To borrow and remix a quote from the late American word smith Mark Twain: reports of R&B’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Sure, R&B doesn’t have a chokehold on the Billboard charts as it once did back in the 90s or even the early 2000s, but, as evidenced by artists like SZA—whose sophomore album dropped after Billboard released its 2022 best-of list—the genre can still make an impact. And, sure, you can attribute a bit of that success to the fact that people were waiting half a decade for SOS. But singer/songwriter Victoria Monét proved that a follow-up album doesn’t need anything more than great songs (and a great team to work it).
Elsewhere, newer artists like Coco Jones and Khamari showed the depth and range of modern R&B. The running commentary is that the music is too toxic and dark; that’s not loving enough; that the artists are sangin’ like they used to sing. Well, all you have to do is listen to A Brief Nirvana or Cleo Sol’s Gold to see (or hear) that the mics are indeed on and that love is at the top of agenda. That’s not to say it’s all sunshine and heart emojis—Brent Faiyaz is still cooking, delivering a surprise mixtape that will be remembered as one of the year’s best.
Going through the releases this year, the Billboard staff couldn’t help but feel that not only was this was one of the best years for R&B releases in a long time, but that all the artists on this list show no signs of slowing down. The genre is in good health and good hands.
The following ranked list is 10 of our favorite R&B albums from 2023 (and, in SZA’s case, 2022).
Chris Brown, 11:11
Since Chris Brown’s 2005 debut, he’s rocketed to the moon thanks to his dulcet vocals, sticky hooks, and hellacious footwork. With a career marred by controversy, Brown remains a formidable draw in his 18th year in the music industry. His 11th album, 11:11, proves as much. He collides with anxiety and depression on the opener “Angel Numbers / Ten Toes,” while acknowledging his faults on “Messed Up.” Though Brown’s demons have crippling effects on his psyche, he doesn’t lose sight of what made him R&B’s ultimate casanova, whisking together sugary anthems such as “Sensational” with Davido and Lojay and “Summer Too Hot.” — C.L.
Khamari, A Brief Nirvana
Sparking one of the most buzziest — and refreshing —moments in 2023 was the release of Khamari’s debut studio album. The 11-track RCA project brims with striking promise, thanks to the multi-instrumentalist-singer’s raw and insightful lyrics, genre-fusing sonics and sinuous tenor. So you can’t help but be drawn into Khamari’s world as he reflects on his deeply personal yet relatable journey to self-realization. On standout “These Four Walls,” he contemplates, “… these four walls keep me company / They don’t ask for much / Don’t just up and leave / … I’ve got these four walls / Even when you don’t call.” Also of note: the tracks “Cherry Picking” and “Wax Poetic.” His deft use of samples from Bill Withers and Nina Simone to Al Green and Darondo also speaks to the diverse range of his musical inspiration. While he’s been compared to Frank Ocean and Mac Miller, make no mistake. Khamari stands in a lane all his own. — G.M.
Cleo Sol, Gold
The prevalence of “toxic” lyrics has been a major talking point in discussions concerning contemporary R&B. With Gold – the second in a pair of two 2023 LPs from the British soul savant – Cleo Sol makes a concerted effort to infuse her melodies with positive affirmations and unassuming words of wisdom. Written and produced in collaboration with Grammy-nominated producer Inflo, Gold traverses the annals of soul music, touching on modern jazz, ‘70s R&B, gospel, roots reggae, and late ‘90s neo-soul. The line “I believe that your love is gold” constitutes the majority of the album’s closer and title track. In that lyric, Cleo’s mission is perfectly encapsulated: an indefatigable commitment to buying into the necessity and authenticity of love. — K.D.
Don Toliver, Love Sick
Toliver’s third studio album, Love Sick, finds the trap&B singer crooning his Styrofoam cup-fueled confessions of being in love while obsessed with riches and illicit substances. He and his real-life girlfriend Kali Uchis flip Beenie Man and Mya’s 2000 reggae-R&B hit “Girls Dem Sugar” for the truly lovesick single “4 Me.” But Toliver, Future, and Justin Bieber are too busy getting high off their own supply on the club banger “Private Landing” that Toliver groans about his jet-setting lifestyle getting the best of him, eventually pleading with an ex-lover about their ruined relationship on the twinkling track “Leather Coat.” The Cactus Jack signee is torn in different directions, but his seductive, Xanax-coated melodies and woozy production allows listeners to get lost with him and enjoy the ride. — H.M.
Coco Jones, What I Didn’t Tell You (Deluxe)
Coco Jones’ rookie campaign is one of the reasons why R&B enjoyed a fruitful year in 2023. Doling out a sizzling deluxe effort for her 2022 project What I Didn’t Tell You, Jones’s breakthrough platinum hit “ICU” beams bright and forecasts what the future holds for the budding talent: an R&B wunderkind capable of pulling heartstrings one note at a time. Even when tasked with reimagining the popular ’90s song “Rain” by SWV, Jones doesn’t get swallowed whole by the famed sample, as she ultimately makes “Double Back” a noteworthy jewel in her ever-growing catalog. — Carl Lamarre
Janelle Monáe, The Age of Pleasure
Since 2010’s The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monáe has remained permanently perched on the cutting edge of R&B. The Age of Pleasure, her latest Grammy-nominated EP, eschews the Afrofuturist bent of her previous projects for a warm embrace of pleasure politics by way of the interconnected sounds of the Black diaspora. Reggae-tined lead single “Float” announces Monáe’s immersion into an irie state of mind, those influences get tempered with flourishes of jazz on “Only Have Eyes 42” and sultry Afrobeats percussion ground the Clay-assisted “Know Better.” Breezy and succinct, The Age of Pleasure is a heartfelt ode to consciously pursuing and prioritizing pleasure, especially when that pleasure is constantly under threat due to your identity. A kaleidoscopic amalgamation of globe-spanning Black musical styles, The Age of Pleasure is yet another stunning addition to Janelle Monáe’s discography. — KD
The title of Kelela’s riveting second studio album is a reference to the literal bird and also a play on the word “raving.” Through her explorations of drum’n’bass, house, amapiano and dancehall, Kelela submerges herself in the sanctity of raves. The record soundtracks a post-breakup night out that doubles as a Saturday night revival, an opportunity for Kelela to intimately acquaint herself with her most hidden inhibitions and a space for her to reclaim some sense of control over, and understanding of, herself in the face of a paralyzing romance. Whether she’s blending orchestral pop and ambient music on the Shygirl-featuring “Divorce” or evoking the sweaty sensuality of bashments in “On the Run,” she does it all with a reverence for the healing properties of dance music – Kyle Denis
Brent Faiyaz, Larger Than Life
Faiyaz helped lead the charge for R&B’s booming renaissance in 2022 with his Billboard 200 No. 2-debuting sophomore set Wasteland. Then, this October, he surprised fans with his Larger Than Life mixtape — the first release via his ISO Supremacy label with partner UnitedMasters. The 12-song project, bowing at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 and No. 4 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, spotlights Faiyaz’s soulful vocals delivering treatises about real life against melodies integrating contemporary R&B with nods to genre influences that have inspired his artistry. Noteworthy selections include “Moment of Your Life” featuring Coco Jones (which samples Lady Wray’s “Boy You Should Listen”), “Pistachios” (sampling Adina Howard’s “If We Make Love Tonight,” the hypnotic “WY@” and the short but arresting opener/Timbaland homage “Tim’s Intro” (sampling TLC’s “No Scrubs”). — Gail Mitchell
Victoria Monét, Jaguar II
After spending years writing pop hits for artists like Ariana Grande and Fifth Harmony—while also introducing the world to her own sensual, soulful, and super groovy brand of R&B with her 2020 EP Jaguar—Victoria Monét seized her motherf—ing moment with her major label debut album Jaguar II. From singing “You got that Earth, Wind and Fire” with Lucky Daye on the ’70s funk-tinged 420 anthem “Smoke” to singing with the actual Earth, Wind and Fire (as well as her two-year-old daughter Hazel) on the dreamy “Hollywood,” the 11-track set elevates contemporary R&B with touches of dancehall, disco, and Dirty South rap alongside lush live instrumentation. Jaguar II signaled Monét’s commercial breakthrough and put her on the same playing field as the superstars she’s worked with before. Due to the success of the album, Monét is tied as the second-most-nominated person at the 2024 Grammys with seven nods, including record of the year with “On My Mama” and best new artist. — Heran Mamo
First, a few accolades. SOS debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart with 318,000 albums sold. It stayed there for 10 weeks making it the longest-running number one album by a female R&B artist since Mariah Carey’s debut in 1991. It won album of the year at the 2023 BET Awards. And it’s nominated for Album of the Year at the 2024 Grammys. Suffice to say it’s been well received. It’d be the understatement of the decade to say people were clamoring for SZA’s sophomore project.
And the five-year break was worth the wait. SOS amplifies all that was great about CNTRL. The songwriting that so clearly transcribed her inner monologues and transposed them onto luscious, luxurious production. The snap, crackle, and snark of her delivery. The ability of her voice to flow from guttural alto to sinewy soprano. SOS is at once dark (“Kill Bill”), hilarious (“Smoking on my Ex Pack”), and loving (“Snooze”). It’s ambitious in ways that surprise—only the best generational talents are able to pull such feats. It’s one of those albums people will reminisce about. Who knows when we’ll get an album like this again? Hopefully SZA does. — Damien Scott