The 20 Best R&B Songs of 2018: Critics' Picks
It’s that time again: Billboard’s annual compilation of the top 20 R&B songs of the outgoing year.
In a year dominated by talk about hip-hop’s still-booming popularity, R&B more than held its own in 2018 with a diverse array of projects from a healthy mix of established stars and talented newcomers. Joy to the world indeed.
See our list of R&B favorites below.
20. Estelle feat. Luke James, “So Easy”
These two underrated talents come together on the fervent opening track from Estelle’s latest album, 2018's Lovers Rock. The set draws musical inspiration from reggae, dancehall and Afrobeats as well as the love story of Estelle’s parents. “I used to repeat the idea of needing it to be a whole mess of a relationship before it got to be good,” the “American Boy” singer told Vibe. “I don’t believe that anymore, I don’t want that anymore.” -- GAIL MITCHELL
19. Ne-Yo, “Good Man”
Thirteen years after notching his first R&B hit with the now classic “Stay,” Ne-Yo shows he still has his finger on the pulse of what sounds and feels good with this title track from his 11th studio album. The project’s overall themes, chronicling the trials and tribulations of relationships, is driven home via the song’s simple, heartfelt hook: “I just wanna be a good man, good man to you, girl That's all I want babe.” As Ne-Yo told Billboard last year, “I am walking, talking, living, breathing, emotion – that’s all I’ve ever been about since I started music.” -- G.M.
18. Mac Ayres, “Get to You Again”
Mac Ayres’ sensual and charismatic vocals are so refreshing in an era where R&B typically leans more trap than soul. “Get to You Again,” one of the purest examples of his talent, features near-saccharine croons that will take you back to the glory days of blue-eyed R&B singers like Jon B. and Robin Thicke. "The song in its simplest form is about reuniting with someone you’ve been missing,” Ayres told Billboard. “But when I was writing it, I was struggling to get back into a state of mind I was comfortable in.” -- BIANCA GRACIE
17. Alina Baraz, “I Don’t Even Know Why Though”
We’ve all been there at one point: running back into the arms of a lover who’s done you dirty dozens of times … while simultaneously questioning why you can’t seem to shake this person off. Baraz’s “I Don’t Even Know Why Though” perfectly captures that feeling, set to buzzy ‘90s-driven synths. “I love Mint Condition and have been listening to them nonstop for the past couple of months,” Baraz told Billboard last July about sampling the band’s "What Kind of Man Would I Be" on the track. “[When] I came into the studio, the producer said that we should do something with Mint Condition, which I thought was a weird [coincidence]. It definitely fueled my emotions that day.” -- B.G.
16. Mario, “Dancing Shadows”
Best known for the hits “Just a Friend 2002” and "Let Me Love You" from the early-mid '00s, Mario returned last year with his fifth studio album Dancing Shadows. He prefaced the 11-track album’s arrival with the sultry “Drowning,” about the struggle between infatuation and lust versus love. On the album’s title cut, Mario sets the mood by way of a smooth, sensual track that visualizes the intimacy he desires of his lover. His still dynamic tenor easily draws the listener in, as Mario imagines turning off the lights -- a hint as to what the night will bring. -- ASHLEY LYLE
15. MihTy (Jeremih and Ty Dolla $ign), “The Light”
When two modern R&B heavyweights such as Ty Dolla $ign and Jeremih come together, it’s bound to be a work of art. And the duo don’t disappoint with “The Light," whose infectious melody samples Keni Burke’s “Risin’ to the Top” (also used on the Mary Jane Girls’ classic “All Night Long”). The song’s upbeat vibe almost makes you forget that the love interest in question here is being propositioned in a playful yet explicit way. But overall, it makes for a perfect concoction to dance the night away to. -- A.L.
14. Normani feat. 6lack, “Waves”
After Fifth Harmony announced its indefinite hiatus last March, the group’s remaining members began staking their own individual musical claims. Since then, Normani has emerged as a confident R&B chanteuse. “Waves” is arguably her strongest solo effort to date, as she and featured guest 6lack volley back and forth while traversing a rocky relationship. The track’s slow-burning melody, paired with both singers’ brooding vocals, harkens back to the ‘90s heyday of singers like Brandy and Aaliyah. -- B.G.
13. The Internet, “Roll (Burbank Funk)”
Here comes a time when all you simply want to do is let go and dance. And what better song to abandon yourself to than The Internet’s “Roll (Burbank Funk).” Heavily influenced by ‘70s and ‘80s funk, “Roll” features Steve Lacey primarily leading the way, versus Syd in her usual role. The track is a feel-good moment that shouldn’t be missed. -- G.M.
12. Childish Gambino, “Feels Like Summer”
Following in the footsteps of his Grammy-nominated third album Awaken My Love!, singer/rapper Donald Glover evokes summer’s languid vibes on this slow jam that warms you from the inside out. The song's nostalgic, down-home vibe was given an appropriately wistful animated video to match, visualizing nearly all of hip-hop's heavy hitters as kids from the same block, getting into all sorts of warm-weather hijinks, without ever breaking the vibe of Gambino's calmly strolling avatar. -- G.M.
11. Nao, “Another Lifetime”
Mourning the end of a relationship, Nao taps into her personal side on the transparent and emotional “Another Lifetime.” The British R&B songstress is known for possessing an eclectic, electronic-leaning R&B sound that pairs progressive production with powerful vocals. Nao further explores that realm on her acclaimed second album Saturn. Lyrics like “How I wish I was perfect enough for my own heart” leads listeners to a place of sadness as they acquiesce in their shortcomings and mistakes. -- A.L.
10. Leon Bridges, “Bad Bad News”
Bridges takes a detour from his usual ballads with this upbeat song about the proverbial lesson of being able to turn lemons into lemonade. “They tell me I was born to love/ But I made a good good thing outta bad bad news,” sings an optimistic Bridges on the song’s catchy hook aided by a pulsing bassline. You can’t help but revel in his -- and your own -- hard-won personal victories after listening to this song. -- G.M.
9. Queen Naija, “Medicine”
Another very promising talent that emerged on the R&B front in 2018 was the Michigan-born singer-songwriter Queen Naija. The popular YouTube personality (more than 3 million followers) concocted the right prescription with her slow and vibey break-up anthem that gives a cheating ex a taste of his own medicine. Reasons a calm yet forthright Queen, "How would you like it if I do the things you do?/ Put you on do not disturb and entertain these dudes?" -- G.M.
8. The Weeknd, “Call Out My Name”
The Weeknd graciously returned to what he does best -- despondent, substance-fueled themes -- on his My Dear Melancholy mini-album highlight “Call Out My Name.” Driven by an unbearable heartbreak (which some argue is inspired by his falling out with Selena Gomez), the Toronto singer bares his strained soul atop a sludgy bassline. When he pleads, “I want you to stay even though you don't want me” on the chorus, it transports the listener to a desperate place: one where he or she once thought they could never survive with toxic love. -- B.G.
7. Tamia, “Leave It Smokin’”
This Salaam Remi-produced record finds R&B veteran of two decades Tamia confronting the sexual tension between her and her lover -- and fearlessly pushing to take it to the next level. Lyrics such as "I just wanna break every rule like criminals/ Savage individuals" underscore the depths of her emotion and passion. “Smokin’” climbed to No. 2 on Billboard’s Adult R&B Songs chart and No. 16 on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay. When asked by Billboard for the secret to her longevity, Tamia noted, "It's so important to put out quality music. Vocally, writing-wise, production-wise, staying true to yourself but also growing a little." -- A.L.
6. Mariah Carey, “Caution”
She’s back. Not only is Carey basking in the annual holiday glow sparked by her 1994 yuletide classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You," the pop/R&B chanteuse also celebrated her eighth No. 1 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums char with November's Caution LP. Carey’s 15th studio album, hailed by many critics as a refreshing return to form, features the standout, radio-friendly title track. The No I.D.-produced song finds a vulnerable yet frank Carey taking stock as she tentatively wades into a new relationship (“Proceed with caution, don’t be dishonest”) -- accompanied by a track that perfectly fuses nostalgic and contemporary beats. -- G.M.
5. Toni Braxton, “Long as I Live”
Toni Braxton flawlessly weaves her signature, deep-toned vocals around this soulful, mid-tempo track as she addresses what every woman can relate to: longing for a lost love who’s moved on with someone else. “When you think about love and that person is over you, it’s like you’re breaking up all over again,” Braxton told Billboard when “Live” was released. The song, which she co-wrote, picked up Grammy nominations for best R&B performance and best R&B song, while Sex & Cigarettes (up for best R&B album) is proof that Braxton has lost none of her special touch in the 25 years since she first hit the scene. -- A.L.
4. 6lack feat. J. Cole, “Pretty Little Fears”
Many artists have won debut acclaim only to fall victim to the proverbial sophomore slump. Not 6lack: The singer-rapper delivered a second solid body of work with this year's East Atlanta Love Letter. His monotonic vocals float over this minimalistic track as he pleads for his love interest to open up her heart and be more vulnerable. The smooth and catchy "hmmm" refrain adds to the song’s cleverness. An engaging J. Cole also contributes an introspective verse -- perhaps about his own wife -- that reflects on the ups and downs that come with the evolution of a relationship. In the end, the song heralds both appreciation and triumph. -- A.L.
3. Ella Mai, “Boo’d Up”
It’s the little sleeper song that could… and did. Originally released in 2017 from Londoner Mai’s third EP Ready, the song’s steady momentum propelled it to No. 1 on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay and then into the Hot 100's top five. No one was more surprised than DJ Mustard’s protégé herself. “I could never have imagined that so early in my career that I’d be ticking off boxes that I’ve dreamed about,” Mai told Billboard. With its warm, retro R&B feel and catchy chorus, this innocent ditty about newfound love has since picked up Grammy nods for song of the year and best R&B song. -- G.M.
2. Kali Uchis feat. Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins, “After the Storm”
After netting a Grammy nomination last year with Daniel Caesar on the latter’s ethereal “Get You," Colombian-American singer-songwriter Uchis swerved skillfully into her own lane with this track from her critically acclaimed debut album Isolation. The song’s tantalizing mix of smooth soul and funk perfectly captures the song’s light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel message: "If you need a hero/ Just look in the mirror” -- while further fortifying Uchis’ status as a member of the new R&B vanguard. -- G.M.
1. Janelle Monae “I Like That”
The multi-hyphenate artist debuted her most honest project to date, Dirty Computer, revealing a very personal and playful side. She also proudly came out as a pansexual woman in Rolling Stone. In the album's high point "I Like That,” she embraces her full being in all its complexities and out-of-this-world flair. "I'm left of center and that's right where I belong,” proclaims Monae, invoking the acceptance and self-love of a dynamic woman. -- A.L.