Welcome to the world of R&B music circa 2014. The game has officially changed.
For starters, Beyonce raised the bar and solidified her “Queen Bey” status with the surprise release of her self-titled “visual” album late last year -- putting quite the distance between herself and anyone vying for the throne. But while the songstress was busy breaking the Internet and running the radio with hits like 'Drunk in Love,' new sounds and styles have taken shape and new stars are being born.
So far this year, we’ve seen the R&B genre stretch its tentacles further into weirder, darker places thanks in part to sonically innovative chanteuses like FKA Twigs and TDE's SZA. On the other end of the spectrum, some artists are taking a more conventional approach and impressing with undeniable talent and potential for greatness -- relative newcomer Tinashe and superstar-in-the-making Miguel are examples of this.
So when it came time to take stock of the top R&B songs of 2014 (so far), we came up with a list as varied and eclectic as the scene is right now. (Though the phrase, "Mustard on the beat, hoe," is a recurring theme in a lot of the songs.)
And although we’re listing the hottest songs of the year, the very best may still be on the way. Remember Twigs, Jhene Aiko and Tinashe are among the few who have debut projects arriving later this year. Until they drop, the Top 20 R&B Songs of 2014 (So Far) includes plenty of lush vocals and electronic textures to get lost in. Check our selections below.
From ex to next (and back again), Sevyn Streeter offers a smart and playful number that, at its core, is about wondering "What if?" when it comes to relationships. The solo version served as a solid follow-up to her duet with Chris Brown, but it was Kid Ink’s slick-talking perspective that gave the single the boost it needed. The remix didn’t reach the success of 'It Won't Stop,' but the hypnotic guitar riff and the instantly memorable hook make this a 2014 essential.
If you’ve heard this song, chances are that you’ve seen the oddball video that accompanies it. For the uninitiated, it’s a somewhat disquieting experience that features the pale-faced Spooky mourning lost love in the snow and laying on a couch looking wistful while wearing a durag, a turtleneck and a stocking cap. It’s hard to separate the song from the video, but those who can successfully do so are gifted with a satisfying, haunting track. Instead of impressing with a world-stopping sound and traditional soulfulness, Spooky Black compels with ghostly vocals to portray a deep longing for love. This singer out of Minnesota doesn’t appear to revel in bravado like some of his peers in the genre, but this sad boy's music begs at least a few repeat listens.
On 'Stay With Me,' we find the young British crooner fighting off darkness -- though the somber Sam Smith skillfully avoids Debbie Downer territory. The track is Smith’s highest-charting single and it follows the tradition of ostensibly sad yet undeniably rousing pop/R&B hits like Adele's 'Someone Like You.' The crooner's emotive singing carries the song but the gospel chorus is what brings it all home.
Give Jason Derulo his props. He's got everything it takes to be a superstar.Take his performance at the 2014 CMT Awards for instance. Even among all the cowboy boots and western shirts, Derulo was able to remind us that he can glide smoothly into any situation with his dancing and his voice. Watch a performance of 'Wiggle' and you'll see that it incorporates all the best Derulo has to offer: confidence and charisma, the slick steps, flirtatious lyrics and, of course, his great singing ability. "You know what to do with that big fat butt!" never sounded so good.
Usher doesn’t get enough credit. Over his decades-long career, we’ve seen him transform from child prodigy into an R&B sex symbol to crunk club party starter in the aughts and then into an R&B/pop powerhouse. So logically, his next move would be … millennial doo-wop? Call it what you like, but Usher displays pure confidence on this track’s stuttering bass and the swelling instrumentation on the chorus. The singer mastered the quiet-hook-quiet formula on the career highlight 'Climax,' but doesn’t quite reach that level on ‘Good Kisser.' However, it does prove that the man still has some surprises up his sleeve.
The smooth, sexual technician that wrote 'I Invented Sex' is no more. Trey Songz's latest success finds him being way more direct. On 'Na Na,' he transforms Teena Marie’s sweet love song 'Ooh La La La’ into something sweatier -- nastier even. ‘Na Na’ features what’s perhaps Songz’s wildest hook yet, featuring an elastic key riff, brooding bass and a random “YAASSSS” out of nowhere for good measure. Of course, DJ Mustard is on the beat for this one. With Songz yelling, “Put your hands in the air if you’re f---in' tonight,” ‘Na Na’ is a bit NSFW, but you can always sing along to the ratchetness in the car or club.
The future of Mariah Carey’s career has been called into question after two of her singles failed to make it into the Top 10 and she saw her lowest first-week album sales with the release of ‘Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse.’ But Carey sounds the least worried about the future throughout the project. She's at her best when she’s joyful and weightless. This is the case for ‘You’re Mine (Eternal).’ Buoyed by Carey’s trademark singing, the single finds the songstress once again pushing her pop ambitions without sacrificing intimacy. It may not have been a commercial success, but it feels just right.
For ‘Loyal,’ Chris Brown pulled back a bit on the ego for an easily memorable, albeit misogynistic mantra while riding on Nic Nac’s palatable production. So Brown had his first single to land in the Hot 100s single digits in three years, but he wasn’t around to capitalize on it due to legal trouble. Brown was released from jail earlier this month, but you get the sense that his return would have been more joyous if it happened a bit sooner.
Jhene Aiko has proven herself to be a reliable talent during her earlier releases. The main flaw with her has been that lack of bite in the hooks. Where were those words that listeners could grab on to for them to proclaim, “This is The Jhene Aiko song”? ‘The Worst’ accomplishes that with its delivery. The luscious instrumental suddenly comes to a halt as Aiko, sick of this s---, steps out and gets the snapping: “I don't need you... / But I want you.” With this, the anticipation for her debut album increases.
The enigmatic 'Babylon' comes drenched in mystique. An operatic voice surrounds SZA as the syncopated percussion constantly shifts the ground from under her. The TDE first lady is vague, but somehow deeply cutting with her fragile voice. “Are you hating yourself? Do you really hate me?” she asks. This is directed to a distant lover, but it somewhat symbolizes her relationship with her inquiring fan base. She raises questions instead of answers, and ‘Babylon’ is tight enough to keep them interested.
On 'Lowkey,' KLSH's syrupy production meets Jordan’s silky vocals and the result is a track that Aaliyah herself would love. The song's "keep this on the down low" message makes for an intimate 3 minutes and 41 seconds that manages to be relatable for people who haven’t been in the situation. Normally, we’d push for a relationship -- the title -- but what we have going on here seems enticing. “In the back of the mind there's always some doubt / But we're alone in here and the music's blaring / Are you hearing what I'm saying?” she sings. The Canadian native may not be as well-known as some of the other entries here, but somehow, you just get her.
Although he still had his moments, ’90s Michael Jackson was too preoccupied with lashing out at critics and being “edgy” to make consistently enjoyable music. ‘Xscape’ is a flawed posthumous album but it does have a crucial gem in ‘Love Never Felt So Good.’ Originally recorded in 1983, the Jackson and Justin Timberlake duet is a callback to the days when the King of Pop was happily moonwalking his way out of the commercial stratosphere -- before he became weighed down by media-inspired angst. The duo’s uplifting vocals also have some contextual bittersweetness to them, as they remind fans of what could’ve been had things turned out a little differently.
G.O.O.D. Music artists -- both current and former -- had some of their best material come from love. Kanye West’s ‘Blame Game’ was partly inspired by his failed romance with Amber Rose. Common’s honest paean to love on ‘The Light’ was inspired by his relationship with Erykah Badu. John Legend’s ‘All of Me’ was an obvious dedication to his wife, Chrissy Teigen. The latter has all the hallmarks of a Legend song, drawing attention to his earlier work. His soulful piano playing, his effortless, multi-octave singing and the “Ohs.” Yet, the track wasn’t an immediate hit. 'All of Me' was a mainstay in urban radio that was just outside of mainstream view before it caught fire in 2014. Soon Legend had his first Hot 100 No. 1 and we had a little something extra for that wedding playlist.
'2 On' is an example that commercial demands can be overcome with the right synergy, and Tinashe is fortunate to have that come with a current club mainstay like DJ Mustard. After floating on more complicated electronic rhythms on her prior mixtape releases like 'Black Water' (to great effect with songs like 'Vulnerable'), DJ Mustard's buzzing, blaring synth transforms her charm into something rawer, grimier and urgent. As she owns her dance moves in the video, quirks like the tender, descending keys imply that mainstream ambitions haven’t clouded her vulnerability.
Sadly, Solange opened herself up to a lot of jokes thanks to that infamous elevator attack on her more famous brother-in-law. “That’s the biggest hit of her career,” they said. Comments like that only came from the less musically in-the-know. Her fans know she's a reliable, underrated artist. Recently, she’s had a pretty decent batting average with releases like the 'True EP' in her discography. So if she doesn’t have the homeruns, her performance on 'Lost On My Way Home' by retro enthusiasts Chromeo is a very respectable double. People who saw her 'Lovers in the Parking Lot' video know she looks very good two-steppin’ under neon lights. It turns out she sounds even better doing so. There isn’t much that’s quite as satisfying Solange’s voice over those colorful synths and the funky bass line riff that pops up. She may not have a true hit, but the in-the-moment splendor asks, "Who needs one?"
Beyonce’s self-titled album sets itself apart from her other projects by having a consistent, overarching theme of sexual autonomy and maternity. That said, there’s still those singular Beyonce-type moments just like every other project, as with ‘Drunk in Love.’ The blunt and snappy ‘Partition’ is the latest. The singer’s latest single’s thrives off her dynamic with the instrumental, produced by a team that includes Justin Timberlake, Timbaland and the mysterious BOOTS. It doesn’t get much straightforward than Beyonce’s account of sex in the back of a limousine, but she leaves the emotional complexities she’s trying to convey to the production. The bubbling, minimalistic bass morphs into an intense, spiraling hook with scaling keys and nocturnal horn-like synths. This is a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality.
One of the first adjectives that come to mind when describing August Alsina is “real,” especially following the recent BET '106 & Park' incident. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love -- it just comes from a different perspective. Alsina’s daily voice of communication is blunt and marked by an unmistakable southern accent, while his soaring singing voice sounds like he’s letting go of all that grit. In booth and out-of-booth, the crooner are the same people though. He’s at his most passionate on ‘Kissin’ On My Tattoos,’ which features Jasper Cameron’s velvet production. Here, Alsina is aware of a flawed circumstance. He has his contradictions (he doesn’t want to share, yet he hangs with other women) and he’s a bit needy. He can still hope, however.
Ty Dolla $ign’s misadventures at the club are followed up by a further step into ubiquity. While ‘Paranoid’ chronicles Ty’s struggles to keep it cool, ‘Or Nah’ finds him being playful within his aesthetic. The singer-rapper is also heard at his most nefarious as he croons over DJ Mustard's creeping, rotating synths. “I got a lot of cash / I don’t mind spendin’ it,” Khalifa warns. From there, the song slowly rises its tempo until it peaks with Dolla $ign’s hook. You can imagine him grinning as he riddles off the immediately catchy hook. "Is you really 'bout the money or nah? / Can you really take d--- or nah? / Can I bring another bitch or nah? / Is you with this shits or nah?" he croons.
There’s an undeniable sweetness in FKA’s vocals, but she's never afraid to travel to some dark places. For instance, the video for ‘Papi Pacify’ has her flirting with sadomasochism. Here, she travels to an ever darker, uglier place: loneliness. While other songs seek to escape this feeling, 'Untitled' finds her twirling in this space with the help of equally pained vocals from London duo inc. “Don't cry for the things you love, my fallen dove / 'Cause they die,” sings FKA, who’s brutal and poetic in her lyrics as if she knows for sure you won’t be turning away. Those fragile vocals and the cloudy production are too enticing to do anything but listen.
Miguel is years away from reaching Prince’s status, but he’s still the closest thing we got. There isn’t an artist in the genre that can quite blend rock star imagery, creativity and a compelling singularity quite like him. ‘Simplethings,’ a cut off the ‘Girls’ second season soundtrack, is the latest example of this strength. The track contains that accessible fuzzed-out riff, which can be a sign of conformity for a few. But listen to the passion in his voice to understand just why songs like ‘Adorn’ and ‘How Many Drinks?’ were quaking hearts two years ago. ‘Kaleidoscope Dream’ might not have reached ‘Purple Rain’ levels, but ‘Simplethings’ shows that Miguel is just fine blazing his own path.