As 2020 has been quite an unbearable year, luckily music fans have R&B music to provide necessary comfort and healing. Whether it was in the form of artists performing sets on YouTube or Timbaland and Swizz Beatz hosting a groundbreaking Verzuz celebration with legends like Monica and Brandy, R&B continues to be in a good space, even if certain platforms or award shows don't always recognize its excellence. Whether fans need music for motivation or uplifting of spirits, R&B is always there to put listeners in a good mood. Throughout the year, veteran artists solidified their royalty status, while rising stars looked to broaden their sound with wider fan bases. In no particular order, here are 20 superb R&B albums from 2020 that helped give fans a little peace during a bumpy year.
R&B is a genre that is constantly changing and fans don’t see same the level of longevity that artists once had. However, Trey Songz has been in the industry for 15 years and he returned this year with his eighth studio album, “Back Home.” Over his career, Trey has played with different sounds to match the R&B aesthetic of the time, but this album had the crooner going back to his Virginia roots. In addition to his features with artists such as Summer Walker and Ty Dolla $ign, he worked with longtime producers Troy Taylor and Johnta Austin, who both produced some of Trey’s earlier hits. Trey gives fans baby-making songs like “Cats Got My Tongue,” party tracks like the Davido-assisted “Sleepless Nights” and relationship woes on smooth ballads like “Tug of War.”
Ivan Jackson and Conor Rayne make up Brasstracks, a production duo known for their heavy horn and drum sounds. After forming a few years ago, they’ve produced for artists such as Goldlink, Khalid, and won a couple of Grammys after working with Chance The Rapper on his hit single, “No Problem.” They continued to release their own EPs until finally releasing their debut album “Golden Ticket” over the summer. The album showcases how Brasstracks can effortlessly blend R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and gospel while staying true to their own artistry. Some of the album standouts include the Samm Henshaw-assisted “Change For Me,” and the groovy title track collaboration with Masego and Common that became a theme song for the 2020 NBA Finals.
Ledisi is the type of artist that never conforms to the trendiest sounds; she thrives in her own lane with each album release. It’s evident on her ninth studio album “The Wild Card,”—her first independent release. The album’s first single “Anything For You” showcases Ledisi’s jazzy tone and high octave range. She keeps her jazz and soul roots to the core while showcasing she can do vocal acrobatics that isn’t heard by a lot of new singers. It’s the type of music that one would hear at a jazz lounge or juke joint. She’s someone who still believes that bridges are the icing on an R&B track. Although most of the album is mid-tempo to slow jams like “Same Love” there are other standouts like the disco-inspire “WKND.” The Wild Card is the perfect title for the album, as Ledisi is someone who puts in work and is ready to be victorious, something she relates to on “In It To Win.”
When an artist titles an album after themselves, it seemingly gives fans a sense of their most personal work. Lianne La Havas’ self-titled album is her third project, and it lends fans a sense into her love life. She helps validate emotions by navigating through the highs and lows of relationships. These are evident on tracks like “Please Don’t Make Me Cry,” “Seven Times” and “Read My Mind.” La Havas has the type of voice that is soothing to any listener, it's smooth, husky, enchanting—a tone that is superb across her bass-heavy and guitar-driven songs.
After three years since her sophomore studio album, Jhené Aiko released the highly anticipated, “Chilombo.” The singer stays consistent with her song content about life, loss, and the ups and downs of a relationship. Aiko is widely known for her smooth and airy vocals while she never shies away from showcasing her sexuality and sensuality in her lyrics. The album is filled with a star-studded cast of features. One of the standout collaborations is “Happiness Over Everything” alongside Miguel and Future, which includes an interpolation of her 2011 track, “Hoe.” Aiko also joins forces with H.E.R. on the confident anthem “B.S.,” believes in living life to the fullest with Ty Dolla $ign on “Party For Me” and sings a break-up anthem alongside Big Sean on “None of Your Concern.” The album is up for a number of 2021 Grammy Award nominations including Album of the Year.
Before Brandy decided to release her newest album “b7,” it had been eight years since her previous project, “Two Eleven.” As assumed, fans were anticipating what a new Brandy album would sound like after being out of the limelight for nearly a decade. There’s no doubt that Brandy has one of the most unique voices in all of R&B and “b7” proves how she can cruise through harmonies so effortlessly. The album enhances Brandy's songwriting skills while working with producers like DJ Camper, Hit-Boy, and the late Lashawn Daniels. As Brandy's tone and melodies float across standouts such as “Rather Be” and “Borderline," this album is further proof of her longevity in the music game for over 25 years.
Sister duo Chloe x Halle are true students of music, it also helps that one of their biggest mentors is Beyoncé. Whether fans found them after posting covers on YouTube, opening up for Queen Bey and Jay-Z on tour, or starring on the Freeform hit show “Grown-ish,” the girls are musicians with all-around talent and 2020 was their elevation year. While the duo’s debut album “The Kids Are Alright” was more of a coming-of-age album as the girls moved through their teenage years, their latest album “Ungodly Hour” showcases them moving into more mature territory. Some of the album’s standouts include the Scott Storch-produced party anthem “Do It,” dealing with a trifling ex on “Busy Boy,” and possible effects of a broken heart on “Tipsy.” Chloe x Halle’s “Ungodly Hour” has earned three 2021 Grammy nominations including Best Progressive R&B Album.
Songstress Teyana Taylor has been in the industry for quite some time. Some fans may recall her from an episode of MTV’s “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” starring in VH1’s “The Breaks,” being the leading lady of GOOD Music, or perhaps showing off her sculpted abs and killer dance routine in Kanye West’s “Fade” video. Taylor is a jack of all trades and as an R&B singer, she loves to pay homage to the idols who came before her. After Taylor’s 2018 album “K.T.S.E.” garnered mixed reviews, fans wondered how she would be able to follow up. Well, Taylor exceeded expectations with 2020’s “The Album,” which featured production from the likes of DJ Camper, Timbaland, and Hitmaka. Some of the album’s standout tracks are the Erykah Badu-assisted “Lowkey,” a sexy ballad with Kehlani titled “Morning,” and a one-sided love story alongside Big Sean on “Shoot It Up.” Taylor has recently stated she plans to retire, but hopefully fans will still hear music from her in the future.
Ro James first came onto the scene back in 2015 with his critically-acclaimed hit, “Permission.” He took a few years to craft his sophomore album which led to “Mantic,” a project that builds on the idea of love prevailing as long as both parties believe in romance and pleasing one another. This concept is prevalent on the album’s first two singles “Touchy Feely” and “Last Time” which samples the seductive Usher classic hit, “Can U Handle It.” James also recruits fellow crooner Miguel on “Too Much” in which the two singers touch on the habits of being in a toxic relationship. With just a few other artists featured, "Mantic" is a 15-track album showcasing how James' tone should be in many conversations about rising R&B singers.
Kehlani first came onto the scene in 2014 with her debut mixtape, “Cloud 19.” Since then, she’s been in high demand as a collaborator while taking time to preserve her own artistry. Kehlani has been in some high-profile relationships and although they didn’t work out for her personally, she uses the experiences in her music to help her fans navigate through their own. On her sophomore album, “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t,” Kehlani draws listeners in on the first track about the ups and downs of a relationship with the properly titled track, “Toxic.” She teams up with fellow R&B singer Jhené Aiko on “Change Your Life” in which they try to convince a prospect how a relationship with them would be for the better. Kehlani seems to shine the most when her vulnerability and self-discovery are on full display.
John Legend likes to use his time away from the spotlight to craft his next album. Although he released a Christmas album in 2018, his last studio album before that was 2016's “Darkness and Light." Legend doesn’t stem away from his signature song and he’s known for making romantic songs that are sure to play at future weddings. On his 2020 album, “Bigger Love,” Legend recruited Raphael Saadiq as the executive producer. On songs like “I Do” and “One Life,” Legend highlights his love with an old school vibe as the musicianship and harmonies are remnants of ‘70s soul groups. Another standout is his single “Actions” which features a sample of Dr. Dre’s classic single, “The Next Episode.” Legend does what he does best, sings with conviction with hopes that listeners can experience love.
Alina Baraz first came onto the scene in 2015 with her “Urban Flora” EP alongside Galimatias. Baraz joins the group of R&B ladies known for their low whisper and airy vocal tones. Her debut album, “It Was Divine” brings listeners in with the first song, the type of album that makes a listener want to pour a glass of wine and vibe out. What makes this album stand out the most is the sequencing, an art that more artists should take advantage of. The smooth transition between the opener “My Whole Life” and the 6LACK-assisted single “Morocco” is effortlessly seamless. As Baraz also recruits artists like Smino, Khalid, and Nas to help tell her life and love stories, "It Was Divine" is a diary into her emotions.
Kiana Ledé came onto the music scene in 2018 with her EP, “Selfless,” and followed up with her debut album this year titled, “KIKI.” The album’s first single “Mad At Me” takes on a smooth interpolation of OutKast’s 2000 hit single, “So Fresh, So Clean.” Any R&B artist that can put a sweet spin on a classic hip-hop song and make it their own is one who appreciates timeless art. Another aspect that makes "KIKI" refreshing is how Ledé enlists other R&B artists on the rise to collaborate with such as Ari Lennox, Lucky Daye, and Arin Ray. Ledé also frequently worked with producer Derrick Milano, who is typically known for making hits with hip-hop artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Pop Smoke. “KIKI” is a solid R&B album that gives listeners an insight into Ledé’s honesty and vulnerability.
Thundercat is simply in a league of his own. On his fourth studio album, “It Is What It Is,” he continues to blend his signature elements of jazz and funk that can take a listener to another realm. His bass playing is the heartbeat of the sound, with heavy snares. On “Black Qualls,” a listener can’t help but wonder that Thundercat is a student of funk legends that came before him like Earth, Wind, & Fire or Sly & The Family Stone. The album’s standouts include the breezy “Dragonball Durag” with a saxophone feature from Kamasi Washington and the smooth “Fair Chance" alongside Ty Dolla $ign and Lil B. "It Is What It Is" is an essential title as Thundercat attempts to heal with life and loss.
Jade Novah first gained popularity by releasing covers of songs on YouTube. She also went viral for her comedic impressions of portraying other singers including Beyoncé, Toni Braxton, and Christina Aguilera. Her sophomore album, “Stages” showcases the different phases a person goes through in a relationship. Whether it’s the flirty stage on “Somebody Son,” going after what she wants on the Eric Bellinger-assisted track “Newness,” or dealing with emotional withdrawals on “In Your Head,”—each song highlights a stage that many listeners can relate to. "Stages" is a solid album about growth and Jade Novah's future is sure to shine bright.
If fans want to discuss longevity in the R&B game, people should add Toni Braxton to the list. Her self-titled debut album was released in 1993, and her latest “Spell My Name” marks her tenth studio album. While she adds a fun track “Do It” thanks to super producer and rapper Missy Elliott, Braxton still keeps her signature slow jams like “Gotta Move On” with newcomer H.E.R. ripping the guitar at any given moment. Another album standout is “Fallin,'" in which Braxton sings about finding the right person to spend a lifetime with. "Spell My Name" is proof that Toni’s deep vocals are still pristine even after nearly three decades in the business.
In the spring, Canadian R&B duo DVSN released their third studio album, “A Muse In Her Feelings—a project that arguably has one of the best album titles of the year. Is the listener already in their feelings or will they be emotional after one album spin? On the album’s first single, “Miss Me?” lead singer Daniel Daley is going through relationship withdrawals. On “Between Us” the duo teams up with Snoh Aalegra on a sample of Usher’s “Nice and Slow.” "A Muse In Her Feelings" is an album in which the duo puts their emotions on full display and that's what R&B fans always desire.
Xavier Omär may not be a household name just yet, but the crooner has been crafting his artistry for years. Formerly known as SPZRKT, over his career he’s worked with artists like Mick Jenkins, NoName, Sylvan LaCue, and Saba. Just a year after his previous project, Omär returns with his newest album, “If You Feel.” He enlists producers such as DJ Camper, Sango, Bizness Boi, D’Mile, and rising star Melanie Faye. For listeners who love ‘90s R&B, Omär pays homage to Dru Hill on “want/need” before giving a sweet collaboration alongside Masego on “SURF.” For the longtime Omär fans, he doesn’t disappoint with the love songs while also becoming a master at blending different R&B eras.
Jojo first came onto the scene back in 2004 and although “good to know” is her fourth studio album, it showcases how much she has elevated as a vocalist. On the Lido-produced track “Pedialyte,” Jojo sings about the feeling of a hangover, singing “I’m never going to drink again,” (a lyric many listeners can relate to). She finds comfort in her sensuality on “Gold,” a song that sounds like it could be reminiscent of early 2000s R&B. She also shows her octave range on “Lonely Hearts” as she sings about how she can’t be hurt if she’s alone. Jojo has been in the industry since she was a teenager and her vocals have continuously elevated. "good to know" is proof that Jojo has truly grown into a sound that was made for her.
Ever since Ty Dolla $ign sang the hook on YG’s 2010 single “Toot It and Boot It,” the singer has been in high demand as a collaborator with other artists. He’s often been compared to the late Nate Dogg for his ability to sing catchy hooks with some of the industry’s hottest MCs. As a frequent collaborator, it was only right that he titled his third album “Featuring Ty Dolla $ign." However, this time he boasts a massive list of artists to join him such as Nicki Minaj on “Expensive” or Post Malone on “Spicy.” One of the album’s standouts is “Tyrone 2021” in which he and Big Sean put a twist on Erykah Badu’s 1997 classic “Tyrone”—which also happens to be Dolla $ign’s government name. "Featuring Ty Dolla $ign" is a clever title and an album with further proof that the singer can hold his own as a singular artist.
Mya Singleton is a freelance writer and photographer based in Los Angeles. Her work has also been featured on The Sports Fan Journal and AXS. Feel free to follow her talking all things music on Twitter @MyaMelody7.