The 10 Best R&B Albums of 2018: Critics' Picks

Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe

While the rap game was a bloody battle royale all year long, R&B continued to crawl its way back into prominence, due to some of its most promising new artists and most respected veteran artists combining to keep the genre fading from the spotlight.

A slew of singer-songwriters like Jorja Smith, Ella Mai and 6lack drew acclaim and breakthrough numbers for their impressive projects. Marquee names like Mariah Carey and Janelle Monae added to their formidable catalogs with unblemished releases. And even a long-underrated talent like Teyana Taylor was able to elbow her way into the genre's upper echelon with her 2018 mini-opus.

R&B is here to stay. So haters, keep that same energy. See our picks for the top 10 best R&B albums of the year below. 

10. Mac Ayers, Something to Feel

Working from the same DIY, groove-heavy space as his first project (2017's Drive Slow), Mac Ayres levels up the old fashioned way on his sophomore album: just by getting better. As a vocalist, as a songwriter, as an instrumentalist, the 21-year-old soul musician is deeper on Something to Feel. He told Billboard in July that he recorded most of the album at his home on Long Island, with his friends, and the playful, sincere spirit of camaraderie informs the loose 35-minute record. (“This Bag” is a song about wondering whether to spend the rest of your little bit of cash on some weed -- it lasts two minutes, which isn’t too much longer than how this sort of decision plays out IRL.) Check his falsetto on “Under” or the bold transition three-quarters into “Roses” -- you’re hearing confidence. Mac's making the music he wants to, and nothing else. -- ROSS SCARANO

9. SiR, November

SiR is here to stay. The Inglewood native kicked off 2018 bringing listeners on a trip to another galaxy in the form of his dreamy November album, which serves as his official TDE debut. “One spliff a day, keeps the evil away,” SiR croons on album standout “D’Evils,” which he admitted to Genius was inspired by Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt deep cut of the same name. That self-medication allowed the egotistical 32-year-old to fully flesh out his exotic vision with computer narrator “K,” as fans could immerse themselves and get lost in the unpredictable genre-bending space odyssey, before ultimately returning to reality from the temporary mind excursion. -- MICHAEL SAPONARA

8. H.E.R., I Used to Know Her: The Prelude

H.E.R. is slowly becoming more comfortable with her newfound fame, as she moves to the forefront of R&B’s resurgence. After performing at the BET Awards in June, the former child prodigy released her seven-track I Used to Know Her: The Prelude later in the summer to further state her case as a force to be reckoned with. The concise EP kicks off with a nostalgic flip of Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones,” where the (now-Grammy-nominated) singer flexes her pen and shows off her range as an artist. “Lost Souls” would be an outlier on the project, as the 21-year-old flips back to somber love ballads that revel in the heartbreak of a failed relationship on tracks such as the wrenching Bryson Tiller-assisted “Could’ve Been.” H.E.R. breaks out of her shell in a sprint to the finish line, radiating with self-confidence on project closer “As I Am.” Did we mention she hasn’t even released her official debut album yet? -- M.S.

7. Jacquees, 4275

Jacquees is bold as fuck. After audaciously proclaiming himself the "King of R&B" earlier this month, the silky crooner has been slapped with criticism from all sides of the globe. "Who is he?" "What songs does he have?" Well, in case you didn't know, last June, the youngster stitched together one of the best projects this year with his debut LP 4275. Drenched in pure R&B goodness, the "B.E.D.'" singer cradles listeners with his silvery vocals. Not only does he entice the ladies with his slow jam "House or Hotel," but he recruits '90s legend Donell Jones for his slick players anthem "23." Cockiness might run deep in this kid's veins, but so does his love for real R&B. -- CARL LAMARRE

6. 6LACK, East Atlanta Love Letter

6LACK openly struggled with heartbreak and pain in his 2016 debut, Free 6lack. But two years later, the singer has seemed to discover how to cope with all of his emotions in a healthy way. East Atlanta Love Letter is a moody invitation to 6LACK’s mind, as he reflects on his successes on “Loaded Gun,” tries to deal with a cracked relationship on the J. Cole-assisted “Pretty Little Fears” and taunts non-believers to put themselves in his shoes on “Switch.” The sophomore album is a lesson in how processing pain can lead to thoughtful and positive growth. -- BIANCA GRACIE

5. Teyana Taylor, K.T.S.E.

Surely nobody was ready for Kanye's curveball last May when he revealed G.O.O.D.'s Music five-mini-album rollout, especially Teyana Taylor. Still, despite Ye's unconventional approach, Taylor marched her way back into the R&B conversation with the eight-track K.T.S.E. Yes, sample issues nearly railroaded the Harlem singer-songwriter, but like the true New Yorker she is, Taylor weathers the storm and concocts a mesmerizing sophomore attempt. "Gonna Love Me" is an undeniable bop, while "Hurry" is a slow-burning heater too tough to extinguish. After a four-year hiatus, K.T.S.E. is definitely a comeback to be proud of. -- C.L.

4. Blood Orange, Negro Swan

Following 2016’s Freetown Sound, Dev Hynes gets even more introspective to explore the black plight of growing up as an outsider in England. The 33-year-old sets the tone with luscious instrumentation, as Hynes pushes the boundaries of R&B, integrating elements of alt-pop, rock, jazz, soul, and funk. His fourth album under the Blood Orange moniker hones in on mental health in the black community, making the effort a timely one. Hynes also calls on Diddy and transgender rights activist Janet Mock to narrate parts of the cinematic LP with inspirational messaging, and makes sure to end the harrowing ride on a more victorious note, crooning on album closer “Smoke,” “The Sun comes in, my heart fulfills within.” -- M.S.

3. Mariah Carey, Caution

With Christmas having come and gone, you and the Lambily members in your life no doubt turned to Merry Christmas and its unsinkable holidays perennial "All I Want for Christmas Is You" for your extended weekend soundtrack. But if we may humbly suggest: Maybe in 2019, try out Mimi's new Caution set for this time of the year instead. The gentle ten-track effort showcases Carey at her most reflective, nostalgic, and yet resolute -- taking stock of love and life and pushing forward into whatever comes next -- over crackling, glowing R&B grooves you can warm your frosty hands on, aided only by a close circle of friends and associates. "All I Want" is the fantasy of the holiday season: expansive, overjoyed, universal and eternal. Caution is the reality of the holiday season: intimate, bittersweet, personal and fleeting. -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER

2. Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer

After exploring her archandroid metropolis for two consecutive albums, Janelle Monae decided to shed her robotic armor and allow the deepest, most vulnerable parts of her intricate personality shine with April’s Dirty Computer. The stunning concept album fit right in with 2018’s revolutionary theme, as various minority groups -- from the women behind the #MeToo movement to the LGBTQ+ electives earning government positions -- were unapologetic in making their voices heard. Monae was no different, with songs like the self-loving “Pynk” and the vagina-monologuing “Django Jane” warmly reflecting the confidence (and sometimes the struggle) of being a black queer woman in this harsh socio-political climate. -- B.G.

1. The Internet, Hive Mind

There’s no grand message, no narrative arc, just deep grooves and dope songwriting about everyday wonders, like respectfully hollering at sexy women and being supported by your homies while doing so. It’s a delight that one of the year’s best, most well-received R&B albums is 1) by a band, and 2) by a band fronted by a queer black woman. The songs are simultaneously tighter and catchier than 2015’s Ego Death; the members came together, trimmed back the shag and captured indelible moods, like the nerves of inviting a partner over (“Come Over”) and the thrilling anticipation of making the first move (“Mood”). Crucially, though, they make time for uplift (and Big Rube spoken word!), on “It Gets Better (With Time),” a reminder of “soul music’s moral authority.” There’s nothing this music can’t do. -- R.S.


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