Every month, HipHopDX puts a spotlight on the tracks that stand out from the overabundance of releases throughout the year, highlighting everything from Billboard chart-friendly singles to essential album cuts.
In August, fans received new songs from ABRA and Playboi Carti, Cleo Sol, Tinashe, PinkPantheress and more.
Check back at the beginning of every month for updates and check out our other lists and our playlist below, which includes all of the songs mentioned in this article and more:
- If looking for a more lyrical list: The Best Rap Songs of 2021 …(so far)
- Check out our list of Best R&B Songs of 2020 to catch up.
- If looking for the best R&B albums of the year so far: The Best R&B Albums of 2021…(so far)
Editor’s note: Songs from this list were released between December 1, 2020 – September 1, 2021.
The Top R&B Songs of 2021 (December – September)
Contributing writers: David Brake, Trent Clark, Kyle Eustice, Jeremy Hecht, Devon Jefferson, Dana Scott, Kia Turner, Ben Brutocao, Michael Saponara, Anthony Malone, Matthew Ritchie & Josh Svetz.
“In The Dark” – Swae Lee f. Jhené Aiko
“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.
It is this reality that many women in their early twenties find themselves — at a crossroad of what they instinctively know from the women in their direct bloodline and what they learn as they heal those generational wounds tied to love and therapeutic relief. 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. The unclouded declaration of self-love and boundaries in “Promises” makes it one of the most stunning R&B songs of 2021.
-Kia Turner @chasingkia
“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 PinkPanthress as she continues to drop goodies for her fans
-Matthew Ritchie @mrkwrt
“You Want My Love” – Earth, Wind & Fire f. Lucky Daye
“Unlock It” – ABRA f. Playboi Carti
ABRA hasn’t exactly been quiet since her debut album, but she has been choosy. She’s cut verses for global pop superstars (Bad Bunny, Charli XCX) and kept close to AWFUL Records collaborators (Ethereal, Father) across a handful of features over the past five years, played a teenage hellraiser in Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation and refined her own sound with a steady drip of SoundCloud loosies.
Her reunion with former labelmate Playboi Carti on “Unlock It” is less weird than their solo work, almost unnervingly slick. ABRA’s verse is brief, the merest flash in the pan, but her songwriting shines through, waltzing around and over the pocket of the beat, stopping and starting like a sailboat gently bobbing over cresting waves. Meanwhile the sinuous beat, courtesy of Boys Noize (best known for Frank Ocean’s “DHL”), cockily throbs and snaps, accentuated by chanting voices and a pristine dial tone.
“Unlock It” is ABRA’s show and one of the few features where Carti feels like he’s being sucked into someone else’s orbit, rather than the other way around. If this is just a taste of things to come, it’s easy to envision ABRA sticking out with her refracted take on the intersection of rap, pop and R&B. She doesn’t need any shortcuts: she’s got the key.
-Vivian Medithi @perlucidum
“Stay High” – Brittany Howard & Childish Gambino
Remix albums often produce a mixed bag of reworks and retreads. New efforts can either muddy the artistic direction of the original songs or unlock a new lane full of unique elements that elevate the track’s quality. Brittany Howard released a fully revamped version of her 2019 solo release Jaime, with a clear standout being the remix of “Stay High,” which features a performance from renaissance man Donald Glover.
The remix trades in the crescendo of strings and glockenspiel for a more electronic-based orchestra of production elements. Instead of Howard’s robust and raspy voice, fans get Glover’s delicate, falsetto singing voice to match the ethereal production. It works to perfection, creating a dreamlike track that runs parallel to the original track’s personality and quality.
-Matthew Ritchie @mrkwrt
“Selfish” – Tink f. Yung Bleu
“Tangerine Dream” – Snoh Aalegra
The heartbreaking dreaminess 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 was able to control in her fantasy. The starry-eyed sentiment of yearning for what isn’t rooted in truth and the disappointment of that falsehood is expressed through vivid imagery of her and said lover somehow landing on the same flight yet remaining emotionally distanced from one another.
Aalegra’s gift of conveying re-imaginations of intimacy and fantasizing over hypothetical infatuations not only fits the album’s thematic landscape but elevates the overall sonic journey through Aalegra’s temporary daydreams of love and, at times, melancholic but bittersweet moments of reality.
-Kia Turner @chasingkia
“Aura” – Mariah the Scientist
Using The Isley Brothers’ “Make Me Say It Again Girl (Part 1 & 2)” as the basis for the lead single off her sophomore project RY RY WORLD, “Aura” has become a definitive standout track from the rising Atlanta artist. With hypnotic melodies and lyricism centered around narratives of conflicting emotions and toxic relationships throughout the album, she unravels with uncanny vulnerability and honesty.
“Aura” makes use of cinematic and mesmerizing production that allows Mariah’s sultry tone to fuel the sentimental storytelling of meeting each other at Bayside for date night, trying her best to forget his braid up and Chanel scent while promising him and the listeners she “can be what you need, maybe more.”
-Kia Turner @chasingkia
“Bouncin’” – Tinashe
“Alone With You” – Alina Baraz
“Fast Car” – Syd
The masses became aware of Syd after Tyler, The Creator shouted her out on his mainstream breakout single “Yonkers.” But since then, the former Odd Future affiliate and current front woman of The Internet has grown to levels many couldn’t have seen coming. Her latest singles have been diverse in sound and genre and “Fast Car” adds another color to her palette.
There’s a retro feel to the track, like it’s lifted straight from the late 80s. Shimmering synth pop keys mix with gated reverb-filled drums to give the track a vintage feel, even closing with an 80s hair metal guitar solo. It evokes the feeling of driving on the Pacific Coast Highway on a bright Sunday afternoon, gliding through the road with the windows down, frozen in a moment of bliss.
-Josh Svetz @svetz17
“Call It Quits” – Kirk Knight
“Wild Side” – Normani
Normani successfully kicked off the rollout of her anticipated debut album with the sultry “Wild Side.” The steamy track features an assist from a pregnant Cardi B, who was told to re-write her verse to be even “nastier” to which she happily obliged.
The song, which seems to unofficially sample the late Aaliyah’s “One In a Million,” notched a lofty debut at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned the approval of Aaliyah’s uncle and estate manager, Barry Hankerson.
-Michael Saponara @lordtreesap
“Beautiful Lies” – Yung Bleu & Kehlani
“Got Me Like” – Amaria & Mick Jenkins
Singer/songwriter Amaria’s voice is like a late summer night drive. The smoky and sensual tone of her ethereal vocals merge and become one with this soulful groove featuring Mick Jenkins. “Got Me Like” incorporates all the aspects of traditional R&B while offering a sobering balance to the new wave of vibey-R&B entering the sub-genre atmosphere. The Tampa musician’s newest record creates a soft haze that’s enticing, psychedelic and intimate; leaving the listener desiring more from the new alternative R&B songstress.
-Kia Turner @chasingkia
“Wasting Time” – Brent Faiyaz f. Drake
Although Brent Faiyaz has become the latest 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 for the rest of the summer.
“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, with over a decade of experience working in the music industry, Sullivan knows what she wants: don’t yank her around.
“Lost You” – Snoh Aalegra
Snoh has yet to miss with her single drops and “Lost You” is no exception. Lyrically, Snoh struggles to come to terms with a fleeting relationship where the connection is strong but the problems are constant. The moody instrumental and stacked harmonies serve as perfect late night driving vibes.
“Been Through That” – Majid Jordan
“Marvin’s Room” – Queen Naija
A decade after Drake’s classic song dropped in 2011, it continues to be the quintessential breakup song for someone missing their ex. In an Amazon Exclusive, Queen Naija puts her own spin on the Take Care track, and provides it with new life. If you’re drunk after the club, listen at your own risk.
“Running Blind” – Lucky Daye
Working with producer D’Mile, powerhouse R&B singer Lucky Daye stole the spotlight in early June with “Running Blind” from Liberated / Music For The Movement Vol. 3, a collection of tracks created in celebration of Juneteenth. On “Running Blind,” Daye reflects on his tenacity and ability to overcome, despite the obstacles he’s faced on the journey.
“All Pride Aside” – Shelley FKA DRAM f. Summer Walker
Shelley FKA DRAM is not the same artist as when he dropped “Broccoli,” the artist’s breakout single from 2016’s Big Baby DRAM. Now going by Shelley, his given name, the 32-year-old artist has undergone a rebranding and reimagining of himself as an artist. The result is the magical Shelley FKA DRAM.
Reintroducing himself to the world, now tinted in an engulfing R&B hue, Shelley’s new album is highlighted by “All Pride Aside” featuring Summer Walker. The intro to Shelley FKA DRAM, “All Pride Aside,” features a reinvigorated Shelley, flexing the wide range of his voice, which was previously boxed into the boundaries of rap. Now free from constraint, Shelley is a burgeoning force to be reckoned with in R&B.
“Motorbike” – Leon Bridges
“Bussdown” – Jorja Smith f. Shaybo
Jorja Smith is a glamorous R&B interpolation of pop influences. On “Bussdown,” vocal effects not misplaced on a Lorde album embolden her voice, which tingles and cracks elegantly. Fellow brit Shaybo brings painfully lucid bars dissecting the givers’ plight to break apart the angelic melody, resulting in a somber float through the clouds. The lyrical themes, namely being tired, leave the listener disappointed in their imaginary beaux, no matter their gender nor sexual identity.
“Dennis Rodman” – MK xyz
“I Like Dat” – T-Pain & Kehlani
T-Pain and Kehlani are a fascinating if not an 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 of the reign of T-Pain, while Kehlani’s elegant delivery tints the track with a modern sound.
“What Are We?” – Inayah
“Still Broke” – Samm Henshaw f. Keyon Harrold
One could listen to “Still Broke” 50 times and come away with 50 different possible genres for it. Is it breakneck prog-soul? Space age neo-gospel? Other nonsense music terms? The point is, it’s impossible to pin down, especially since it works tirelessly to uplift.
There’s delicate choir work, a horn solo which made listeners forget to breathe and a galloping finale that takes all troubles with it, leaving the listener positively weightless. Don’t try to predict where this song will go; instead keep the mind and soul open and let Mr. Henshaw work wonders.
“Funeral” – Miguel
“Lead The Way” – Jhené Aiko
The ethereal Far Eastern soundscapes of Jhené Aiko’s “Lead The Way” and the song’s lyrics read like an enlightening Taoism scripture (“Tao” translates “the way” in English). The song is the first track and lead single from Disney’s animated film Raya and The Last Dragon. Aiko softly glides over the track with breathy mid-to high-range vocals for nearly four minutes, offering words of wisdom that anyone can use for self-help on a sad day.
“Come Through” – H.E.R. f. Chris Brown
“Kiss Me More” – Doja Cat f. SZA
“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.
“Gone” – Jorja Smith
“Leave The Door Open” – Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak, Silk Sonic
The results of combining two Grammy Award-winning, neo-soul and R&B genre bending artists is without a doubt Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s inaugural Silk Sonic duo single “Leave The Door Open.” 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.
“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.
“All To Me” – Giveon
It’s probably not a good idea to bring your girl around Giveon. His sultry baritone is arresting, soothing and magnetic when he’s singing his regular love songs. But on “All To Me,” he uses his powers for willful persuasion and seduction. The way he repeats “all to me” on the bridge after convincing a neglected woman to cheat on her boyfriend is deviously affable and self-assured, like a supervillain getting one over on the townspeople.
“By Yourself (Remix)” – Ty Dolla $ign, Bryson Tiller, Jhene Aiko, DJ Mustard
Ty Dolla $ign has become known as the industry-wide x-factor when it comes to collaborations, providing hit-making assists on chart-toppers like “Hot Girl Summer” and countless other smashes — hence his befittingly tilted Featuring Ty Dolla $ign album. The OG version of the album’s lead single “By Yourself” featuring Jhene Aiko exudes a level of creative synergy that is only matched by the Bryson Tiller-anchored remix.
“Party Life” – Miguel
“Comeback” – Gallant
Gallant understands the power and purity of late-night inspiration. It’s the basis of his standout single “Comeback,” off his latest EP Neptune. Speaking to Revolt, the Maryland singer said the song came from notes he typed on his computer, eventually leading to a studio session where he told himself he wouldn’t leave until something was created. The result is an introspective look into his egotism culminating in a pleading apology to his former lover. The track uses several tropes of early 00s R&B, including slick acoustic guitar lines, layered background vocals and the iconic “OH!” It’s a slice of Usher and Mario influence served up for 2021, and Gallant has the range to pull it off.
“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.
“Still Yours” – Bryson Tiller f. Big Sean
“Fight For You” – H.E.R.
In the opening moments of “Fight For You,” which is featured on Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album, H.E.R.’s voice breaks through the thick horns like direct sunlight shattering a ceiling of clouds. Her voice is rich and unwavering as she demands change. “Long as I’m standing, we can never lose/I’mma always, always fight for you,” she sings.
At this point, H.E.R. is such a mainstay in contemporary R&B, a singer with such mature assuredness, that it’s crazy to think she’s only 23 years old. On “Fight For You,” which was self-produced alongside assistance from D’Mile, the Vallejo, the California singer evokes memories of legendary R&B acts such as Billie Holiday. But H.E.R. is unapologetically herself and that powerful independence, clear on “Fight For You,” is a crucial component to her astronomical rise.
“80/20” – Chloe x Halle
R&B could never be dead while Chloe x Halle are making music. The R&B duo, comprised of sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey, have overtaken the genre with a ferocity. First with Ungodly Hour and now with Ungodly Hour (Chrome Edition), which includes two new tracks and a vinyl run.
“80/20,” one of the two bonus songs, is a flirtatious exploit, with the girls singing about desiring more than what their monogamous partner can offer, while looking elsewhere for the 20 percent they need. They flip traditional stereotypes on their heads, running through boys with zeal. They shun conventional gender expectations through a tongue-in-cheek teasing and a bubbly delivery.
“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, simple 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.
“Good Days” – SZA
The Queen of R&B is back. All eyes turned to her with last year’s release of “Good Days,” which also featured Ty Dolla $ign. Her latest track “Good Days” has now arrived and the ball is in the TDE singer’s court. SZA’s run of exceptional production continues, with an all-star assembly of Los Hendrix, Nascent, Carter Lang and vocal magician Jacob Collier.
“Good Days” also marks SZA’s first entry into the Billboard Hot 100 as a solo artist, peaking at the No. 10 spot weeks after its release. SZA seems to be leaning back into the sounds from her instant-classic Ctrl, a welcome return for her fans.
“At My Worst” – Pink Sweat$ f. Kehlani
Reaching back into The Prelude EP, Pink Sweat$ taps Kehlani to afford his angelic “At My Worst” love song a second wind. The easy-going ballad is the perfect balance of sauntering vocals and entrancing guitar riffs elevated by minimal drum patterns. Additionally, the conversational verses of both Kehlani and Pink Sweat$ provide make the song incredibly endearing and relatable.
“Girl Like Me” – Jazmine Sullivan
“Spicy” – Ty Dolla $ign f. YG, Post Malone, Tyga, J Balvin
At the height of Featuring Ty Dolla $ign, the Taylog Gang vocalist’s Post Malone-leaning “Spicy” collaboration dominated the airwaves and eventually peaked at No. 44 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Now, with the additions of YG, Tyga and J Balvin, the tangy audio has yet another peppery pocket for listeners to fall into. And the spanglish vibes Dolla’s twists into his flows coupled with J Balvin Spanish-speaking bars, “Spicy” has effectively become a bi-lingual hit.
“MLK Dr” – Smino
“On It” – Jazmine Sullivan f. Ari Lennox
Though the album bears the name Heaux Tales, Jazmine Sullivan’s new project listens more like a sultry collection of tracks inspired by pleasures of the flesh. The lust-filled dynamic of “On It” featuring Jazmine’s soul-sister Ari Lennox definitivelly highlights the delicate relationship between licentious vulgarity and relationship-based intimacy the entire album cleverly quantized. There’s also an intense soulful element to the record that is reminiscent of the type of visceral R&B classics such as D’angelo’s “How Does It Feel” from 2000.
“He Said” – dvsn f. Miguel
Alternative R&B doesn’t quite classify DVSN’s Amusing Her Feelings track “He Said” featuring Miguel because it truly exists in a space of its own. Ignited by what is arguably pop/punk-tinged production and a very moody, semi-somber feature from Miguel, “He Said” crosses-over multiple genre guidelines in the best possible ways.
And with lead-singer Daniel Daley’s sexualized lyrics cascading over the top of the apocalyptic instrumentation, “He Said” is easily one of the most memorable tracks from the OVO duo’s recent deluxe offering.
OTHER FAVORITE SONGS FROM JANUARY 2021
- “My World” – Asiahn
- “Genius” – Eric Bellinger
- “Use Somebody” – dvsn
- “Real Walker” – 24hrs
- “Price Tags” – Jazmine Sullivan f. Anderson .Paak
OTHER FAVORITE SONGS FROM FEBRUARY 2021
- “Missing Out” – Syd
- “So Frequently” – Marzz
- “Intruded” – Justine Skye & Timbaland
- “Eden” – Brent Faiyaz
- “Jealous” – Mahalia f. Rico Nasty
OTHER FAVORITE SONGS FROM MARCH 2021
- “Show U Off” – Brent Faiyaz
- “Freaky as Me” – Jacquees f. Latto
- “Falling In Love” – Joyce Wrice f. Lucky Daye
- “3 AM” – E Bleu
- “Juke” – Feather
- “Sex Pistol” – Xian Bell
OTHER FAVORITE SONGS FROM APRIL 2021
- “Waves of Blue” – Majid Jordan
- “Worth It” – Amber Mark
- “Rolling Stone” – JMSN
- “Addicted” – Jorja Smith
- “Get Into It (Yuh)” – Doja Cat
OTHER FAVORITE SONGS FROM MAY 2021
- “Rich Now” – Elaine
- “For Me” – Vedo & Jacquees
- ‘Make Me” – Teedra Moses, Uncle Chucc & Brody
- “Countless Times’ – Marzz
- “Specific” – Teamarr f. Duckwrth
- “You Made A Fool Of Me’ – Anthony Hamilton
OTHER FAVORITE SONGS FROM JUNE 2021
- “Bed Friend” – Jacquees f. Queen Naija
- “Messy Love” – Nao
- “Say Yes” – Tokimonsta & VanJess
- “Destiny” – Young Rog
OTHER FAVORITE SONGS FROM JULY 2021
- “Louie Bag” – Yebba f. Smino
- “IYKYK” – Ebhoni
- “Passion” – Pinkpantheress
- “Running” – Babyxsosa
- “And Then Life Was Beautiful” – NAO
- “Dangerous” – Ye Ali
- “Whenever You’re Ready” – Mahalia
- “Do It Yourself” – Jam & Lewis f. Usher
OTHER FAVORITE SONGS FROM AUGUST 2021
- “Baecation” – Luh Kel
- “Angels” – Tinashe f. Kaash Paige
- “Somebody That You Don’t Know” – Ty Dolla $ign & dvsn f. Rauw Alejandro
- “Ease My Mind” – Nija
- “When You Were Mine” – Joy Crookies
- “Somebody’s Son” – Tiwa Savage & Brandy
- “Boomerang” – Yebba