2021 in R&B offered a year of old favorites coming back to the fold and plenty of new stars primed to carry the torch into 2022. Summer Walker proved herself to be the next main draw, sending out several smash hits off her No.1 album Still Over It. SZA and Brent Faiyaz made their presence felt despite neither dropping a full project (well, that wasn’t a SoundCloud leak). And then of course: we got the song of the summer with WizKid & Tems’ “Essence.” Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak teamed up for the pairing that we didn’t realize we needed. All this plus notable contributions from veterans such as Jazmine Sullivan to rising talents like Ari Lennox made for a great year in R&B, where the genre had crosssovers with hyperpop, pop and Afrobeats. Here are some of the best new r&b songs of 2021.

HipHopDX has fought tooth and nail in the google sheets to vote on the best of this year in pop, R&B and Afrobeats combined.

Review all of our award categories and nominees.

Editors Note: Selections were restricted to between December 1st, 2020 to December 1st, 2021. Nominees are in alphabetical order and honorable mentions are in no particular order.

Without further ado, here are the nominees for the HipHopDX R&B Song Of The Year.

Best R&B Songs Of 2021 NOMINATIONS

The Best R&B Song of 2021 award goes to…

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“GOOD DAYS” – SZA

One of the most crushing parts of a breakup is thinking back on all the time spent and realizing much of it was wasted on someone who isn’t in your life anymore. Several artists have expressed these sentiments, but none have done it quite like SZA. Her last couple of years have been equal parts interesting and tumultuous. After being banked as the next big star out of TDE, her output ceased. Features and singles helped calm the online mobs and quell rumors, but tweets about her unhappiness with her release schedule added fuel to the fire. Her grand return single “Good Days” — a song about moving forward from a bad relationship and not knowing if peace can be found, but hoping the future brings something better — is a cutting exploration of the anxieties of being single again. Add in the context of losing a year of our lives due to the Pandemic and the song’s uncertain mantra feels fitting for the times. Like many of us, SZA may know what’s next for her, but if “Good Days” is any indication, she’s on the right track. – Josh Svetz

runner-Ups

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“ESSENCE” – WIZKID F. TEMS

When WizKid released Made In Lagos at the height of the pandemic in 2020, it felt like a cruel joke. The Nigerian singer crafted the perfect concoction of Afrobeats and western pop flavors… and no one was allowed outside to enjoy them. Fast forward to the summer of 2021 and standout track “Essence” was given new life, despite technically coming out October 30th, 2020. A soothing ode to free expression and sensuality – driven almost entirely by Tems texturized and captivating voice – the track’s sultry groove became symbolic of everything lost in 2020, such as human touch and fleeting connection. Learning to get back to life post-quarantine had a profound impact on music; for awhile, artists couldn’t decide if they wanted to make a smash hit or a somber ballad, so WizKid looked to the future. – Mackenzie Cummings-Grady

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“LEAVE THE DOOR OPEN” – SILK SONIC

Combining two Grammy Award-winning, neo-soul and R&B genre bending artists is without a doubt a surefire way to intrigue the masses. Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s inaugural Silk Sonic duo single “Leave The Door Open” did that and more when it was released earlier this year. The smooth-rolling, sensual bedtime banger is a looking-glass window into the golden age of the Motown sound. Overflowing with soulful vocal performances and funky instrumentation, “Leave The Door Open” is that good-good R&B our parents told us about while growing up brought forward into the modern age. It’s one of  the best new r&b songs of 2021. – Devon Jefferson

 

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“PRESSURE” – ARI LENNOX

Ari Lennox has yet to miss when it comes to her career releases. Although the Dreamville singer hasn’t released a full length project since her debut album in 2019, every single and feature that she’s released since then has been stellar. From the infectious instrumental to the catchy hook, it’s hard not to bop your head to “Pressure.” When it comes to industry pressures, Ari continues to apply it while not feeling the need to succumb to the pressure of releasing music on other people’s timing. The song serves as a reminder that whenever the D.C.-born singer decides to make her full return, fans will be ready to listen intently. – Jeremy Hecht

 

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“WASTING TIME” – BRENT FAIYAZ F. DRAKE

Although Brent Faiyaz became another recipient of the Drake stimulus package, his catalog already stands on its own without a verse from Aubrey. On “Wasting Time” the two artists serve as the perfect pair, serving up hilariously toxic lyrics masked by smooth melodies and flows. Brent’s hook is reminiscent of a simpler time in R&B, and Drake comes through with a verse that has enough quotables to supply everyone with Instagram captions going into next year. – Josh Svetz

 

Honorable Mentions:

“GET INTO IT (YUH)” – DOJA CAT

Doja Cat is a certified hitmaker. Her ability to flawlessly mix high quality bars with pop-heavy melodies is unmatched within the R&B/pop sphere and she proves that on “Get Into It (Yuh).” The song sounds familiar to the current musical landscape but Doja still manages to find her unique sound, even while using other influences. At first the hook almost sounds like a Playboi Carti song and if the shoutout at the end of the song wasn’t an obvious enough sign, Doja takes clear inspiration from Nicki Minaj when it comes to her flows on “Get Into It.” The song is one of the most memorable from Planet Her, an album littered with smashes. – Jeremy Hecht

“TANGERINE DREAM” – SNOH AALEGRA

The heartbreaking lucidity of  “Tangerine Dream” only further adds to the allure of Snoh Aalegra. Highlighting her strengths as a captivating writer and vocalist, the album’s standout track chronicles her musing over the brief anticipation of reigniting sparks between lovers and the sudden loss of such affection she’s able to control in her fantasy. The starry-eyed sentiment of yearning for what isn’t rooted in truth and the disappointment when the dream ends and reality sets in is expressed through vivid imagery of being on the same flight as her lover, yet remaining emotionally distant. Aalegra’s gift of conveying re-imaginations of intimacy and fantasizing over hypothetical infatuations elevates the sonic journey through her temporary daydreams of love and, at times, melancholic but bittersweet moments of reality. – Kia Turner

“GRAVITY” – BRENT FAIYAZ & DJ DAHI F. TYLER, THE CREATOR

DJ Dahi immediately sets the tone for “Gravity” with a soft, rolling surf guitar loop, driven by a spare, dragging kick drum. It’s a lilting production that leaves plenty of space for Brent Faiyaz’s layered harmonies. The Columbia, Maryland-born singer might only be 25 years old, but he writes love songs like an old soul, detailing his romances with wit and a mature frankness. Faiyaz tapped Tyler, The Creator for his latest, a man who also knows his way around a good love song. Tyler’s more abrasive voice marries perfectly with the smooth production of DJ Dahi and Faiyaz’s soulful crooning. “It’s not that I’m over you, but I’ve got things to do,” Faiyaz harmonizes with a sigh, a heartbreaking but all too true lesson that even when the feelings are strong, timing and circumstances can sober even the most lovestruck person into accepting the cold truth. It’s one of the best new r&b songs of 2021  – David Brake

“TRAGIC” – JAZMINE SULLIVAN

Following up her critically acclaimed album Heaux Tales from earlier this year, Jazmine Sullivan released “Tragic” in the final week of June. Sullivan has found that there’s nothing more tragic than time wasted, as she recalls a failed relationship, boasting her booming voice over masterful, bass-heavy production from Leven Kali. At 34-years-old and over a decade of experience working in the music industry, Sullivan knows what she wants: don’t yank her around. – David Brake

“FOR TONIGHT” – GIVEON

Ever since Giveon’s surprise appearance on Drake’s “Chicago Freestyle,” he has become one of the most recognizable voices within R&B. From his ability to tear at your heart stings lyrically to his almost unbelievable vocal tone, the LA-bred singer continued his run of consistently dropping high quality music with “For Tonight.” However anyone who doesn’t want to cry while in their feelings should avoid this song. You have been warned. – Jeremy Hecht

“SMOKIN OUT THE WINDOW” – SILK SONIC

Male bitterness usually doesn’t play well in music. But there’s something about Bruno Mars yelling “this bitch” and proceeding to list out all the things he did for a former lover before finding out she was cheating on him that’s equal parts endearing and relatable. To be cheated on is to feel stupid, thinking back on all the inconveniences, issues and things you did for that person because you loved them. “Smokin Out The Window” illustrates this conundrum, using Mars and Anderson .Paak as two differing emotions: Mars giving voice to the jilted and pissed off lover, while Paak evokes disappointment and bewilderment. It’s one of the few times where Mars and Paak become one, playing off each other to show off Silk Sonic’s true potential. – Josh Svetz

“I LIKE DAT” – T-PAIN & KEHLANI

T-Pain and Kehlani are a fascinating, if not unexpected, combination of artists. But their new joint single “I Like Dat” quickly dispels any critique. After the pair teased their new collaboration by chatting on Instagram Live, the single was released earlier this May. Featuring thick, driving 808s and a fluttering hi-hat, produced by T-Pain with DJ Montay, “I Like Dat” evokes nostalgia for the reign of T-Pain, while Kehlani’s elegant delivery tints the track with a modern sound. – David Brake

“EX FOR A REASON” – SUMMER WALKER F. JT

Don’t play with Summer Walker or City Girls JT, because they’ll be quick to write a song about how you’re trying to get with their man. “Ex For A Reason” is the ultimate tell-off song; the type of track that boasts the right balance of annoyance, swag, uncertainty, jealously and fury to be the quintessential song associated for when someone’s man is getting a few too many Instagram DMs. Walker’s 2021 album Still Over It is still gathering plenty of streams as she transforms into a new age R&B star. Meanwhile, the JT from Atlanta rap duo City Girls has kept the pressure strong, dropping solo tracks, features and collaborative songs with Yung Miami alike. Put both together and you have a tour-de-force of confidence that makes the catchy track a future classic in the making. – Josh Svetz & David Brake

“FCK BOYS” – BLXST F. RUSS

L.A. vocalist and HipHopDX Rising Star Blxst’s 2020 come-up was swift and catalyzed by his acclaimed No Love Lost (Deluxe) album — which aligned the singer with West Coast headliners such as Ty Dolla $ign, Dom Kennedy, and Tyga. Though momentum of the project has carried over into 2021, Blxst remains steadfast in his approach to releasing lifestyle vibe enhancing grooves whilst also delivering purposeful collaborations. Take the two-piece Just For Clarity single “Fck Boys” as evidence of Blxst’s commitment. The song features Russ functioning as the soundtrack to modern chivalry for the hood’s renaissance man. It’s one of the best new r&b songs of 2021.  – Devon Jefferson

“JUST FOR ME” – PINKPANTHERESS

PinkPantheress has never made a bad song. The English university student, who also moonlights as a bedroom garage artist capable of Tik Tok virality, holds a talent that is undeniable. “Just For Me” is the latest in her run of brief, snippet-like tracks that have gripped Gen Z listeners’ ears. Powered by a delicate string sample loop, PinkPantheress muses about the ins and outs of an idyllic love. She yearns to the sole subject of her lover’s desires, as she sings on the hook: “When you wipe your tears, do you wipe them just for me?” She utilizes a waving echo effect at the end of every line on the chorus, allowing for each refrain to loop in the brains of everyone that comes into contact with the track. It’s the latest example of the never-ending realm of possibilities that exist for PinkPantheress as she continues to drop goodies for her fans. – Matthew Ritchie

“ON ONE” – JOYCE WRICE F. FREDDIE GIBBS

Joyce Wrice has been making music since 2015 but seems to be pushing the right buttons for a breakout in 2021. After scoring a viral hit in 2020 with “That’s On You,” including a remix featuring fellow rising R&B artist UMI, the 28-year-old Japanese-American has dropped her debut album Overgrown to glowing praise. The jovial cut features a bouncy groove reminiscent of Brandy’s “Best Friend,” Her Hip-Hop/R&B fusion is a welcome callback to great sounds of the past like Ashanti and Mariah Carey, with Wrice making the style her own. There’s also contender for best rapper in the game, Freddie Gibbs, casually coming through for a thugs-need-love-too feature done right. – Josh Svetz

“CAUTION” – KAYTRANADA

A beat from Kaytranada isn’t simply a platform for artists to rap over. Each track is an expansive world, built carefully and intentionally from smaller components — a snare hit here, a slightly distorted synth note there. The Canadian producer approaches his work like a painter with a fine brush, filling the canvas with blended notes. “Caution,” the latest single from the 28-year-old instrumentalist, is lush and off-kilter. The influence of famed Detroit producer J Dilla is apparent throughout the song, though it’s also ripe with motifs from Afrobeats and even the digital sounds of House music. While Kaytranada has produced excellent tracks for rappers including Vic Mensa, Syd and GoldLink, “Caution” is a refreshing track that creates room for the producer to shine. – David Brake

“SAILORS’ SUPERSTITION” – SERPENTWITHFEET

Josiah Wise has found love, and that’s made his music become brighter and more full of hope than ever before. “Sailors’ Superstition” is a test of that hope, playing out like a music version of the FX show Man Seeking Woman, where fantasy elements and spiritual tales threaten to dismantle serpentwithfeet and his boyfriend’s deep romance. On an album full of romanticism, “Sailors’ Superstition” balances the wistfulness, acting as a reminder that finding love is difficult, but keeping it is the real challenge. – Josh Svetz

“PROMISES” – CLEO SOL

The beauty of “Promises” lies in the simplistic production from Inflo and the candid songwriting of Cleo Sol. With the album’s transitions and production nearly similar to a studio jam session amongst talented musicians, the standout track from Cleo’s newest album bares the soul of the artist through themes of self-love, forgiveness, vulnerability and accepting one’s flaws as focal points of healing. As Sol softly vocalizes lying to herself in order to adjust to the changes occurring as she evolves as a woman, she finds that through the song’s unraveling, these lies are just her way of protecting herself from the truths she didn’t want to face. By the end of the transcendent masterpiece, Sol questions herself, questions the abandonment she faced, and realizes that love was never the enemy but the missing piece she needed to heal. – Kia Turner

“UNLOYAL” – SUMMER WALKER F. ARI LENNOX

From Summer Walker’s Billboard breaking Still Over It comes “Unloyal” featuring Ari Lennox, a slow and moving song which finds the two singers putting their feet down and standing up to a lover who isn’t giving them what they need. Themes of loyalty, commitment and pride are explored over saxophone-laden production. But more so, it’s a bonding of two powerful women, finding strength in tandem and telling fuckboys off with perceptive wit. – David Brake

For more R&B from 2021 check out our more full lists:

Be sure to check out some of our other Year End Award Categories, our previous year’s winners below and our 2021 HipHopDX Rising Stars: