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18 R&B Songs That Make Up for This Unbearable Year

Thankfully, singers like Jhené Aiko, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and Kehlani provided an escape for us this winter.

by Kristin Corry; illustrated by Hunter French
Mar 20 2020, 5:52pm

Images via Getty Images

Let's be real: so far, 2020 has been a doozy. Collectively, people were excited for a new decade, but it would be an understatement to say that we're off to a rocky start. After the death of Kobe Bryant in January and rapper Pop Smoke shortly after, the feeling of grief was hard to shake and the gravity of how fragile life is made us want to hold each other a little tighter. Except, the rapid spread of COVID-19 is preventing us from doing just that. Despite the virus's effect on the music industry—like mass festival cancellations and tour delays—artists are still giving us plenty of material to listen to in the interim. Here's a list of the best R&B songs this winter because luckily for us, even when life gets hard, music never stops being good.

DVSN, "A Muse"

Canadian duo DVSN have perfected their chemistry for making the perfect song. Singer Daniel Daley and producer Nineteen85 use Lonnie Liston Smith's "A Garden of Peace" expertly on "A Muse," the lead single for their forthcoming album slated for a spring release. Even the song's album art flips the connotation of Johannes Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring, replacing the painting with a Black woman, which evokes the Jay Z lyric "Mona Lisa with better features." One thing is clear: Daley isn't afraid to celebrate the beauty of the woman on his mind.

Maina Doe featuring Genesis Owusu "Unwritten Laws"

Maina Doe is proof that R&B knows no boundaries. "Unwritten Laws" finds the Sydney singer and Ghanaian Australian rapper Genesis Owusu bantering playfully on the slinky production. The song feels like the dancefloor in the 90s, one without smartphones present, when you could truly move as if no one was watching. Doe wants to rid herself of the anxieties of the future and fall headfirst into the now. "Unwritten laws have brought you here / So what must your heart fear?" For three minutes, Doe's voice takes you to a lawless universe.

Victoria Monét, "Moment"

There is something fulfilling about rooting for the underdog. For a decade, Victoria Monét wore multiple hats in the music industry. She was a revered songwriter for some of pop's biggest acts, like Ariana Grande, all while searching to find her identity as a solo artist. But make no mistake, Monét's solo career is shaping up to be one she can call her own. When she sings, "So fuck a fantasy, this your motherfucking moment," it feels prophetic. Jaguar, her upcoming EP, is an introduction to the elusive singer who has been hiding in plain sight.

Jhené Aiko, "P*$$y Fairy"

Sometimes, R&B's reputation for babymaking music can get a little too serious. Not every song will be as explicit as that 90s playlist you dust off occasionally and it shouldn't have to be. Jhené Aiko's "P*$$y Fairy" doesn't paint her as provocatively as Velvet Rope did for Janet Jackson, but the Los Angeles singer is seductive in her own right. The hypnotic song focuses more on saying what you feel, instead of what you think sounds good. Somehow, Aiko turned "That dick make my soul smile / That dick make me so damn proud," into her own playful version of a bedroom jam.

Raveena, "Headaches"

Raveena writes about love like no other. Her debut album, Lucid, documented the conscious effort she made to love again despite being a survivor of abuse. Now, Moonstone, her new EP, finds her picking up where she left off. Whether you've experienced a love of your own or not, Raveena speaks romance in terms everyone can understand. "It was kinda like a summer love / OJ and soda / So sweet it could kill you / I should check what I'm sipping on," she sings on "Headaches." Here, her emotions consume her so much it makes her dizzy. Only Raveena could make a headache sound this good.

Brent Faiyaz, "Been Away"

Throughout his career, Brent Faiyaz has made a name for himself by making tough questions sound sexy—and that's no different on "Been Away." The Maryland singer is still adjusting to his post-"Crew" fame, which makes navigating the relationships around him difficult. According to Faiyaz, "Been Away" is a simple request while he's gone: don't give his love away. Fans of Faiyaz know that he doesn't trust easily, as shown on 2017's Sonder Son and throughout the song. "If I put my trust in you / What would you do? Would you just step out? Would you thug it out?" The questions riddled in Faiyaz's discography are endless.

Don Toliver featuring Kaash Paige and Travis Scott "Euphoria"

Texas is heavily represented on "Euphoria," with Travis Scott and Don Toliver hailing from Houston, and Kaash Paige offering up her Dallas charm. But the song, from Toliver's Heaven or Hell, doesn't sport the woozy, chopped and screwed aesthetic you might have been anticipating. It doesn't play out like an intoxicating episode from the HBO series of the same name either. Each verse is dedicated to each singer's vice, or their respective lovers. Separately, they attempt to make sense of their wrongs but find themselves drowning deeper in their love-induced stupor.

Pretty Ricky, "Body"

It's been over a decade since Pretty Ricky's heyday had way too many teenagers dry humping pillows. After a series of solo careers, Pretty Ricky is back with all of the original members and the result is just as horny as you could have predicted. "Body" sticks to the formula that the Miami group has perfected over the years: Baby Blue's fast rhymes, Spectacular's slow snarl, Slick 'Em's brash delivery, with Pleasure P's honeyed vocals completing the package. "Body" is laced with enough X-rated lyrics to last us another ten years if they go on another hiatus.

Ilham, "Uh Huh"

"I was in my deep thoughts, tryna meditate / Then you overstepped and you changed my fucking mood," Ilham sings on "Uh Huh." That lyric rings a little differently now that social distancing has become the world's new normal for the foreseeable future. The song is a departure from the Queensbridge singer's baby soft vocals she displayed on last year's with time. By the end of the song, she's interpolating 50 Cent's "Just a Lil Bit," proving this singer's Queens lineage runs deep.

Ro James, "Touchy Feely"

The guitar on "Touchy Feely" pulls you in before Ro James even enters the track. The ELDORADO singer has a penchant for sensual songs, and his sophomore album is shaping up to be just as sexy as his last. "Touchy Feely" is an epic tale of a tryst involving James, a woman, and her best friend. We could explain the rest, but it's one of those songs you just have to hear for yourself.

Amare Symoné, "Pictures"

There is no such thing as a clean breakup in the social media age. Communication might have stopped but you two still exist in the deep fissures of the world wide web, like tagged photos. Amare Symoné's "Pictures" finds the Brooklyn-based singer reopening the wounds of her past relationship with each photo that triggers a memory. In the end, Amare realizes that the only thing worse than keeping the pictures is deleting them. "I don't want to forget us / I don't want to forget you," she sings.

D Smoke featuring Ari Lennox, "Real Body"

D Smoke is a rapper's rapper—he even won the grand prize on Netflix's hip-hop competition Rhythm & Flowbut "Real Body" is a sultry R&B offering. The Ari Lennox-assisted song finds the two praising a woman's natural curves. The Shea Butter Baby singer uses her verse to paint a picture good enough for the dinner table. "Thighs mimic strawberries / Ripe for the right picking / Rolls for your Thanksgiving," she sings. Smoke and Lennox's chemistry sell body positivity without any gimmicks.

PARTYNEXTDOOR, "SPLIT DECISION"

The Canadaian singer's highly anticipated album might be titled PARTYMOBILE, but "Split Decision" isn't exactly a celebration. It's the type of song that might have made you fall in love with Party in the first place; it broods with the reality that people can be awful at times. At least this brand of sadboi R&B doesn't assign blame to the wrong person. "Split Decision" is the story of what happens after the Canadian singer is caught with another woman. "I can see it in your face, you gotta make a split decision," he sings. Maybe he'll tell us the rest of the story on his forthcoming album.

Ant Clemons featuring Ty Dolla $ign, "Excited"

In 2018, Ant Clemons joined Ty Dolla $ign and Kanye West on the energetic "All Mine." He and Ty Dolla $ign are back at it, but this time for his own project Happy 2 Be Here. Clemons' voice bounces across the track, which is an accurate depiction of just how "Excited" he is to hear his phone ring. "Just a couple words that really make me think that we could be something more / Something more than we both bargained for," Clemons sings. Both Clemons and Ty elevate a crush and make it worth exploring.

H.E.R., "Comfortable"

Being comfortable with someone is earned. Comfort is devoid of awkward silences and small talk, instead welcoming you in like a blanket. On "Comfortable," H.E.R. relishes in the intimate moments that feel cozy like the purposeful quietness of meditating together. The hook is laced with the influence of Prince and Janet Jackson, as she sings in an inviting whisper. With a song as snug as this, H.E.R. isn't just boasting about the pleasantries of her relationship. She's making sure we're comfortable too.

Kehlani, "Toxic"

The production of Kehlani's "Toxic" pulses like a Don Julio-induced hangover. Following a string of passionate singles like "You Know Wassup" and "Valentine's Day (Shameful)," the singer continues to use her music as therapy after a public on-again, off-again relationship with Los Angeles rapper YG. "Toxic" is the clarity that comes once the liquor settles. On the track, Kehlani assesses her role in the failures of the relationship. "I get real accountable when I'm alone / I get real about it all when I'm alone," she sings. For many of us, the hardest part is accepting that we're all a little toxic to someone.

Kiana Ledé featuring Lucky Daye, "Forfeit"

It's not often that an R&B chorus issues a threat: "I'm giving you one, two, three / To back the fuck up off of me," Kiana Ledé sings. Similar to Jazmine Sullivan's 2010 hit "10 Seconds," Ledé isn't afraid to say she needs space. Rather than spending time trying to repair the relationship, the singer is ready to walk away. While Ledé's verses leaves her frustrations to the imagination, Lucky Daye helps provide some context. "Why do we yell if we don't care?" he sings. On second thought, we don't blame Ledé at all.

Sophie, "home demo"

"home demo" has all the trappings of the best of 90s neo-soul; it is an amalgamation of the soul and funk of Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, and Sophie's voice cuts through the smooth production. The best part of the song is how simple it is. There aren't many lyrics but Sophie's mission isn't for the faint at heart: "Just trying to find a place to call home / I've been to find my soul." "home demo"'s repetition makes it even more apparent that the answers lie in challenging yourself to say that everyday.

Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.

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