While the world spent much of this year waiting for Frank Ocean, R&B continued to evolve. This season’s picks illustrate that there’s a thriving crop of sounds beyond the pop and social-media charts (and a loyal audience ready to embrace them). Arguably, the streaming era has freed soul performers more than those in any other genre from major-label hell; it’s now possible to sustain a career without waiting for Puff Daddy to approve your promotion budget. Here, we go beyond Blonde to offer some standouts you may have missed over the past few months.
Yuna, Chapters (Verve)
If there’s any R&B album that deserves a wider audience, it’s this revelatory journey from heartbreak to healing by Malaysian pop innovator Yunalis Zara’ai. Yet Chapters didn’t even crack the Billboard Top 200 albums upon its release in May (despite going Top 20 on the R&B chart). That’s a shame, because her clear-eyed dissections of flawed relationships on “Lanes” and “Mannequin” are bolstered by the terrifically hushed, synthesized blues of Danish producer Robin Hannibal, from alternative-soul heroes Quadron and Rhye. Atmospheric soul specialists the Fisticuffs also assist on the mournful, pulsing highlight “Poor Heart.” Usher appears to spark a flirtation over the blushing keyboard beats of “Crush,” and Jhené Aiko commiserates over old boyfriends on the unsentimental “Used to Love You.”
But despite these starry cameos, Yuna’s quietly assertive voice remains Chapters’ fulcrum. Unlike too many left-of-center R&B albums that rely too heavily on “woozy” sonic clichés, Chapters shifts gears towards the end with “All I Do,” a co-write with Canadian MOR pop king David Foster that finds the singer exhaling, “Tell me if there is a way to fall out of love with you.” It sounds like an Adult-Contemporary hit — and it should be.
Phonte and Eric Roberson, Tigallerro (HBD)
Back in the early- to mid-2000s, former Warner Bros. signee Eric “Erro” Roberson was one of the biggest indie stars you’d never heard of. Despite scant press attention, he shifted tens of thousands of neo-soul collections like The Vault and Left on his Blue Erro Soul imprint while rocking deep-house clubs with his classic 12″ “Don’t Change.” His pioneering DIY efforts were later followed by the Foreign Exchange, a North Carolina collective built by Netherlands future jazz producer Nicolay and backpack-rapper-turned-singer Phonte “Phontigallo” Coleman, the latter of whom parlayed 2008’s Leave It All Behind into a 2010 Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance.
The pairing’s formal coming-out party, Tigallero, brings two generations of R&B together into an appealing summit. They compose a breezily casual 30-minute roundelay of grown-folks love jams, with a dapper testament to monogamy called “Grow This Love” and a dual shout-out to both God and gangsta lean on the Philly soul-indebted “Something.” On the album’s funniest moment, “Thru the Night,” Phonte resurrects the rap persona that briefly turned his late, lamented group Little Brother into a hot mid-’00s commodity when he rants about the dangers of cheating on your wife. “So many try to be Mr. Man,” he raps, “But when the bulls**t hits the fan / You really telling your kids you risked it all for that bitch off of Instagram?”
Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits (Ropeadope)
Slot this ode to California sunshine in that ever-expanding universe of Los Angeleno forays into post-millennial jazz — right between Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and Thundercat’s The Golden Age of Apocalypse. But similar to the warm and soulful tapestries of such ’70s fusions as Roy Ayers’ Everybody Loves the Sunshine and George Duke’s Reach for It, Terrace Martin uses jazz as a guiding ethos instead of a rigid ideology.
“Valdez Off Crenshaw” is a laidback cruise spotlighted by the auteur’s warm sax tone. Then there’s “Turkey Taco,” an electro-funk masher featuring the Emotions (of ’70s disco classics like “Best of My Love” and “Boogie Wonderland),” and a ruddy blues ballad by Snoop Dogg associate Uncle Chucc in “Patiently Waiting.” Overall, Velvet Portraits is a huge leap forward from Martin’s earlier rap-oriented efforts, and continues a streak of picturesque Southern California dioramas that began with his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015-winning To Pimp a Butterfly.
Laura Mvula, The Dreaming Room (RCA)
Laura Mvula’s critically beloved 2013 debut, Sing to the Moon, was a extraordinary mélange of chamber music, big-band jazz, and British downtempo. As a soul masterwork composed of ornately vintage threads, it left listeners grasping for past iconoclasts to compare her — a lot of Nina Simone, a little Roberta Flack — because she sounds like no one else right now. Smartly, Mvula didn’t make The Dreaming Room a mirror image of her initial bow. Instead, she tries to bridge the gap between the highbrow classicism of Moon and the electronic thrust of 2010s pop.
On “Angel,” Mvula sings about the end of her marriage with unexpected optimism, in her brightest choral timbre, while a grainy cowboy guitar and keyboard washes strum beneath. “Phenomenal Woman,” her enthusiastic tribute to the feminist spirit, propels like a new-wave banger — but also betrays Mvula’s weakness for chanting universal themes that threaten to turn into simple bromides. Her collaboration with disco-funk genius Nile Rodgers, the Ibiza-inspired “Overcome,” hits much harder.
Jordan Rakei, Cloak (4104)
If you’re one of the many who overlooked Jordan Rakei’s 2014 EP, Groove Curse, or his hazy, sonorous Disclosure collaboration “Masterpiece” on last year’s Caracal, this summer’s delightful Cloak will catch you off guard. The Australian-raised, U.K.-based singer-songwriter is unique in his quietly insistent tone and impressive emotional range: “Lost Myself” despairs in solitude while “The Light” bubbles optimistically.
Like his fellow countrymen Hiatus Kaiyote, his dazzling sonics find the median of neo-soul, jazz-funk, and trip-hop. If there’s a quibble, it’s that Rakei sings so softly and alluringly that he occasionally descends into murmurs, which sound lovely but obscure the meaning of his poetically drawn lyrics. That still doesn’t keep the album’s best track, “Midnight Mischief,” from being one of the most thrilling depictions of seduction in 2016, though.
PJ, Rare (Atlantic)
On first glance, Paris Jones seems to be yet another major-label underachiever, the kind of would-be prospect that boasts a few songwriting credits for Chris Brown/Usher/Trey Songz and summarily disappears after a few under-promoted digital drops. But give Rare a chance, if only for the literately rendered lyrics like “I’ve always been your extra shoulder” on “Tell Me,” or for the organ-infused Ty Dolla $ ign duet “Come Down,” where she calmly asserts, “I’m not like those girls on the radio.”
Then there’s the album’s highlight, “Gangster,” where she sashays over a rollicking scratch guitar that could be lifted direct from Miguel’s funk-rock opus WILDHEART. “I really wanna be gangsta / Really wanna be the type that don’t take s**t from no one,” she sings before ad-libbing the real killer: “Bang bang.”