It was yet another exciting year for R&B music. SZA’s sophomore album, SOS, released in December 2022, continued its winning streak throughout the year, becoming the longest-running No. 1 on Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart.
Over two million fans got to witness Beyoncé on her first tour in seven years.
Newcomers like Mariah the Scientist, Q, Mahalia, and Jordan Ward found ways to push forward, while seasoned artists like Smokey Robinson, Corrine Bailey Rae, Goapele and Omarion made notable comebacks.
It was also the year of collaboration, with joint projects by Alex Isley and Terrace Martin; Eric Bellinger and Hitmaka; and Raheem DeVaughn and The Colleagues, to name a few. As always, the Rated R&B team carefully listened to hundreds of projects to highlight the 25 best R&B albums of 2023.
25. Vedo, Mood Swings
Vedo treated his fans to not one but two albums this year. On Mood Swings, the first of the two, the singer/songwriter threads together songs that put emphasis on the album title. Being emotionally open plays a significant role on the project. In “Tell Me,” Vedo urges his lover to share what’s on her mind rather than focusing too much on how she expresses it. “Consistency” is a plea for his spouse to give him the same level of investment he gives her. Mood Swings isn’t all pared down with romantic complications. “Celebrate” is a smooth toast to the lady of the hour, while “You and Me” borrows from ’90s club R&B. Vedo is clearly under the influence of Usher and Chris Brown, but, with Mood Swings, he has no nerves in sight, making both R&B gents and the genre proud. – Antwane Folk
24. Chris Brown, 11:11
Between Breezy and his recent album, 11:11, Chris Brown continued to add stones to his jeweled, fan-dubbed crown, reaching No. 1 with a sleeper hit (“Under the Influence“), among other feats. Still highly energized amid his accolades and contributions, Brown embarked on a new era with “Summer Too Hot,” the lead single from 11:11 that scored him a nomination for Best R&B Performance at the 2024 Grammys.
Brown goes solo in the second half of 11:11. “Stutter” and “Need A Friend,” a pair of songs that precede the first single, stand out as some of Brown’s best, with their interpolations and samples serving as the cherries on top. Everything else on the last half is smart, radio-ready tracks, distinguished by their catchy refrains and optimal length.
When working with various artists of different genres, such as rap star Future (“That’s On You”) and singer Maeta (“Best Ever”), Brown is on fire. His solo efforts on this side of the album are just as accessible and can find him success in different parts of the globe, like the Afrobeats-tinged “Shooter” and the pillow jam “Feel Something.” If Chris Brown knows one thing about his fans, they crave his music. 11:11 is further proof that Team Breezy is at the heart of everything he does. – Antwane Folk
23. October London, The Rebirth of Marvin
Embodying the nourishing sounds of a soul legend like Marvin Gaye isn’t an easy task. October London takes on the hefty feat, elevating the sweet sounds of yesterday for a new audience on The Rebirth of Marvin. While the balladeer successfully channels the spirit of Gaye, it’s the sharp, orchestral production at play that truly makes this project sing.
“Back to Your Place” features a lush soundscape that burns slow and smooth like a cigar and sticks to the brain like grits days after an initial listen. And while, yes, the album is meant to be nostalgic in a sense, it puts London’s vocals front and center, particularly on “Rollercoaster” and “Midnight Love Affair,” where his falsetto and vigorous head voice shine.
Perhaps the most compelling thing about The Rebirth of Marvin is the recurring theme of putting love and compassion back at the core of R&B and soul in “You Give Me Love.” Some may say this intentional messaging gives the genre a much-needed return to form, but it reminds us just how influential it can be. – Anders Hare
22. TA Thomas, Caught Between 2 Worlds
TA Thomas’ Caught Between 2 Worlds is an unfiltered look at an artist wrangling with love and heartbreak. “But I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission,” Thomas croons in the titular track. Over slick 808s, the singer is in a frenzy over a relationship he refers to as a “natural high.” Thomas effortlessly connects listeners to his inner turmoil through his impressive vocals. But, he doesn’t spend all his time wallowing in limbo.
Towards the project’s climax, “Where U Belong,” Thomas paints a visual of a man who just wants his baby. He knows the recipe for good R&B lies in the duality of love. In the project’s closing minutes, Thomas manages to find peace within the turmoil as he focuses on his own healing over chasing hapless situationships. Caught Between 2 Worlds serves as a lovely course for listeners wanting to get the retro feeling of begging-and-pleading R&B of the ’90s with a modern edge. – Edward Dave
21. Naomi Sharon, Obsidian
Following a crushing heartbreak, Naomi Sharon finds solace in Obsidian, the title of her debut album, known as a protective stone that helps extract negative energies. Certain tracks uncover Sharon’s longing for love or to escape from the physical realm as the scuffing “Lucid Dreamer” tenses its grip on her heart. The tribal-minded “If This Is Love” delves into introspective lyrics about self-worth over the sounds of flowing water.
Sharon asserts her determination to avoid sadness in “Holding In Place,” a sign of her growth towards being undisturbed. “Myrrh” is another moving piece that evokes emotional support during Sharon’s most painful season.
Lust is rare on Obsidian, but when it arrives, like on the Afro-pop “Push” featuring Omah Lay, Sharon winds up her waist and backs up her derriere on an interest in the nearest corner of the club. “Every day in the studio was like a diary [entry],” Sharon told Rated R&B in an interview. If Sharon’s next entry resembles Obsidian in any way, we’ll provide her with the necessary writing materials. – Antwane Folk
20. Leela James, Thought U Knew
Thought U Knew weaves a vibrant narrative of a woman who knows her value. James fuses elements of neo-soul and R&B to great effect to illustrate her relationship woes. The title track sets the stage for the soundscape of the entire project with its funky drums and piercing saxophone conjuring up that soulful feel. However, the main star of the show is James’ room-shaking vocals.
Her instrument evokes a sense of strength and authenticity that comes from James’ warm range, which feels like a much-needed hug. “Faded” exemplifies this as she growls through the verses, as she recalls a scorned lover who leaves her in a stupor.
On the album’s closing record, “When It’s Over,” James reaches into her vocal bag of tricks and gives audiences a peek at the other facets of her voice. She employs her head voice to emphasize her resolve: “What is meant for me will always be.” James said the title track represents “the importance of getting back to yourself,” and the album itself, Thought U Knew, succeeds by giving audiences an honest view through the lens of a realized woman. – Edward Dave
19. Leon Thomas, Electric Dusk
Based on Los Angeles’ longest-running drive-in movie theater of the same name, Leon Thomas’ debut album renders as true-to-life film acts. “Cinema played a huge role in the inspiration for a lot of these songs. It was imperative to keep that foundation because these are definitely scenes from my life,” he shared with Rated R&B in August. Thomas totes between a myriad of interpersonal and individual relationship stages throughout the album, including the initial “getting to know you” period, the honeymoon phase and the point where forever is uncertain.
Known for his utilization of distortion, the calling card is an intentional aspect to set himself apart from his cohorts, while being a notable ingredient for listeners to trace directly back to him. Thomas’ sound has transformed over the years since his inaugural 2018 EP but the acoustically soulful skeleton has remained a mainstay.
A deeply personal record that nearly didn’t make the album is “My Will,” a murky introspection birthed from struggles encountered along his creative journey. “Crash & Burn” is one of the album’s highlights, perfectly merging his analog and digital musical qualities for a spirited “woe is me” number. As Electric Dusk is Thomas’ first LP, the official introduction to his artistry leaves quite an appealing impression. – Danielle Brissett
18. Cleo Sol, Heaven
Cleo Sol’s brand of raw, unadulterated neo-soul is like a magnet, drawing listeners in with her soft, yet pungent lyricism and delivery. Her latest album, Heaven, is a follow-up to 2021’s Mother in the best way possible. The LP builds on the tender melodies and self-empowerment anthems of her previous work, serving as a sonic hug for those looking for a light.
Songs like “Go Baby” deliver a message on the power of perseverance and tenacity, urging listeners to keep going, though the road ahead can be difficult. This positive reinforcement continues to the album’s title track, where she exclaims, “God sent you from heaven,” almost like an affirmation.
What’s most impressive about Heaven is that Sol refuses to settle for lofty words of encouragement that only deliver an abstract understanding of how to love yourself. This comes through on tracks like “Miss Romantic,” which force listeners to look themselves in the mirror and judge their decisions for themselves, similar to inward-looking songs like Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” or Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing).” It’s clear that Sol wears her life lessons on her sleeve through this album, and those experiences will only result in richer bodies of work in the years to come. – Anders Hare
17. Chlöe, In Pieces
In Pieces, Chlöe’s debut solo album, was released without four early tracks shared between 2021 and 2022, including her platinum hit “Have Mercy.” Not including them seemed a foolhardy idea, but the singer/songwriter/producer took another direction on In Pieces to better illuminate her emotions with acute vulnerability.
The album opens with “Pray It Away,” a church-ified track, where Chlöe contemplates losing her remaining righteousness to get back at a two-timer. Chlöe sleeps soundly on “Worried,” where she contently reiterates that she invested more in herself than her intrusive ex.
Throughout In Pieces, Chlöe leans into her strengths as a storyteller and vocalist. The sighing “Feel Me Cry” is less about a teary embrace between lovers and more about the aftereffects of her man making her love come down. Other strong moments come with “Looze U,” a harmony-heavy, quotable-packed ballad. In the eyes of overly critical online spectators, Chlöe had a whole lot riding on having a banner year with her solo debut. But, she may say she exceeded expectations. – Antwane Folk
16. Khamari, A Brief Nirvana
Khamari is an artist who trusts his instincts above all else. His debut album, A Brief Nirvana, is a musical triumph that vocalizes a desire for healing and awareness. The 11-track offering takes listeners on an emotional odyssey of the Boston native’s mangled headspace that eventually culminates in a revelation of choosing agency over escapism. “Uno momento, lost my momentum / Inhaling fumes from purple flowers / Losing track of all the hours,” Khamari croons on “Drifting,” an 808-laden beat that samples Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”
As the tale of Khamari’s growth continues, so too do the sonic elements of the project. On the D’Angelo-inspired “Tell Me,” Khamari punctuates the crevices of the song with a beautiful backing vocal that emphasizes his velvety tone. It threads into the project’s overarching narrative about realizing the toxicity of being in your head.
A Brief Nirvana concludes with “Requiem,” and makes a proclamation of valuing your life in the face of hardship. Khamari warns himself and his audience that we are “not guaranteed a second chance.” That line resonates deeply when you realize his journey from this album went from grappling with escapism and ends with him finding a place of solace. A Brief Nirvana succeeds largely because it is a candid snapshot of a man with no issue bearing his soul. – Edward Dave
15. Janelle Monáe, The Age of Pleasure
“My face card don’t come with a limit / I swipe it, I spend it,” Janelle Monáe opens up with the swaggering opening track, “Float,” featuring Seun Kuti and his band, Egypt 80. Immediately, Monáe ushers audiences into her sensual wonderland of sheer confidence and unabashed sexuality. The Age of Pleasure, Monaé’s leanest album to date, triumphantly reaffirms her audacious approach to music while simultaneously reframing narratives around her.
The story of The Age of Pleasure is simple: Monáe is in a beautiful stage in her life. Monáe combines celebratory and self-affirming music with an excellent fusion of Afrobeats, dancehall-R&B, and jazz with songs like the bottle-popping “Champagne Sh*t” and “Haute” as the result. The latter unapologetically puts her queerness on display, where Monáe fearlessly refers to herself as “pretty” and “handsome” and intentionally uses “they” to describe her admirers. Each new project from Monáe is an examination of her spirit and vitality that follows no particular trend except what is going on in her heart. With The Age of Pleasure, we see the culmination of years of self-excavation and freedom. – Edward Dave
14. Daniel Caesar, Never Enough
Never Enough recalls the indie, experimental space Daniel Caesar is known for. The Canadian singer decides to lean into his early influences of folk and country music this time around, taking a risk that’ll expand his reach. Caesar’s emotive expression blooms on his third studio album as he continues to offer up his vulnerability through the music.
He lays his feelings of removing himself from a floundering relationship against harrowing production on “Let Me Go,” one of the tracks displaying a glimmer of Caesar’s classic sound. The LP’s funk-tinged lead single “Do You Like Me?” gives perspective to two sides of a love triangle, questioning if his attraction for the remaining side is unrequited.
Taking a page from D’Angelo’s book à la “S**t, Damn, Motherf*****,” Caesar’s “Shot My Baby” recounts felonious reactions to infidelity by nicking alternative music elements to tell the dark tale. Hanging in the balance of bright melancholy, Caesar proceeds to fine-tune his ability to coax the beauty out of unsavory emotions and relationships. As he strives to elevate and evolve with each album, the act of adorning anguish and heartache is a comfort fans can rely on. – Danielle Brissett
13. Jorja Smith, falling or flying
Jorja Smith’s 2018 debut album, Lost & Found, told a coming-of-age story with songs she worked on from 17 to 20. On her second offering, falling or flying, the British singer navigates the nuances of various types of relationships. Leading off with “Try Me,” Smith holds her head high in the court of public opinion.
The album’s first half soars confidently and assuredly, playing into the flying theme. With flirtatious bops like the Latin-flavored bop “Little Things” and the Afrobeats-indebted “Feelings” with J Hus, Smith proves that she can aviate in any soundscape. She even dabbles with punk-rock on the kiss-off “GO GO GO.”
The latter half of the album sees Smith in a falling state, where she is more vulnerable. The production is unhurried, allowing ample space for her to explore more intricate themes through balladry. She reflects on a toxic relationship in “Broken is the Man,” learns lessons from a former love in “Backwards,” and explores emotional detachment in a relationship with “What If My Heart Beats Faster?”
The reggae-tinged “Greatest Gift,” featuring Lila Iké, is a beautiful letter of reassurance to her younger self. Falling or flying is a raw and honest meditation on life’s ups, downs, and in-betweens. It’s a powerful reminder that, whether or not we believe we have it all figured out, it’s the journey that makes life thrilling and meaningful. By the album’s end, it’ll leave you wondering if you’re falling or flying. – Keithan Samuels
12. Kenyon Dixon, The R&B You Love
Kenyon Dixon follows his 2022 album Closer with The R&B You Love, an intentional, well-crafted listen that takes a deep dive into key eras of one of the most beloved genres. “Good Love,” reminiscent of Babyface’s and Johnny Gill’s male-led ballads, trails after the first of many flirtatious interludes. Here, Dixon channels the ecstatic feeling of his woman’s whip appeal.
It expands from here with the bumping groove “Slow Dancing,” which walks intrepidly on the shoulders of electric-funk band Zapp, as it’s replete with a vocoder. Dixon is as comfortable singing R&B that references the ’80s and ’90s as he is singing it when it hints at its evolution from just 20 years ago. He and RL of Next are much like wall sliders in viral memes and gifs on their aching collaboration, “2000s R&B.”
When Dixon isn’t engulfed in tributing the past, he adds depth to the genre with his footprints. Songs like the Cozz-assisted “Fantasy” find Dixon and his rap accomplice working to impress beauties on the dancefloor. Still one of the MVPs on the independent circuit, Dixon’s solo 2024 Grammy nomination (“Lucky“) is even additional evidence that his presence is valued and needed. The R&B You Love is just another high mark on Dixon’s scorecard. – Antwane Folk
11. Masego, Masego
Self-titled albums are particularly noteworthy for artists because, in a sense, it’s meant to present the different facets of themselves to their respective audiences. For the self-described trap jazz phenom Masego, this meant shedding the luxe and grandiose sounds of his previous works like The Pink Polo EP (with producer Medasin ) and debut album, Lady Lady, in exchange for a project that gives listeners a glimpse into his personal life.
On Masego, the singer and musician comes out of the gate swinging with vivid storytelling on “Black Anime,” detailing the transition from his dreamy debut to finding himself chanting, “Then I wake up / gotta get back to the paper.” His boundary-pushing style of interpolation also shows up in the latter, as well as the inescapable bop “What You Wanna Try,” borrowing lyrics from Craig David’s “What’s Your Flava?”
The overt authenticity of Masego does not stop here, delving into glimpses of his childhood on tracks like “Remembering Sundays.” Perhaps the most penetrating part of the listening experience is the sheer vulnerability. On tracks like “You Play With My Heart,” he snapshots a manipulative love-turned-heartbreak and how the small things like ‘when the game’s on and they shoot that shot’ trigger memories of a former lover on “Bye Bye My Love.” Bridging the gap between his past and present, Masego’s self-titled album serenades longtime fans while giving new listeners an appetite to find out where his unique brand of storytelling will take him next. – Anders Hare
10. Joy Denalane, WILLPOWER
Returning from a two-year hiatus, Joy Denalane quietly released WILLPOWER, a familiar-sounding album that involves the good and bad aspects of relationships. Among the fond memories is “Good Times Better,” a ballad kissed by smooth blues, where Denalane finds it hard to stop smiling at the ease her partner puts forth to each scenario.
The opening track, “Can’t We Smile,” bears no resemblance to the beam from the latter romantic-heavy track, as the German singer and songwriter declares a romance finished. A myriad of songs echo the album title, as on the marching, hip-hop soul, Ghostface Killah-assisted “Happy,” where he reflects on the loss of her father in a content style. That ‘willpower’ translates to her listeners in songs such as “By Heart,” a stirring piano-laden note to self that our motivation comes from within, as well as the soul-searching title track.
Denalane and her companion escape from the ills and issues of the world and rack up air miles on “Hideaway,” another deliberate throwback. Between her incredible way of emoting and deeply felt themes of love and life, Denalane continues to enrich her sector of the genre. – Antwane Folk
9. The Shindellas, Shindo
Many think “Last Night Was Good for My Soul,” the blithe boast of a time had, decided a surprise breakthrough for The Shindellas. Although this song marked a personal first for the New American Soul group consisting of Kasi, Stacy, and Tam on radio and Billboard, the pivotal moment was their first-ever contributions to the songwriting process on Shindo, their sophomore album. “It just felt really good to be able to tell our stories our way,” Tam shared with Rated R&B this fall. “You get to hear the growth and the evolution of each of us individually, but also collectively.”
When the dynamos have something to offer in the writing room, they turn out tracks like “Juicy,” a succulent ode to sensual bliss, and “Good as Gold,” a lustrous example to help fix the next sister’s crown, influenced by the ’80s synth-pop style of Whitney Houston. That’s not to say that working with their well-matched creative team, made up of Claude Kelly and Chucky Harmony, holds the trifecta back from being earnest, sexy, and uplifting. That undeniable chemistry between them extends to the infectious opener, “Up 2 You,” damp with acquiescence.
And then there’s “Think of You,” which offers words of devotion to a wide-eyed lover. What else sells Shindo as a glowing comeback from The Shindellas is its finale, “Love You Inside Out,” a daring interpretation of a song that was a smash hit by the Bee Gees. A compact, ’80s-sized album, Shindo is a triumphant exhibit of talent at its best. The impeccable timing of grade-A dancefloor tracks and the exploration of sexuality and affairs of the heart couldn’t have been better. – Antwane Folk
8. Devon Gilfillian, Love You Anyway
Nashville-based artist Devon Gilfillian’s second album, Love You Anyway, balances romantic themes with his passion for social justice. The 11-track offering is dosed with retro-soul tunes bound to move listeners in more ways than one. Songs like the blissful “All I Really Wanna Do” and “Right Kind of Crazy,” a spellbinding tune, delve into taking a chance on love while being your authentic self. “The Recipe” is an irresistible come-on with all the ingredients to guide lovebirds to the bedroom. “Let’s make this kitchen late-night television / I want all the visits tonight,” he croons.
Anyone following Gilfillian on Instagram may notice he likes to catch his groove, whether on stage or at home in his undies. “Imma Let My Body Move” is a rejoicing anthem made to pack any dance floor, just like “Brown Sugar Queen,” an endearing ode to Black women, which features Swedish soul singer Janice. The mood shifts on “Better Broken,” a diaristic track that explores mental health and depression.
In the politically charged “Let The Water Flow,” Gilfillian addresses voter suppression laws in America, specifically in the Peach State, and pleas for divine intervention. He punctuates the album with the optimistic title track, which seeks unity even when we may not always agree. On Love You Anyway, Gilfillian seamlessly makes space for listeners to experience joy without losing sight of the world happening around them. – Keithan Samuels
7. Musiq Soulchild, Hit-Boy, Victims & Villains
With a distinguished and decorated career spanning over 20 years at his helm, Musiq Soulchild has nothing left to prove. However, constant media scrutiny over his freedom of expression and the yearning to create a body of work he could be proud of led to the creation of his latest album, Victims & Villains. Soulchild’s latest album is a trance-inducing montage of modern love songs and ballads with a rhythmic, hip-hop-oriented backdrop produced exclusively by Hit-Boy, a pinnacle figure in contemporary R&B and hip-hop.
The album begins with “will i touch the sky,” which finds the versatile crooner at the resolution that the only person standing in his way is himself. The theme lends itself to the criticism given to Soulchild’s alter ego The Husel, the answer to his desire to tap into his hip-hop facet that appeared on 2015’s Husel Music. The alter-ego makes a matured and molded return on “imreallytrynaf*ckwichu,” a brazen, yet passionate track where he lays his intentions out, plainly reminiscent of his work on Musiqinthemagiq.
Soulchild told Rated R&B that one of his goals for this album is to make listeners see the faults in their life’s tragedies. This is most prevalent in the centerpiece title track. The song delves into a whirlwind of resentment where our protagonist lays out the cause for his dismay with his partner, or perhaps with himself. Soulchild’s vision of a genre-hopping sound comes true in this ode to self-reflection. It proves not only that he’s still got it, but that he’s a musical chameleon, fitting into any style––or decade––he pleases. – Anders Hare
6. Jamila Woods, Water Made Us
On Jamila Woods’ third album, Water Made Us, the poet and singer immerses herself in the sea of love, exploring its intricacies through the lens of relationships. The opening track, “Bugs,” challenges the exacting checklist of requirements we often impose on potential lovers. With lyrics like “Someone will break your tiny little rules / It’s not that deep,” Woods urges herself and listeners to be more open and receptive to love. The rest of the album flows into the different stages of a relationship.
Woods isn’t keen on rushing a connection. On the duendita-assisted “Tiny Garden,” she likens the progression of relationship to maintaining a garden. Like crops, love doesn’t necessarily grow overnight; it requires nurturing, patience, and “Practice.” In the track, featuring Saba, Woods glides over a funky soundscape, embracing love’s ripples without overthinking. Songs like “Send A Dove” and “Thermostat” examine communication amid turmoil.
The latter half of the album is a meditation on the aftereffects of a relationship. “Hindsight I see so clearly / You did a did a number on me,” Woods sings on the acoustic-laden “Wolfsheep.” The penultimate track, “Good News,” helps anchor the album’s thesis by reassuring us that love is constant and always finding its way back to us. Or, as Woods sings, “The good news is water always runs back / Where it came from.” – Keithan Samuels
5. Adi Oasis, Lotus Glow
Lotus Glow is a proper reintroduction to Adi Oasis, the French-Caribbean singer, songwriter, and bassist formerly known as Adeline. The minute-long “Le Départ,” which means “the beginning” in French, transports listeners from her home country to New York City, where she pursues her dreams of becoming an artist. Her determination beams on tunes like “Get It Got It” and the horn-laden “Serena,” a motivational anthem that also salutes renowned tennis player Serena Williams. The Jamila Woods-featured “Red To Violet” is another empowering anthem for Black women.
The album extends beyond professional pursuits, as indicated on “Multiply,” a slow-burning funk gem where she sets her sights on motherhood: “I feel it when I’m next to you / Wanna make a baby,” she coos. Passion and intimacy are even more apparent in the Sly & The Family Stone-informed “U Make Me Want It” and “Naked” featuring Leven Kali. Oasis’ heritage blossoms throughout Lotus Glow, evident in standouts like “The Water,” an ode to her father’s native island of Martinique, and “Sidonie,” a beautiful tribute to her grandmother.
Though the album is a deep reflection of Oasis’ journey, she doesn’t ignore the world around her. The politically charged “Dumpalltheguns” takes a stance against gun violence in America. Oasis concludes the album with “FourSixty,” featuring British soulster Aaron Taylor, where she picks up where the intro leaves off, representing the hopeful cycle of possibilities for the future. – Keithan Samuels
4. BJ The Chicago Kid, Gravy
Whether it’s smothering or covering, gravy is meant to make food taste better. In BJ The Chicago Kid’s case, his album with producer Yeti Beats, Gravy, aims to nourish the soul. The two traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to record the album at Royal Studios, the iconic studio that birthed classic Al Green albums, including Let’s Stay Together and I’m Still in Love With You.
It’s no wonder why songs like the two-step-friendly “Forgot Your Name” savor the essence of Green’s titular “Let’s Stay Together.” The velvety “Never Change” gets a co-sign from Philip Bailey of the legendary band Earth, Wind & Fire.
The groove extends to flirtatious cuts “Spend The Night” with Coco Jones and “Honey” featuring Chlöe. Gravy doesn’t just elevate the good times; it also brings comfort during moments of grief (“Liquor Store In The Sky”), heartache (“Long Time”) and uncertainty (“We’ll Be Alright”). “Hills are not mountains / Problems don’t last forever,” BJ sings in the latter acoustic track, which also closes out the album. Gravy is proof that you don’t need too many cooks in the kitchen to make a delicious meal. The album is packed with immensely flavorful tracks and will leave you asking for seconds. – Keithan Samuels
3. Black Pumas, Chronicles of a Diamond
Black Pumas quickly made a name for themselves with their self-titled debut album, released in 2019. The album scored the psychedelic soul duo, consisting of vocalist/songwriter Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada, multiple Grammy nods, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year (“Colors”).
When it was time to work on their follow-up, Chronicles of a Diamond, they felt the weight of matching its predecessor. “There was a lot of pressure and expectation that we hadn’t felt before, which was overwhelming at times, but we did our best to tune that out and focus on trusting ourselves like we always have,” Quesada explained.
Chronicles of a Diamond isn’t necessarily an attempt to recreate their roaring debut. While it shares the same 10-track format, Diamond is more expansive and daring. Beginning with “More Than a Love Song,” Burton reminds listeners that life extends beyond our desires and romantic relationships. He speaks to uniting in the face of adversity over congas, underscored by rhythmic handclaps and strings. “The blues birds, fly together,” he sings on the hymn-like tune.
Burton doesn’t abandon the theme of love and romance, though. The hip-hop soul-stamped “Mrs. Postman” admires someone who brightens his day just by their presence, while the sweet “Ice Cream (Pay Phone)” hopes to embark on a fresh love journey. Burton admires his lover’s beauty on the indelible “Gemini Sun.” Thunderous percussion, a funky organ and stinging guitar riffs accentuate the song’s adoring message.
On the elegiac “Hello,” Burton yearns to reignite a fractured union, singing, “I really wanna love again, hello / One more time, baby.” The title track and “Tomorrow” aim to manifest a vision. In the latter standout, Burton incorporates gospel blues stylings to intensify the message harder.
Diamonds are formed under pressure, and much like this precious gem, Black Pumas’ sophomore album shines ever so brightly. – Keithan Samuels
2. Victoria Monét, JAGUAR II
2023 is undoubtedly the year of the jaguar. The outpour of support and overdue recognition Victoria Monét has received proves that hard work eventually pays off. The patience she’s maintained has made these well-deserved moments that much sweeter. Her enigmatic talent has swiftly turned non-believers into full-fledged admirers.
Victoria Monét’s JAGUAR II opens with “Smoke,” a nod to the lysergic launch of her latest era. Reuniting with Lucky Daye (“Little More Time”), the pair set the tone as they enticingly coo about partaking in a bit of plant therapy. Monét purrs on the song’s reprise as it transforms into “Party Girls,” inspired by the popular R&B/dancehall sonic concoction popular in the early 2000s.
She teams up with Montreal’s finest KAYTRANADA as the duo we didn’t know we needed on “Alright.” A certified dance floor anthem, the sultry groove is the perfect canvas for Monét to confidently talk her talk and leave a gentleman caller right where he stands. It effortlessly glides into the blaxploitation extracted “Cadillac (A Pimp’s Anthem)” as she calls to the inner mack in all of us.
The celestial “How Does It Make You Feel” is one of the album’s shining stars. Monet dials back to the period of R&B, where slow jams and vulnerable love songs reigned supreme, conjuring an emotional layer that stands to be resurrected. A notable highlight of the debut album is its connective tissues, such as the orchestral section that leads into Monét’s affirmation-filled hit single “On My Mama.”
The fully developed LP is a succinct display of where Monét has come from while laying the foundation of continued success for what’s to come. Compared to her 2020 EP JAGUAR, the LP is considered its “older, more developed, voluptuous older sister.” Completely ready to strike and make a move, JAGUAR II nimbly lands on all fours. – Danielle Brissett
1. Sampha, Lahai
Sampha is known by many in the R&B world as a crooner with an unmistakable voice and a penchant for heartbreak. However, he has always been so much more. In Lahai, Sampha uses his long-gestating hiatus to reach new peaks and provide a poetic illustration of fatherhood, spirituality, and healing.
In the opening track, “Stereo Colour Cloud (Shaman’s Dream),” the Londener creates a beautiful atmosphere out of digitized melodies over acoustic instrumentation. The result is a harmonious convergence that sounds like it could be from 2038. It can be scary to enter the minds of musicians who have scars, but Sampha makes his interior thoughts feel personable and comforting.
Sampha doesn’t follow trends. With Lahai, he finds a sweet spot between uniting his music and his lovely divergent approach to crafting melodies. On “Spirit 2.0,” Sampha makes a great leap forward, drawing inspiration from Wassoulou, a trailblazing genre derived from the West African folk sound, to compliment beautifully with curated computerized synths.
While he makes you grapple with your emotions, Sampha also finds the time to insert some of his own philosophy in his lyrics. “Still here, only God knows why,” he handsomely sings at the beginning of “Only.” The record goes on to talk about keeping an unwavering faith in God, knowing that he’ll always be there to correct you in times of strife.
Despite Lahai’s gentle nature that arises during moments of sadness, it never feels demeaning. Sampha always emphasizes the importance of finding positive outlets to channel our pain, whether that be therapy, or engaging in mundane tasks such as domestic chores. His song “Can’t Go Back” epitomizes this message, with Sampha motivating listeners, “You can move forward slower.” This simple yet impactful line inspires hope and self-care.
Lahai flourishes largely because it is a candid illustration of an artist who isn’t afraid to hold a mirror to himself. In songs like “Rose Tint,” Sampha contemplates being preoccupied with his own pain and the consequences of the walls that are put up because of it. Lahai feels like a blanket of warmth, especially in this enduring winter season. – Edward Dave
Honorable Mention: SZA, SOS
So much was on the line before SZA dropped SOS. Aside from trying to avoid the sophomore slump with a nearly six-year gap ahead of 2017’s Ctrl, the album faced numerous delays due to label politics––so much so, SZA was forced to share the music herself. Looking back, the fight for SOS was worth it in the end, as it solidified her position as one of the voices of this generation. On her second LP, the Grammy winner takes listeners deeper into dark parts of her mind on tracks like “Kill Bill” and “I Hate U,” where she admits bitterness toward a former partner’s current relationship.
Even further on the journey, we see SZA dive head first into other genres on tracks like the alt-leaning “F2F” and the trap-infused “Low,” not only proving her versatility but also showing listeners that she has more than one way of telling a story. We see the true purpose of SOS on the album’s pinnacle point, “Gone Girl.” Inspired by the film of the same name, it explores the idea of longing for lost love and the feeling of abandonment, which lies at the core of most of the album.
A welcome return, SOS allows SZA to do what she does best: make listeners feel seen, and that in itself will keep them coming back long after their initial listen. – Anders Hare
Follow Rated R&B’s team on Twitter:
Antwane Folk — @iam_antwane
Danielle Brissett — @DaniBKnowing_
Edward Dave — @eddy_564
Keithan Samuels — @IamKeithan