While hip-hop has pretty much unanimously become the most popping/popular genre du-jour, r’n’b is having its own major moment, quietly off to the side– or perhaps, not-so-quietly, at this point. Never has a yearly round-up so heavily demanded that we cover r’n’b albums in their own right, simply due to the sheer quality and amount of albums released under the umbrella this year.
It’s been a long time coming, too. A lot of the artists featured on our r’n’b list below have been at this thing for a minute, and thus, each album here reflects a sort of culmination of the given singer at the hand, whether or not it’s a debut, sophomore, or otherwise. And indeed, the list is varied– we have debut albums from newcomers as well as more established r’n’b stars returning to the fold, and even some more underground vets making a comeback too.
Perhaps the increase in appreciation for r’n’b simply comes from the times we’re living in too– we could all use some of that heart-warming, soulful, or emotionally-driven music when we’re dealing with the constant state of flux and uncertainity that is a pandemic. Perhaps it’s simply due to these artists experimenting and finding new ways to incorporate the genre into other sounds. Perhaps it’s TikTok. Whatever the case, we’re excited to see where 2022 takes r’n’b.
For now, we’re reflecting on the Top 10 Hottest R&B Albums of 2021 below. We, unfortunately, couldn’t fit everyone on the list, and thus we have a few Honorable Mentions listed as well, and let it be known, the Honorable Mentions are just as tough as the rest of the list, really.
Let us know who your favorites were, and who else we’re missing on the list below. Check out Top 30 Hottest Hip-Hop Albums here.
Shelley FKA DRAM – Self-Titled
JoJo – trying not to think about it too much
Asiahn – The Interlude EP
Gallant – Neptune
Jasmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
10. Majid Jordan – Wildest Dreams
Majid Jordan ventured into new territory with Wildest Dreams, and it worked. The duo still brought that sort of mellow-80s-inspired vibe they’ve become known for, however, it has a certain energetic twist to it, calling on elements of pop music to sustain them throughout the tracklist and push them to areas they’ve yet to explore– and indeed, could explore more in-depth, still. This was done masterfully on their lead single, “Summer Rain,” a flurry of r’n’b, pop, and electronic music intertwining over an 80s-esque synth line. And while the duo straddles this intersection across Wildest Dreams, they also keep a certain level of softness to the project that evokes their original style of hazy r’n’b.
9. H.E.R. – Back of My Mind
Where we’ve seen r’n’b expand and reach new heights as far as the genre’s sonic exploration, H.E.R.’s long-awaited debut album, Back of My Mind, brings us back to our roots, with a sound that feels both grounded and timeless. The singer’s powerful voice dominates any beat, including the hip-hop-steered productions such as “Trauma” featuring Cordae and “Find a Way” with Lil Baby, as well as the drum-heavy, soulful production of “Bloody Waters” with Thundercat. Nonetheless, the majority of the album is filled with the type of guitar and piano-led ballad that have come to define H.E.R.’s sound, from “Damage” to “Don’t,” the 21-song tracklist doesn’t skimp on beautifully-produced, emotionally-fueled love (or break-up) songs.
8. Mereba – AZEB
Mereba returned with a new EP in 2021, following up 2019’s debut full-length, titled The Jungle is the Only Way Out. Where TJITOWO offered us something meaningful but a bit dark in sound, her EP, AZEB feels a bit lighter musically, while continuing her exploration of folk-meets-r’n’b. AZEB opens on a softer note than TJITOWO, at least when it comes to production– it feels as though we’re readying for flight as soft piano keys usher us along, with Mereba giving us no-nonsense bars; the delicateness of her voice contrasting the heaviness of her lyrics: “Ayy, ayy, it’s a war like every day / Defeat spread like a disease / I need peace, I need trees / Got me fucked up / Got my bucks up / With my chucks on / And my blunt tucked.”
This trend continues throughout the rest of the seven-song offering. Mereba uses her voice to juxtapose the light steel drum sounds on the tropical-esque album stand-out “Rider.” She floats effortlessly across AZEB, which she also had a hand in producing, further emphasizing her talent. And among those talents; she manages to encapsulate a world of meaning into every line she delivers, pushing for change and empowering her fans, while soothing them with her music in the process.
Summer Walker’s highly anticipated follow-up to her debut album, Over It, continues down a similar path, as Summer contends with a different man’s antics and proceeds to grapple with, and attempt to get over, a relationship gone awry. Interestingly enough, the man she’s dealing with on Still Over It is also the executive producer/main producer on Over It— that is, London On Da Track. While Still Over It, unfortunately, doesn’t top the pink-themed work that Summer and London first created, it’s still a worthy soundtrack for anyone going through a break-up, or about to, and reveals another layer to Summer and London’s much-publicized relationship. The album brings the listener into the nitty and gritty of their issues, with Summer naming London outright (in case there was any confusion) in the album opener, “Bitter.” Elsewhere, she simply (/strongly) alludes to London, such as with album closer, “Fourth Baby Mama,” where she even goes so far as to call out his mother.
Summer, then, once again uses her emotional baggage to fuel her creativity, building sounds around her heartache (and triumph, every now and then), and bringing the listener into her world. There is still a prevailing ‘90s throwback tint to her world, too, especially on songs like “Insane,” “Constant Bullshit,” and “Screwin’” with Omarion — which, equally, are among the album’s most exciting.
6. Yebba – Dawn
Yebba had a bit of a secondary breakout year in 2021, thanks in part to prominent placement on Drake’s album with “Yebba’s Interlude,” which was capped off with a heartfelt and deeply personal debut album of her own, Dawn, titled after her mother, whom Yebba lost to suicide shortly after she went first went viral in 2016.
Yebba’s debut is nothing short of stunning, an album that takes you through the emotions of grief, and a few moments of necessary, frivolous forgetfulness too, as Yebba reminisces and copes with the loss of her mother over a uniquely blues-inspired album. Production comes predominantly from Mark Ronson, with contributions from Yebba herself as well as one-off guests like Kaytranada and DJ Dahi. Those names alone give you a sense of the quality of production-minds that were behind Dawn.
While Yebba recalls someone like Dusty Springfield with the stark retro-ness of a song like “Boomerang,” elsewhere that vintage blues influence is less pronounced, turning instead to pop or contemporary r’n’b and hip-hop. Such is the case on songs like Smino-featuring “Louie Bag,” while her vocals remain a powerful centerpiece on the more pop-driven “Love Came Down” and “Stand,” whereas a song like “October Sky” explores a more folk-driven influence a la Sufjan Stevens.
It seems, then, whatever genre Yebba attempts to try, she can conquer, however, she thrives in a space that melds different sonic eras together to create something that feels comforting in its nostalgia, writing lyrics that feel personal and meaningful.
5. Snoh Aalegra – Temporary Highs in the Violet Skies
Snoh Aalegra captured the hearts of many an r’n’b fan with 2019’s ugh, those feels again, her second studio album under No I.D.’s ARTium. That’s not to discount her first album, either, but the singer gradually elevated into the r’n’b spotlight off the strength of her woozy, nostalgia-ridden vocals and her hard work. Of course, a co-sign from No I.D., Drake, and a deal with Roc Nation along the way didn’t hurt either. Regardless, there was plenty of anticipation for her third studio album, Temporary Highs in the Violet Skies, and the album didn’t disappoint.
With production from mainstay No I.D. and a few choice, high-profile collaborations, Snoh creates her own sonic universe, building upon the sound she established in her previous projects. Everything feels slightly tinged in the glammer of the ‘80s (and sometimes ‘90s as well, Snoh seems inspired by both decades), crystallized in a wistful dreaminess, with a clean, modern edge to it. The album opens in vintage fashion, a chipmunk-voiced Snoh reflecting on a lover that’s gone but not forgotten, before her vocals devolve into a soft piano jingle, as the singer admonishes her once-partner. However, this album isn’t strictly about heartbreak. Snoh explores different stages of the heart, from lustful passion (“Taste”) to overwhelming doubt (“Violet Skies”) to the everyday couple’s argument (“In the Moment”). She covers each topic with a certain carefree style that translates to the overall sunniness and relaxing quality of her music; even when things are going awry, she manages to keep the listener and herself, calm.
4. JMSN – Heals Me
JMSN is another one of our consistently underrated and overlooked figures in the r’n’b world, having been around since the height of the blogosphere. Starting in 2012 with the release of Priscilla– itself cementing a new era for the singer at the time– JMSN has released a new album basically every year since — but there was a noticeable break following 2018’s Velvet. In 2021, JMSN finally returned, and he brought a whole new sound with him. This is typical for the artist, whose sound evolution can be distinctly drawn from album to album, each offering a clear and fresh chapter in the artist’s atypical career arc.
As far as where Heals Me fits in– it’s heavily inspired and rooted in Latin music. “Rolling Stone” ushers us into the sound sweetly and easily, before the Spanish guitar pops up on “What Did I Get Myself Into.” The Spanish guitar maintains a frequent appearance from there, while JMSN himself also dabbles in Spanish lyrics on “Donde Estas.” Although Latin music is audibly a connecting theme across the album, JMSN doesn’t hesitate to intersect this sound with other genres and seemingly specific vintage influences when he sees fit (“Don’t Make Me Change”). This is a common trope for JMSN, however, who manages to occupy a space all of his own when it comes to the world of r’n’b.
3. Silk Sonic – An Evening with Silk Sonic
Silk Sonic, aka the duo consisting of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, ensured fans had a gift just in time for the holiday season with their debut studio album on Aftermath. While much of the r’n’b landscape these days is visibly inspired by an era bygone, An Evening with Silk Sonic truly takes this idea to another level, feeling as though it could have legitimately been released in the ‘70s with a heavily-funk inspired sound.
Over the course of 9 songs, and just thirty minutes, Silk Sonic manages to transport us to a different time and place, somewhere with bell-bottoms, burnt orange shag rugs, and full live bands still in style– indeed, Silk Sonic’s album credits include everyone from their saxophone player to the trombonist to the violinist. Thus you get a sense of the breadth of the musicality on An Evening with Silk Sonic. It’s not only the production, however, that seeps the album in its retro feel, both Anderson and Bruno help their cause with their distinctly smoky vocals.
An Evening with Silk Sonic follows a clear musical and relationship arc, as the album opens with the smoother, slower jams such as the lead single “Leave the Door Open,” in which their relationship seems to be new and in full bloom, before building to the album centerpiece with their second single “Smokin Out the Window,” where the love seems to be souring, something is changing– leading us to “Put on a Smile” where the singers appear to be on the brink of defeat. The mood doesn’t last too long though, as they’re quickly uplifting us with the three songs that follow, each exploring a different facet of a good time, ending on a mellow, psychedelic-approving “Blast Off.”
2. Tems – If Orange Was A Place
Tems was not only one of the biggest breakout stars of the year, she also dropped a stunning major label debut effort, and the second EP of her career, titled If Orange Was A Place.
Over the course of five songs, Tems fills our minds with the soothing effects of orange (if it were a sound). The singer adeptly introduces a whole relaxed vibe on If Orange Was A Place, carrying the listener off into the sunset with the EP closer “Vibe.” The EP’s sound is grounded in Tems’ Nigerian roots, however, she’s also not afraid to latch on to and incorporate more traditionally-American elements of r’n’b and pop. Thus the dancehall-lite vibes of “Crazy Tings” and “Replay” are punctuated by the acoustic guitar-driven “Found” featuring American r’n’b darling Brent Faiyaz. At just five songs, Tems manages to not only wholly satisfy our appetites for her percolating, feel-good sound, but piqued our interest for her debut album, and offered a certain reassurance that whatever comes next from her, it’ll be damn good.
1. Serpentwithfeet – DEACON
Serpentwithfeet, born Josiah Wise, seems to be the sort of best-kept-industry secret that is not-so-secret anymore. The artist has been tapped to collab with everyone from Ty Dolla $ign and Kanye West, to Bjork and Ellie Goulding, and he seems to be finally getting his due praise, following the release of his debut album soil, in 2018, and now with the deeply lush and intricate follow-up, DEACON.
The album broaches a subject that is not oft touched when it comes to traditional r’n’b let alone hip-hop as a whole: Black, gay love. Serpentwithfeet is soul-baring across the 11-track opus in a way that feels both familiar and refreshing. However, it is not simply unique lyrics that set DEACON apart, it’s the richly beautiful and experimental production, handled predominantly by serpentwithfeet himself.
DEACON feels like a candle-lit, warm bath; the soundscape, rooted in gospel influences, creates a certain amount of comfort in the record, leaving serpentwithfeet to explore and re-invent the genre elsewhere. Often, this means incorporating layers of vocals into the framework of the beat, thus providing the listener with a second layer of music to absorb, making the album a truly immersive experience with a sound that is wholly consuming, thrilling, sweet, sexy, experimental and yet, still cohesive. The album opener “Hyacinth” showcases this perfectly, as serpentwithfeet begins with delicate, stripped-down vocals beside simple piano keys while elements are slowly added to build something luxurious, creating a modern twist on a vintage sound.