Although 2021 was by no means a smooth year globally, there was no shortage of soothing new R&B albums to provide listeners with some healing. To close the year off Alicia Keys dropped the final album of her recording contract while newer artists Bleu and Tierra Whack dropped new EPs.
HipHopDX will be narrowing down the endless amount of music released during the course of a year to the essentials, providing readers with a list of the must-listen projects.
The Top New R&B Albums of 2021 (January 1 – December 31)
KEYS – Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys is undoubtedly one of the most decorated R&B artists of all time. But beyond just the accolades and notoriety, 20 years into her career, Keys is still delivering innovative work. The double-LP starts off with a menacing Pusha T feature that sets the tone for an unpredictable ride through 26 tracks. The genre-bending album provides something for every sector of her fanbase without compromising its artistic core. The project also marks the singer’s final album on her label deal, leaving many fans looking forward to what she does next independently. – Jeremy Hecht
No I’m Not OK – Bleu
The artist formerly known as Yung Bleu continues to let his talent speak for itself. Bleu is one of the few newer artists who seems to stay out of the negative headlines while he focuses on crafting his sound and dropping quality music. No I’m Not OK finds the HipHopDX Rising Star effortlessly crafting unique melodies and memorable flows as he pours his heart into each of the five songs on the EP. Bleu has pop sensibilities without ever abandoning his Hip Hop roots, a blend that is bound to take him to superstar heights. – Jeremy Hecht
R&B? – Tierra Whack
Tierra Whack has always stuck to the quality over quantity motto when it comes to her release schedule. With that being said, even a 3-song EP is a gift from the multi-talented artist. Whack explores death, sorrow and love throughout the project as she continues to bring memorable flows and melodies to the table with every new drop. The project is part of a set of a set of three EPs that show her versatility and ability to effortlessly jump between genres. – Jeremy Hecht
Still Over It – Summer Walker
Summer Walker has supplanted herself in the public eye, both through her outstanding introductory projects Last Day of Summer and Over It and her tumultuous relationship with Atlanta producer London On Da Track. In doing so, she’s opened herself up to judgment and speculation about every aspect of her life: her pregnancy, breakup with London and subsequent mental health. On Still Over It, Walker combats swirling narratives by utilizing the biggest draw in her artistry — her vulnerability. She displays an innate storytelling ability, marked with raw details about the intricacies of her emotions. Refusing to hold back, Walker covers the project in personal drama, navigating a balancing act between compelling and gratuitous.
An Evening With Silk Sonic – Silk Sonic
The singing prowess of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak is undeniable — both have the pipes of butterfly collar-wearing angels. Mars’ ability to hit high notes can break glass, while Paak’s raspy delivery is reminiscent of Smokey Robinson or other great R&B/soul singers of the era. They’re also in a rare position where they sound unlike anything else currently in rotation. They’ve created a niche all their own, however, the bar in mainstream pop music has been set so low, anything remotely different feels like the second coming of Christ.
to hell with it – PinkPantheress
The resurgence of nostalgia as a descriptor for an artist’s music style has morphed into a double-eged sword. When reaching back to incorporate the sounds of bygone eras, varying success in execution creates a vicious dichotomy. Cheap imitations that surgically remove the heart of reference tracks get tagged with the label of “nostalgia-bait,” reeking of unoriginality and desperation. Meanwhile, tasteful callbacks that are rooted in the themes of their touchstones are lauded with praise, retaining the soul of yesteryear. -Matthew Ritchie
Read HipHopDX’s full to hell with it here.
Cheers To The Best Memories – dvsn & Ty Dolla $ign
Few artists remain who still aim to encapsulate the Blues side of R&B. There’s plenty of focus on rhythm and chasing those ethereal sounds, which have catapulted artists such as SZA and Jhené Aiko to stardom. But dvsn and Ty Dolla $ign’s latest collaborative album Cheers To The Best Memories goes straight to the roots of R&B, diving into murky love songs backed with soul-enriching instrumentals. For years, Ty Dolla has been the go-to hook killer for artists ranging from Kanye West to Roddy Ricch, so the Los Angeles crooner knows how to collaborate.
Still, something special happened when he linked with Canadian duo dvsn. Composed of Daniel Daley and Nineteen85, the pair originally flourished from a Drake stimulus and an eventual OVO Records deal, but their ephemeral magic is instantly apparent whenever new music drops, and Cheers To The Best Memories is no different. –David Brake @davidaaronbrake
Mother – Cleo Sol
There’s an ethereal beauty in narrating growth. Women often explore this beauty of celestial womanhood during the experience of motherhood. For West London singer/songwriter Cleo Sol, Mother explores the depth and divine connection between modern maternity, healing and the transformative nature of relationships. Bridging the gap between ’70s soul and jazz through collaboration with her musical partner and producer Inflo, Sol crafts a timeless sound that allows her to layer the storytelling of generational lessons, experiences in adulthood, and the wisdom she’d like to pass along to her child.
Framing the insight and sagacity of these experiences from the album cover featuring Cleo, her daughter and a framed photo of a young woman behind her to the intro track, Cleo honors her mother’s experiences from her upbringing while also addressing her faults. Beginning the album with the raw and unfiltered opener “Don’t Let Me Fall” that’s centered around abandonment, unpacking attachments to trauma and healing our inner child, the album explores the teachings of life through examining a woman’s relationship to love, finding peace while healing and forgiveness. Tracks such as “Promises,” “23” and “Know That You Are Loved” provide an intimate and transcendent follow-up to her 2020 album Rose in the Dark which acts like honey for broken hearts and wounded souls. The missing pieces of Sol have been found within her, and for fans who enjoy her mixture of Donny Hathaway/Carole King soulful exploration, they’ll find it in her music. -Kia Turner @chasingkia
Temporary Highs In The Violet Skies – Snoh Aalegra
Desolate, dreamy and experimental, Temporary Highs In The Violet Skies is Snoh Aalegra’s most expansive and unconventional project to date. Following the critical and commercial success of – Ugh, those feels again, Aalegra relied on collaborations with artists and producers such as The Neptunes, Tyler, The Creator, No I.D. and James Fauntleroy to assist with her third studio album. Unlike her breakout sophomore project, Aalegra’s nonchalance and romanticizing of rejuvenated love and emotional complexities from varying levels of intimacy are eclipsed by her declaration of candor and skepticism. From the signature chopped and screwed chipmunk soul of “Indecisive” to the slightly overwhelming Neptunes production of “In Your Eyes,” Aalegra’s sharp narratives of failed affairs and introspection are highlighted by tracks such as “We Don’t Have To Talk About It,” “Dying 4 Your Love” and “Lost You.”
The sentimental beauty of exceptional tracks “Tangerine Dream” and unguarded nostalgia of “On My Mind” encompasses all that makes Snoh Aalegra one of the brightest stars in contemporary R&B. Whether she’s daydreaming of euphoric adoration, contemplating the value of her temporary highs or regretfully facing the realities of her feelings, Aalegra’s evocative lyricism and vulnerability surrounding the uncertainty as she flies through violet skies of emotions leave you fully immersed into her reflective musical dimension. -Kia Turner @chasingkia
Sixtape 2 – Blxst & Bino Rideaux
“Pop Out,” the opening track from Blxst and Bino Rideaux’s collaborative album Sixtape 2, sets the tone for the rest of the project, a smooth and harmonic collection of modern Los Angeles R&B. Bino, who came up with the late Nipsey Hussle, reentered the game last year with a new sense of energy, while Blxst, one of ten HipHopDX Rising Stars, dominated 2020 with No Love Lost. On their second iteration of the Sixtape series, the two L.A. artists showcase their unbreakable chemistry and aptitude for creating deep vibes which range from club-ready slow jams (“One of Them Ones”) to intimate love ballads (“She Perfect”).
Armed with production from the likes of ThaRealJFKbeatz, Jay Millian and Blxst himself, the two leaders of the next generation of West Coast R&B have drawn all eyes to see what comes next. -David Brake @davidaaronbrake
Planet Her – Doja Cat
Doja Cat’s career may have begun through the meme hit “Mooo!” and its accompanying music video, in which she performs in a cow costume while repeating, “Bitch, I’m a cow,” but the Los Angeles singer and rapper used the momentum to launch herself into the conversation of premier R&B stars. Planet Her, the latest offering from Doja, showcases substantial new maturity from the 25-year-old artist.
Flexing her versatility and ability to shift on a dime between booming crooning and twitchy raps, Planet Her is a shift away from Doja’s 2019 project Hot Pink. Doja is leaving all bare on Planet Her, leaning into the vulnerability which, in turn, allows for more ambitious themes of love and identity. No longer is Doja chasing trends, she’s setting them.
Back Of My Mind – H.E.R.
On Back Of My Mind, the latest offering from R&B sensation H.E.R., the singer explores love lost, growing apart and self care. The San Francisco-raised singer, born Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, underwent a rebrand in the mid 2010s, dropping her original name, and opting to be identified as H.E.R., an acronym standing for Having Everything Revealed. Since her 2018 eponymous debut, the “Best Part” singer has collected thirteen Grammy nominations and four wins, including Best R&B Album and Song of the Year for “I Can’t Breathe.”
Back Of My Mind, which peaked at number six on the Billboard 200, picks up where her previous projects left up, reflecting on the trials and tribulations of love over gorgeous live instrumentations.
Be Right Back – Jorja Smith
All Jorja Smith needs to create beautiful R&B music is her voice; no instrumentals are required when you’re working with a singer so commanding and confident. Be Right Back, the latest album from is a sweeping, stripped-down collection of low-key tracks. Smith hasn’t looked back since she was catapulted into the spotlight in 2016 following praise from Drake. The British singer-songwriter hadn’t released a full-length project since 2018’s exceptional Lost & Found.
Whatever Smith croons delicately about is captivating: whether it’s the mournful “Addicted” or the glitzy “Bussdown” featuring Shaybo, Smith wholly captures the listener. Much of the album circles back to the sense of belonging and the devastating toll of feeling lost.
Shelley – Shelley
In more ways than one, Shelley FKA DRAM’s eponymous album, four-years-plus-in-the-making, represents a paradoxical pivot within the Virginia Beach crooner’s diverse discography. It’s quite obvious Shelley has evolved from his 2016 “Broccoli” era career arc, judging by his stage name rebranding and jaw-dropping weight loss. The added weight of the project existing as a memorial for his recently deceased mother also added a deeply personal and serious dimension to Shelley. And though the elements of high vibrational funk and R&B fusion that were present on Big Baby Dram throughout the new 10-track effort, the music was discernibly angled toward. From the swooning rhythms of “Exposure” and swinging pace of “Cooking With Grease,” the album exudes ballad vibes from top to bottom and mark Shelley’s transition from a fringe experimental artist to a genre-defying sonic architect.
Don’t Go Tellin Your Momma – Topaz Jones
Don’t Go Tellin Your Momma by New Jersey’s Topaz Jones resists categorization into any one genre. While the smooth, funk-inspired instrumentals suggest R&B, Jones proves again and again of the power of his bars. DGTYM, also accompanied by a Sundance award-winning short film, is a story of generations and shared histories. Rich with personal references, DGTYM is an exploration of not only Jones as a person, but of his family and generational histories. Examining everything from wealth and intellectual property to candy and code-switching, DGTYM is certainly Jones’s most well-rounded project, but it’s one of the most ambitious projects of the year thus far.
Overgrown – Joyce Wrice
Joyce Wrice’s debut album Overgrown has finally arrived. The California R&B artist has been a featured voice on tracks for artists such as Westside Gunn, Rejjie Snow and Jay Prince, not to mention the plethora of singles she’s released, beginning with 2015’s “Ain’t No Need.” Wrice has evolved as an artist since her first releases, bringing us to Overgrown, a fourteen-track album which includes features from Lucky Daye, KAYTRANADA, Freddie Gibbs and more. Wrice’s debut shows her affinity for traditional R&B, as she sings with clear influences from Mariah Carey and even Ashanti. While Overgrown may draw influence from legendary artists, Wrice is distinctly herself as she sings about love, self-worth and her Japanese heritage. “Falling In Love” with Lucky Daye and the Freddie Gibbs-assisted “On One,” are clear highlights, but “That’s On You – Japanese Remix” featuring UMI is a hidden gem.
PINK PLANET – Pink Sweat$
Welcome to PINK PLANET, a celestial body soundtracked with lush samples, ethereal guitar solos and the silky tones of Pink Sweat$. The 29-year-old Philadelphia-born singer demonstrates his love for classic R&B and its roots in funk and blues music. Aside from the Kehlani-assisted “At My Worst,” Sweat$ handles the 18-track album entirely alone. It’s a bold (and rare) choice for an artist to tackle their debut project solo, but his decision shows the unbridled confidence carried by the burgeoning artist and his voice easily fills the 48-minute listen.
A play through PINK PLANET equates to a walk through time. “PINK CITY” sounds like a powerhouse radio anthem from the mid 2000s. “Paradise,” could be from Jodeci’s discography, while tracks such as “Icy” and “Not Alright” are faster and more lively, carrying disco-inspired breakbeats. Void of filler and fluff, PINK PLANET is a massive achievement from Sweat$, an artist we expect to be around for the foreseeable future.
Heaux Tales — Jazmine Sullivan
Jazmine Sullivan doesn’t even need to hit those booming notes to make powerful R&B. Sure, she can do that too. But her voice, so textured with a rich personality, makes even the most banal notes stars of the show. Sullivan has been a mainstay of R&B since her wildly successful 2008 album Fearless, which netted her a Billboard 200 Top 10 chart entry and scores of Grammy nominations. On Heux Tales, Sullivan has adapted to the times, recruiting H.E.R., Ari Lennox and the funky, MC/drummer Anderson .Paak. Digging into her deep bag of melodies and harmonies, Sullivan succeeded in releasing a rock-solid project that holds up exceptionally well in her stacked discography.
Also be sure to check out our other lists:
This list includes albums released between December 2, 2020 and September 30, 2021.
Contributing writers: Trent Clark, Kyle Eustice, Josh Svetz, Dana Scott, David Brake, Devon Jefferson, Michael Saponara, Kia Turner, Anthony Malone, Matthew Ritchie, Ben Brutocao and Jeremy Hecht.
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM JANUARY 2021
- Amusing Her Feelings – dvsn
- Collapsed In Sunbeams — Arlo Parks
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM FEBRUARY 2021
- Anniversary (Deluxe) – Bryson Tiller
- Homegrown – VanJess
- Table For Two – Lucky Daye
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM MARCH 2021
- Introspection Reimagined – UMI
- Neptune – Gallant
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM APRIL 2021
- While I Have Your Attention – Griff Tyler
- Aura III – Elhae
- missunderstood still… Queen Naija
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM MAY 2021
- Truth Serum – Kosine
- Ready Is Always Too Late – Sinead Harnett
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM JUNE 2021
- Lovesick – Raheem Devaughn & Apollo Brown
- Space and Time – Justine Skye
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM JULY 2021
- RY RY WORLD – Mariah The Scientist
- Heat Of The Moment – Tink
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM AUGUST 2021
- FLOAT – K CAMP
- TBH – Bri Steves
- Girl Magic – BLK
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM SEPTEMBER 2021
- If Orange Was A Place – Tems
- Dawn – Yebba
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM OCTOBER 2021
- Juno – Remi Wolf
- Wildest Dreams – Majid Jordan
OTHER FAVORITE ALBUMS FROM NOVEMBER 2021
- DRONES – Terrace Martin
- Intimadated – KAYTRANADA