Last week we checked out the best hip-hop albums 2017 has to offer so far. There were plenty of great ones.
But what about R&B in 2017? Well…
It’s been a pretty uneven year so far, filled with a lot of mediocre releases. But don’t worry, there’s still great material out there. Take a look at the strongest albums of the year so far (in no specific order), featuring some well-known players returning to prominence as well as a few underrated upstarts. Make sure these 10 gems find a home on your playlists.
One note: At the time of this writing, I had not yet heard Mali Music’s new release, The Transition of Mali in full. Keep an eye out for that album on our year-end list.
Honorable mentions: PJ Morton, Gumbo; Trey Songz, Tremaine; Bell Biv Devoe, Three Stripes
LeToya Luckett, Back 2 Life
I guess absence makes the heart grow fonder. It’s been nearly a decade since LeToya’s last album but Back 2 Life proves she hasn’t missed a beat. LeToya isn’t afraid to wear different hats, leaping from midtempo cuts to trendy trap production to soulful ballads at a moment’s notice. While the musical diversity does hurt the album’s consistency in spots, LeToya’s underrated vocals help keep things afloat. Hopefully, Back 2 Life will give LeToya a reason to stick around longer this time.
When the lead singer of the acclaimed R&B band The Internet announced that her solo album would be a departure from her group work, my eyes nearly rolled out of my skull and down the street. That’s usually code for “I’m going to half-rap over trap beats like everyone else.” Thankfully, that’s not the case here. Syd embraces more mainstream production on her debut album but doesn’t drift from the sound that made her a star. No, it’s not an Internet album, it’s a Syd album – and it’s great.
Many R&B fans were recently introduced to Niia via “Sideline,” her stirring duet with Jazmine Sullivan. But don’t write her off as a one-hit wonder. Niia’s debut album is one of the year’s most overlooked gems, a jazzy release that conjures memories of Norah Jones and Sade. While her vocals are solid, the songwriting is even better – helping her tales of love gained and lost rise above the usual well-worn themes.
It’s nothing more encouraging than seeing young artists who are willing to cling to R&B’s roots. While most of his peers would rather position themselves as pseudo-rappers, Kevin Ross instead holds tight to traditions. The Awakening is crafted with the wisdom of a seasoned soul singer, featuring tight arrangements and solid vocals that never drift off track. He’s the definition of an old soul – vocals that stand the test of time but delivered with youthful enthusiasm. This guy’s the future.
While many American R&B artists have spent the last few years wrestling with identity crises, British soul singers have slid in the back door, making huge names for themselves stateside. Sampha Sisay is no exception. After gaining ground by teaming with the likes of Drake and Solange, Sampha struck at the right time, dropping his debut album at the peak of his notoriety. That album, Process, proves to be a powerful thesis – a sobering, 40-minute tribute to the mother he lost to cancer. The eclectic blend of soul, electronica and alt-R&B is captivating and entirely unique. Instead of following trends, he’d rather create his own.
Leela’s hallmark has always been her distinct, husky vocals. You KNOW a Leela James song two seconds into the first verse. But, if you ask me, her greatest strength is her confidence. Did It For Love it a powerful affirmation statement – not just about romance, but about her artistry. Leela refuses to conform, delivering the powerful ballads and torch songs that are becoming rarer by the day in modern R&B. Other artists can give in to mainstream standards; Leela will just continue to do what works for her – make exceptional R&B records.
Sure, Drunk is probably the weirdest R&B album of the year so far but that’s part of its charm. Sonically it’s in a league of its own. Thundercat’s soulful production has served as the highlight of many recent hip-hop albums and also proves to be the perfect backdrop for his own oddball crooning. R&B purists probably will turn up their noses at Thundercat’s bizarre lyrics – one minute he’s pretending to be a housecat, the next singing about blowing cash on anime in Tokyo – but it’s all in good fun. It’s feel-good R&B at its finest.
When is Uncle Charlie going to fess up and admit he has the fountain of youth in his basement? It’s absolutely amazing – and downright improbable – that an artist with FORTY YEARS of hits on his resume can continue to crank on quality material. In It To Win It doesn’t deviate from Charlie’s usual formula – it’s the same uplifting R&B that your entire family has embraced at cookouts for generations. His positive outlook is especially appreciated in these turbulent times. Charlie’s the uncle who never lets you down.
Nobody sings about pain like MJB and due to a very messy public fallout with her husband, Mary’s got her groove back. Strength of a Woman isn’t just a big man-bashing party, though. Mary channels her sorrow into a redemption story, one that focuses as much on hurt as it does healing. It’s not QUITE the Mary J. of old, but it’s pretty close.
I really hate to classify Avery*Sunshine as a “hidden gem” or “underrated” – those of us who have been following her for years already know how great she is. But Twenty Sixty Four takes things to another level. The album runs the romance gamut, from tracks that mock her ex (before she winds up calling the dude back home for dinner by song’s end) to love songs so relatable that you’ll feel like you penned them yourself (“I’d give up ice cream just for you”). Her music is so authentic and engaging that you’re pulled into every note – thank her shimmering vocals for that. Twenty Sixty Four is a must for your collection and the best R&B album of 2017 so far.
Did your favorites make the cut? Let us know your favorite album of 2017 (so far) below.