The best R&B of 2016 has nothing to do with Frank Ocean

The release of Blond threatens to overshadow that this year has been a vintage year for R&B with artists from KING to Abra pushing the genre’s boundaries

If you went by music press column inches and volume of tweets, you might be forgiven for thinking that there’s only one R&B artist who matters in 2016. The performative desperation for Frank Ocean to release a follow-up to 2012’s Channel Orange was an odd phenomenon, given firstly that four years is hardly an unusually long hiatus, and secondly that there has been no shortage of brilliant R&B albums this year. As the disappointment with the double dose of hookless morass that Ocean finally heaved on to the world this weekend surely begins to set in, they’re more needed than ever.


Ocean is far from unique in taking his time on his craft. Between 2011 and 2016, LA trio KING – sisters Paris and Amber Strother, together with friend Anita Bias – released music at the rate of roughly one song per year. Each of those was gorgeous, psychedelic and intricately layered, and won them fans from Erykah Badu to Prince, who took on a role as the trio’s mentor. An album was promised in 2014, but didn’t come (the group admitted to taking months to refine a single song). Patience paid off though. Their full-length debut We Are King (King Creative) finally emerged in February, and its sumptuous textures – swells of harmonies from Amber and Anita, visionary analogue arrangements by Paris – demonstrated how worthwhile taking time over perfection is. King make everything sound transcendent – including, on Muhammad Ali tribute The Greatest – one of the only sports-themed songs that captures the heart and soul, shorn of macho bluster, of watching supreme athletic accomplishment.

Corinne Bailey Rae

Rae of Light: Corinne Bailey Rae
Rae of Light: Corinne Bailey Rae. Photograph: PR Company Handout

KING also found the time to work with Corinne Bailey Rae on parts of her third album, The Heart Speaks In Whispers (Virgin EMI). If Bailey Rae’s 2010 second album, The Sea revealed her as an artist of greater depth than her Radio 2-geared debut had suggested, The Heart Speaks In Whispers found her pushing even further outwards. Time and again, songs morph in unexpected directions; on In The Dark, delicate acoustic balladry explode into distortion before drawing back carefully, while Green Aphrodisiac (which graced the night-time half of Barack Obama’s summer mixtape this month) winds up in a dreamy fugue state. Bailey Rae’s natural sense of restraint, particularly vocally, makes for a compelling sense of tension when paired with the cosmic scope of her lyrics: skies break and waves part before Bailey Rae puts out a call to “fellow astronauts”, but all the while she sings as though whispering in your ear.


It’s been a good year for the quiet women of soul. Tweet wasn’t always known as such, of course: her breakthrough hit, and still her best-known, was 2002’s sultry and sparse Oops (Oh My), a Timbaland-produced, Missy Elliott-featuring ode to self-love released during a golden age of electronic experimentation in R&B. Fourteen years later (and 11 since her last album, a longer wait than King and Ocean put together) Timbaland and Missy show up again, but this time it’s for the gently swinging retro soul of Somebody Else Will. And even that’s Tweet’s only real nod to pop: pensive, diaristic emotional vignettes over fluttering, lovingly crafted live arrangements comprise the rest of the eponymous Charlene (eOne Music). Tweet’s voice is as magnetic as ever, and her hooks are the sort to get under your skin without you realising.

K Michelle

No appreciation of R&B is well-rounded if it doesn’t take into account its louder, brasher characters as well as its quieter ones. K Michelle is rarely bestowed with hashtag honours like #BlackGirlMagic, but beneath the reality TV background and hot mess public persona is simply a formidable talent who’s not ashamed to rip open her emotional wounds in her art. On her third album, the brilliantly titled More Issues Than Vogue, the verbal slaps she administers in rap, the gossip-baiting Idris Elba mention by name or the vibrator talk on Nightstand might be (highly enjoyable) aural clickbait - but cartoon façades have a habit of disguising realness, and there are few singers as capable of communicating raw pain as K Michelle. Heartbreakers such as If It Ain’t Love and Sleep Like A Baby, as well as nods towards K Michelle’s country roots, demonstrate that relegating her to Twitter meme and punchline is doing her artistry an immense disservice.


Between K Michelle, Beyoncé’s gun-toting Daddy Lessons and Miguel’s collaboration with country star Kacey Musgraves on the strangely xx-like Waves (Remix), mixing R&B and country has officially been a trend in 2016. All of those examples were terrific, but the song that captured the emotional blood and guts at the core of both genres was Fantasia’s Ugly. In just over three minutes, the first American Idol winner takes in body image, class division, an unhappy marriage and alcoholism. A pivot into gospel midway through is unexpected but hard-won, Fantasia bellowing out “Give me good food that sticks to my bones” in that unmistakeable rasp that feels possessed by every word she sings. Ugly is the only outright country moment on Fantasia’s fifth album, The Definition Of… (19 Recordings) but the pleasant surprise is how varied her craft is becoming with each album; as well as the latter-day Tina Turner rock-soul style she’s suited to, cuts such as Stay Up show what Fantasia can do with space and stateliness as well as busier tempos.

Jamila Woods

What’s been especially notable about the healthy state of R&B in 2016 is the range of styles it encompasses, both sonic and lyrical: there’s no such thing as an R&B archetype any more. It’s inextricable from questions of black American identity, and if each of these touches on racial themes in their work, Chicago’s Jamila Woods put those questions front and centre on her debut album Heavn (Closed Sessions). Woods – hitherto best known as an affiliate of Chance the Rapper – dissects slogans and archetypes and situates them in the tension of black American life in 2016. It’s like the aural accompaniment to the photo of Ieshia Evans facing down three armoured police officers in Baton Rouge in July: just as Evans seemed to be repelling the officers with her upright fearlessness, so Woods radiates her own power.

Paris Jones

Also occupied with questions of identity have been young artists such as North Carolina’s PJ, whose debut set Rare (Atlantic) is an endearing journey of self-discovery amid a world of stereotypes. Paris Jones captures the anxiety of embarking on both personal and professional adulthood, with her dreams and money keeping her awake at night, but Rare is also threaded through with an unshakeable, quiet optimism. Rather bleaker was Maryland singer Gallant’s debut, Ology (Mind Of A Genius). Haunted by solitude, religious agony and narcotics, Gallant nonetheless avoids the mopey cliches of so much alt-R&B thanks to the richness of his metaphysical poetry, layered arrangements full of crystalline details and a gorgeous falsetto that brought to mind a younger incarnation of Maxwell.


Maxwell … worth waiting for
Maxwell … worth waiting for. Photograph: PR

Talking of Maxwell, his own long-awaited blackSUMMERS’night (Columbia) – the second part of a trilogy that will clearly be decades in the making – lived up to every expectation. Aqueous and involving, Maxwell makes masterful mood music but also knows that feeling is so much more than mere vibe. If the first half of blackSUMMERS’night sets the scene carefully, its second half explodes into sweeping drama with the impossibly beautiful heights of 1990x’s undulating melody and the ominous doom of Lost. Maxwell and Gallant both make Frank Ocean seem flat and one-dimensional, and maybe provide a lesson that artists simply shouldn’t be hurried if you want quality results.

Best of the rest

Part of R&B’s story in 2016 has been an increased willingness on the part of artists such as King, Tweet, Woods, Abra and Dawn Richard to go down the route of small indie labels or self-releasing material. Abra’s Princess EP marked her out as one of the most distinctive singers and producers in any genre today. Richard, whose final instalment of her own trilogy is due this year, has been a whirlwind of imaginative boundary-pushing activity in advance of it, from collaborations with Machinedrum to 3D virtual reality videos. But it’s crucial to remember the lack of institutional support that R&B artists on major labels continue to have, and the limbo many still find themselves stuck in. Tinashe’s follow-up to her acclaimed 2014 debut Aquarius was reportedly scrapped and restarted from scratch. Sevyn Streeter has been releasing impeccable singles for three years (the latest is the distorted party haze of Prolly) but Atlantic have yet to allow a full-length album to be released. And Kehlani’s self-released 2015 debut You Should Be Here won her a deserved Grammy nomination, but despite the quality of singles such as 24/7, simultaneously heartbreaking and comforting in light of the singer’s own suicide attempt in March, people treated her less as an artist to fight for, à la Ocean, and more like a gossip blog punchline. It’s curious that a hysterical fever pitch was reached in the service of harassing an artist to speed up a creative process he was free to indulge in for as long as he wanted, but not to actually support artists who might need it.


Alex Macpherson

The GuardianTramp

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