This year marks the first time in more than a year where things were somewhat “normal” in the music industry. Concerts and festivals made a return which allowed artists to release projects they held off on dropping due to the quarantine. For what it’s worth, however, R&B found plenty of success in 2020 and it did again in 2021. From Jazmine Sullivan’s excellent Heaux Tales project that kicked off the year to Silk Sonic’s An Evening With Silk Sonic that brought us towards the end of 2021, this year is just another case of the phenomenal diversity that lives in the genre.
So let’s get into it. Here are the fifteen best R&B albums from 2021 in alphabetical order.
Fousheé — Time Machine
Foushee is one of the many 2021 acts that received a healthy boost thanks to landing a viral moment on TikTok. Her breakout single “Deep End” achieved success on the app and led to a flood of interest in her artistry. With the later release of her debut project, Time Machine, Foushee defined the pocket that her music lives in. The New Jersey native thrived by creating unlikely pairings through her work. A thumping bass was accompanied by funk-inspired R&B and her transgressions through heartbreak, growth, and more, are sung with the grace of a young indie singer. Foushee works best when a neverending horizon serves as her only confinement. – Wongo Okon
H.E.R. — Back Of My Mind
It’s odd to think of Back Of My Mind as H.E.R.’s debut album. After all, it’s so fully formed, sashaying easily between sweeping power ballads (“We Made It“) to mournful reflection (“Damage“) to warm weather bops (“Slide“). H.E.R.’s pen is like a surgeon’s tool, cutting to the bone of such subjects as heartbreak, self-realization, and the stirrings of new love. Her instrumentation is even more impressive. Perhaps it’s owed to the decade-plus of behind-the-scenes work she’s done as she strove toward this moment. After the year she’s had, though, she won’t be in the back of anyone’s mind ever again, because she’s earned her spot at the forefront of the pop-culture consciousness. – Aaron Williams
Jazmine Sullivan — Heaux Tales
Jazmine Sullivan returned to the music world after an almost six-year absence with her Heaux Tales EP. Through 11 songs with help from Ari Lennox, Anderson .Paak, and HER, Jazmine sings about the experiences through love and intimacy that she and other women go through. There are moments of passion and moments of regrets, but the vulnerability to tell it all and stay true to herself, along with help from other female voices, helped to make Heaux Tales a flawless project. – W.O.
Joyce Wrice — Overgrown
Joyce Wrice’s debut album Overgrown was an early bright spot for 2021 R&B. Her free spirit thrived on this project through fourteen songs that flaunted her maturity and sheer distaste for indecisiveness. Wrice falls in love quickly when it’s right (“Think About You”) and packs her bags just as fast when it’s not for her (“Must Be Nice”). At 29 years old, there is a bit of wisdom that Wrice showcases on her debut, as for her, love is something that adds to her life, rather than making it complete. Whether it be sonically, contextually, or both, Overgrown finds a way to stay fun and light-hearted without drowning listeners in the highs and lows of romance at a given moment. – W.O.
Kyle Dion — Sassy
If you want an example of an artist constantly striving to go against the grain, you don’t have to look any further than Kyle Dion. The singer’s third album Sassy broke his own rules as well as those set before him by the industry. Dion is best described as a rockstar with funk-inspired confidence and the light touch of a traditional R&B star who can neatly gift wrap it all for the unsuspecting listener. Pull at the ribbon that is Sassy and you get an excellent blend of funk, rock, and soul captures Dion on his euphoric journey to have fun and live life to the absolute best he can. – W.O.
Leon Bridges — Gold-Diggers Sound
Remember the Leon Bridges who enacted Sam Cooke-esque soul music on 2015’s breakthrough Coming Home? He has positively given way to a more traditionally-minded R&B singer, enacting a polished lovelorn sound. With the exception of album closer “Blue Mesas,” Gold-Diggers Sound feels like a bold re-invention for Bridges and he has Lizzo producers Ricky Reed and Nate Mercereau expertly leading the way. On “Born Again” featuring Robert Glasper on keys, Bridges leans into a PJ Morton-style piano ballad, but it’s Bridges’ gentle rasp that carves out space for him as a singular force on the album. This is the type of stellar studio R&B that will keep Bridges on the Grammy radar well-beyond his recent 2022 nomination. – Adrian Spinelli
Mac Ayres — Magic 8Ball
Life tends to deliver the unexpected at unexpected times and it’s this randomness that Mac Ayres used as the foundation of his Magic 8Ball project. Ayres takes life as it comes and he accounts for all the moments he stands unprepared for. For what it’s worth, Magic 8Ball was created in the quarantine year of 2020, a period filled with uncertainty for the future. However, the honesty and straightforward approach to these varying aspects are what draw you into Magic 8Ball. Add Ayres’ lush vocals and the project’s bright and groovy production, and you have a body of work guaranteed to be enjoyed at every listen. – W.O.
Nao — And The Life Was Beautiful
Hope is something the entire world needed as they exited 2020 to enter 2021. For Nao, she found that through the sunflowers that bloomed at her feet last year. This natural occurrence became the inspiration for her third album And Then Life Was Beautiful. On it, she offers a gesture of hope strong enough to inspire the hopeless. As a whole, And Then Life Was Beautiful is made in the space of emerging from turmoil to see that all will be okay one day. Through 13 records, Nao flawlessly unveils and recounts the moments in her life that brought hope to a beautiful tomorrow, even when it wasn’t promised. – W.O.
Phabo — Soulquaraius
Neo-soul is still alive in R&B and one of the places you can find it thriving is on Phabo’s debut Soulquaraius. The Soulection singer shined like gold on his first full-length project thanks to sixteen songs that are covered in nostalgic gold while also flaunting his impressive pen. “How’s My Driving?” emulates one’s ability to operate a vehicle and to that of satisfying a yearning love interest while “The Homie” arrives as a first-person account of a man slowly becoming aware of his partner’s uncommitted ways. Phabo’s Soulquarius is filled with the finesse and charisma of a man who knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s going on his road towards neo-soul prosperity. – W.O.
Pink Sweat$ — Pink Planet
Pink Sweats is a living example of why simplicity is often key. A light acoustic sound carries the Philly singer on his official debut album Pink Planet as the gentleness behind his voice and the project’s production match that of the love he fantasizes about on Pink Planet. It also helps to create a more intimate setting that excellent allows the heart’s true and raw desires to be translated fully. Pink Sweats smiles ear-to-ear at the arrival of love in its best form on “Magic” and “So Sweet” while also praying for its longevity on “At My Worst” and “Lows.” However, don’t think the Philly singer is nothing more than a rotating love story. He also ups the ante with a double dose of his infectious spirit on “Give It To Me” and “Icy.” Altogether, Pink Planet best represents Pink Sweats complete artistry and the unique vision he has for R&B. – W.O.
Shelley — Shelley FKA DRAM
Shelley, fka Big Baby DRAM, returned this year with a new name for his permanent role as a certified love doctor. Throughout his career, Shelley crafted records in the name of pure love like “Caretaker,” “Best Hugs,” and more, but they weren’t the foundation of his artistry. All of that changed with his second album Shelley FKA DRAM. This time around, the Virginia singer arrives with anecdotes of love that treat every attempt at companionship like it’s the first one — fearless and unknowing of the possible dangers of giving your heart away to a trusted partner. Through songs like “All Pride Aside” and “Remedies,” Shelley presents a love with your guard down on Shelley FKA DRAM and it’s a magical thing to see unfold. – W.O.
Silk Sonic — An Evening With Silk Sonic
From the very moment that Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak made their newly-formed Silk Sonic duo official with the release of “Leave The Door Open” earlier this year, their promised debut album was one of the most sought-for releases in 2021. Would the duo live up to the hype? Would the album perhaps be unbalanced? A multitude of questions arrived at Bruno and .Paak’s doorstep, all of which were answered with the brilliant An Evening With Silk Sonic. The duo met all expectations and did it through an excellent display of showmanship. There’s no telling how long Silk Sonic will last, but their current presence is something to be thankful for. – W.O.
Snoh Aalegra — Temporary Highs In The Skies
While many excel in relaying their experiences with love, Snoh Aalegra does a beautiful job of showing her wavering feelings in romance through her music. Her third album Temporary Highs In The Violet Skies is another example of that. Its 14 tracks present a woman who chooses to focus and highlight the best moments in love, even if they last shorter than expected. This task is accomplished beautifully thanks to help from Tyler The Creator, James Fauntleroy, Pharrell Williams, The Neptunes, and more. – W.O.
Summer Walker — Still Over It
Summer Walker achieved some groundbreaking feats with her 2021 sophomore album Still Over It. First of all, she got “Ciara’s Prayer” from thee Ciara Harris-Wilson. Lord knows how long the ladies have been asking Cici herself for the prayer and Ms. Walker was able to get that and was generous enough to share it with her listeners. Second of all, Still Over It is the highest-charting album from a female R&B artist since Beyoncé’s 2016 Lemonade and is likely to continue towards an upward trend. Regardless, Summer Walker uses Still Over It to air out her grievances a la Usher’s Confessions, except she’s naming names and calling out her baby daddy-ex London On Da Track, his mother, and the other women in his life. She does this over perfectly curated production by the same man she’s going in on. London and Summer made magic on Over It, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other hand, Pharrell and Summer on “Dat Right There” sounds like a win for the future of music. Most of all, Summer’s adept songwriting skills, inimitable vocals, and ability to dig into the souls of her listeners through song puts her on another level, to the point that whatever shenanigans she’s on The Shade Room for makes the music worth it. – Cherise Johnson
Tinashe — 333
If you needed proof that independence is what’s best for Tinashe, her fifth album 333 is undeniable proof of that. The album is arguably one of, if not the strongest showcase of her versatility as she bends the R&B genre in a number of ways, something she’s proven capable of doing time and time again. 333 is also a testament towards trusting the process, and if you know what it took Tinashe to get here, you’ll have an added dose of appreciation towards her current position. – W.O.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.