The Best R&B Albums of 2021
For the bravest, most unique voices working in R&B, it's clear that priorities have shifted. In 2021, Mereba and Cleo Sol journaled their way through first-time, mid-revolution motherhood. Mariah the Scientist and Summer Walker bluntly cut the cord on toxic exes (but we'll see). Jazmine Sullivan and Dijon leaned into the disorganized beauty of identity. Liv.e left no crumbs on the table and Shelley recalibrated everything he thought he knew about himself musically. This year's best R&B was born out of reshaped perspectives in the face of this post-pandemic facade we're now calling reality. The results remind us there's no time to waste. —Sidney Madden
Note: Albums with an asterisk have been previously covered in NPR Music's Best Music of 2021 series.
There's a way to produce an album that is all over the place sonically and yet still great — ask Dijon how. Far removed from the shadows of his former duo, Abhi//Dijon, he makes it clear on his debut album why he needed to fly solo: He doesn't fly straight. We go from the beautifully frantic "Many Times" to soothing bop "The Dress" in a matter of minutes, but I get it: We've all been there. Absolutely feels like a bunch of songs about heartache that just happened to land in the right spot. The feelings vary, but nothing feels calculated. Such is love, I guess. —Bobby Carter
Figmore, Jumbo Street
JUICEB☮X and 10.4 Rog's tripped-out debut, Jumbo Street, came out of nowhere in March, and there's no album I played more this year. The duo's hallucinogenic concoction of R&B and psychedelic pop sits atop a base of pure vibes that stuck to my ribs. At a time when we weren't truly back outside yet, songs like "The Tale of the Rattlesnake" and "Mr. Barreleye" conjured the beach cruise I didn't get the chance to go on. As JUICEB☮X alludes to on "Rosie," Jumbo Street reminds me of a simpler time. —Bobby Carter
It's a sin for leftovers to go to waste in any Black American tradition. Whether making quilts or chitlins, our ancestors knew how to stretch some scraps and freak them into something holy. The producer and singer-songwriter Liv.e works a similar type of juju on the taut EP CWTTY+, largely composed of leftover songs and themes from her stellar 2020 debut album, Couldn't Wait To Tell You....
Liv.e's origin as a DJ comes through in this six-song follow-up. It's not just her psyched-out combination of jazz, soul and R&B, but the way she stirs all three into some sorta glorious reduction of a witch's brew. Then there's her voice, an almost ghostly flutter she places on top of or sometimes behind the track — like the echo on "TheWordsCameOutOfMyMouth9 Reprise." She doesn't sing so much as she conjures and coos her way through "Party Life (Live)." The vocal manipulation gets even more layered on "How It Made Me Feel / Unplug Me Medley (Live)." In its brevity, CWTTY+ is the tighter, righter appetizer to last year's main course. —Rodney Carmichael
Mariah The Scientist, RY RY World
Mariah the Scientist knows how to concoct a story. RY RY World, the Atlanta singer-songwriter's debut album, coils up the intricacies of heartbreak with fluid, winding precision. Mariah weaves together imagery of vacant stares through snow-covered sunroofs and heated fights between locked bedroom doors. Stream-of-consciousness spoken-word and helium high notes help her create a cinematic sizzle reel of repeated betrayal. From romanticizing an ex's toxic behavior on "2 You" to fantasizing about killing them and then floating into the funeral on "Revenge," these are the hard lessons that take more than one spin around the block, Finsta stalking session or proverbial slap in the face to really learn. —Sidney Madden
Terrace Martin, DRONES
Well-studied in genre, multi-instrumentalist and producer Terrace Martin returned this year with DRONES, his first solo studio album since 2016's Velvet Portraits. Across 13 tracks, Martin embarks on a tour of style: Through discovery and repurposing, he seamlessly blends hip-hop with jazz and builds lush neo-soul synth soundscapes that bridge eccentric R&B with beat poetry, classical with house, Cuban with West African. Built around the concept of an automated 21st century, DRONES invites its listeners to get lost in Martin's infinite summer comfort, a purposeful interruption to an ever-increasing digitized world. DRONES is a journey of what we've left behind, an honorific to how Black music evolves alongside progress as Martin experiments with distorted noise, spaces of silence and human replication, courtesy of a stacked features lineup including Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Snoop Dogg, YG, Ty Dolla $ign, Leon Bridges, Channel Tres, Robert Glasper, Cordae, James Fauntleroy, Smino and more. —LaTesha Harris
Mereba, AZEB — EP
Rest, love and rejuvenation are very much part of the revolution, and cradling truth bombs in harmony has always been Mereba's strong suit. For her 2021 EP AZEB, the LA-based multi-hyphenate not only mind-maps the world's racist chaos, but also offers solace from it. Seven fresh tracks pulsate with a soft-but-steadfast intensity, reinforcing Mereba's artistic calling. "Your weapons can't hurt me / My essence is shot-proof," she decrees in "Aye." "We are renegades / The blood of the brave in our DNA," she reassures on "Beretta." "Freedom for my people is urgent," she chants in melodic mantra on "News Come." While the warring wages on, AZEB at least provides 21 minutes of respite. —Sidney Madden
Mndsgn, Rare Pleasure
With Rare Pleasure, LA producer Mndsgn evolves from his beatmaking roots to shine in his multifaceted talents as songwriter, vocalist and arranger. Bridging R&B with psychedelic jazz and samba with commercial soundtrack sounds, the album celebrates life's sacredness; Mndsgn draws out arrangements, stretches vocals and distorts instruments to create an idyllic soundtrack fit for life's expansive wonders. Rare Pleasure eagerly repeats, each musical motif reflecting recurring experiences in life — our daily echoes and the way we can arrive to the same lesson again and again, only to show up in different, seemingly wiser variations. —LaTesha Harris
Dawn Richard, Second Line
Dawn Richard's decades-long career is defined by a chameleonic ability to traverse genres. The New Orleans singer-songwriter's sixth studio album, Second Line, solidifies her sonically adventurous style while memorializing her hometown's effervescent spirit. Across 16 songs, Second Line is a hand grenade-strength concoction of avant-garde R&B, electropop and reworks of classical compositions (for example, the Beethoven mashup "Le Petit Morte (a lude)"). Interspersed with dialogue between Richard and her mother about life, love and The Big Easy, the LP is anchored by personal layers. With Second Line, Richard further pushes her artistic boundaries while thanking the people and places that influenced her to do so. —J'na Jefferson
Shelley FKA DRAM, Shelley FKA DRAM
After time away from music to heal from personal demons, the artist formerly known as DRAM has reintroduced himself. Despite apprehensions regarding his artistic overhaul, the debut of Shelley (the Virginia rapper's given name) doesn't compromise any of the flair that initially christened him an R&B figure to watch. Shelley FKA DRAM — his short-but-sweet, semi-eponymous collection of slow jams — maintains Shelley's liveliness as he steps into a sexy, matured lane. From the sultry, Erykah Badu-assisted " '93 Acura Vigor," to the sonically rich "Married Woman," it's clear that the risk of rebranding was worth the reward. You know what that is? Growth. —J'na Jefferson
Cleo Sol, Mother*
Cleo Sol tends to the songs on Mother with a gentleness that seeps into the experience of listening to them. They are soothing in their mellow, jazz-inflected soul and nurturing in their lyrics, as the London singer erects a monument of maternal love. Sometimes, as on "Don't Let Me Fall" and "23," that means extending grace in moments of lack, and other times, as on "Heart Full of Love" and "Sunshine," it's simply giving thanks for the miracle of such a gift. Often, though, it's Sol pouring into her child — and into us. Songs like the divine centerpiece "We Need You" and the piano mantra "Know That You Are Loved," brimming with affirmation, offer the warmth of a lullaby and the protection of a mother's prayers. The lilt of Sol's voice, its hazy contours and the way it glides across the production, is a balm that seems to say, "You are safe here." She was transformed by motherhood, and she courageously uses the space of Mother to lay herself bare, to break open a heart that's fuller than she thought possible and give still more of herself. —Briana Younger
Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales*
The same year Jazmine Sullivan dropped her 2008 debut album, Fearless, Black feminist scholar Moya Bailey coined the term misogynoir to describe the specific "racialized misogyny aimed at Black women." One of the hallmarks of misogynistic depictions in music and media, Bailey wrote, was the power to reduce Black women to caricatures in order to justify their poor treatment in society. Over a decade later, Heaux Tales combats these marginalizations, traveling far outside the limits of the Sapphire and the Jezebel (and, more recently, the welfare queen and the BBL baddie), showing off the complicated mélange of what really makes Black girl magic. And she's got audio receipts to prove it.
Four albums in (Jazmine calls Heaux Tales an EP, NPR Music calls it the year's best album) the brilliance of Jazmine's pen game and soulfulness of her vocal performance stands damn-near unmatched. What makes Heaux Tales a career-defining work for the 34-year-old is its clarity to turn inward and make this journey a family affair. Over eight songs interwoven with six spoken word interludes, Sullivan creates a safe space for the women in her life — friends, family, collaborators — to spill their tea. In passing the mic, Jazmine immortalizes her muses. She lets them keep their own contours, but adds light and shading to the themes they offer up filter-free. "Precious' Tale" unpacks the childhood memories of scarcity that fuel candy-pink Porsche dreams of bagging a millionaire rapper on "The Other Side." "Ari's Tale" breaks down the symptoms of being d***matized that lead to the self-diagnosis of "Put It Down" without hope for a cure. "Amanda's Tale" reveals the crippling insecurity that festers from trying to live up to impossible beauty standards, making "Girl Like Me (feat. H.E.R)" sting that much more. This communal presence helps Jazmine carry the invisible load on her shoulders, too. Whether wading through infidelity on "Lost Ones" or hilariously checking herself on "Bodies (Intro)," ("Get it together, bitch / You don't know who you home with"), the Philly-hailing star knows she's got her crew there to listen, laugh and cry with.
Creating community has always been the work of Black women. Recent history has applauded Black women for mobilizing to sway the last U.S. presidential election and use our buying power to create new waves in music, all while simultaneously telling us in courtrooms, in hospitals, in classrooms and in media that we still do not matter. With Heaux Tales, Sullivan lovingly honors the community that has always reminded us we do. —Sidney Madden
Summer Walker, Still Over It*
Still Over It is Summer Walker's middle finger to her ex, yes. But beyond that, it's a collection of affirmations for anyone who's ever been wronged by a lover, partner or even friend. The project is bookended by a knowing "narration" by Cardi B, who coaxes Walker to control the narrative of her love life, and a tranquil prayer from Ciara, who encourages her attempt to close an unhealthy chapter of her life. Summer Walker's collaborations with other women stand out on the album, from the intentionally detached nature of "No Love," her joint song with SZA, to the emotionally invested "Unloyal" featuring Ari Lennox. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Joyce Wrice, Overgrown
"Let's talk about all of the things that women gotta endure just to get some love." That's how Joyce Wrice sets the tone on "Chandler," the opening track of her debut album, Overgrown. From there, in the vein of hip-hop and R&B queens before her, the album takes some luxurious and often surprising twists without trying too hard. Features from Freddie Gibbs and Westside Gunn work because Wrice doesn't try to match the energy — she continues to do her. Overgrown is an R&B album that industry hype and big budgets can't buy: Wrice finally bubbled to the surface in 2021 by simply showing us who and where she is right now. —Bobby Carter
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