While COVID-19 claimed its share of headlines in 2020, so did R&B. Thanks to an illuminating mix of newcomers, rising stars and veteran acts, the genre maintained the upward course it’s been charting over the last four years — and proved that 21st century soul is just as insightful, exhilarating and engaging as in decades past.
Here are our ten favorite R&B songs from the year that was.
10. Jam & Lewis feat. Babyface, “He Don’t Know Nothin’ Bout It”
It’s a Verzuz connoisseur’s dream come true: The beyond-legendary behind-the-scenes team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis joining forces with iconic singer-songwriter-producer Babyface for a throwback ballad. If you thought you were getting anything but the highest-grade steal-your-girl anthem here, you clearly haven’t been listening to R&B for the past 35 years; over a satisfyingly lush sway, Face tut-tuts his subject’s inattentive lover, “He don’t understand what you go through/ He ain’t got a clue what love really means to you.” The head-shaking disappointment is palpable, as the trio seems to be saying to the unsatisfactory BF: If you haven’t learned from us by now, you never will. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
9. Charlie Wilson, “Forever Valentine”
There’s no age limit when it comes to creating good-sounding R&B. Charlie Wilson, everyone’s favorite uncle, proved that with “Forever Valentine.” Fans of each other, Wilson and Bruno Mars helped co-write the song with Mars doubling as co-producer with production team The Stereotypes (Mars’ Grammy-winning “That’s What I Like”) and D’Mile. The result is this fun, infectious romantic romp that waxes both contemporary and nostalgic while spotlighting Wilson’s warm, church-honed vocals. Not only did the song land Wilson his seventh No. 1 on Adult R&B Songs, he also became the first artist to reign over the tally in each of the last three decades with new No. 1s. — GAIL MITCHELL
8. Jazmine Sullivan,“Pick Up Your Feelings”
Sullivan adds to the canon of post-breakup, “come get your stuff” songs with “Pick Up Your Feelings,” shifting from practical (“You’re off the lease, run me my keys”) to scorching (“Need a ride? Call that bitch”). In less-capable hands, the mid-tempo track — driven by bass notes, a hi-hat beat, atmospheric panning and a sprinkling of piano — would’ve remained understated. But Sullivan turns it into a blistering rebuke, tossing off pristine vocal runs as effortlessly as she issues raspy, forceful exclamations of “boy, please.” Lest you forget how dynamic a vocalist she is, Sullivan released a stripped-down performance video of the song; if the original version is intended to wound, the live rendition is out to obliterate. — CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
7. Victoria Monét, “Moment”
Monét bottles up the “moment” of finally being alone with a crush in this velvety slow jam, in which a woozy melody creeps toward a glorious crescendo, strings flutter like a heartbeat and her angelic vocals seem to float over it all. “F–k a fantasy, this is your motherf–kin’ moment,” the songwriter — largely known for her work with Ariana Grande — proclaims in the NSFW chorus. And with “Moment” coming off Jaguar, Monét’s own sleek new project, that line could just as easily describe Monét’s ascending career. — TATIANA CIRISANO
6. Kehlani feat. Masego, “Hate the Club”
A choice cut from Kehlani’s bar-raising album It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, “Hate the Club” dissects a dilemma many women can relate to: setting aside their dislike of the club scene in the hopes that a certain someone drops in. Kehlani cuts to the chase on the opening line, “Tired of going out, scared I’ll run into you,” before segueing to the chorus: “Damn, you know I hate the club/ But I came ’cause I knew you’d show up/ Maybe if I drank enough/ I’ll make my way over to ya.” Kehlani’s ethereal vocals and Masego’s mournful sax float on and around a jazzy track that will have you pressing repeat. — G.M.
5. Chloe x Halle, “Do It”
Billboard’s 2020 Women in Music Rising Star honorees challenged the perception of being “little perfect angels” on their sophomore album Ungodly Hour. Helping to blur that perception is “Do It,” their party-themed hit and newly minted Grammy nominee for best R&B song. Bringing their own estimable skills as writers and musicians, the sisters collaborated with songwriter Victoria Monét (Ariana Grande) and production vet Scott Storch (Beyoncé, Summer Walker). With its bouncy, trap-styled production, elegant synths, silky harmonies and catchy lyrics (“I’m just with the crew/ We ain’t out here looking for boo”), “Do It” is devilish fun. — G.M.
4. Kem, “Lie to Me”
“You’re listening to Love 101/ From the top of the world,” announces Kem on the funky bass-and-brass first single from his fifth Motown album, Love Always Wins. Kem began writing the love song three years ago about his now-wife and polished it with writers Salaam Remi, Anthony Hamilton and James Poyser and producer Derek “DOA” Allen. “You don’t have to change a thing,” Kem reassures. “I already got the ring/ I’m ready to wife you, girl.” With nary a commitment issue in sight, the song staked a seven-week claim at No. 1 on Adult R&B Songs, marking Kem’s sixth time topping the chart. — C.W.
3. Usher feat. Ella Mai, “Don’t Waste My Time”
On this irresistible, generation-spanning team-up, Usher and Ella Mai play it like KC & the Sunshine Band used to way back in the day: Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight. That’s the order of operations as the two circle each other on the club floor, anxious to get to business, while gentle strings and an unassumingly frisky beat prod them on. “Let’s be lovers and friends,” Mai insists with a wink, reminding us that we’ve been in good hands with her duet partner’s time-efficient come ons for a couple decades now already. — A.U.
2. Ledisi, “Anything for You”
Soul powerhouse Ledisi returned after a nearly three-year hiatus to release “Anything for You” — a soothing ballad about the power of love — right when the world needed it most. Lending her soaring vocals to a lulling, traditional R&B groove, the singer declares, “I will love you past forever” without a hint of exaggeration; her words beam like a ray of sunlight. While Ledisi has said that the song answers Nina Simone’s famous call for art which reflects the times, “Anything For You” still exudes the warm nostalgia of a time-worn classic. — T.C.
1. Skip Marley feat. H.E.R., “Slow Down”
You never know what’s missing until it’s there in front of you. Case in point: the inspired pairing of Skip Marley and H.E.R. on “Slow Down.” His and H.E.R.’s innate, soulful chemistry percolates throughout as Marley patiently implores his romantic interest to slow down and revel in their unfolding love story. Rounding out the magic is the track’s fresh, body-swaying fusion of reggae and R&B, culminating in Marley’s first No. 1 on Adult R&B Songs. As H.E.R. told Billboard following the song’s ascent, “When the vibe is organic, the people feel it too!” — G.M.