It wouldn’t be surprising if we looked back at 2017 as something of a turning-point year for R&B, one where a new class of stars solidified themselves as the genre’s vanguard for the remainder of the decade.
Though some established names made welcome returns, this year was about the breakout talents: acclaimed artists releasing their official debuts after years of mixtapes, guest appearances and general hype, or brand-new names on the scene, likely only to get bigger from here. Whether from either coast or down south, north of the border or across the pond, exciting R&B emerged from just about everywhere in 2017, boding very well for both the genre’s immediate and long-term future.
Here are Billboard’s 15 favorite R&B albums of 2017.
15. R.Lum.R, After Image EP
With high-profile support from Spotify’s R&B playlists and the Vevo DSCVR campaign, Nashville-via-Florida artist R.LUM.R (pronounced Ar-Lamar) earned his hype with his debut EP. A fan of Sampha, Jack Antonoff and Dev Hynes, R.LUM.R. proved he’s a formidable talent in his own right on the passionate balled “Frustrated” and the R&B/pop/electronic-fused “Close Enough.” — GAIL MITCHELL
14. 1-O.A.K., Riding in Cars with Girls
Repping for Oakland, Calif., the aptly monikered 1-O.A.K. (born Brandon McFarland) rolled out another 2017 take-note debut with this 15-track album. The singer/songwriter’s reflections on love and relationships are shaped by such cuts as the lighthearted dance single “Lost & Found” and the Michael Jackson-vibed “Nature”. — G.M.
13. Mac Ayres, Drive Slow
Unpretentious blue-eyed soul centered around mom’s minivan, Drive Slow is the debut from 20-year-old New York native Mac Ayres, who grew up on Stevie Wonder in a family that wasn’t musically inclined. Seems like he lucked out and hogged all the talent. Songs like “The Devil’s in the Details” and “Slow Down” exemplify what makes the project work so well: Ayre’s sweet, full-bodied tenor and back-to-basics R&B songwriting, perfect for backseat makeouts. He doesn’t reach for heady concepts or ambitious metaphors, he’s just a chill white guy with feelings. — ROSS SCARANO
12. Nick Hakim, Green Twins
Nick Hakim’s full-length debut album doubles as a self-portrait of the singer/songwriter. Three years in the making, the project draws influences from a diverse record collection that includes Marvin Gaye, RZA, Phil Spector, The Impressions and John Lennon. Start with the title track and “Bet She Looks Like You,” then keep going. — G.M.
11. Sampha, Process
It was back in 2013 (if not earlier) when most of us first heard of Sampha, as the scene-stealing hook singer to Drake’s “Too Much,” but it took until this February for us to finally get a full album’s worth of him solo, with debut LP Process. Nonetheless, with the album’s trembling sonics and devastating songcraft, and songs like “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” and “Timmy’s Prayer” finding incredible strength in fragility, the wait was easily justified, as the London singer-songwriter arrived as one of the year’s most fully formed voices. The lesson, as always: Trust the Process. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
10. Miguel, War and Leisure
On his highly anticipated fourth album, Miguel effortlessly switches back and forth between sex, politics and hope — sometimes within the same song — and reconnects with his Mexican roots (“Caramelo Duro”) without missing a beat, or stinting on his insightful lyrics. — G.M.
9. Brent Faiyaz, Sonder Son
The singer/songwriter/producer had a surprise crossover hit this year with his guest stint on GoldLink’s platinum-certified “Crew” (a current Grammy nominee for best rap/sung performance), and also found success as a contributing writer on Syd’s highly acclaimed solo debut Fin. But Brent Faiyaz has been steadily staking his own musical claim since 2010 — closing out 2017 with this soulful, promising debut. — G.M.
8. Sabrina Claudio, About Time
An artist to watch in 2018, Sabrina Claudio makes moody bedroom music. About Time is the Miami native’s second project and it’s long on desire set to downtempo electro-R&B production. (“Unravel Me” is the immediate earworm, but “Everlasting Love” is the secret best song.) Claudio toured with 6lack in 2017, giving you an idea of where she’s coming from sonically. But there’s a tenderness to her work that 6lack doesn’t have — you just have to work for it. — R.S.
7. Kehlani, SweetSexySavage
The Bay Area-bred singer/songwriter followed up her well-received 2015 mixtape You Should Be Here with this fun and inventive foray into R&B, integrating the ’90s influences implied by the set’s TLC-inspired title without losing a shred of modern-day relevance. Produced by Pop & Oak, among others, the set features the irresistible singles “CRZY” and “Distraction.” — G.M.
6. Syd, Fin
Having gained notoriety as lead vocalist of The Internet and a member of the Odd Future collective, Syd (also a DJ, producer and audio engineer) puts her singing and songwriting on full display on this sophisticated debut. On tracks like “Insecurities,” “Body” and “All About Me,” the soft-voiced Syd calls to mind R&B of decades earlier — but stamped with her own unconventional swagger. — G.M.
5. Kelela, Take Me Apart
The uninitiated who witnessed Kelela’s dynamism as an opener on Solange’s 2017 Cosmic Journey junket got clued in quickly to what longtime fans knew from jump street when the singer/songwriter released her arresting 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me. During what turned into a banner year for new wave R&B, Kelela bowed her long-anticipated 2017 debut album to deserved acclaim. In tandem with a production crew that includes previous collaborators Arca and Jam City, Kelela confidently sets the tone with a visionary mesh of R&B, rhythmic pop, electronica, jazz and U.K. garage. At the same time, her supple voice maps out the time-honored trip from heartbreak and self-renewal to the aura and inherent fear of newfound love. — G.M.
4. H.E.R., H.E.R. Vol. 2 EP
Gabi Wilson’s been on the scene for a minute now, but it wasn’t until she began recorded as H.E.R. that her career really took off. (How long is the anonymity thing going to be a viable pop play?) The self-titled debut from H.E.R. collects tracks from two previous EPs and adds new selections of warm love songs. “Every Kind of Way” is indicative of H.E.R.’s best work: earnest and lovely, untainted by any drug-induced anhedonia. The 20-year-old artist wears her heart on her sleeve during a time when lots of R&B prefers to obfuscate — lyrically and sonically. She’s right here, singing to you. — R.S.
3. Thundercat, Drunk
Who else but Grammy-winning bassist Thundercat could musically bond with yacht rockers Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins and not have the pairing come off as cheesy? The trio’s mellow teamwork on the languorous groove “Show You the Way” is just one of the aural delights found on Thundercat’s third studio album. Whether you’re looking for an escape from everyday stress, just wanna have some fun and laughs, or need an album to keep you company during a bout of late-night insomnia, Thundercat’s instrumental and vocal ruminations provide the ticket to ride. Enhancing the chill-out vibe throughout the set’s 23 tracks of R&B fusion are additional guest turns by contemporaries Kendrick Lamar (“Walk on By”), Wiz Khalifa (“Drink Dat”) and sax guru Kamasi Washington (“Them Changes”), plus additional production by Flying Lotus and Sounwave. — G.M.
2. Daniel Caesar, Freudian
There must be something in the water: Toronto — home to Drake, Deborah Cox and Melanie Fiona, among others — has yielded yet another talented soul artist. Daniel Caesar ascended from elusive indie darling to first-time Grammy nominee by way of this stellar debut album. Drawing inspiration from his gospel roots while paying homage to R&B pioneers such as Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway, Caesar leaves his own indelible footprint as a standard-bearer of 21st century soul. His warm, ethereal vocals on the Kali Uchis-featuring breakout hit “Get You” opens the door to insightful treatises on love, hope and life embodied by album cuts such as the H.E.R.-assisted “Best Part” (who also earned 2017 breakthrough plaudits), “Hold Me Down” and “We Find Love/Blessed.” — G.M.
1. SZA, CTRL
The first lady of Top Dawg Entertainment made one of the year’s most auspicious debuts — and breakthroughs — with her first full-length album for RCA. SZA’s defiant, vulnerable-yet-soulful sound brims with a percolating mix of R&B, rap, jazz, pop and rock, enveloping real-life stories about sexuality, romance, loneliness and self-empowerment. There’s no filler here: The 14-track, Grammy-nominated Ctrl is rife with hits and noteworthy standouts ((“Love Galore,” “The Weekend,” “Sueprmodel,” “Doves in the Wind”, “Drew Barrymore”). The result is a cohesive, illuminating album that begins and ends strong — and also leaves you fiending for more. — G.M.