A lot has happened since the last time we rejoiced for the best R&B songs released at the top of 2020. What was considered an "unbearable year" in March was only just beginning. In the past three months, COVID-19 has continued to halt our daily routines, and the music industry as we know it. But the senseless murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd forced even a global pandemic to take a back seat. The world was seeing the reality Black Americans have been dealing with for decades, centuries even, and the country has finally been attempting to reckon with its stained past. There could be no true awakening, however, without acknowledging the ways the music industry has perpetuated systemic racism. Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang called out major labels for exploiting Black talent, and I even asked that music media analyze the role it plays in the exploitation of Black art too.
For this very reason, it is necessary to evaluate the music as we live with it, rather than using it as leverage to draw in the biggest names. This quarterly roundup has become a way to continue to celebrate R&B and the Black artists who have been the heart and soul of the genre. It has always been about honoring their art and creating space and visibility at a publication like VICE.
Dijon, "alley oop"
COVID has paused large, elaborate wedding ceremonies, but the pandemic hasn't stopped Dijon from thinking about nuptials. "Hey slim, how do you feel about getting married?" he asks at the start of the song. "alley oop" dispels the myth that only women dream of their wedding day. Dijon takes pleasure in imagining the small details down to rice throwing and a pair of alligator boots. The song's real beauty is its ability to sound stripped back despite how well he stacks his vocals on top of each other. Dijon is a minimalist who does the most at the same damn time.
Chloe x Halle, "Forgive Me"
We first met sisters Chloe and Halle as promising teens under Beyoncé's Parkwood Entertainment imprint, but Ungodly Hour finds the two blossoming into their womanhood. "Forgive Me" masquerades as a song seeking repentance, but the R&B duo's songwriting shows that the Grown-ish stars are less concerned with mercy. Halle's slurred vocals punctuate Chloe's blunt delivery like liquid courage. So when they sing "You must got me fucked up," you know an apology is the only appropriate response. Hint: It won't be from either of them.
Smino featuring Sevyn Streeter, "Kotton Kandy"
In April, Smino returned with She Already Decided, a free SoundCloud project harkening back to rap's mixtape era where no beat was off limits. At the start, the St. Louis rapper flips an iconic soul song on "Fronto Isley," navigating over The Isley Brothers' 1975 hit "For the Love of You." It's an indicator that although Smino's wordplay makes him a clever wordsmith, it's his intricate melodies that allow him to teeter between hip-hop and R&B seamlessly. Cooing on the track with a loose falsetto like The-Dream in 2007, Smino recognizes that his voice is his instrument and fills every space with it.
Quarantine is testing couples new and old, and it's safe to say some people might be single by the time we're able to go outside freely again. But on "F&MU" Kehlani is basking in the disagreements that lead to fiery trysts. The Oakland singer is exuding big troublemaker energy and spends the entire song provoking her partner. "Picking fights so you can put it down like that," is just a nice way of saying "dysfunction" and if you picked up on that, it's probably because you're guilty of it too.
TeaMarrr featuring SiR, "Tick"
R&B duets between men and women often carry the spirit of hip-hop, conjuring up some pseudo battle of the sexes between both perspectives. TeaMarrr is forthright in her desire to be touched, while SiR uses his voice to decorate metaphors that leave you asking, did he just say that? At one point, the TDE singer says "I could break ice with my love gun," which is… definitely a different way to say that.
India Shawn featuring 6LACK, "NOT TOO DEEP"
India Shawn wants to stay in the honeymoon phase, and who can blame her? At a time when we're all a little strapped for some sun and sand, Shawn has every intention of making her relationship feel like a permanent vacation—even if that's borderline self-sabotage. "Can we just stay in the moment? Right before we have to try," she sings. In an era of social distancing, the D'Mile-produced and 6LACK-assisted song keep emotions at arm's length too.
Lucky Daye featuring Babyface, "Shoulda"
Babyface isn't afraid to remind us that he's still got it. In April, he joined the Verzuz battle against Teddy Riley where he played "Love Shoulda Brought You Home," a timeless hit he penned for Toni Braxton for the 1992 Boomerang soundtrack. Now, the legendary R&B producer is enlisting Lucky Daye to pump new life into "Shoulda," retelling the song from a man's perspective. Where Braxton's original was steeped in guilt trips, Daye's rendition settles for revenge. "So don't be mad if your man isn't home tonight / You shoulda brought that ass home," he sings. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
Teyana Taylor, "Bare With Me"
Teyana Taylor doesn't let you forget that her family comes first. She opens The Album with the audio of the 911 tape the day she and her husband, Iman Shumpert, delivered their daughter on the bathroom floor. "Wake Up Love," her most recent video, even doubles as an announcement for her second pregnancy. But "Bare With Me" is a departure from Taylor's family-oriented script. The song is steeped in skepticism and indecision, treating dating like a wardrobe change. "Try to split up all my time / With two or three guys / 'Cause I can't make up my mind." The song ends abruptly, cutting the singer off mid-sentence. "Bare With Me" is a spot-on ode to casual dating and by the end, Taylor ghosts us all.
UMI, "Pretty Girl hi!"
UMI's short film for Introspection gives you a glimpse into the universe she's creating for her listeners. The 15-minute visual finds the singer realizing the world doesn't revolve around one person, but that we're planets orbiting each other instead. On the surface "Pretty Girl hi!" feels bright and easygoing, but its meaning is more nuanced than you think. The 21-year-old singer says the song is her coming out message to the world. It's no easy feat to reveal your inner secrets on a record as catchy as this.
Ro James featuring Brandy, "Plan B"
On MANTIC, 90s songstresses aren't just Ro James' inspiration—they're his collaborators. "Plan B," featuring Brandy explores how sometimes, relationships require space before they can be mended. Their voices are comforting during a time when we're all diverting from our normal routine. "Don't stress it, we can always go to plan B," nudges the world to keep breathing and adjust according to your circumstances.
Giveon "THIS AIN"T LOVE"
Giveon's husky voice doesn't sound like anyone else's right now, and that's probably why Drake enlisted him on Dark Lane Demo Tapes' "Chicago Freestyle." But before receiving a co-sign from the Toronto rapper, Giveon was introducing himself to the world on Take Time, his debut EP, at the start of the pandemic. The project exudes an air of awareness, perhaps at a time when we need it most. "Don't you say you love, love, love me / Just to make it even," he sings. "THIS AIN'T LOVE" examines a relationship with surgical precision, ultimately recognizing that his partner might be declaring emotions out of obligation.
Mariah The Scientist, "RIP"
The notion of "resting in peace" implies that you are finally free of disruptions. Mariah the Scientist titles her latest song "RIP" to eulogize her love, even though the relationship did not honor her in real time. Similar to Jessie Reyez, Mariah's songwriting is inspired by fatal attraction. What started as grief quickly turns self-destructive as she signals her plan to head to the roof of her building. "Ain't the type to leave a note / 'Cause it aint' no use in turning 'round / When you up forty-eight floors," she sings.
rum.gold "Fix Me"
Brilliant songwriting does more than make your ear perk up, it penetrates your soul. rum.gold's "Fix Me" is medicinal. "You can't be my northern star, when you're the reason home seems so far," he sings. Whether he's singing about a romantic relationship or the dysfunctional one between America and the Black community, bondage is oppressive. As the famous James Baldwin quote goes, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." In the fight to remain healthy amid COVID while trying to dismantle white supremacy, rum.gold manages to find the words many of us have been searching for.
Joyce Wrice, "That's On You"
"That's On You" is a really nice way of giving someone an ultimatum. We can't figure out if it's Joyce Wrice's velvety tone that softens the blow, or the delicate way she approaches a difficult conversation. "All I want is a connection / More than just affection / But you left it up to question," she sings. Much of the song is an internal reckoning of the things that are out of her control, but ironically, by offering another chance Wrice is still relinquishing her power.
Abby Jasmine featuring Guapdad 4000, "Groovy"
Technically, Abby Jasmine raps more than she sings on "Groovy," but we're giving this one a pass. The Staten Island native uses hip-hop and R&B interchangeably on her latest project Who Cares? and "Groovy" is just one example of how she marries both worlds. The spirit of Marcus Miller's guitar on Luther Vandross' "Never Too Much" floods the track, and effortless verses from Jasmine and Guapdad 4000 make the nostalgic production feel modern.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.