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2014 Was the Best Year for R&B Since Forever

2014 marked the first time in recent memory that hip-hop played the background role to its sister genre, as R&B became the more robust, more rewarding, and overall better genre.

Photo courtesy of Geert Vandepoele

If you were to judge the music scene for the last five years by only the blockbuster hip-hop/R&B releases that have come out of it, it would paint a pretty one-sided picture of the two genres. There’s never been a charting system that separates hip-hop and R&B, which means that whenever you measure the albums that became touchstone or marquee events over the past years, it paints the picture of a musical landscape that’s slants more towards hip-hop. 2013 was ruled by heavyweight albums Yeezus and Drake’s Nothing Was The Same; 2012 belonged to Kendrick, with a nod to Frank Ocean; 2011 had Drake’s Take Care and “The Throne”; 2010 was all about Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Eminem’s first album post-Relapse, Recovery; 2009 was the year of Blueprint 3 and So Far Gone; and 2008 was Tha Carter III. But this year marked the first time in recent memory that hip-hop played the background role to its sister genre, as R&B became the more robust, more rewarding, and overall better genre. 2014 marked the worst year in recent memory for commercial hip-hop projects, but it was also the greatest period for R&B albums in years.


The idea of an “R&B Renaissance” has been hyped over the past few years by music writers and publications, but 2014 was when it finally blossomed into a multi-coloured array of palettes. 2014 was the year we actively tried to do away with the label of “Alternative R&B” or worse, “PBR&B,” with the aid of artists like FKA twigs and PartyNextDoor denouncing the classification as an unjust attempt at pigeonholing the unknown. 2014 was also the year when R&B albums became touchstone events, with Beyonce’s visual project leading us into the year and artists like Arianna Grande and Sam Smith carrying us throughout, becoming the commercial breakout artists of any genre with their debut albums. This strong surge from the mainstream R&B acts allowed experimentalists and veterans the opportunity to release their own projects in the active undercurrent, raining them down albums on fans throughout the calendar year.

In 2014, there was something for every kind of R&B fan. If you wanted to hear music from bonafide idols, there were releases from Prince, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, D’Angelo, and Mary J. Blige. If you felt nostalgic, you could listen to Tank, Keyshia Cole, J. Lo, Ashanti, or Babyface & Toni Braxton—depending on how far back you wanted to reminisce. In the mood for crooning heartthrobs? Chris Brown, Trey Songz, Omarion, and August Alsina all dropped projects in 2014. Looking for something new and harder to define? Then you have your pick of FKA twigs, PartyNextDoor, How To Dress Well, Tinashe, or SZA. How about something new and traditional? Then there’s Sam Smith, Teyana Taylor, Ariana Grande, Jhene Aiko and K. Michelle. That’s not even including the people who are too fluid or generic to fit in any one box, like Robin Thicke, Banks, Pharrell, Jessie Ware, or Little Dragon.


In a year where DJ Mustard was the Emperor of Summer Songs, it’s not shocking to find that the two biggest R&B singles of 2014 were “Loyal” and “Don’t Tell Em”—one of which was actually produced by Mustard, while the other was just made to sound like it. But R&B’s charm in 2014 wasn’t in the singles, but in the cohesion of the albums that held those singles. Chris Brown may be a terrible person who was convicted of felony assault on a woman, and the song “Loyal” may be the most terrible and misogynistic song to grace the radio in a long time, but X is one of the best albums Chris Brown has made in his entire career. And although we still haven’t been able to hear Jeremih’s album (#FreeJeremih) we can assume through his past work and recent interviews that it would be more robust than Mustard’s catchy-but-basic 98 bpm production of “Don’t Tell Em.”

The artists that did release albums this year made an impact on their craft while doing so. Of course, not everyone who released an R&B album in 2014 was a winner. Some were duds critically, some were duds commercially, some were both (those were the ones named after ex-wives) but it’s not important to focus on the losers.

To say that Teyana Taylor came out of nowhere wouldn’t be technically correct, but most people may not know about 2008’s “Google Me” or have their eyes peeled on the G.O.O.D. Music roster. Her album VII caught many by surprise, debuting at number one on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. It was classic and simple, full of songwriting that made you contemplate dropping everything and finding your own Teyana Taylor, laid on top of bluesy guitar licks and sung through a come-hither whisper. There was no high bpm dance-crossover hit on the album, which is a fairly brave thing to do if you want to have a commercial success in 2014, but Taylor’s success proved that there was an interest in R&B that’s done in a traditional, simple, and clean way.


FKA twigs exploded onto the scene through the help of her stunning visuals and standout vocals. Although twigs may take some exception with even being called an R&B artist, her inclusion in the genre is important to helping it continue its expansion outwards. LP1 had twigs twisting her voice in choral acrobatics over production that would alternate between pulsing rhythms one minute and underwater drums the next. It was unlike any other album released this year in any genre, and one of the most notable instances of an artist spreading themselves across multiple crafts and practices in order to release a body of work—regardless of what genre you wanted to label that body of work.

But the strongest R&B album of 2014 may have been the one that was released as a buzzer beater. D’Angelo’s Black Messiah wasn’t just technically perfect—which, to be fair, isn’t an unrealistic expectation for something that took 14 years—but it was perfect because it was an R&B album with a message. While it may be true that D’Angelo’s album is really good music to have the sex to, the message contained within songs like “Charade” shouldn’t be overlooked because of its romantic composition. “All we wanted was a chance to talk / instead we only got outlined in chalk” is a lyric that grows more poignant as stories of cops abusing their powers become more prevalent. It’s a lyric that wouldn’t be out of place on a Public Enemy song from 1988, and it appears on an R&B album in 2014.

The line between hip-hop and R&B has been slowly corroding over the past few years, but many assumed that R&B would be swallowed up by hip-hop, thanks in part to artists like Kid Cudi and Drake who sang just as often as they’d rap. But it appears that things are poised to go the other way as R&B builds more momentum with each passing year, especially as the genre seems to continue to expand its borders without worrying about contamination. While Country and Hip-Hop can be notoriously xenophobic when it comes to visiting and learning from other genres, R&B seems to embrace it, and it becomes stronger as a result. If the past year was any indication of what’s to come, 2015 should be another landmark for R&B.

Slava Pastuk really liked K.Michelle's album but couldn't work that in. - @SlavaP