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. In the final month of the year, fans received new songs from some of the genre’s finest. SZA, Alicia Keys, Brent Faiyaz, The Weeknd and more all dropped. 

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.

The Best R&B Songs of 2021 (January 1 – December 31)

“Rent Free” – 6lack

“I Hate You” – SZA

Soundcloud leaks are back like they never left. SZA quietly dropped a set of unreleased tracks earlier this year, with “I Hate You” being a clear standout. The song began to trend on Tik Tok and ended up becoming her first number 1 song on the R&B songs chart. Cooped up in a glass case of emotions, SZA bares her soul over a simple, yet magnetic funk production. Her melodies tug at the heartstrings as she laments about the failures and misgivings of her lover, singing “lost in the lie of us/lost, ain’t no finding us.” It’s pain at its most base, and it’s impossible to tear away from. – David Brake

“Tears In The Club” – FKA Twigs f. The Weeknd

“Poison” – Aaliyah f. The Weeknd

“Plentiful” – Alicia Keys f. Pusha T

Alicia Key’s new double-LP sits at 26-tracks, but perhaps no song stands out as much as the intro. “Plentiful” is a perfect blend of silky piano chords, hard drums courtesy of Swizz Beatz and standout melodies from Keys. Pusha T and Alicia Keys aren’t necessarily the two names that come to mind when you think of your dream musical duos, but the duality of Key’s heart wrenching vocals and Pusha’s menacing bars leaves you hoping for a joint EP (ideally it would be produced by Swizz also). – Jeremy Hecht

“Midnight River” – Pink Sweat$ f. 6lack

“I Can Escape (Freestyle)” – Frank Ocean

Being a Frank Ocean stan is difficult because every week you wake up to see his name trending on Twitter and hope that this time it’s because a new song was released – only to be let down by the fact it was just people begging for him to drop new music again. But on Christmas of 2021, Frank stans were blessed with a new 8-minute freestyle from their favorite artist. Frank’s pen is as potent as ever on “I Can Escape” as he delves into God, loss, lies and love in the form of rough rap stanzas layed over top of beautifully simple piano chords. – Jeremy Hecht

“Crash For A Couple” – Marc E. Bassy

“Hrs & Hrs” – Muni Long

Muni Long has been one of the game’s top tier songwriters for years (penning hits for Rihanna, Fifth Harmony and more) but Muni’s songwriting talent shines through on her latest solo project. “Hrs And Hrs” is a masterclass in mixing beautiful melodies with memorable lyrics. Every line from the song could either serve as an IG caption or a spicy text message to your current partner. Even Doja Cat was impressed. – Jeremy Hecht

“MERCEDES” – Brent Faiyaz

“Drones” – Terrace Martin f. Kendrick Lamar, James Fauntleroy, Ty Dolla $ign, Snoop Dogg

Terrace Martin has an unprecedented skill in getting the very best from his featured artists, and on the eponymous track on his latest project DRONES, the genre-bending artist wrangled excellent verses from Kendrick Lamar, James Fauntleroy, Snoop Dogg and Ty Dolla $ign. Grandiose, yet approachable, “Drones” is pure rap / R&B excellence.

“Intimidated” – KAYTRANADA f. H.E.R.

“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 times where Mars and Paak become when one, playing off each other to show off Silk Sonic’s true potential.

“I Deserve” – Smino f. NOS

Directly after a warm and soulful sample welcomes the listener to Smino and NOS.’s latest single, Smino voice wraps around the instrumentals as a deep 808 kick begins to rumble through the track. “I Deserve,” the St. Louis-born rapper’s fourth single of the year is a smooth record with a Houston bounce propped up with a moody piano riff.

“Concrete” – Orion Son

“La cumbia me está llamando” – Nubya Garcia f. La Perla

“Coming Back” – James Blake f. SZA

James Blake is responsible for some of your favorite melodies. He’s been used as a hook-killer for a number of different Hip Hop artists ranging from Kendrick Lamar to Travis Scott, but it’s on his solo work that his vision is fully realized. “Coming Back” plays with a delicate melody and combines Blake’s songwriting talent with SZA’s intoxicating voice, making the track one of this month’s best in R&B, but all of Friends That Break Your Heart is worth a listen.

“Stars Align” – Majid Jordan f. Drake

“I Hate You” – SZA

Soundcloud leaks are back like they never left. SZA quietly dropped a set of unreleased tracks late last month, with “I Hate You” being a clear standout. Cooped up in a glass case of emotions, SZA bares her soul over a simple, yet magnetic funk production. Her melodies tug at the heartstrings as she laments about the failures and misgivings of her lover, singing “lost in the lie of us/lost, ain’t no finding us.” It’s pain at its most base, and it’s impossible to tear away from.

“For Tonight” – Giveon

“Have Mercy” – Chlöe

Hearing Chlöe Bailey over a Murda Beatz instrumental isn’t something that you would have immediately thought you needed, but the duo created a unique sound for the singer’s first official solo single. Chlöe displays star power on the track that has fans excited for a full length body of work. 

“Come To Life” – Kanye West

“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. 

“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

“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. 

“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.

“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.

“Bouncin’” – Tinashe

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“Funeral” – Miguel

“Come Through” – H.E.R. f. Chris Brown

“Kiss Me More” – Doja Cat f. SZA

 

Check back at the beginning of every month for updates and check out our other lists below:

Editor’s note: Songs from this list were released between December 1, 2020 – December 1, 2021.

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.

OTHER FAVORITE R&B SONGS FROM JANUARY 2021

  • “MLK Dr” – Smino
  • “On It” – Jazmine Sullivan f. Ari Lennox
  • “Comeback.” – Gallant

OTHER FAVORITE R&B SONGS FROM FEBRUARY 2021

  • “Still Yours” – Bryson Tiller f. Big Sean
  • “Fight For You” – H.E.R.
  • “Lead The Way” – Jhené Aiko

OTHER FAVORITE R&B SONGS FROM MARCH 2021

  • “By Yourself (Remix)” – Ty Dolla $ign, Bryson Tiller, Jhene Aiko, DJ Mustard
  • “All To Me” – Giveon

OTHER FAVORITE R&B SONGS FROM APRIL 2021

  • “Party Life” – Miguel
  • “Gone” – Jorja Smith
  • “Get Into It (Yuh)” – Doja Cat

OTHER FAVORITE R&B SONGS FROM MAY 2021

  • “What Are We?” – Inayah
  • “Motorbike” – Leon Bridges
  • “Bussdown” – Jorja Smith f. Shaybo

OTHER FAVORITE R&B SONGS FROM JUNE 2021

  • “Running Blind” – Lucky Daye
  • “Lost You” – Snoh Aalegra

OTHER FAVORITE R&B SONGS FROM JULY 2021

  • “Got Me Like” – Amaria & Mick Jenkins
  • “Wild Side” – Normani f. Cardi B
  • “Aura” – Mariah the Scientist

OTHER FAVORITE R&B SONGS FROM AUGUST 2021

  • “Angels” – Tinashe f. Kaash Paige
  • “Boomerang” – Yebba

OTHER FAVORITE R&B SONGS FROM SEPTEMBER 2021

  • “Altar” – Kehlani
  • “Ex For A Reason” – Summer Walker f. JT

OTHER FAVORITE R&B SONGS FROM OCTOBER 2021

  • “Nothing Feels Better” – Pink Sweat$
  • “Nineteen” – PinkPantheress

OTHER FAVORITE R&B SONGS FROM NOVEMBER 2021

  • “Unloyal” – Summer Walker f. Ari Lennox
  • “$payforhaiti” – KAYTRANADA f. Mach-Hommy