R&B continued to exist in a fragile state in 2019. Labels are signing R&B artists again, which is a potential sign of commercial health. But few labels have figured out how to break an R&B act, because the genre still doesn’t stream like rap or get airplay like pop. This forced some R&B singers to rely on a repetitive formula — building new tracks around painfully obvious samples of an old hit — to reach a wide pool of listeners.
R&B may also be facing a new threat in the form of TikTok. The music industry is fixated on cashing in on songs that perform well on the video app — think of “LaLaLa” or “Gordon Ramsay” — and those songs tend to feature a single explosive moment that can fit into a 15-second clip. But R&B has never put much value in the quick release. Much of the genre’s vitality comes from pacing and endurance, long vocal climbs and even longer climaxes. It’s a challenge to compress that into quick-hit viral clips.
Despite these obstacles, R&B still enjoyed some high points in 2019. Summer Walker’s Over It was an emphatic commercial success, proving that listeners can hit replay on an R&B album in the same way they do for a hip-hop release. R&B in Spanish is becoming increasingly popular, potentially introducing the genre to a new group of listeners. And R&B singers still managed to make great songs, even during a tough time. Here are the 10 best R&B songs of the year, in no particular order.
The tension of Summer Walker’s “Fun Girl” is in what it refuses to say or do or present. There are no drums, perfectly comped vocals, or self-affirming hooks. Instead, there is merely a wobbly voice and a guitar in the center of the void, festering like an open wound.
During the song’s only verse, Summer details every dagger used against her by a past lover — that she “wasn’t made right,” isn’t wife material, and that her self-sufficiency and sexual desire are getting in the way. Then as the crescendo arrives, she sings, “But I guess that makes me undesirable/Guess that makes you so attractive.” The admittance of the double standard at play doesn’t provide resolution or a happy ending. In the span of the song’s two minutes, the world hasn’t changed. Then Summer repeatedly sings “life’s unfair” into the abyss, and no two words ever seemed so true.
It’s a truism at this point that most rappers now sing. But a bizarre consequence of this development is that a lot of R&B singers try to sound as if they are rappers singing — they tamp down their vocal abilities, unwilling to scare off potential listeners with more complex melodies. McKinnis refuses to hide on “Give It Up,” showcasing both a slicing falsetto and a pleading lower register. He also has a knack for stacking harmonies, which add honeyed urgency to frank questions like, “How does it feel? Do you still get butterflies? Goosebumps on your thighs?” Later McKinnis promises, “I’ma make that man look like a fool,” and while he’s talking about a romantic rival, he might as well have a singing rapper in his sights.
Often the best R&B songs are the most simple. They cut directly to what the “thing” is — whether it’s desire or sex or jealousy — without wrapping it in anything unnecessary. Ann Marie’s “My Body” builds on a direct premise. “When we’re alone, I can’t control my body,” the Chicago artist sings over a smoldering Troy Taylor beat. Everything is there in the chorus: the sex is wrong, but it feels right, the touch of Marie’s lover gets her excited, and she makes the coitus nasty (in a good way). There is no reinvention on “My Body” or subversion of tropes. Instead, there’s just a new R&B singer invoking the hits of the early-2000s almost two decades after they ruled the airwaves.
Smooth and coarse, polished and haphazard, bullish and blunted, Jacquees and Future represent the past and present of R&B. While Jacquees has spent the last decade trying to sell a generation on his soaring, dramatic singing prowess, Future has charted a path that sacrifices vocal precision for AutoTune-buoyed emotional rawness. On “What They Gone Do With Me,” the duo prove that those two concepts aren’t necessarily in opposition. Over a skittering, sensual beat from DJ Spinz, Future’s jagged voice dips and contorts across his verse as Jacquees ad-libs luxuriously between the narcotized rapper’s bars. This combination was one of the few surprises in a trying year for R&B.
Hope Tala’s “Lovestained” effortlessly bridges regions and eras: The guitar suggests Brazil in 1965, the steel drums add a springy touch of the Caribbean, and the bass seems plucked from an irresistible hit on American rap radio circa 1998. “That’s what the vision is: bringing together bossa-nova influences and R&B all into one,” explained Tala, who tagged the record as RnBossa on SoundCloud. “There’s an amazing synthesis that can occur between those genres.” She wrote “Lovestained” in a 30-minute flurry of creativity, and that ease translates directly to the listener.
Rotimi, who is best known for his acting on the series Power, turned in one of the year’s most effective R&B fusions, merging the longing that is the genre’s stock-and-trade with the propulsion of Nigerian afrobeats. Rotimi has help here from the producer Harmony Samuels, whose long credit list includes work with Brandy and Ne-Yo. Samuels cues up a clean, chattering beat with plenty of space for vocal theatrics, and Rotimi makes the most of it: “Love Riddim” reaches its peak around the two-minute mark, when the singer shows off the high end of his vocal range, stacking together a series of graceful falsetto runs.
Mexico City’s Girl Ultra looks back to early Eighties post-disco grooves on “Discreción,” a slinky track about leaving a lover behind. Working with J. Saak, Girl Ultra conjures a beat that’s plush and leisurely, all lazy bass and slinky guitar, with room for a horn solo and plenty of airy, wordless backing vocals. But all that musical opulence conceals sharp purpose. “You see me just like yesterday,” Girl Ultra sings in Spanish, but “I’m not your wife anymore.”
YK Osiris loves to talk his shit. As he started racking up streams, he laid claim to the “King of R&B” title, and the entire promotional campaign for his Def Jam debut, The Golden Child, inevitably devolved into one long troll against Jacquees and anyone else eyeing the crown. “Jacquees ain’t really on my level,” Osiris told Rolling Stone earlier this year when asked about his competitor. “Vocally, yes. But music-wise, nah.”
The moment that cut through the bluster was “Ride,” Osiris’ duet with Kehlani. Everything about the song harkens back to a time when R&B was built on the pillars of extreme horniness and unabashed goofiness. The track’s entire concept is YK wondering if a woman can ride him “like the last rodeo, baby,” while sincerely going “beep, beep” before wondering if his shawty can “ride it like my Jeep.” Yes, it comes off just as absurd in audio form as it does written out for an end-of-the-year blurb. Nevertheless, “Ride” succeeds, because it manages to be as cocky and self-assured as YK is in his daily life.
R&B’s infatuation with the Nineties was frequently counterproductive in 2019, but that’s because many artists settled for bland recycling. Ari Lennox instead coaxed fresh energy from a familiar source: “BMO” might use the same sample as Busta Rhymes’ rowdy masterpiece “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check,” but the two tracks tease out slightly different melodies from Galt McDermot’s “Space.” As a result, Busta Rhymes’ single suggests a slam-dance in a haunted-house, while “BMO” conjures a slow-dance in a bedroom. Lennox crams a series of instructions into one of the year’s giddiest hooks: “Break me off, and gitchi gitchi yaya when the lights is out/I’m summertime crushin’ — put that game on pause.”
What would a list of the best R&B songs of 2019 be without a slot reserved for Bryson “Trapsoul King” Tiller? Even though Pen Griffey didn’t grace the game with a follow-up to 2017’s True to Self this year, he still proved on DJ Snake’s “Smile” that he is the only R&B artist that truly matters. [Editor’s Note: This is not true, but it’s the end of the year, so I’m just going to let Charles have this one.]
“Smile” operates as a freight train: It’s all forward momentum, with verses bleeding into hooks and hooks bleeding into verses. The track reaches its pinnacle when Tiller goes out of his way to describe what he brings to the table during the second verse. According to Tiller, his sex is great, his weed is just good, and his bed is soft, which, to be fair, all seem like bare minimum accomplishments for any man. Nevertheless, in an R&B landscape where hyperbole is king, it’s comforting to know that even the most mundane of flexes can still sound so good.