Although 2023 was by no means a smooth year globally, there was no shortage of soothing R&B albums to provide a dose of healing to listeners. Some new stars made their mark, while a number of prominent artists in the genre dropped projects for the first time in years.
SZA‘s SOS may have dropped in late December of 2022, but its impact dictated the whole genre for the year, while Victoria Monét came back to the limelight with her breakthrough project Jaguar II, lifting her to become a leader in the genre.
Elsewhere, Brent Faiyaz capped off his banner 2022 with a follow-up project and plenty of features that cemented his place among the top players in the genre, and fans were treated to an incredible gift when Sampha ended his six-year layoff with the beautiful Lahai.
Beyond our top five nominees, there were so many other great R&B albums released this year deserving of your ears.
Review all of our 2023 Hip Hop Award categories and check out our nominations for Best R&B Albums of 2023 below.
Editors Note: Best R&B Albums of 2023 selections were restricted to between December 1, 2022 to December 1, 2023. Nominees and honorable mentions are in alphabetical order.
Best R&B ALBUM Of 2023 NOMINATIONS
The Best R&B Album of 2023 is…
SZA — SOS
Five years after SZA’s debut album CTRL, the pressure of delivering a follow up that matched expectations was high. But she delivered with SOS.
Throughout her career, SZA has operated in the space of experimental R&B, foregoing traditional song structures, power vocals, and one dimensional writing for other techniques. Though SOS finds itself experimenting with new sounds, there’s a clear shift to a more pop-focused sound.
In her decade-long career, SZA has proven that her strength as an artist lies in her sharp writing and the blending of genres to build her own unique sound world. This mingled with the stream of conscious flow, many of her songs emote shapes that mold SOS into a deeply personal body of work.
Brent Faiyaz — Larger Than Life
A departure from WASTELAND’s bleak moodiness and melodramatic skits, Larger Than Life is a flight straight back to the DMV. Bringing together everyone from the city, whether that be Landover, Maryland riser Lil Gray, Woodbridge, VA punk newcomer Tommy Richman, the legendary Missy Elliott from Portsmouth, VA, or D.C.’s own Cruddy Murda, Brent Faiyaz’s latest is a guide on how to seduce the upper East Coast.
“Tim’s Intro” slides into the seductive guitar chords of TLC‘s “No Scrubs,” “Best Time” samples Kelis to outline how “all the pretty girls come from VA,” and interludes like “Big Mad Skit” mirrors the skits on previous Faiyaz efforts, A.M. Paradox and Lost, bringing us in close enough to laugh at Flee and Princess Cro’s loveless lust. Words: Yousef Srour
Kelela — Raven
Brimming with synth undercurrents, translucid melodies, and delightfully jarring production shifts, Raven is a transfixing ode to human connection, interpersonal communication and Black femininity. This sophomore effort finds the L.A.-based, Ethiopian-American singer at a different place mentally than she was when crafting her 2017 debut LP Tear Me Apart.
Musically, it’s the same atmospheric electronica grinding against progressive R&B – in other words, dance music that’s as appropriate for the bedroom as it is the club. At its root, Raven is a response to anyone who made the mistake of thinking that Kelela’s hiatus was an ill-omen with regard to her career.
Looking for a symbol of rebirth, she came across the raven. Some consider it forbidding – a symbol of loss – but it’s also the talking bird, and a connection between spirit realms. Few storytellers can land that kind of nuance, and Kelela is one of them. Words: Nina Hernandez
Sampha — Lahai
Time is one of humankind’s most common enemies. In addition to being indiscriminate, it will cut the best moments painfully short and make the worst moments drag out for what seems like eternity. Sampha understands this. He wrestled with the passing of his mother on his debut album Process, and reluctantly accepted by the end that she would no longer be with him. Five years later, the UK singer returns with Lahai, a decidedly brighter album that puts Sampha in a more hopeful and self-accepting light.
Where Process captured Sampha in the heat of his mourning, Lahai is a more rehabilitative experience. He centers the project around family, much like on his debut, though this time, the 34-year-old is penchant on his emotional recovery and finding himself in a place positive enough to be a guiding light for his young daughter.
Backed by glitchy instrumental palettes, Lahai is a serene look into the future where Sampha can be at peace with his memories, allowing him to focus on his family without looking back. With so much time lost to grief and mourning, he uses his latest album to convince himself that he has too much of it left to waste. Words: Louis Pavlakos
Victoria Monét — JAGUAR II
Victoria Monét emerges from the foliage with the generationally incandescent Jaguar II. The 34-year-old former behind-the-scenes hit songwriter steps into the spotlight, putting her own spin on motherhood, femininity and sexuality. Merging neo-soul with jazz and funk, Monét establishes herself in the genre spotlight with a record that bridges decades and genres.
With appearances from dancehall giant Buju Banton and Earth, Wind & Fire legends Philip Bailey and Verdine White, Monét shows she can pay homage to the past while remaining unabashedly in the present. The elements all mesh together perfectly on viral hit “On My Mama,” which not only captured attention with a choreographically ambitious visual but also the best hook of Monét’s already storied career.
On Jaguar II, Monét doubles down on her instincts and it pays off with just the right combination of vision and throwback appreciation. Words: Nina Hernandez
Amaarae — Fountain Baby
Fountain Baby feels like the culmination of Amaarae’s musical odyssey and desire to play with the tropes of genres that hadn’t fully grown yet. Much like how Hip Hop and R&B have been pushed and mangled into a bevy of sounds that make the genres bleed into all forms of music, Amaarae bends Afrobeats to her will, morphing the music of her heritage and the distinction of what it means to be a Ghanaian female artist.
She’s unafraid of uncharted territory and willing to step outside the conventional box Americans place on Afrobeats, all while broadening the umbrella of dance music. Whether she’s experimenting with rock ensembles, (“Come Home to God”) or staying true to Shekeres and goblet drums (“Big Steppa”) which are the backbone of Afro sounds, each song expounds on the next to bring a warm, organic feeling back into mainstream modern dance music. Words: Lauren Floyd
Coco Jones — What I Didn’t Tell You (Deluxe)
Coco Jones was already on her way up before her viral, rain-soaked performance at Broccoli City Festival back in July. But the breathtaking display of turning an event that many artists would decide to opt out of into a star-making performance was a testament to her resilience and talent.
The former Disney star proved herself with a major update to her 2022 EP, morphing the original short offering into a seductive and soothing full-length album. Her versatility shines on tracks like the confident, kick-that-man-to-the-curb anthem “Plan B,” where her soulful belts transform into breathy assured mantras, fit for a late night when you have to decide if answering the “you up?” text is the right choice. She switches between strained wails of heartbreak, to silky calls for reconciliation on the gospel ballad “ICU.”
With a starring role on Bel-Air, Jones may not need music as much as some artists, but if What I Didn’t Tell You is any indication of what’s to come, she easily positions herself as one of the brightest new stars in R&B. Words: Josh Svetz
Daniel Caesar — Never Enough
Never Enough functions as a break-up album, but it also provides a redemption arc for a flawed man with equally flawed views to make a case at proving he’s matured. Daniel Caesar apologized for the YesJulz comments and took the time to come to terms with hurting people both in his fandom and in his personal life. The growth shows, especially on “Buyer’s Remorse” and “Pain Is Inevitable.”
Subversion is what distinguishes Never Enough from his previous efforts. Instead of sprinkling female voices across the album as he did on Freudian, this record exclusively focuses on the male perspective — save for a handful of background harmonies from women and a Summer Walker remix on the deluxe.
This introspective effort ends up a sprawling project covering four years of absence, with no stone left unturned, allowing Caesar to do something his music hasn’t before — take accountability for his actions. Words: Louis Pavlakos
Janelle Monáe — The Age Of Pleasure
Those paying attention to Janelle Monáe’s career trajectory shouldn’t have been surprised when she announced the direction of her new album, The Age of Pleasure. Yes, Monáe rarely showed skin at the beginning of her career, but she began to explore her sexuality once Dirty Computer came around.
As she began to accept herself through a more traditionally feminine lens, she maintained her interest in exploring different forms of freedom across several aesthetic backdrops. Both The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady followed a time-traveling android sent to an era where a secret society actively suppressed freedom and love. With those albums setting the foundation for a larger exploration of Monáe’s sexual liberation, The Age of Pleasure sees her fully embracing it.
In just 30 minutes, Monáe spends her time drinking too much champagne, musing over herself, and setting her sights on a potential long-term partner. Much of the subject matter ditches the depth that permeated her past efforts in exchange for lighter, more sensual material aimed at self-acceptance and personal freedom. Words: Louis Pavlakos
Jorja Smith — Flying Or Falling
The first few years of Jorja Smith’s career have been a whirlwind. At just 20-years-old, off the strength of a couple of brilliant singles, the British singer found herself delivering a show-stopping performance on “Get It Together” from Drake’s More Life project. With rumors that the two briefly dated — which Drizzy appeared to address on Scorpion a year later — Smith entered a hellish news cycle that she couldn’t escape.
Just before that, Smith released her debut album, Lost & Found, which showcased her mature songwriting and her supple vocals as she easily made her way through piercing ballads and jazzy experiments. She had found her forte, but with such little life experience and so much thrown at her all at once, it’s understandable that her follow-up album Falling Or Flying took over five years to arrive.
Half a decade can lead to a lot of changes in a person’s life, which Smith ponders on the lead single “Try Me.” Her anger combusts on the hook where she sings that “Nothing is ever enough” as she denies having ever switched up on anybody. The song fiercely allows Smith to let her emotions pour out, hinting that she’s got a lot on her chest she needs to let out throughout the album. Words: Louis Pavlakos
Check out our previousaward winners.
Artwork and graphic design by JR Martinez.