This summer was a wild one. We struggled to keep up with Megan Thee Stallion, the captain of "hot girl summer," and the nationwide White Claw shortage was enough to have us worried. But through the scorching 90-degree days and muggy sleepless nights, R&B kept getting better. The thriving genre gave us a summer full of slow creepers that weren't driven by the success of the same platinum-selling artists, with singers like Snoh Aalegra and SiR rising to cultural consciousness. This summer, R&B was for everyone. So here's a list of the best R&B songs from this summer, because if we rounded up a list for the whole year, we'd be here all day.
Snoh Aalegra, "Whoa"
Snoh Aalegra is a Swedish-Iranian singer with a voice summoning you to lean into your feelings. She's experiencing an emotion so overwhelming, and she doesn't need many words to express how deep she's fallen. Similar to Mya's 2003 classic: the love she feels is "like whoa." The bossa nova-tinged production paired with her velvety tone makes Aalegra's album title—Ugh, those feels again—feel entirely accurate.
Summer Walker, "Playing Games"
A year ago, Summer Walker declared "Girls Need Love," and her new single, "Playing Games," shows she's still seeking affection. The song is a frigid account of the ways you can feel alone in a relationship. Walker lays out her demands plainly: "All I ever asked was you to / Show me some love, kisses, and hugs." The Atlanta singer interpolates Destiny's Child's 1999 "Say My Name," which is a dead giveaway that she's completely fed up.
BJ the Chicago Kid, "Feel the Vibe"
If you're wondering why Barack Obama featured "Feel the Vibe" on his summer playlist, it's because he has pretty good taste in music. BJ grabs Anderson .Paak for a song that feels so hospitable, it practically greets you at the door with a plate of food and a hug. "Come on in, close the door, and feel the vibe / We got macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and chicken inside," he sings. The Chicago singer couldn't have started his sophomore album, 1123, in a better way.
Teyana Taylor, "How You Want It?"
Last summer, Teyana Taylor fans were expecting K.T.S.E to pay homage to her signature 90s aesthetic, but instead we got Kanye over-producing soul samples from the 60s and 70s. A year later, Taylor's ultra-sexy "How You Want It?" samples Mase's 1997 hit "What You Want," flipping Total's seemingly innocent hook into something more overtly sexual.
H.E.R. featuring YBN Cordae, "Racks"
H.E.R.'s "Racks" is not be confused with YC's flashy Future 2011 collaboration. At first, the materialistic lyrics seem out of place for the otherwise dreamy singer. "Married to the moolah, still ain't got no lover / Lookin' all I see is green, wonder can you buy me these?" she sings. It's a departure from the Grammy-award winning singer's soul-baring songs until the hook creeps in: "All of your racks and things / They don't relax your pain."
Ilham, "Back and Forth"
Nothing says summer like the inconsistency that comes with trying to maintain a relationship in 90-degree weather. Sometimes you want to be cuddled up, other times you're listening to Drake's "wearing less and going out more" philosophy. Unfortunately, the Queensbridge singer Ilham finds herself as a casualty of a summer romance. "Back and Forth," a track from if you know, you know, is a shot of honesty, chased with the chilling reality that relationships require actual work. The only saving grace for your ego is the baby-like quality of Ilham's voice, which softens the blow of how fed up she is.
In a post-Fifth Harmony world, Normani is working overtime to become a household name. In the year since the split, she proved she could deliver slow body roll duets on features like Khalid's "Love Lies" and 6LACK's "Waves," and now, she's arrived with "Motivation," her breakout single that's as R&B as it is pop. Don't believe us? Just watch the video (43 million people already have) which is an homage of R&B videos from the early-aughts like Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love," and Ja Rule's "I'm Real." Besides, we aren't going to pretend that R&B can't mean pop, are we?
Bryson Tiller, "Blame"
Pointing fingers after a breakup can get ugly, which makes Bryson Tiller's ability to hold a mirror up to his indiscretions on "Blame" even nobler. Instead of taking a page out of Kanye West's "The Blame Game," the Louisville singer is making peace with his new singleness. "And as strange as it is, I'm okay with this," he says, swapping melodic flows for a more robust delivery. The technique, an extension of his 2015 debut TRAP SOUL, only helps add to the rollercoaster of emotions he's taking us on.
Ari Lennox featuring Omen, Ty Dolla $ign and Dreezy, "Got Me"
Revenge of the Dreamers III, produced by J. Cole, is filled with more posse cuts than you can imagine. The spirit of collaboration extends beyond heavy-handed rap tracks onto "Got Me," a song where two singers and two rappers manage to fit on a 4-minute song. Despite stellar verses from Omen and Dreezy, Ari Lennox and Ty Dolla $ign's melodies steal the song—a feat that proves in hip-hop, R&B doesn't only have to be reserved for hooks.
Mariah the Scientist, "Thanks 4 Nothing"
"Thanks 4 Nothing" is a pretty clear indication that Mariah the Scientist isn't trying to write your average thank you note. Her latest project, Master, explores the ways relationships controlled her world. "Thanks 4 Nothing" is an honest moment on the 10-track project that takes inventory of her feelings. "I ain't sleep last night, I've been working / You fronted on me like I wasn't worth it," she cries. In Mariah's case, it may hurt to say thank you—even if it's for nothing.
Daniel Caesar featuring Brandy, "LOVE AGAIN"
Twenty-five years ago Brandy's self-titled debut enshrined her as an R&B princess of the 90s. "LOVE AGAIN," her most recent collaboration with Daniel Caesar, demonstrates that the singer only gets better with time. As the song grows, so does her voice. She peaks on the track in a near whisper eventually enveloping the slurred guitar strings with her effortless, unwinding vocal runs. It's almost enough to forget Daniel Caesar's controversial comments on race in America for three minutes.
Jorja Smith featuring Burna Boy, "Be Honest"
The massive, somber tone of "Blue Lights" became Jorja Smith's signature style. And although she once professed she had no interest in making upbeat songs, "Be Honest" is a flirty follow-up to 2017's "On My Mind." Produced by Izy, who also produced Koffee's "Toast," "Be Honest" is the duet you didn't know you needed.
Brent Faiyaz, "Fuck the World (Summer in London)"
Yes, you heard correctly. Brent Faiyaz begins the song with, "Fuck the world / I'm a walking erection." It's the first indicator that the next three minutes are totally unhinged. Here, Faiyaz's voice—usually mellow and romantic—is distorted and sinister. "Fuck the World" is the musings of Faiyaz's post-"Crew" success. "I'd probably be dead if I was basic / Would you still give me head if I had day shifts?" These are the burning questions people with newfound fame have. Who can blame him?
THEY., "Stop Playin"
"Stop Playin" is a salacious cut from the LA duo which leaves little to the imagination. The song's percussive production is as intense as their desires. Instead of using traditional R&B harmonies, the group is almost robotic in their delivery. Too bad the title FutureSex/LoveSounds was already taken.
Gallant, "Sleep On It"
If Tyrese made "How You Gonna Act Like That" in 2019, it would come pretty close to Gallant's "Sleep On It." Evoking the R&B of the early aughts is Gallant's primary objective, which is pretty obvious with Ginuwine as the lead in the video. The Maryland singer is saying the opposite of Monica's 2003 "Go to Bed Mad," but sometime's sleep is the remedy.
DRAM featuring H.E.R. and watt, "The Lay Down"
The Virginia singer enlists H.E.R for a stirring duet, because according to DRAM, "Ain't no true SANGERS out there." His upcoming album is channeling the warmth of soul singers from the 70s, and "The Lay Down" feels as textured as crushed velvet. With a backing band consisting of Pino Palladino on bass, Ivan Neville on keys, and Chad Smith on drums, it's hard to just focus only on the vocalists. On "The Lay Down," everyone is the star of the show.
Anxiety can be a painful feeling to describe, but South Florida singer Q does a damn good job of telling the world how overpowering it can become. For Q, his anxiety seems to be haunting him like a ghost. It breathes on him, doing laps around his brain until he can't take it. The hook runs wild, a stark contrast to his usually calming voice.
Charlie Heat & Syd, "Have a Good Time"
There aren't many people as smooth as The Internet's Syd. Her voice is incessantly charming, with a bravado that instantly separates her from her peers. So when she tells you to "Have a Good Time," you do what she says. On the Charlie Heat-produced song, the singer is all about work-life balance. "You've been working long nights, baby / I know how the grind goes," she sings. Life's too short to spend it all working. Listen to Syd.
DVSN, "In Between"
Sometimes, a corny joke can be an ice breaker for tense conversations. But DVSN turns "In Between" into three minutes of punny pleasantries. "You could be the star in my universe / If I just took time to plan it," Daniel Daley sings. The song's double entendres are out in full force on the hook: "I don't want nothing in between us / Nothing there to stop the feeling." Is the Canadian duo talking about unprotected sex? "In Between" just got a whole lot freakier.
Justine Skye, "Maybe"
"Maybe" sounds like summer. It drips like the sweat on a soda can and sizzles like a grill on the Fourth of July. For her first single since departing from Roc Nation and going independent, Justine Skye is approaching her new music with a new sense of freedom. Few words are needed on the sensual track, with Skye getting straight to the point.
bLAck pARty featuring Beedy "Purple Heart"
D'Angelo's funk fingerprint lingers on bLAck pARty's "Purple Heart." The laid-back production defies the military references he peppers through the song, but bLAck pARty is giving you a glimpse of his childhood as an army brat. "I was your soldier, ready to kill at will / But you left me wounded, on love's battlefield," he sings. By the time he transforms the adage "All is fair in love and war" on the gravelly hook, you feel like you know him.
SiR, "You Can't Save Me"
If the first verse of "You Can't Save Me" were all the TDE singer gave us, we'd still have enough. "In another time, in another place / You would be mine," he sings. "On a brighter day, under a different sky / Maybe we'd fly." SiR ruminates on the idea that what you want doesn't always align with your fate. The Chasing Summer track finds the Inglewood singer perpetually aching for a love he thought was made for him.
Baby Rose, "Ragrets"
We can't figure out what's more menacing: the guitar plucks on "Ragrets" or Baby Rose's haunting voice. The song's title is misspelled like a bad tattoo, and its lyrics sting like one too. She compares her failed relationship to a shredded Banksy—a reminder that they could never be whole again. But Baby Rose isn't throwing herself a pity party. Instead, regret becomes a taste she craves. "Regret's my favorite candy / You're sweet now, you're just poison in my veins," she growls.
Saint Bodhi, "FlowerChild"
A flower is given sunlight, nurtured, and expected to bloom. The world, according to Saint Bodhi has not been that kind, but she blossomed anyway. "FlowerChild" puts her storytelling on full display, sharing anecdotes on an alcoholic parent and the emotional abuse she experienced. "'No one will love you' / A star is born," she sings. What was once her kryptonite is now her superpower. Saint Bodhi is the rose that grew from concrete.
Berhana, "Health Food"
Berhana's "Health Food" is the green smoothie that is way too sweet to be healthy but makes you feel good anyway. His energy practically bounces off the walls of the disco and funk concoction. You heard it here first: "Your peach give me good health" is the new "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."
Mahalia featuring Ella Mai, "What You Did"
When Cam'ron gave us "Oh Boy" in 2002, he couldn't have had any idea two singers from the U.K. would sample the former uptown anthem into a heartbreaking R&B duet nearly 20 years later. On "What You Did," Mahalia and Ella Mai are looking for answers. "Tell me where you hide, tell me where you go? Tell me is she nice, does she know I know?" Mahalia sings. These are the kind of questions that need answers.
EARTHGANG featuring Kehlani, "Trippin"
Mirrorland's "Trippin" is a convincing rendition of Timbaland's ear for 90s R&B. Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot take their time on the track, leisurely stretching each syllable to its max. The real star of the song, however, is Kehlani, whose rap verse on "Trippin" shows she's just as ambidextrous as her peers.
Next Town Down, "Easy"
It's possible you've heard "Easy" before this summer, but you definitely didn't hear it like this. 6LACK joins the five-member group with a sultry verse that breathes new life into the song. The group, known for their Evolution series and weekly covers, is ready to put their vocal range (like Chris' falsetto on the hook) and Boyz II Men-level harmonies to use in their own original music. Boy bands are back and honestly, should have never left.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.