At the beginning of the year, we started R&B Roundtable to keep track of the best albums that were coming out in the genre. 2021 has been a banner year for R&B, with highly acclaimed projects coming out from both stars and up-and-comers. Now that we're past the halfway mark of the year, we thought we'd look back at what have been the best of the best:
Jazmine Sullivan - Heaux Tales
Despite being released at the very top of the year, Heaux Tales, Jazmine Sullivan's fourth studio project, remains one of the most impactful R&B releases of 2021. By matching her unparalleled vocal talent with songs that are steeped in relatability, Sullivan was able to make her most successful record to date. Heaux Tales is a study of the way sex and sexuality permeate every single aspect of a woman's life, from her relationship with money ("Price Tags"), to her relationship with heartbreak ("Lost One"), to her relationship with herself ("Girl Like Me"). The project is equal parts sexy and vulnerable, with the real triumph of the project being Sullivan's ability to blur the lines between the two. Although half of the project's tracklist is dedicated to spoken interludes of other women, these serve to make Jazmine Sullivan's deeply personal songs and other-worldly voice feel more universal, something every woman in the world can relate to.
Mac Ayres - Magic 8Ball
January was a good month for R&B. The same day Jazmine Sullivan released Heaux Tales, singer-songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Mac Ayres released his fourth studio project, Magic 8ball. Since racking up tens of millions of streams with his song "Easy", Mac Ayres has established himself as a master at finding a pocket, settling into grooves inspired by neo-soul, funk, and contemporary R&B. Despite Mac's impressive vocal talent ("Brand New"), charming songwriting ("Sometimes") and infectious instrument-playing ("Where You Goin' Tonight?"), the true success of Magic 8ball is its ability to never let go of that pocket. Mac seems to understand this, never letting his voice or licks take precedent over the general vibe of the song, putting them so far back in the mix that they almost threaten to disappear. It's this ear for groove that gives songs like "Every Time" and "Nothing Else" their replay value. It's why, months later, we're still playing it.
Snoh Aalegra - Temporary High in the Violet Skies
Despite effectively grappling with a spectrum of emotions, Temporary High in the Violet Skies, the third full-length album from Swedish R&B phenom, Snoh Aalegra, has a steady coolness to it. This is exemplified in the song "WE DON'T HAVE TO TALK ABOUT IT", where right when it feels like she could erupt in anger - "You said we in it for the long haul/I didn't even get to U-Haul/I didn't even get that far" - she takes her foot off the gas pedal with, "But we don't have to talk about it". Snoh Aalegra places herself in a lineage of R&B artists who make emotion look so cool and off-handed. Her voice is smooth enough and her melodies sticky enough that oversinging is never necessary, and this kind of presentation makes songs like "ON MY MIND" infinitely more infectious. To add more color to this even-keeled album, she ropes in notable producers such as The Neptunes and No ID, as well as two guest features from Tyler, the Creator. The end result is an album that feels like Snoh Aalegra is giving you her whole world, all without breaking a sweat.
Shelley FKA DRAM - Shelley FKA DRAM
When we first met the artist formally known as DRAM, he had the voice, charm, and smile of a golden-age Motown artist, mixing this old-school appeal with a contemporary sound and sense of humor. It's what made songs like "Cash Machine" and "Broccoli" off his album Big Baby DRAM so infectious, and what catapulted him to stardom. However, what followed this success was a battle with alcoholism and a three-year-long hiatus. Changing his name to Shelley seems to be his way of hitting the reset button. His first album under the new moniker, Shelley FKA DRAM stews in sensual R&B ("All Pride Aside", "The Lay Down"). However, throughout the project, you can still hear his toothy smile peaking through each spoken outro ("Remedies") and ode to infidelity ("Married Woman"). The whole album is like the sonic equivalent of a velvet Snuggie. There's still that signature boyish joy in every note, but it's far more luxurious and adult than anything he's ever done in the past.
serpentwithfeet - Deacon
Maybe it's due to his gospel upbringing. Maybe it's because his previous projects were monuments to self-loathing and loneliness. Whatever the case, there's something about listening to Josiah Wise sing about love and contentment that feels so spiritual and cathartic. serpentwithfeet first received critical praise for projects like Soil, a swampy collection of songs that depicted love as an almost satanic form of obsession, one that would inevitably lead to damnation. This makes songs like "Hyacinth", the opening track on his second studio album, Deacon, all the more euphoric. Deacon is not just an album about love, but about all ways it manifests itself. As with his previous work, serpentwithfeet finds meaning in the smallest details. On "Same Size Shoe", he takes something as trivial as shoe size and turns it into a testament to the beauty of finding someone of the same mind and sex as you: "Me and my boo wear the same size shoe/Boy, you got my trust 'cause I'm like you". It's this ability that makes the album ooze with gratitude, a gratitude that is so refreshing to hear come from serpentwithfeet.
Mustafa - When Smoke Rises
When Smoke Rises, the debut album from poet and songwriter Mustafa, is another entry into the R&B Roundtable that merits discussion on what "R&B" even is. The album has been labeled "indie", "folk", "R&B", and all permutations of the three. Confusion like this usually arises when something is so acutely personal as to subvert genre groupings. When Smoke Rises centers around Mustafa's experience with loss, specifically due to violence. He desperately tries to steer his peers away from the pitfalls of gang life on the album opener, "Stay Alive", pleading: "All of these tribes and all of these street signs/None of them will be yours or mine/But I'll be your empire/Just stay alive". His background as a poet is on full display on this album. "Come Back", produced by James Blake, finds him worrying about the effect his trauma has on his loved ones, starting with the line "If she runs her fingers through my past/she may lose the softness in her hands". There have been many albums about grief, but what makes this one so successful is that it places this emotion in a specific space and time. Mustafa organically mixes acoustic folk, filtered drum patterns, modern R&B melodies, and Black Toronto slang. He's exploring something universal, but on his terms. It's what makes the album so hard to pin down. And so deeply moving.