to absorb myself in.

Meanwhile, Mariah Carey happily retreated further into self-caricaturing indulgence, but her increasing ridiculousness - which might have peaked when she titled her 14th album Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse, were it not for the certainty that her capacity to outdo herself isn't done yet - belied the sharpening of both her knowing humour and, oddly, the sense that she's becoming more and more herself these days. It should also be noted that despite Carey's undisguised desperation for an old-fashioned hit, her album was far less craven in its pursuit of this than the younger singer so often named as her vocal successor, Ariana Grande, whose My Everything was a thoroughly unsatisfying attempt to cover all 2014 bases at once.

Unexpected changes of course came from Kelis, who swerved away from her usual modernity to opt for lushly arranged classic soul on Food, and pulled it off immersively and with her usual insouciance; and Mary J Blige, who ostentatiously updated herself after a decade of chasing trends by transplanting herself to London to work with Hot Young Things. It was a brave decision that paid of inasmuch as her voice has long needed this much space around it; it would have paid off even more had those Hot Young Things, such as Disclosure and Emeli Sandé, been half as cutting-edge as she thought. Like Jennifer Hudson's extremely likeable foray into disco and house this year, the results weren't unwelcome - but one couldn't help but wish both Blige and Hudson had plunged full-on into the kind of epic house beats that befit their vocal talents; Quentin Harris over Disclosure every time, basically.

R&B's odder, uncommercial fringes also came through. Meshell Ndegeocello's 11th album, Comet, Come To Me, proved to be her most relaxed and accessible since her '90s hip-hop days, while Fatima's Yellow Memories was one of the year's boldest and most striking debuts; the Swede-turned-New Yorker worked with Theo Parrish and Floating Points on it, but after some years as a session vocalist, it's her voice that resonates the strongest now, given acres of space to ruminate on family and journeying. Jesse Boykins III also teamed up with an acclaimed electronic producer; his Love Apparatus, produced with Machinedrum, was wonderfully spacey, intricate head music. Surely the oddest R&B record of 2014, though, came courtesy of Khia Shamone - yes, otherwise known as the rapper Khia of 'My Neck, My Back' fame, now self-releasing eccentric experiments in camp and entirely in her own lane. The R&B direction hinted at on 2012's MotorMouf was brought to glorious fruition on LoveLocs, which featured a nine-minute harp-driven epic, some of the campest house&B bangers you'll ever hear and a gender-reversed ragtime version of 'My Neck, My Back'.

Alex Macpherson

Top 10 R&B albums

1. K Michelle - Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart? (Atlantic)
2. Tinashe - Aquarius (RCA)
3. D'Angelo & The Vanguard - Black Messiah (RCA)
4. Toni Braxton & Babyface - Love, Marriage & Divorce (Motown)
5. Mariah Carey - Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse (Def Jam)
6. Khia Shamone - LoveLocs (Thug Misses)
7. Fatima - Yellow Memories (Eglo)
8. Kelis - Food (Ninja Tune)
9. Meshell Ndegeocello - Comet, Come To Me (Naïve)
10. Danity Kane - DK3 (Stereotypes)

Top 10 R&B singles

1. Mila J - 'Smoke, Drink, Break Up' (Universal Motown)
2. Kalenna - 'Murder'
3. Jessie Ware - 'Tough Love' (PMR)
4. Teyana Taylor ft. Pusha T & Yo Gotti - 'Maybe' (GOOD)
5. Yemi Marie ft. DLow - 'Love Bop'
6. Tamar Braxton ft. Future - 'Let Me Know' (Epic)
7. Mary J. Blige - 'Whole Damn Year' (Capitol)
8. Netta Brielle - '3xKrazy'
9. Sinead Harnett - 'High Wire'
10. Keyshia Cole, Mila J, K Michelle, Lil Mo & Da Brat - 'Loyal' (Remix)