2023 has featured a bevy of amazing R&B, pop, hyperpop and afro beats releases. HipHopDX will be narrowing down the year’s releases to the essentials, providing readers with a list of the must-listen projects. After starting the year slow, R&B has been slowly heating up with incredible projects from Kelela, Victoria Monet, Amaarae, Liv.E and T-Pain, along with SZA continuing to dominate with her masterful SOS from back in December. With new projects from Jamila Wood, Jorja Smith, and Corinne Bailey Rae now out, there’s no limit to how great 2023 can be for R&B.
Struggling to find a list of the Hip Hop Albums that have been shifting the culture? Take a look at our lists for Hip Hop, Rap and R&B to get a complete survey of the projects that are dictating the conversation around Hip Hop culture.
Need some new songs to throw in the rotation but Spotify and user-created playlists are way too long? We kept it simple and added only the best of the best songs from each month to make sure you get the songs you need without a hassle. Peep the lists below.
Looking for some up and coming rappers and underground gems? We’ve done the work for you and highlighted the short EPs, mixtapes and projects to check out if you’re tired of the mainstream album cycle.
Editor’s note: Albums from this list were released between January 1, 2023 – November 30, 2023.
Heaven knows – PinkPantheress
On her anticipated debut album, Heaven knows, PinkPantheress crafts her own Shakespearean tragedy, but doesn’t quite evolve from the themes or sounds of her past work. She utilizes heaps of avant garde synths, electronic dance, and percussion beats that add a sparkly gloss to lyrics which touch on heavier themes of death, love lost and unrequited, and grief. In doing so, she brings to light the darker sides of a young soul attempting to navigate heartbreak. It’s a poetic and dramatic compilation of breakup songs that will leave a listener dancing around their living room while yearning for their toxic ex. – Rosy Alvarez
Larger Than Life – Brent Faiyaz
On his fourth studio album Larger Than Life, Brent Faiyaz commissions Soulection star Dpat and other low-profile producers to create a landscape steeped in stylistic bars and 90s/early 2000s-inspired harmonies. It seems larger than life means larger connections for Brent, who not only commissions Virginia legends Timbaland and Missy Elliot for a few verses, but channels that Virginia Beach/Neptunes sound throughout the album. It’s almost as if songs like “Last One Left” and “Best Time” are the results of hours of Brent staying up gushing over Missy hits the night before recording. Brent’s always had an ear for good beats and features, but Larger Than Life showcases a specific intentionality to rep Maryland and source local. He creates a playground for the DMV’s Tommy Richman, Lil Gray, A$AP Ant and Cruddy Murda –along with hot-on-the-market artists like Babyface Ray, A$AP Rocky and Coco Jones– whose raps shine in a different light over emotive, downtempo instrumentals. The result is audacious, fun, and a turn away from the more sought out solemn guise of Brent Faiyaz. – Lauren Floyd
Lahai – Sampha
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 U.K. 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.
Flying Or Falling – Jorja Smith
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 album. With rumors that the two briefly dated — which Drake seemingly addressed on Scorpion a year later — Smith entered a hellish news cycle that she couldn’t escape. Just before that, Smith released her debut 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. However the zeal with which she approaches the rest of the album is mostly relegated to the front half.
Jaguar II – Victoria Monet
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 the 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. In Jaguar II, Monét doubles down on her instincts and it pays off with just the right combination of vision and throwback appreciation.
Fountain Baby – Amaarae
Fountain Baby feels like the culmination of her 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”) that are the backbone of Afro sounds, each song expounds on the next to bring a warm, organic feeling back into mainstream modern dance music.
I Thought It’d Be Different – Rory
The 13-song melting pod of Hip Hop, alt-pop and R&B (leaning more so on the latter two) is an introduction to Rory’s ear for curation, and contrary to the bulk of modern day compilations from celebrities, Rory shows he has solid taste. In other words, Rory doesn’t sing or rap, but he doesn’t make half assed compilations like Lebron James, either. The culmination of a three-year odyssey, and first teased in 2022 with the single “I Want You But You’ll Never Know” featuring Shelley FKA DRAM and Alex Isley, the project sports an incredible set of artists and producers–from legends like Bink! (who co-produces the project’s most Hip Hop moment, “Sobering Thoughts From The Mondrian” for TDE rapper Reason) to Rory himself, who wrote and co-produced throughout. Heartbreak, failed relationships, betrayal, and unrequited love are just some of the themes of the LP — and not necessarily in a linear arc. Rory initially noted early last year that most of the album was based on studio conversations about the unravelling of personal lives. While this isn’t revolutionary (“Groundbreaking, I know, no one has ever done that before,” he said himself when speaking about his approach), it’s handled with care.
The Age Of Pleasure – Janelle Monae
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.
Clear 2:Soft Lite – Summer Walker
Less than two years after releasing her sophomore album Still Over It Atlanta singer Summer Walker is back with her extended play Clear 2: Soft Life. The nine track project finds Walker wading her way through a lake of emotions to find some sense of peace and clarity in her love life. Unlike previous projects that harp on the toxicity of her romantic relationships, Soft Life finds Walker in the middle of her journey to healing. She’s not quite fulfilled, but is a lot more aware of her standing with men. Backed by live instruments, some of Walker’s most confessional lyrics, and with her soulful autotune-less vocals on full display, Soft Life proves to be a smoother listen than her other bodies of work.
Never Enough – Daniel Caesar
Never Enough functions as a break-up album, but it also marks a redemption arc for a flawed man with equally flawed views to make a case at proving he’s matured. He 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,” though a lengthy runtime and inconsistent themes can sometimes feel like Caesar had two different visions but combined them into one sprawling project covering four years of absence.
On Top Of The Covers – T-Pain
A few years ago, T-Pain, the godfather of autotune, found himself in a deep depression. One of the best R&B vocalists in history, Usher – and someone he considered a friend – told him quite seriously: “You kind of fucked up music.” Arguably the bedrock of the rapper, producer, and singer-songwriter’s hugely successful career had reduced him in stature in the eyes of his contemporaries. The next several years he struggled with depression and anxiety. Four years removed from his last studio effort, the 16-bit-infused 1UP, the lasting impacts of that conversation are felt heavily on On Top of the Covers. On an unvarnished and full-throated collection of cover songs, T-Pain flexes his vocal prowess completely without autotune. And the results speak for themselves.
Red Moon In Venus – Kali Uchis
Red Moon in Venus is an intergalactic exploration of love’s boundless passages. Adorned with a feminine opulence that grounds this psychedelic release, Kali Uchis guides listeners through love’s emotional highs, lows, and everything in between on her third genre-blending studio album. Kali Uchis skillfully explicates the unrestrained journey of desire and heartbreak, once allowing herself to drift in the reverie of love’s path, she now understands what it means to maintain a level-head. Red Moon in Venus is a raw display of emotional unwinding, and Kali Uchis narrates the disaster with an infinitely omniscient presence. From start to finish, it’s very clear that we as listeners are being whisked into a world of her creation, yet it is no longer a world in which she lives. It is merely a cautionary tale for a world full of indulgent lovers, beckoning us to explore love, to unravel, to heal and ultimately to learn.
Raven – Kelela
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 is at a different place mentally than she was when crafting 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, alone or with company, as it is over speakers in 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.
Thanks 4 Nothing – Tink
It’s fitting that Tink’s stellar Thanks 4 Nothing would drop more than a week after Valentine’s Day. It’s an ode to the tired and bitter stage of a relationship, during which it feels like the entire relationship was a lie. That’s why from the jump of album opener “Fake Love,” the 28-year-old singer and rapper is at once defiant and destroyed: “These days, you can’t even trust who you’re fucking.” Over a glossy, piano-fueled beat produced by fellow Chicagoan Hitmaka, Tink unloads her angry, introspective verse interspersed with pristine R&B vocal work. And it sets the tone for the rest of the album, which is as well-produced as its content is universal. It’s further proof that Tink’s independent rebuild is paying off in spades.
Girl In The Half Pearl – Liv.E
On Girl In The Half Pearl, Liv.e clashes drum & bass with stacked harmonies, goes full techno to a fuck-haters rant, and fills bottomless voids with reverb’d screams to compile a montage of frequencies. “I’m finally in a place to talk my shit with a new mindset of being able to say what’s on my heart,” she told Matthew Ritchie for Rolling Stone. It’s not like the 25-year old L.A. native hasn’t opened her diary to the world before. But unlike on prior projects, she’s not interested in moseying around in romance…she’s tired of discussing the subject. Girl In The Half Pearl is more brash than her previous entries, exploring the dark, hidden parts of her heart to examine her inner turmoil.
SOS – SZA
It’s been five years since her debut album CTRL, and though she hasn’t gone completely missing in action since then – she’s appeared on Summer Walker, DJ Khaled, and Doja Cat projects – it’s the first time we get to hear her perspective on her absence and everything that’s been going on in her world, not through Twitter interpretations, or he said/she said drama, direct from the source. 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 much of SOS into a deeply personal – sometimes too much so – testament of work.
What I Didn’t Tell You – Coco Jones
With her powerful vocals, smooth beats, and introspective lyrics, Coco Jones’ What I Didn’t Tell You (Deluxe) showcases Coco’s versatility and musical range. From soulful ballads to upbeat pop tracks, the album offers something for everyone and highlights Coco’s growth and evolution as an artist. If you’re looking for a powerful and impactful listen, What I Didn’t Tell You is definitely worth checking out.