In 2020, R&B artists refused to adhere to any typified standard. If anything, they stretched as far as they could to either side of the spectrum of modern soul, extending decidedly past set expectations. This year, in all of its uncertainty, produced memorable projects that cemented their creators in the contemporary vanguard of rhythm and blues. The topics covered on these albums range from tried-and-true stories of love gained and lost to tales of lives turned upside down by the very concept of fame. This list was constructed with one ear geared toward authenticity, and another ear trained to seek out inventive takes on one of the most influential genres ever.
Check out the nine top R&B albums of 2020 below.
Chloe x Halle — Ungodly Hour
On Ungodly Hour, Chloe x Halle effortlessly mix their signature ethereality with progressive ideas on sexuality, evolving as women and artists in the process. Their approach to creating R&B differs from any other act with the duo drawing influences from deep soul, pop, indie rock, funk, doo wop, and hip hop — sometimes all at once. Their fully formed musical sensibilities are on display throughout the album, but most especially on the standout single “Do It” produced by Scott Storch, which would have been a club hit in any other year. (Thanks, COVID.) The musical aesthetics of Chloe x Halle continue to morph with their maturity, but the consistent element that powers the sisters’ success and relatability is their unwavering autonomy.
The Weeknd — After Hours
The Weeknd has come a long way from the dark, brooding songs he crafted upon his debut nearly a decade ago. The subjects remain the same — inner turmoil of varying degrees and an endless pursuit of romantic reciprocity — but the production over which he sings has changed markedly. On After Hours, he fully embraces the pop star he has become, venturing decades back in some instances (see the ‘80s-influenced “Blinding Lights”) to adequately capture the spirit of his experiences. In his quest to cover all bases in the present, The Weeknd tackles both worldly and cerebral matters with equal aplomb. All the while, he never loses sight of the R&B foundation he started with.
Kehlani — It Was Good Until It Wasn’t
Kehlani isn’t afraid to stare love in the face no matter how devastating the outcome may be. She accepts the hazards of falling for an emotionally unavailable partner directly on the opening track of It Was Good Until It Wasn’t aptly titled “Toxic.” Over production that sounds almost like a warning signal, she vulnerably croons, “Somehow I’m always caught in your dramatics / All in your acrobatics,” bringing to light the characteristics that tend to drive modern situationships. But It Was Good Until It Wasn’t isn’t just about the pitfalls of dating. There are also bright spots that highlight the innate need for human companionship like “Can I,” which focuses on a carnal, but authentic connection.
Brent Faiyaz — Fuck the World
At 26 minutes long, Brent Faiyaz’s Fuck the World is a morsel of an experience, a succinct encapsulation of the continuously shifting perspective of a contemporary R&B star. At times regretful and at others, reverent, the star’s latest effort is a masterclass in balancing the complexities of life — especially the life of someone who’s still dealing with the brightness of the spotlight. “If I go tonight, I doubt the world would change / I just pray they don’t forget my name,” Faiyaz sings contemplatively. The album evens itself out with both pensive and celebratory tracks like “Rehab (Winter in Paris)” to “Lost Kids Get Money.” Through it all, the singer remains grounded in his belief that he deserves the best: the biggest checks, the baddest women, and the most dedicated haters.
Jhené Aiko — Chilombo
Jhené Aiko’s Grammy-nominated Chilombo is a meditation on life, love, happiness, how those experiences affect her present state of being, and her future. While she sounds zen and content with her current positioning, Aiko has no issue delving into her past to dig up the roots of failed partnerships, as she does unabashedly on “Triggered (freestyle).” Her willingness to explore the rights and wrongs of her relationships provides her with an arsenal of lyrical inspiration. On the H.E.R.-assisted “B.S.,” Aiko matter-of-factly sings, “It seems like I give so much and don’t get nothing back,” sounding both detached from and transformed by the experiences that motivated her to make this album in the first place.
GIVĒON — TAKE TIME
With deepened, coaxing vocals, and complementary production choices, GIVĒON’s lyrics stand out amongst those being assembled elsewhere in the R&B landscape. By utilizing his voice, which sounds wounded and triumphant at once, to its full capacity, the singer-songwriter steps into a sonic playscape that’s all his own. On the revelatory album standout “LIKE I WANT YOU,” GIVĒON deconstructs his emotions on a granular level, exposing his inner thoughts and revealing his true intentions: “Why is it so hard to figure out? / I need you every day — believe me when I say it.” On TAKE TIME, GIVĒON diligently homes in on the lingering feelings that typically get swept under the rug, and brings them to the surface for all to see.
Teyana Taylor — The Album
Teyana Taylor is a theatrical storyteller in every sense, and The Album is Exhibit A. Swimming with soul samples and top-level features (including her husband and daughter, Iman and Junie), her full-length follow-up to 2018’s Kanye West-helmed K.T.S.E. is all heart. “Lowkey” featuring Erykah Badu overflows with yearning and affective lyrics, some of which hearken back to Badu’s 1997 single, “Next Lifetime.” This is Taylor’s strength: Understanding that the artists and albums that have influenced her are tools at her disposal. The Album is a tribute to those who came before her. But, it’s also a forward-thinking presentation of all of the innovative sounds and creative styles that reside solely within her.
Victoria Monét — JAGUAR
JAGUAR expands and contracts according to the mood of Victoria Monét, never once settling into an anticipated groove. Across the album, she vacillates between summery and cool production, adjusting her lyrics and vocal approach accordingly. In addition to the funk-influenced “Experience” featuring Khalid and SG Lewis, Monét’s lead single, “Ass Like That,” is the focal point of the project with heavy Golden Age drums and silkened vocals. But, the sleeper hit is “Touch Me,” a ‘90s-influenced track that reimagines the typical slow jam in a way that pushes her talents to the forefront.
Ty Dolla $ign — Featuring Ty Dolla $ign
On the cleverly titled Featuring Ty Dolla Sign, the go-to gun-for-hire for all things soulful invites some of his regular collaborators to return the favor on his own body of work. While some tracks see Dolla $ign successfully going it alone, like the reflective “Time Will Tell,” his strengths lie in his featured selection choices. Though it’s under a minute long, the “serpentwithfeet Interlude” blossoms spectacularly near the top of the album with Dolla harmonizing with a welcome figure we might not have expected on a blockbuster album. By mixing the smoothness of R&B with the natural bounce of hip hop — and even incorporating some alternative takes — he ensures his name will continue to ring out, whether he’s a featured artist or a main act.