Women in Music 2018

The 20 Best R&B Songs of 2017: Critics' Picks

Getty Images; Design by Jessica Xie
From left: SZA, Frank Ocean & Childish Gambino

While hip-hop and dance stayed at pop music's center in 2017, R&B managed seep its way into the mainstream, in ways both satisfying and unpredictable.  

Thanks to a couple too-good-to-ignore crossover hits, and a quasi-reinvention from one of pop's biggest stars, R&B was an increasingly regular presence on top 40 radio throughout the year. And with several of the genre's most promising talents percolating just below the surface, the genre's slow trickle into the 2017 mainstream could lead to a full-on tidal wave in the years to come.  

Here are Billboard's 20 favorite R&B songs of 2017.

20. PARTYNEXTDOOR, "Peace Of Mind"

OVO Sound’s resident sad-boy R&B songsmith stayed busy in 2017, releasing two EPs of material. “Peace of Mind,” from COLOURS 2, had the most staying power, standing out from the pack for its frank songwriting and straight-to-the-point hook. “I did crazy things and she still waited on me” is the sort of lyric you recognize in your chest. -- ROSS SCARANO

19. Jazmine Sullivan & Bryson Tiller, “Insecure”

Featured on the season two soundtrack of the popular HBO series of the same name, this mid-tempo track showcases two of contemporary R&B’s game-changing players. Sullivan’s soaring-voiced dismay at her significant other’s insecurities provides the perfect counterpoint to Tiller’s crooning tenor. -- GAIL MITCHELL

18. Toni Braxton, "Deadwood"

The voluptuous-voiced singer prefaces her upcoming eighth studio album with this left-of-center, guitar-driven track about a complicated romance. The feel of the melodic cut and its piercing lyrics portend what’s in store on Toni's forthcoming Sex & Cigarettes LP. As the R&B legend told The Insider in September, “I wanna say what I feel. I don't wanna be censored.” -- G.M.

17. August Alsina, "Don't Matter"

Not everything is alt-R&B. Nola’s August Alsina released this perfectly The-Dream-indebted single in June and real ones haven’t let it leave the rotation since. With a chorus anchored by those familiar cries of “Ay!” “Don’t Matter” is like home cooking. You’ve been here before and it’s nice to be back. -- R.S.

16. Ty Dolla $ign feat. Damien Marley & Skrillex, “So Am I”

One of the few Ty Dolla-graced singles this year not to hedge its bets with some sort of '90s hit interpolation, "So Am I" probably could've worked in some Inner Circle or something if the singer-producer was really determined to maintain brand consistency. But it doesn't need it: The song's hypnotic beachside bounce (assisted by Skrillex, apparently on permanent dubstep vacation) is warmly evocative of the dancehall crossovers of 20 years ago on its own, while its squawking pseudo-drop keeps it rooted in 2017 without sounding so trendy to risk Airport Reggae drubbing. -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER

15. Sevyn Streeter, “Before I Do”

Is a potential lover for real or not? That’s the question Sevyn Streeter asks on this standout track from her Girl Disrupted debut album. The singer’s sultry vocals glide over a mellow groove that effortlessly recalls Aaliyah’s cover of the Isley Brothers’ classic “At Your Best (You Are Love)" -- never a bad thing. -- G.M.

14. H.E.R., “Free”

Long after the last note has sounded on this aching ballad, H.E.R.’s haunting vocals on the confessional chorus still linger: “You don’t ever say forever / Layin’ next to me / But nights like this I wish I never / Said that I was free.” -- G.M.

13. Kelela, “Frontline”

With “Frontline,” Kelela recorded the special opening track that’s so good, so purposeful, it could’ve been the album's closer too. The song has so many parts, so many musical ideas, it feels like a movie -- you’ve gone on a journey by the time it finishes. And yet it never feels overstuffed or scatterbrained; this is a breakup song that leaves you feeling refreshed, like you can do anything. “Why are you testing me?” she asks rhetorically. She’s got the answer spring-loaded: “I’m not the one.” -- R.S.

12. Syd, “Got Her Own” 

On this understated highlight from her Fin album, Syd soulfully extols admiration -- and longing -- for a female peer who’s crushing it in terms of financial independence. “Heard she drive a Beemer and she got it on her own,” Syd sings on the yearning chorus. “Heard she was a dreamer but she sleeping all alone / I just wanna meet her 'cause I just wanna know.” -- G.M.

11. Jeremih feat. Chris Brown & Big Sean, “I Think of You”

With "This Is How We Do It" being played out at seemingly every karaoke night and '90s-themed party of the 21st century, a shift in retro-attention to Montell Jordan's second-best hit, "Get It On Tonite," has been long overdue. Luckily, Jeremih remembers: His "I Think of You" is as close a tribute to the 1999 hit's slinking groove and frisky energy as you can get without risking lawsuit. It's so much fun that Big Sean can't help but sneak in a guest verse at the last second. -- A.U.

10. Jacquees, “B.E.D.”

Cash Money jumped into the R&B bigtime in 2017 with this explicit anthem from Jacquees, using Avant’s 2003 R&B/pop hit “Read My Mind” as the song’s springboard. The young crooner told Billboard of the lift, “I started singing [the Avant hook] over the beat. We knew it was going to be a hit the moment we heard it.” -- G.M.

9. Jessica Ware, "Midnight"

Nothing could've quite prepared Jessie Ware fans for the towering power balladry of "Midnight," the lead track on third album Glasshouse, which essentially throws the curtains open on her earlier sensual slow jams to bathe them in jarringly bright moonlight. Over an insistent Prince-via-"Bennie and the Jets" stomp, the British singer-songwriter wails with increasing urgency, "This moment is made for you and I to go higher - higher - HIGHER - HIGHER!," before pulling back to calmly plead "...can you meet me in the midnight?" Lord help you if the answer's no. -- A.U.

8. Frank Ocean, "Chanel"

“My guy pretty like a girl/ And he got fight stories to tell” might be the best opening couplet of the year. That it signaled Frank Ocean’s renewed commitment to releasing music made it all the sweeter. Frank didn’t ghost on us in 2017 and of the loosies he released, “Chanel” felt the most essential to his evolving story. It laid out the themes he’d explore in the year’s subsequent releases and featured some of his most evocative writing to date. “I know you need to try for my belt,” he sings in a tone that lets you know the competition is zilch. Seeing both sides is good and all but there’s no point in arguing about Frank’s place at the top of the game. -- R.S.

7. Miguel, “Told You So”

The second single from Miguel’s War & Leisure harkens back to the singer/songwriter’s ‘80s-inspired EP series Art Dealer Chic. On this funky turn, Miguel dishes out multiple intentions: Is he talking to a lover or jabbing a finger at the country’s present and past social unrest? Both situations are depicted in the song’s video. Either way, the song ultimately reveals Miguel’s adeptness at delivering sly-yet-resonant messages. -- G.M.

6. Daniel Caesar feat. Kali Uchis “Get You”

Perhaps more than any other genre, R&B produces songs that feel instantly timeless, like you’ll be hearing them at weddings for generations to come as love springs eternal. “Get You,” Daniel Caesar’s collab with Kali Uchis is a gentle ode to romantic luck. “Who would’ve thought I’d get you?” Caesar sings on the hook, expressing neatly that dumbstruck feeling we all hope lasts forever. -- G.M.

5. SZA, “The Weekend”

You know you’ve got something when a Grammy winner does an impromptu cover of your song. But even before Miguel’s riveting version (and its top 15 status on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs tally), “The Weekend” was among the stellar tracks singled out by critics when SZA released debut album Ctrl. The track samples “Set the Mood (Prelude)” from Justin Timberlake’s 2006 album FutureSex/LoveSounds, but it’s all about SZA here, as her soft, emotive voice searingly conveys the conundrum of sharing a boyfriend with other females: “My man is my man is your man, heard it’s her man, too.” - G.M.

4. Childish Gambino, "Redbone"

"Redbone" achieved its No. 12 peak on the Billboard Hot 100 over half a year after its debut, and unlike some stupefying chart slow-burns, this one actually made sense: The narcotic creep of Childish Gambino's first true crossover hit initially lands as "above-average P-Funk tribute," proving itself something timely and unique only many listens later. Luckily, pop culture gave us the opportunity for the necessary exposure, as the song was ultimately revealed to be equally fit for a Twitter makeout meme as a foreshadowing musical cue in a horror comedy, simultaneously seductive and foreboding and just infectious. Without "Redbone," Glover is still likely known in the U.S. as an actor with a musical side career, with the undeniable soul smash, he's one of the most-nominated artists at this year's Grammys. -- A.U.

3. Khalid, "Location"

The takeover began here. Pop upstart Khalid’s debut single “Location” makes magic from a contemporary dating request. The Kylie Jenner cosign surely helped but the song’s appeal is broad, even if the lyrics get specific to this phone-dependent generation. -- R.S.

2. DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller “Wild Thoughts”

Here’s another perfect example of updating a classic vibe. Carlos Santana’s 1999 No. 1 pop and R&B hit “Maria Maria,” featuring The Product G&B, provides the foundation for DJ Khaled’s blast-from-the-past refresher course. Santana’s scorching guitar riffs fittingly underscore the sexual heat and wild thoughts radiating from Rihanna and Bryson Tiller’s ingenious pairing. -- G.M.

1. Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like”

As with his guest appearance on Mark Ronson’s Grammy-winning “Uptown Funk," the similarly Hot 100-besting “That’s What I Like” added another mega-hit to Bruno Mars’ repertoire. A deft balancing act between retro and contemporary R&B with an earworm hook, “That’s What I Like” rightly became one of the most ubiquitous songs of 2017. The midtempo groove (co-written by Mars along with Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy and Philip Lawrence, plus production/songwriting team the Stereotypes), is also a multiple Grammy contender: up for song of the year, best R&B song and best R&B performance. -- G.M.

Billboard Year in Music 2017