It’s safe to say that 2021 was a year that nobody expected. There were ups, downs, curves, and twists that couldn’t have been predicted by a single person on earth. But there was one constant expectation: Good music. And R&B artists delivered — and with fervor! There were comebacks, collaborations, reinventions, and debuts. There were moments of resiliency, sophistication, honesty, and excellence.
R&B has never been in a more transformative position, which is exactly what made the genre so exciting this year. Artists, ranging from mainstream to underground, have tapped into their innermost experiences and come out on the other side with empathetic stories that anyone can acknowledge and appreciate, whether they’ve been in those exact situations or not. It’s this established connectivity that makes contemporary rhythm and blues so comprehensively understood.
Check out REVOLT’s 11 top R&B albums, in no particular order, of 2021 below.
Jazmine Sullivan — Heaux Tales
Jazmin Sullivan’s Heaux Tales opens with a frank intro, “Bodies,” which sees her singing on behalf of anyone who’s ever woken up and wondered, “What the hell happened last night, and with whom?” The album, Sullivan’s first in six years, is the work of a grown ass woman, and that notion is repeated throughout. Standout single “Pick Up Your Feelings,” a brave confrontation of a dissolved, toxic relationship is the golden center of Heaux Tales. It represents an emotional state that is as relatable as it is avoidable — but of course, human nature is driven by an insatiable curiosity to discover how far we can be pushed. Sullivan’s willingness to put her experiences — and the experiences of those around her — on front street is what elevates this album, making it special, and accessible.
Summer Walker — Still Over It
On a project that vacillates from uptempo R&B (“Ex for a Reason”) to heartrending soul (“Unloyal”), Summer Walker welcomes listeners into the chaotic collective experience that is love. Her own romantic life has been publicized across media, but instead of shying away from the spotlight, Walker steps directly into it on Still Over It. With tracks like the intro and outro, voiced by Cardi B and Ciara, respectively, Walker acknowledges the ways in which her needs have been ignored, and how she can overcome them with the help of her community. She’s completely transparent in her assessment of her position in life, even going so far as to name the penultimate track of the album “4th Baby Mama.” But, instead of relying on the patriarchal views of what that title supposedly means, Walker leans into her own self-worth, inviting us all to do the same.
H.E.R. — Back of My Mind
Since her proper introduction to the music industry, H.E.R.’s career has been colored by an intense musicality and a strong exhibition of evocative songwriting. Her latest effort, Back of My Mind, is a sprawling victory lap that expands out from conventional R&B. On the opening track, “We Made It,” H.E.R.’s ethereal vocals swim across her own eclectic guitar solo, a direct flex that reminds us of why we’re so supportive of her efforts. “Damage,” the second single released ahead of the album, is H.E.R. at her most vulnerable. But, an underlying strength powers the track, as she accepts every element of a partnership, one that humanizes her as much as it invigorates her.
Shelley FKA DRAM — Shelley FKA DRAM
Shelley is a new iteration of the bubbly, effervescent character known initially as DRAM, who enraptured audiences with summery singles like “Cha Cha” and “Broccoli.” On his latest album, Shelley FKA DRAM, the artist gets one thing clear: He has evolved. His production choices and selected topics ring out as more mature, more sensual. But his personality is still intact, the smile in his voice nearly tangible. Shelley’s collaboration with Erykah Badu, “‘93 Acura Vigor,” opens with a spoken intro about his appreciation for the opportunity to trade verses with the storied Dallas singer before breaking into a free-flowing joint effort that brings the best out of both musicians. Throughout the project, Shelley explores new versions of himself, sounding confident, and unconfined by the parameters set by previous expectations.
Snoh Aalegra — Temporary Highs In The Violet Skies
Snoh Aalegra’s voice is imbued with a sense of warmth, even in moments of cold solitude. “LOST YOU,” a meditative track that features the singer reflecting on a love that escaped her grasp, feels like a cracked facade: “Although I lost you, I’ll always want you,” she croons knowingly. This kind of deep-seated acceptance is the thread that holds Temporary Highs In The Violet Skies together. But, it’s not just heartache and balladry that motivates Aalegra musically; she also explores far-reaching, multifaceted elements of R&B like the experimental “NEON PEACH” featuring hip hop artist Tyler, The Creator. Whether she’s addressing anxiety-ridden thoughts or amorous emotions, Snoh Aalegra represents the duality of love with ease.
Doja Cat — Planet Her
With Planet Her, Doja Cat fully immerses herself into the glammed-out super stardom that’s been awaiting her since her days of entertaining the internet with songs like 2018’s goofy, yet unforgettable “Mooo!” Her latest album builds on the exuberant confidence exhibited on her previous project, Hot Pink, and Doja Cat fully delivers a new sound that can only be described as futuristic pop&B. On tracks like “Get Into It (Yuh),” she weaves together an irrepressible sense of humor with a knack for delivering it all with passion. But the crux of Planet Her is an homage to women: Those who have inspired her, those who live alongside her, and those who listen to her. This dedication to a femme-focused conscientiousness is best expressed on the SZA collaboration “Kiss Me More,” which feels like a simultaneous tribute to Donna Summer and The Spice Girls. A little girl power goes a long way.
India Shawn — BEFORE WE GO
“CALI LOVE,” the first song on India Shawn’s BEFORE WE GO, is equal parts reverence and criticism. The singer-songwriter uses the track to paint a love letter to her home state, while also taking in the components that can make it a difficult place to be (“You can smoke the day away, medicate / Party in the hills on a Sunday / You can get a new face, don’t change”). Altogether, the album marries her self-awareness with a grander analysis of the environmental factors that have shaped her. Shawn’s musical sensibilities extend to the far ends of the R&B spectrum, ranging from patient ballads (“NOT TOO DEEP”) to fluid jams (“DON’T PLAY WITH MY HEART”). India Shawn’s authenticity — her unwavering dedication to making selfless music — is the consistent theme that makes this album one of this year’s best.
VanJess — Homegrown
The sister duo of VanJess is one of the closest things we have to a true, purposeful reinvention of ‘90s R&B. On the runaway single, “Slow Down,” their voices swell with a poised composure over production that borrows liberally from “Darkest Light” by the Lafayette Afro Rock Band (popularized by Wreckx-N-Effect’s 1992 song “Rump Shaker”). While VanJess hearkens back to the past for inspiration, they assuredly venture forth, especially on songs like the new school house track “DYSFUNCTIONAL,” produced by prolific beatmaker KAYTRANADA. Homegrown, in all of its adaptable glory, offers listeners an opportunity to get to know the heavenly voices of VanJess better, as the siblings themselves grow ever more comfortable in their own skin.
Joyce Wrice — Overgrown
On the undulating, groove-infused opening track “Chandler” of her debut full-length album Overgrown, Joyce Wrice sounds divine. The song, which speaks directly to the sacrifices women have to make in order to receive a modicum of true love, is a sneak peek at what Wrice has to offer. Musically, she has been unveiling parts of herself since the mid-2010s; those adventurous forays into individualized styles called forth an innate empathy that Wrice has continued to explore up to this moment. The Freddie Gibbs-assisted single “On One” speaks to any person’s desire for a more serious connection, and it’s Wrice at her best — coquettish, yet serious in her wants and wishes. Her voice reverberates with a deep longing, but her conviction shines through during courageous moments on the album like “Losing.”
Dijon — Absolutely
Dijon is now in his second phase of artistry — his first coming as a member of the now-defunct, nostalgic R&B duo Abhi//Dijon. The latest version of his musical approach is scaled back considerably with the musician now relying heavily on acoustics and stripped-down production to get his romantic points across. Absolutely features Dijon pouring his heart out in multiple fashions — from the polished, heartfelt “The Dress” to the raspy, discomfortingly honest “Rodeo Clown.” But other tracks, like “Big Mike’s,” feel fun in spirit, as we hear him working through the kinks of his delivery in real-time. In his pursuit of pure honesty and genuine emotionality, Dijon is unfailing.
dvsn & Ty Dolla $ign — Cheers to the Best Memories
Cheers to the Best Memories couldn’t have been titled any better. The joint album, between Canadian duo dvsn and soul maestro Ty Dolla $ign, brims with both direct and sly references to the R&B of yesterday. “Memories” prominently samples the 1992 single “Freak Me” by underrated R&B group Silk with Ty Dolla $ign putting his signature, hip hop-inflected flip on the track. dvsn keeps that same energy on the song, but comes back to the core tenets of itself in other areas on Cheers to the Best Memories — a prime example is “Outside,” which sees both acts reveling in their carnal desires, while expressing themselves in their own distinct and alluring ways. By building upon a natural chemistry, Ty Dolla $ign and dvsn have boosted R&B through a pure love of the genre.