1. BEYONCÉ by @beyonce. After every best of the year list had been released and every award nomination had been given, Bey hit us with a surprise. And what a surprise it was. This self-titled album is the most self-assured that she’s ever been while giving us the most selfless content she’s made yet. For 14 songs, Bey lets her guard down and lets us look into her private life. And she’s living. From fellatio in the back of a limo to thoughts of separation to an entire ode to her lost child, she gives us everything, leaves it on the table and walks away, allowing us to think what we will without a concern for any judgement. Because she’s a grown woman and can do what she wants. Part pop, part R&B, part ratchet, BEYONCÉ is also Bey at her most honest and comfortable. She says whatever, however she wants and you have to respect her for it. The fact that 17 videos are included in the album just makes this that much bigger of an experience. Although a much more open body of work, Bey still had utter control and it was carefully calculated. Every song is flawless, her hood rat rapping being just as perfect as her breathy panting. And using all of her vast resources, Bey creates a powerful movement that is already being hailed as feminism at its finest, a movement that celebrates life as a wife and mother. This is the album that we’ve been waiting for her to make. She just needed time to get to this place. And now that she has, it feels like we’re in for many more surprises.
2. Nothing Was the Same by @drake. Take Care is a classic. The album that he should’ve made after So Far Gone. An album that many artists would attempt to rest on. But not Drake. He pushes himself further. And he’s right; nothing was the same. Replacing the moodiness of Take Care with a certain bravado that can’t be faked; he’s the leader of the new school and he knows it. He’s still having girl problems but what young rap millionaire isn’t? More than reflecting on his past mistakes (Marvin’s Room, Doing It Wrong), on NWTS he is showing them that they’ve lost out. There’s even better singing and the rapping is sharper. And as always, the production is impeccable and Drake’s songwriting is genius. From the strip club to his old neighborhood, he’s giving us a look into his life and the effects fame has had on it. And we appreciate all of his painful lessons because they inspire his music, this amazing blend of hip hop and R&B that defies the traditional stereotypes of what rappers should be. And nothing will ever be the same again.
3. Talk a Good Game by @kellyrowland. Ms. Rowland, Ms. Rowland. This album is damn near flawless. Although she worked with a bevy of collaborators, this the most sonically cohesive album that she’s made to date. It sounds like the album that her previous effort Here I Am was trying to be, although it fell horribly short. However, with this album, Kelly has redeemed herself. Her vocals are amazing and I found myself in awe of her range and technical skill, attributes that I’d never really paid attention to before. Kelly is listed as a writer for all but one song and for the first time, you can actually feel HER presence in her music. She is no longer formless clay to be molded by writers and producers; she has become the sculptor, using each one to bring the best out of herself. This album solidifies Kelly as one of the top contenders for the urban contemporary crown while refusing to sacrifice the art for expediency. It sounds like the kind of classic that will still be just as good in ten years while painting a great picture of current R&B music. Job well done.
4. The 20/20 Experience 1/2 by @justintimberlake. Crafted almost entirely by just Timberlake, Timbaland and songwriters Jerome Harmon and James Fauntleroy, this album is nothing if not a full sensory experience. And that’s before you get into the lyrics. Driven by heavy drums and numerous chord changes, this is a body of work that hails JT undeniably as the next King of Pop. And yet, it’s an R&B album through and through. He is in love and he gives himself freely to the emotion, making it clear in love is where he’d like to stay. Each song is almost like a 2-in-1 deal but they’re never too long; you feel as if you’re in the studio, just listening to him and Timbaland jam, a jam that a small part of you wants to go on & on. There are no guests on the album other than Jay-Z and even that feature is like the cherry on top as none are really needed. Justin holds his own by making this album completely about the music, making use of his falsetto immaculately & riding the beats effortlessly. And he gives himself wholeheartedly over to the endeavor; there is no filler. With such artistry, he makes sure that we can see his vision as clearly as he does. 20/20 indeed.
5. Sail Out by @jheneaiko. Everything that we came to love about Ms. Aiko on Sailing Soul(s) has evolved and been improved for Sail Out, the precursor to her forthcoming debut album Souled Out. Calling it a bridge between the mixtape and the album, this EP serves to introduce Jhené to the world; it a subtle, silky introduction which places her tone and skills as a lyricist onto center stage. She coos and cries, wails and whispers, sings and raps and all the while you’re wondering why is it that you’re just becoming familiar with her. Her one-off melodies are just as memorable as the verses from the handful of guest rappers she employs, including the ever able Kendrick Lamar, cementing her newfound status as rap’s go-to hook girl. She even completes the set with a freestyle of her own, as impressive as any 16 spit during the cypher on the BET Hip Hop Awards while being much more personal and immersive. If this any indication of what we can expect from the album, it’s a safe bet to say that we’ll all be selling our souls to the singer shortly. And without much hesitation.
6. Call Me Crazy, But… by @sevyn. This is the first offering from CBE’s first signee and all of the care that she takes when writing songs for artists such as Kelly Rowland, Fantasia and Breezy can be found here along with a few surprises as well. Sevyn steps from behind the scenes and commands attention on this EP with catchy melodies and rich harmonies; most times you’d think you were listening to a group, the layering of her vocals throughout being reminiscent of her idols Aaliyah and Brandy. She takes on the topic of sex from interesting angles (such as the ceiling) and delves even deeper into the psyche of relationships where communication has broken down and breaking up to make up is the norm. And as always, her pen game is flawless. You may call her crazy but you cannot call her talentless. She most definitely has nEXt.
7. The Electric Lady by @janellemonae. The follow up to 2010’s Archandroid continues Janae’s futuristic story of the android Cindi Mayweather but does so in new and exciting ways. This album is less conceptual and more about the music, music that blurs the lines between R&B, soul, jazz and 80’s Prince-esque pop. And even with a guest roster that includes Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spalding, Miguel, Solange and Prince himself, Janelle’s eclectic touch can be felt all over the album; it is clearly HER vision. And yet every song allows us to glimpse a different portion of her personality, of her ever blossoming femininity. She is very much in control as she refuses to conform to traditional R&B it girl norms. This one is a celebration of electric ladies worldwide.
8. Saint Heron by @saintrecords. A compilation of contributions from 12 distinct artists, including Solange herself, this album is the first release from her very own Saint Records. And oh what an album it is. Made up of music that the younger Knowles sister herself describes as wavy and vibey, the minimalist R&B offering is full of fresh faces with very exhilarating yet varying takes on music. More than one song references marijuana and they are almost all about love, in one form or another. But with such modern production and attention to intricate detail, this is much more than an ode to love and drugs. This is Solange showing us that she’s determined to do it her way and bring a few friends along in the process. And R&B is much better for it.
9. Side Effects of You by @tasiasword. Fantasia is happy again. And it’s written all over this album. She teamed up with Harmon Samuels, who produced almost every track, and created a sound that she’s labeled ‘rock-soul’. It’s a movement that can be heard throughout the album and the production pales in comparison only to the fact that ‘Tasia co-wrote almost every song. Even the sequencing of the album is great, slowly building up to a big band crescendo before ending on a softer note. She’s come a long way and she wants you to know it; she has a new confidence that makes this album one of her very best yet.
10. Rebellious Soul by @kmichellemusic. The one thing that I’ve always appreciated about K. is her honesty. And this album reinforces that idea. While not the most interesting album sonically, its simple lyrics are very relatable and the situations they describe are situations that happen everyday in relationships. With a certain ghetto charm, this is definitely a debut album that can serve as a great foundation as long as K. is willing to take it to the next level from here.