5 Essential R&B Albums You Slept On In 2016 While you were watching Frank Ocean build a staircase, NPR Music contributors Bobby Carter and Kiana Fitzgerald were listening to these records.
NPR logo 5 Essential R&B Albums You Slept On In 2016

5 Essential R&B Albums You Slept On In 2016

SiR's album Seven Sundays deserved more love in 2016. Dana Washington/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Dana Washington/Courtesy of the artist

SiR's album Seven Sundays deserved more love in 2016.

Dana Washington/Courtesy of the artist

R&B had a banner year, taking three of the four top slots in our 50 Best Albums list. Five essential albums fell just short of the big countdown — because NPR Music recognizes all sorts of music and because some people just got caught sleeping. Let's fix that right now.

5 Essential R&B Albums You Slept On In 2016

H.E.R., H.E.R. Volume 1 Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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H.E.R., 'H.E.R. Volume 1'

  • Song: Facts

We've heard it before: "I hide my identity so the listener focuses on the music without any distractions." For H.E.R.'s sake, I'll play along because the music is so good. Vol. 1 is a seven-track project featuring a young woman deep in the feels. Her formula is straightforward but shouldn't be underestimated. She's taking what's old and making a whole new pot of gumbo. On "Wait for It," she screws up Floetry's hit "Say Yes," adds some stuttering kicks and high-hats while her seductive tone floats above it all. I can hear a spritz of the greats like Brandy, Aaliyah and Kelly Rowland, though she's writing from a totally different perspective. She effortlessly nails young Millennial affection on tracks like "Facts," where she says, "You make me wanna put my phone down / When we're alone I wanna zone out," and on "Focus," she all but sheds her veil, flipping to her highest register for the object of her desire to simply see her. As I listen to her lyrics and the way they're delivered, the rumors of H.E.R's true identity apparently bear truth. If she remains anonymous, let's hope her talent continues to reveal itself. --Bobby Carter

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NxWorries, Yes Lawd! Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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NxWorries, 'Yes Lawd!'

  • Song: What More Can I Say

Yes Lawd! didn't get the attention it deserved, largely due to the success of one half of the group. Anderson .Paak's Malibu was such a monster, it practically swallowed Yes Lawd! before its release. Paak's world introduction this year was a slow, steady burn, swelling into an inferno by the time Yes Lawd! dropped. The records are polar opposites, and in some ways, the NxWorries project is a bit more fluid. Producer Knxwledge establishes a mood throughout the project that allows you to ride one wave. It's awfully refreshing to hear a new jack producer remind us of the art of sampling records. First billed as a beat tape, the chopped up samples and soulful loops make Knxwledge the true hero of the album, but .Paak's contribution made it one of the best of the year. As an MC first, .Paak is able to attack the production without letting it overpower his vocal. My favorite aspect of Yes Lawd! is that it never takes itself too seriously — the carefree humor doesn't go unnoticed on songs like the two-minute roast session "Fkku" or "What More Can I Say," where .Paak almost makes you feel sorry for his own infidelities. This album is a truly creative mood piece with no skippers. --Bobby Carter

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Tigallerro Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Phonte & Eric Roberson, 'Tigallerro'

  • Song: Something

Phonte and Eric Roberson have traded project contributions for years and the result has always been in the top tier of their respective catalogues. This is the best of one soulful world, packed with incredible songwriting, multilayered arrangements and bars. Phonte comes through in the clutch again with cautionary life lessons for the fellas: "I done seen so many love stories / begin with one shorty / bare on your couch, now she's airing you out in 140s." For Roberson, Tigallerro is makeover of sorts. He sounds as vibrant as ever on songs like "Lie to Me" and "Something." In a climate where we're presented with a bunch of bells and whistles to get our attention and are ultimately underwhelmed, it's always refreshing when elder statesmen simply do what they do and shut it down. --Bobby Carter

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SiR, HER Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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SiR, 'HER'

  • Song: Tricky

Darryl Farris, aka SiR, is no stranger to NPR Music. His music hit our radar in 2014 and last year he released a Song We Love. He maintains a mystique about his identity, but the California native is now consistently stringing together impressive projects. His debut, Seven Sundays, showed us what he's capable of; he pulled out all the stops as if it were his one shot to make an impression. HER dropped in early October, its six tracks presumably about one particular woman and/or relationship. What makes this EP his best project thus far is its focus — it exhales and sits in the pocket of sample-driven breakbeats and acoustic compositions. "Tricky" fluently weaves back and forth from a bluesy guitar session to a bass-heavy future shock. SiR told the Los Angeles Times he long avoided his musical calling, feeling like the music was forced by family pressure, but "once I had an opportunity to appreciate it for myself, then I fell in love." He announced recently via Twitter that he is now a full-time artist. There's little separating SiR from his more popular contemporaries, so now that he's fully committed, we're expecting the big splash. --Bobby Carter

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6LACK, FREE 6LACK Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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6LACK, 'FREE 6LACK'

  • Song: PRBLMS

Atlanta singer 6LACK is the antihero R&B has been lacking since Bryson Tiller's takeover last year. He's not an antihero in the sense that he's playing the part of a villain, but because of the direction he's willing to take listeners in. Where Tiller's material on the platinum-selling Trapsoul was upbeat, love-doused and easy to sing, 6LACK's project FREE 6LACK feels like a waterlogged journey to liberate himself from the depths of his unhappiness. His experience taps into the darkest corners of the mind, where missed opportunities and regretful relationships fester instead of disintegrating. "PRBLMS," the lead single from the album, is 6LACK describing what he wanted in a girl versus what he wound up with: "I wanted a b---- who was down to earth, but she wanted the g--damn sky." In the end, he finds a way to move on, with the help of new love. Instead of shying away, 6LACK marches through the dread and melancholy that comes with living a life that expands and contracts at inopportune moments. As he maintains across the project, the highest highs can become the lowest lows — but the reverse is true, too. --Kiana Fitzgerald

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