15 R&B Songs That Defined 2021
2021 is in the rearview, and we've already made a list of our our favorite albums of the year, as well as separate lists focused on punk/hardcore/emo/etc, screamo, ska, jazz, rap, the Indie Basement list, and more, but if Taylor Swift can leave the Christmas lights up 'til January, then we can keep the lists going in January too, so here's one more: 15 great R&B songs of 2021.
Since it's a song list, it includes album tracks as well as standalone singles, and I chose not to make it a ranked best-of, because sometimes you just wanna highlight some cool music and not worry about a hierarchy. And obviously 15 is only a small sample sizes, so if your favorite R&B song of 2021 isn't on this list, leave it in the comments.
Read on for the list, in no particular order...
Jazmine Sullivan - "On It" (ft. Ari Lennox)
Jazmine Sullivan released our second favorite album of 2021 with Heaux Tales, a feminist neo-soul album that's as deeply personal as it is communal. If I had to pick its best song, I'd probably go with "Pick Up Your Feelings," a kiss-off to a former partner, but that song came out as a single in November 2020, so for this list I'll go with the album's best deep cut, "On It." It finds Jazmine duetting and harmonizing with Ari Lennox, and it shows off a different side of Heaux Tales than "Pick Up Your Feelings." The latter is a breakup song, but this one's a little steamier, and the layers of gospel-soul vocals only make it sound more passionate.
Summer Walker - "Ex For A Reason" (ft. JT from City Girls)
Summer Walker's Still Over It came out in November as a late-in-the-year contender for R&B AOTY, and it's got at least a couple songs that belong on this list, including the SZA-featuring "No Love," but none more addictive than "Ex For A Reason." It's all about how much better Summer Walker is than an unnamed man's ex, and she taunts her with stoned, airy harmonies and one of the stickiest hooks of 2021. It'd be a great song with Summer alone, but 16 firepower bars from JT puts it over the edge.
Cleo Sol - "Promises"
One of the 2021 albums I was admittedly late to was Little Simz collaborator and SAULT member Cleo Sol's sophomore solo album Mother, but better late than never, 'cause its jazzy neo-soul has been my soundtrack to this wild winter weather. With a neck-snapping, boom bap drum beat, glistening keys, and neon-lit harmonies, "Promises" is one of its finest moments.
Tinashe - "X" (ft. Jeremih)
333, Tinashe's second consecutive album since parting ways with her former major label, finds the alt-R&B pioneer continuing to return to the atmospheric, minimal sound of her early mixtapes, but its best song goes in a slightly different direction. With an upbeat backdrop that marries trap drums to bouncy synths and one of the catchiest hooks in Tinashe's repertoire, "X" is a certified banger. An appearance by the likeminded Jeremih adds fuel to the fire, but more than anything else, that chorus just does not leave your head.
Snoh Aalegra - "Neon Peach" (ft. Tyler, the Creator)
Tyler, the Creator had a hell of a year, releasing the year's best rap album and giving an all-time great hook to another of the year's best rap albums (Maxo Kream's Weight of the World), and on top of that, he appeared on and produced not one but two songs on LA-via-Stockholm R&B singer Snoh Aalegra's third album, Temporary Highs in the Violet Skies. Tyler and Snoh prove to be great collaborators; he gives her the kind of future-funk beat that he might've used on 2019's IGOR, and Snoh's commanding voice fits it perfectly.
Mariah the Scientist - "2 You"
A lot of breakup songs are full of sadness or anger, but Mariah the Scientist's "2 You" has sort of a wistful contentness. It's a track that wouldn't sound out of place on Rihanna's ANTI, with the sentimental feel of a '90s ballad and the modern, synthy shine of the post-Take Care era. It sounds like the last song of the night, the one that comes on when most the crowd has already left, the remaining few are visibly tired, and one final slow-burner comes on and fully stops you in your tracks.
SZA - "I Hate U"
We're really hoping 2022 is the year that SZA drops the album, especially if the rest of it as good as "I Hate U." The song's only been out for a few months, but it already sounds as classic as anything on her decade-defining CTRL. "If you wondered if I hate you, I do." So blunt, so simple, and one of the most effective hooks of the year.
Syd - "Fast Car"
Like SZA, we really hope 2022 brings Syd's highly anticipated sophomore album. She dropped two singles in 2021, including the great "Missing Out" and the even better "Fast Car," and both of them suggest Syd could have another classic on her hand. Over an '80s funk/synthpop backdrop that The Weeknd is probably jealous of, "Fast Car" is a queer love story that feels like a breath of fresh air for this often-heteronormative genre, and it's one of the most euphoric-sounding gems in Syd's already-great repertoire.
Doja Cat - "Kiss Me More" (ft. SZA)
We named Doja Cat's Planet Her one of the 10 best rap albums of 2021, and it is a rap album, but it's also an R&B/pop album, especially on closing track "Kiss Me More." The sex-forward track finds Doja Cat duetting with SZA over a rubbery funk backdrop, and it's one of the most instantly-satisfying tracks on an album that's stacked top to bottom with bangers. From Doja's rapped verse to SZA's soaring verse to the falsetto hook, it's a hard to pick a favorite part, but that chanted "all on my tongue I want it!" gets me every time.
Queen Naija - "Set Him Up" (ft. Ari Lennox)
2021 brought a deluxe edition of Queen Naija's 2020 debut album Missunderstood (called Missunderstood...Still), and its standout bonus track is the Ari Lennox duet "Set Him Up." What starts out as your typical sexed-up R&B jam turns into two women realizing they're sleeping with the same man, and they devise a plan to set him up and watch him sweat. It's as catchy as it is purely entertaining.
Silk Sonic - "Leave the Door Open"
I kind of wanted to hate Silk Sonic. It's so cheekily retro, and of all the hit-or-miss decisions Anderson .Paak has made, an entire album with Bruno Mars seemed like it'd be a surefire miss. But however on the nose it may be, "Leave the Door Open" has serious endurance.
VanJess - "Slow Down" (ft. Lucky Daye)
'90s R&B is obviously a major influence on modern music, but few put a fresh spin on that sound in 2021 than VanJess, the duo of Nigerian-American sisters Ivana and Jessica Nwokike. The cite stuff like Mariah Carey, TLC, Aaliyah, Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, and Brandy as major influences, and their EP Homegrown would make anyone on that list proud. Look no further than the Lucky Daye-featuring "Slow Down" to see just how much justice these two do.
Joyce Wrice - "On One" (ft. Freddie Gibbs)
Moving right along from VanJess' '90s revival, Joyce Wrice's new album Overgrown sounds straight out of the early 2000s. And in the spirit of early 2000s songs like "Jenny from the Block" and "Like I Love You," its song "On One" reminds you that slick, radio-friendly R&B and jagged street rap actually go very well together. The prolific Freddie Gibbs delivered one of his best verses of 2021 on this track, and it fits in snugly next to the percussive funk guitar and Joyce's soaring pipes.
Normani - "Wild Side" (ft. Cardi B)
Former Fifth Harmony member Normani hasn't dropped a debut album yet, but she's already become a powerhouse solo artist thanks to her impressive run of singles, including 2021's "Wild Side." The airy, slowed-down song is closer to early 2010s alt-R&B than Fifth Harmony's charged-up R&B-pop was, and with an instant-classic verse from Cardi B, it proves "WAP" wasn't the only feminist power duo team-up Cardi had up her sleeve.
Dawn Richard - "Mornin | Streetlights"
Dawn Richard is historically an R&B singer, though her Merge-released 2021 album Second Line: An Electro Revival is largely a clubby, New Orleans-style electronic pop album, but the six-and-a-half minute "Mornin | Streetlights" is pure R&B/soul. It's a two-part suite ("Mornin" and "Streetlights"), with the first half pulling from lush, organic, classic soul and the second half diving into murkier, more synthetic, more psychedelic territory. It's the kind of mini epic you could picture fitting on Beyonce's self-titled album, but as she always does, Dawn makes it entirely her own.
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