I don’t write about music nearly as much as I would like to or as much I write about film and television. I watch just about anything, but I’m a bit more picky when it comes to music.
R&B is my jam. I chalk it up to growing up in the 90s, one of the best decades ever for the genre – Toni Braxton, Destiny’s Child, Jodeci, Dru Hill (with pre-“Thong Song” Sisqo), Mary J. Blige, TLC, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Brandy, Monica (and Brandy & Monica!), Mya, Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Brian McKnight, Usher, Next, Mariah Carey, Sade, Whitney Houston, Blackstreet, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill. Listing everyone is making me nostalgic and sad – how many are still active, let alone relevant, in 2014? I also have to credit my sister for my introduction to the genre. It was Christmas ’95, and she had asked for three cassette tapes: Brandy’s self-titled debut, TLC’s CrazySexyCool and Mariah Carey’s Daydream. We shared a bedroom, and some time between the first time I heard “Creep” and the thousandth listen of “Fantasy,” I was hooked.
The 2000s were good for R&B for a short while (and the decade introduced the world to Alicia Keys, John Legend, Robin Thicke, Ciara, Beyoncé’s solo career, Mariah Carey’s second wind), but then it seemed like the genre lost its crossover appeal and even the most seasoned of R&B artists were ditching some their bluesy roots for a more poppy, dancey, produced sound. Sometime in my youth, too, it became fashionable in hip hop to sample old R&B standards, and that created an easy introduction for me to the genre (Jay-Z’s The Blueprint was the first hip-hop album I ever bought, in October 2001 for my birthday).
It’s easy to say that your favourite things get unfairly overlooked – they’re *your* favourite things – so I’m reluctant to say categorically that R&B gets the shaft, but I do believe it does. It’s gone through a (forced) self-reinvention in the last few years, with 2012 marking a turning point in the genre. It was in my opinion a great year for R&B – one that 2013 could not live up to – with incredible releases by Frank Ocean (the Grammy-nominated Channel Orange), Miguel (Kaleidoscope Dream), Elle Varner (Perfectly Imperfect), Melanie Fiona (The MF Life), Emeli Sandé (Our Version of Events), Solange (True), Alicia Keys (Girl on Fire) and R. Kelly (Write Me Back).
Still, 2013 had its moments. Here are my favourite R&B songs of 2013.
Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
You know it. Your mom knows it. Canadian radio must love when Drake releases songs like “Hold On, We’re Going Home” – hooray for Can-Con – off his excellent Nothing Was the Same album.
Ciara – “Body Party”
Out of the many R&B-related Grammy snubs, this one stings the most. Ciara’s comeback single (and accompanying video) off her self-titled 2013 release was a scorcher.
Kelly Rowland – “Dirty Laundry”
Kelly Rowland’s 2013 album Talk a Good Game had a Destiny’s Child reunion track (“You Changed”) but it was “Dirty Laundry” that was most memorable. It’s a candid and dark ballad co-written by Rowland and The-Dream about a past abusive relationship Rowland went through; she also sings about the jealousy she felt toward the success of Beyoncé, fellow Destiny’s Child member.
John Legend – “Who Do We Think We Are” (feat. Rick Ross)
John Legend’s much anticipated and twice-delayed Love in the Future album was a bit of a letdown (too long, which is a strange complaint to have about an artist whose past releases rank among the best R&B albums of the last 10 years) but “Who Do We Think We Are” was among the album’s shining moments.
Ariana Grande – “Honeymoon Avenue”
Ariana Grande’s debut album, Yours Truly, has been on heavy rotation in my car and iPod and house since its August release. Co-produced by Babyface, Grande co-wrote five of the album’s 12 songs. “Honeymoon Avenue,” the album’s opener, highlights Grande’s falsetto and her upper-range vocals, which some have compared to Mariah Carey.
K. Michelle – “The Right One”
K. Michelle’s debut album Rebellious Soul is honest, sometimes brutally so. She sings about past relationships, her self-esteem, other women and being the other woman, her body, among other things. It’s an unflinching and soulful record with lots of great ballads (“Hate On Her,” “Damn,” “Sometimes,” “Can’t Raise a Man”), uptempo “V.S.O.P.,” which was released as a single, and “Pay My Bills,” which I found incredibly amusing (“I’mma fuck you like I’m trying to pay bills,” she sings – in a spoken bit later in the song, she adds: “Sometimes she does it so good, you just need to tip her.”) K. Michelle is part Keyshia Cole, part Mariah, part Kelly Price –and curses like a sailor – but wholly original, with one of the strongest new voices in years. “The Right One” puts all that front and centre.
Justin Timberlake – “That Girl”
Like many, I waited for Justin Timberlake’s followup to 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds with high anticipation and hopes. I thought Part 1 of The 20/20 Experience was good, but was – and remain – disappointed with Part 2; something felt amiss in the set. There were the catchy singles and great videos for Part 1 – the “Suit and Tie” video was directed by David Fincher – but it was “That Girl” that I had on repeat.
Janelle Monae – “PrimeTime” (feat. Miguel)
The Electric Lady, an album I didn’t see often enough of year-end lists of the best of the year, opens with four duets: Prince, Erykah Badu, Solange and Miguel all join Janelle Monae on her sophomore effort before she ventures solo on the great “We Were Rock & Roll.” Her duet with Erykah Badu, “Q.U.E.E.N.” is a very close no. 2 to “PrimeTime,” a soulful duet with Miguel released as a single in the fall.
Beyoncé – “Drunk in Love” (feat. Jay Z)
You can read all about Beyoncé’s self-titled, surprise release here; the album truly gets better with every listen. It’s a genre-bending album that begs to be played and replayed in the house, the car, the gym. BEYONCÉ is the best album Beyoncé has ever released, and any song could easily be my favourite given my mood. It’s “Drunk in Love,” though, her collaboration with Jay Z, that is the catchiest, most playful, most fun. “Mine,” her collaboration with Drake, has a futuristic R&B vibe to it and the potential to be a turning point and future model for the genre. Other R&B-heavy tracks off BEYONCÉ: “Rocket,” “Jealous.”
Honourable mentions: Mariah Carey and Miguel’s fun “#Beautiful,” Tamar Braxton’s “Love and War,” Toni Braxton and Babyface’s “Hurt You.”