It’s been a year since we started devoting space to the best R&B, and naturally, as the world changes, so does our relationship to the music we live with. Last summer, we were singing Snoh Aalegra during the week and turning up to Megan Thee Stallion on the weekends. Now, time is a construct and the days are melting together like popsicles left in the sun. In August, over a million people tuned into Instagram Live to watch Brandy and Monica join Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Verzuz challenge, giving 90s babies the virtual concert of our dreams. Later that week, SZA returned with “Hit Different,” her first single since her debut album, which broke whatever was left of the internet. R&B was looking so good that Lil Baby jumped at the chance to lend a verse anywhere he could (He’s on this playlist three times). Although it felt like life was lived at the park or over Zoom, these 20 songs deserve a spot on your playlist no matter where you are.
SZA featuring Ty Dolla $ign "Hit Different"
It's been three years since SZA's Ctrl, and she hasn't lost her ability to get us in our feelings. "Hit Different," an impromptu single featuring Ty Dolla $ign and produced by The Neptunes, masquerades itself as a sexy R&B jam with a slow creep, but nestled in its body roll-inducing beat are vulnerable lyrics about a relationship SZA should probably exit immediately. The song is a rollercoaster of emotions about a bond that is costing the TDE singer more than she can afford. "Scared to admit my shortcomings led to overdraft in this affair," she sings. Those shortcomings find her infatuated with the toxicity of their love, and she's self-aware enough to point it out on her own. "Somethin' wrong with me, I like the way you screw your face up / Trigger me right when I need it." Yet SZA still recognizes pieces of herself in her partner, but we're not too sure that's a good thing.
Jazmine Sullivan, "Lost One"
For some people, there is such a thing as too little too late. But Jazmine Sullivan's "Lost One" isn't concerned with tardiness, instead, she's preoccupied with living a life without regrets—even if that means she has to bare her soul to have a clear conscience. The long-awaited track stings with the burn of liquid courage, but her most salient, albeit selfish, point can be found in what she repeats twice to her partner on the hook: try not to love no one. "I know that that's too much to ask," she sings, acknowledging her unfair request. "I know I'm a selfish bitch / But I want you to know I've been working on it." Hopefully, her next album provides context because we need to know the backstory here.
Bryson Tiller, "Inhale"
It seems like Bryson Tiller has been listening to 1995's Waiting to Exhale soundtrack a lot, and we can't blame him. "Inhale" features samples from Mary J. Blige's "Not Gon Cry" and SWV's "All Night Long," which are both featured on the iconic soundtrack. We only get one verse from Tiller on the lead single for his third studio album, but the Louisville singer made sure to cram in details about blocked texts, bouts with depression, and breakups. Despite it all, Tiller is hellbent on keeping the bed warm for his ex-girlfriend's return. Like the '95 blockbuster, we hope Tiller can find the beauty in not only the inhale, but the exhale too.
Brandy, "Rather Be"
Brandy's latest album, B7, sounds like the result of years of emotional breakdowns and therapy sessions, which makes "Rather Be," a sultry lead single, stand out from the rest. Produced by DJ Camper and the late Lashawn Daniels, Brandy's velvety vocals ricochet across the track as only she can do. Co-written by Victoria Monét, "Rather Be" is a simple premise: Kissing her man is on the shortlist of things Brandy wants to make a priority. After decades of earning the nickname of "The Vocal Bible," the R&B legend reminds us why in the song's final section. Not many singers can turn "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah" into a breakdown as complex as this.
Monica featuring Lil Baby, "Trenches"
When Monica and Brandy went head-to-head on their Verzuz battle with decades of classic R&B hits, Monica had another trick up her sleeve. She premiered "Trenches," the Lil Baby-assisted track that launches the Atlanta singer into another era. Here, Monica sings of loving someone who, no matter how much she nurtures them, is a product of their environment. "You caught up, entangled / In the web of the world, I wish I could save you," she sings. It's a fitting desire for a world that needs much saving, especially now.
Victoria Monét, "Jaguar"
Victoria Monét approaches music like the 70s soul singers she listened to while spending time with her grandmother. "Jaguar" creates a soundscape for lush R&B harmonies and she gives instruments space to breathe and be themselves, not just exist in the background. Here, Monét likens the chase of a potential romance to one in the jungle: natural and instinctive. "I want you to know you got that thrill that I like / I want that jungle kind of love," she sings. Luckily for us, "Jaguar" has enough space on its track to roam free.
6LACK featuring Lil Baby "Know My Rights"
6LACK has moved through the industry as an understated crooner who isn't afraid to hop on just about any song. But on "Know My Rights" he trades in his humble disposition for a braggadocious one, professing himself as a top ten artist—whether you agree or not. When he says he works harder than all the rest, it's tough to dispute, with nearly 3-hour long playlists popping up with just his features alone. During a time of civil unrest, "Know My Rights" is not the anti-policing anthem you might have expected. Instead, the song title is more about self-reflection. "I been in the field, I know my wrongs / I know my rights." In a time of isolation, the East Atlanta hybrid knows that you've got to search for your own light.
India Shawn featuring Anderson .Paak, "Movin On"
The moment you finish throwing yourself a pity party is like the sequence in a movie where the "happy music" plays. If we had a choice, India Shawn's "Movin' On" is what we'd want to hear while we pick up the fragments of our melodramatic lives. Produced by D'Mile, "Movin' On" has his signature 70s-inspired groove, pulsing with optimism. "I'm in my bag, sometimes it's like that / Get yourself out of them blues, you gotta give it to you," she sings. Shawn doesn't flaunt an aura of toxic positivity that suggests bad days don't happen. Instead, she acknowledges that the best part of hitting rock bottom is knowing there's nowhere to go but up.
Jonah Christian and Ari PenSmith, "City Girl"
When producer Jonah Christian, based in Los Angeles, and producer Ari PenSmith, based in London, finally collaborated after years of working with the same artists like Snoh Aalegra and Masego, they created "City Girl," a diasporic demo that marriages elements of dancehall and afrobeat with contemporary R&B. Despite the track's title, "City Girl" isn't meant for the club like the music of the rap duo the song is named for. Emotions run high on the track, with a couple who uses the silent treatment as a weapon when they're at odds with each other. "Don't let my bad decision go and make you switch sides," Ari sings. It's almost as if the duo has never listened to the City Girls. That's what real city girls do, period.
Alycia Bella featuring Boogie, "Cue The Sun"
Alycia Bella's voice creeps in on "Cue The Sun," hushed but immediate, trying her best not to tip us off to the fantasyland she's creating for the listener. The emotions she's feeling transcend time and dimension; things don't make sense in this mythical land of love. The moon is a disco ball, clouds are made of whipped cream, and she's lost, but "in the right direction," like she sings on the track. Los Angeles rapper Boogie only adds to the feeling of this topsy turvy world. "Is all of this shit a simulation?" he asks. "Is we a match made in Heaven or Heaven's entertainment?" Alycia Bella's world is a dream she doesn't want to wake up from, but she needs to cue the sun which is the only proof that what she's feeling is real.
Fousheé, "Deep End"
In April, Brooklyn drill rapper Sleepy Hallow struck gold on TikTok with his song "Deep End," which featured a haunting voice, credited as Fousheé, nestled comfortably on the production. This summer, the singer released the full version, this time without Sleepy Hallow, and Fousheé's tone is just as menacing. Written following the Minnesota riots after George Floyd's death, the rage in Fousheé's voice is relatable. "Had a big bone to pick / Got the short end of sticks, so we made a fire with it / Let it burn to a crisp," she sings. At a time when so many of us were speechless, Fousheé found the words we wanted to say.
Ryan Destiny, "Do You"
Every now and then, you need a song that skips all the pretty metaphors and just tells it like it is. Ryan Destiny, best known for her role on FOX's Star, gives us a petty anthem with "Do You." Destiny gives the listener a front-row seat to an argument unfolding where her solution to a trifling partner is to give him a dose of his own medicine. By the time she takes us to the second verse, we are officially a fly on the wall eavesdropping on a conversation that we were never supposed to hear. "Why is it, you don't understand anything unless your boys say it? They better come get you, 'fore you fuck up and I'm faded." We've all wanted to say "Do you" at one point or another.
Mariah the Scientist featuring Lil Baby, "Always n Forever"
Don't be confused by the namesake, Mariah the Scientist is nothing like Mariah Carey. Mariah the Scientist is this generation's next femme fatale, obsessed with imagery that's as dangerous as it is seductive. Despite the differences, "Always n Forever" borrows from a concept Carey knows all too well: unconditional love. "But I'll be your woman always / Always and forever," she sings on the hook. It's a modern-day, edgier version of "Always Be My Baby," and we're not mad at the update.
Ambré featuring Smino, "Gucci Slides"
Last year, Ambré's Pulp was a nod to the cinematic moments that shaped her love for film, and this year's Director's Cut was an extension of that passion. "Gucci Slides," featuring Smino, is one of five new songs on Director's Cut, and there's no shortage of melodies between Smino and Ambré. Somehow, the two manage to elevate a shoutout to a luxury sandal.
THEY., "All Mine"
"You still with that weak nigga?" is the sort of opening line that makes you want to listen to the rest of the song. The first verse sports just a few chords of a guitar, stripping "All Mine"'s production to the bare bones, and that's probably because the duo wants you to listen to how reckless the lyrics are. Leaning into their love for The-Dream, they have no problem letting you know anyone that comes after them is a downgrade.
August Alsina featuring Rick Ross "Entanglements"
August Alsina's "Entanglements" deserves a spot on this list because, amid the heaviness of a global pandemic and civil unrest, you remember where you were when Jada Pinkett Smith admitted to being in an "entanglement" with the R&B singer. Shortly after, the New Orleans artist wrote a song explaining exactly what an entanglement was for anyone who was unfamiliar with the term—which ended up being all of us, Will Smith too. "The definition of entanglement / Is when you're tangled in the sheets," he sings on the song's hook. We wouldn't be surprised if Webster added Alsina's version to the dictionary.
Alex Isley featuring Masego and Jack Dine, "Good & Plenty"
When quarantine is over, reacclimating ourselves to being in each other's spaces will be an adjustment. "Good & Plenty" finds Alex Isley and Masego getting a head start in intimacy. When Masego sings, "An average day is spent all in the sheets," we're reminded that Alex Isley's legacy (she's the daughter of Ernie Isley) is all about getting close.
Kehina, "All Over Again"
A voice like Kehina's is hard to come by. Her tone is steamy, like the heat that makes car windows misty. At times, she opts to sing in a near whisper, other times she's holding her phrases hostage, singing everything in one breath. Both choices feel like a deliberate attempt to make you pay attention. Co-produced by the London singer herself, "All Over Again" is the type of song you want to break social distancing rules for.
DUCKWRTH, "Kiss U Right Now"
"Kiss U Right Now" is the type of song that makes you want to take a cold shower. Laden with sexual tension, DUCKWRTH has mastered the art of being a tease, which should come as no shock to anyone who's watched the song's visualizer. The track obliterates any assumption of personal space—both off the track and on. Funk bleeds into R&B and vice versa, and occasionally elements of pop sneak into its crevices. The most endearing part of "Kiss U Right Now" is a minor detail that reminds us of the days when people weren't always readily available. "I think I wanna miss you / Purposely leave so I can come back to you, right now." What's to miss when everyone is logged in somewhere at all times?
Kaash Paige, "SOS"
Dallas native Kaash Paige's "SOS" sounds like what the last sunset of summer feels like. The 19-year-old sings like she's looking back on the last three months of teenage debauchery, knowing that the real world awaits her in the next season. By the summer's end, she realizes that everyone around her has ulterior motives, which leads her to question her partner, too. We may never know whether Kaash Paige's angst is the result of growing pains or quarantine fatigue, but "SOS" is a eulogy to the summer we didn't get to experience in full this year.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.