This month, 24-year-old Atlanta singer Jacquees dubbed himself this generation's King of R&B. This statement — delivered with a level of braggadocio that's more commonly found in the hip-hop world — sparked a Twitter debate lasting 48 hours (a year by social media standards.) This trending topic not only disputed Jacquees' claim to the throne, but also pitted '80 babies against millennials and Gen Z, which quickly drew lines in the sand over diverging tastes between the generations. Even current R&B artists like John Legend weighed in on the conversation. "Honestly I don't think there is a king of r&b right now," Legend tweeted. "Not a comment on quality. I think the throne is open right now."
While music fans argued over stars like Usher, Janet, D'Angelo, Beyoncé, Bruno and more, the conversation proved more than anything that the genre is alive and well. Looking towards the future of R&B, the artists making the best rhythm and blues today are the rule breakers, risk takers and remixers. Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer, named the best album of 2018 by NPR Music's standards, expanded conversations on sexuality, identity and intersectional feminism. Kali Uchis' Isolation meshed her beloved brand of telenovela panache with bubblegum pop and hip-churning bossa nova. H.E.R. supplied fans with willowy, quiet storm slow jams with sparkling charm all year on I Used to Know Her, Parts 1 and 2.
But with all the R&B that was hailed on NPR Music's Best Albums of 2018, it wasn't enough to show the scope of the music or implications of where it's heading. So once again, NPR staffers who pride themselves as R&B stans are here to make some declarations as bold as Jacquees'. And we've got the arguments to back them up.
These are NPR Music's picks for the top 10 R&B projects that are leading the vanguard. Remember their names and watch the throne. —Sidney Madden
SiR sits on arguably the most intimidating artist roster in music today, Top Dawg Entertainment. On a label that Kendrick Lamar, SZA and Jay Rock call home, SiR's doing everything right. There are no overnight sensations on TDE so, he's able comfortably subscribe to the notion that patience is a virtue. This slow build works for him, and his early 2018 release, November, added another link in his chain of consistently superb projects. Each song peels away a new layer and showcases his vocal and production range, closing out with one of the most gorgeous songs of the year in "Summer In November." —Bobby Carter
Listen to November on Spotify.
Ella Mai, Ella Mai
"Listen my to heart go ba-dum, boo'd up / Biddy-da-dum, boo'd up." That lyric, meant to mimic the fluttering heart of someone in love, made Ella Mai a chart-topper in 2018. The catchy chorus, a brass- and bass-heavy beat courtesy of DJ Mustard, and the London-hailing singer's silky, lower register voice ensured an ironically subdued summer hit, the antithesis to the high energy bangers that usually soundtrack the warmer months. But Mai wasn't just going to rest on one hit. The singer's self-titled debut album, released in October, calls back to Mai's childhood loves of '90s R&B ballads ("Everything" feat. John Legend, "Easy") and lighthearted bops fit for a girl-group ("Trip"). —Sidney Madden
Listen to Ella Mai on Spotify.
Arin Ray, Platinum Fire
Success on reality talent shows has proven to be a gift and a curse throughout the years. Cincinnati native Arin Ray didn't take the top prize on The X-Factor but has taken advantage of the exposure the show gave him, earning writing credits for the likes of Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj while molding his own identity as an artist. This year, his debut album, Platinum Fire, presented an artist who can do anything he wants musically. His youth is evident, given the hodgepodge of styles and approaches, but they're here at an impressively high level. —B.C.
Listen to Platinum Fire on Spotify.
Jorja Smith, Lost & Found
The seemingly effortless cool of Jorja Smith just doesn't make sense. Her performances can jump from heavy to fluttering and angelic, playing hopscotch with the scale along the way. After years of dropping well-received singles and her Project 11 EP, her full length debut Lost & Found shows off her game as a young songwriter, her range and audible poise. She's a future force in the U.K.'s music industry. Smith creates music that holds a mirror to herself and the world. "Teenage Fantasy" encapsulates the naivete of puppy love. "Goodbyes" eulogizes friends who've died or left your life. "Blue Lights" calls out racially-motivated policing. —S.M.
Listen to Lost & Found on Spotify.
The Internet, Hive Mind
Anyone hoping that Hive Mind would expose chinks in The Internet's armor need not listen. In fact, the band could've given us more of the same from Ego Death with no resistance. But instead, The Internet chose to continue on the incline, negating any doubters and emphatically stating that it is the R&B band of the moment. —B.C.
Listen to Hive Mind on Spotify.
Masego, Lady Lady
Masego — a.k.a. Micah Davis, or Uncle Sego if you follow his Instagram comedy routines — is a talent worthy of 3018. The music of this Jamaica-born, Virginia-raised singer-songwriter-saxophonist is in the realm of R&B, but it's really his own coined genre known as trap house jazz. But since we don't have a best trap house jazz albums of the year list just yet, a spot on this will have to do. Masego's independent merges influences like Andre 3000 and Cab Calloway to show his appreciation for fine-as-wine older women. —S.M.
Listen to Lady, Lady on Spotify.
Louis Cole, Time
Conventionality isn't an option for Louis Cole, a true musician's musician. He's able to play the drums at a rapid-fire pace and manipulate a keyboard with the same precision. He caught eyes and ears with a viral clip in 2017, but his third album, Time, really impresses. Cole locks into sharp pockets and chord progressions like no other on the uber-fast tracks while conveying sincere emotion through ballads. The instrumental execution, meshed with off-kilter lyrics and wonky visuals, is a welcome escape from the monotony of predictable albums this year. —B.C.
Listen to Time on Spotify.
Teyana Taylor, K.T.S.E.
Teyana Taylor's K.T.S.E. was overshadowed by a faulty roll out, a lack of G.O.O.D. resources and Kanye West's dramatics and it still managed to cut through the noise of 2018. At only seven tracks — the standardized format for all G.O.O.D. Music releases this year — the slowburner takes listeners all over the place. "Gonna Love Me" borrows melodies from reggae and Philadelphia soul while "WTP" hypnotizes like a voguing prima donna on the dance floor. And "Rose In Harlem" provides a hustle-hard pep talk undercut with excerpts from 2Pac and a Ben E. King sample. Listeners can travel from their bedroom to the club to crying on their couch and then hyping themselves up in the bathroom mirror. —S.M.
Listen to K.T.S.E. on Spotify.
Nao's voice is unmistakable. But in the wake of her debut album, For All We Know, she reined in the focus and trimmed some fat, in order for her latest body of work to match her distinctive tone. On Saturn, the singer-songwriter-producer has settled into her own, toeing the line between songs that could merge into the mainstream ("If You Ever") and jams that appease the straight up soul lovers ("Saturn"). Saturn puts Nao on the heels of major stars. —B.C.
Listen to Saturn on Spotify.
Lucky Daye, I
The release of Lucky Daye's latest project, I, may have flown under the radar for many, but the spry, five track EP, a preview of his forthcoming full length debut, Painted, positions the New Orleans singer far ahead of his competition in the genre. "Late Night" warrants a Soul Train line while the lead single, "Roll Some Mo," beckons a blunt and a chilled drink. Daye's forlorn vocal manipulation has drawn comparison to Frank Ocean, but his versatility and strategic fusions of funk and jazz on I nod to how he might set himself apart come 2019. —S.M.
Listen to I on Spotify.
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