To be an R&B fan in 2015 was to be delighted, bewildered, mind-blown and overwhelmed. Before the year even began, D’Angelo released Black Messiah, his endlessly anticipated follow-up to 2000’s Voodoo, almost by surprise. The album’s accolades and swirling brain-drain were well-deserved—but it was also a waving flag that signified a very good upcoming year for the genre. It certainly didn’t hurt that Jodeci, the forefathers of R&B’s rap-hybridization, announced only a week later that they were reunited and making new music.
When January came, release schedules were a veritable who’s who of pop, soul and the genre’s outer limits. In this year alone, we got records from *deep breath* Ne-Yo, Tyrese, Ciara, Bilal, Miguel, Raheem DeVaughn, Estelle and Tamia. And Jamie Foxx, R. Kelly, August Alsina and Jill Scott. Plus, The-Dream, Kelela, FKA twigs and Atlanta indie Awful Records’ Alexandria and Abra (whose Rose is my personal #1 R&B album of the year) wowed from the genre’s weirder corners.
“Alt-R&B” truly got its due when HBK-affiliate Kehlani got a well-deserved Grammy nod for her album You Should Be Here. Pleasure-seekers had Ty Dolla $ign, Jeremih and the return of Tim Vocals to satiate their carnal, albeit melancholy, needs. Did I mention Janet Jackson released a comeback album and is currently touring? Janet Jackson released a comeback album and is currently touring.
Maybe one of the most remarkable stories of the year was Abel Tesfaye, bka The Weeknd’s pump-fake into pop music. Early in the year, he seemingly swerved completely out of his, forgive the term, PBR&B lane and eschewed his filthy origins—for the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack, no less—only to score a No. 1 hit with an ode to cocaine-addled lust and pulled one of the biggest okey-dokes on pop music fans. Perhaps most of the people who gave Tesfaye a chart-topping debut for his third full-length Beauty Behind the Madness were unaware of his House of Balloons entryway, but he was quick to tell everyone about himself (and assure his long-term fans he was the same old Abel) with the record’s third track, “Tell Your Friends.” Opening with, “We are not the same, I am too reckless” before launching into a good weed and better dick ad for himself.
But the oddest thing about The Weeknd’s success isn’t merely that it happened—trace the steps from a guest appearance on Ariana Grande’s excellent 2014 album My Everything to now and the puzzle pieces fit phenomenally—it’s that it is in direct opposition to Frank Ocean’s entire 2015. While critics and interviewers are quick to draw comparisons between Ocean and Miguel for their similarly-time fame bumps in 2012, Ocean and the Weeknd are far more likely contemporaries. Remember, both of their mixtapes were released within a month of each other in 2011, all while Miguel was pimping pop radio with his nevertheless excellent debut album All I Want Is You. Ocean was only found online, promising to release an album and a self-published magazine, Boys Don’t Cry, “in July.” Follow any of his fans on Twitter, and we were still chomping at the bit on July 31st at 11:58pm, praying because there was still time—and then deciding to keep up hope for PST—only to hear no music from him for the rest of the year. Unless he miraculously dumps something on us in the next ten days.
Meanwhile, Miguel’s Wildheart was released to high critical praise, but was seemingly forgotten about by year’s end. A treatise on self-acceptance and a sumptuous ode to the primal arts, the record is not as easily as accessible as 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream, but this was the year he let his freak flag—both as a hippie and as a lover—fly higher than ever before. And he’s never seemed happier. And like Miguel, R&B fans were afforded that same kind of joy. Aside what was already mentioned, newer indie artists like Rahel, from Le1f’s Camp & Street label, released her debut Alkali at the top of the year, delivering a narrative world built equally by dream-pop and Brownstone. Leon Bridges’ Coming Home took us to church and him to a musical guest spot on Saturday Night Live. And just when it seemed like the year would end quietly, the legend Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds released Return of the Tender Lover, his first solo album in a decade with the subtle demand that R&B needs a return to form.
But ultimately, it does not. R&B has always been about desire and with the kaleidoscopic turns it takes from across the genre, every single one can be met. So to that end, here are five albums from 2015 that delivered on the promise of R&B’s increasing innovation, from across the spectrum, made by artists who will keep pushing things forward while remaining indebted to honoring the past.
The Internet — Ego Death
Odd Future may more or less be dissolved, but their soul-pastiche outfit The Internet (featuring Golf Wang members Syd Tha Kid and Matt Martians) is more robust than ever. Building upon the psychedelia of their debut Purple and the jazz fusion of 2013’s Feels Good, the group has grown bigger and found a comfortable middle ground where these emotional lanes within R&B lie. The group has always cited Jamiroquai as one of their main inspiration and it is most apparent in this release that they’ve been able to build on that influence and bring it into 2015. With assists from Kaytranada and Janelle Monae, Ego Death is both indebted to a groovy past and predicts an even groovier future.
Bryson Tiller — T R A P S O U L
Louisville upstart Bryson Tiller is exemplary of how to make yourself hot in the 2010s. Gaining traction last year from his SoundCloud breakout “Don’t”—essentially the response track to Pleasure P’s 2009 hit “Boyfriend #2”—before selling independently and charting on iTunes, Tiller was able to generate his buzz completely on his own, attracting co-signs from Timbaland and, of course, Drake. The sound builds upon what Drake delivered during his So Far Gone era and years of inspiration from Omarion, coalescing into something with a little bit more panache than pop. That he knew to sample KP and Envyi’s perennial “Shorty Swing My Way” on album cut “Exchange” doesn’t hurt his cred, either.
Dawn Richard — Blackheart
Dawn Richard is one of R&B’s most deft polyglot. After starting off in Making the Band’s girl group Danity Kane—whose reunion this year fell flat—before shedding some of her pop skin in Diddy Dirty Money, Richard has become one of the genre’s most progressive artists. And not “progressive” as “forward-thinking,” although she certainly is, but meaning she made a prog album for the soul set. If it weren’t for Vulnicura, this would be the Björkiest album of the year.
Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland label had a stranglehold on the warmer seasons without people really knowing it. Aside from her protégé Jidenna having a breakthrough with his summer hit “Classic Man”—a primer on how not to get caught while doing dirty work—and their sensual collab “Yoga,” the collective were overtly politic. Not only did they tour the EP with free shows across the country, each and every stop included a march against police brutality before performance time. And while “Classic Man” and “Yoga” were the hits—although, the contributions from Deep Cotton and St. Beauty are not to be overlooked—their most powerful move of the year was the simultaneously-released “Hell You Talmbout.” It is harrowing, its lyric comprised only of the names of black men and women killed by the police with the demand to, “Say his/her name.” A stark statement from a crew that loves metaphor and a necessity when hardly a day goes by when we don’t learn about someone else’s son or daughter losing their life.
Jazmine Sullivan — Reality Show
Jazmine Sullivan has been on of pop-R&B’s rawest to do it since her singles “Bust the Windows” and “Lions, Tigers and Bears” were released in 2008. And that same ethos of “Why do we love love when love seems to hate us?” has remained intact throughout her career—which she decided to leave behind five years ago, saying that she’d be out once music wasn’t fun anymore. Half a decade later, Reality Show doubles down on Sullivan’s tell-it-like-it-is lyricism, kicking off with the Meek Mill-featuring “Dumb,” a firm reminder that she’s still refusing to take shit from anyone and expands further with tracks like “Forever Don’t Last” and “Brand New.” The latter is, perhaps, a total rebuke of struggle rappers and the unappreciated support from the women who love them. A seething rebuke of the music industry and of men whose heads get undeservingly big. With this kind of honesty, sung with such piercing beauty, it was easy to give Sullivan a warm welcome back—even when her music is hardly so kind.
Claire Lobenfeld is a music + culture critic. Read more from her on Twitter.
For more year-end music coverage check out look back at the ten best albums of the year and check out our best country albums, best folk albums, and best experimental records. Or, if you’re feeling critical you can read our 10 most overrated albums list here.