In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate critic Carl Wilson emails about the year in music with fellow critics — featuring New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, freelance writer Briana Younger, NPR music critic Ann Powers, Glitter Up the Dark author Sasha Geffen, Pitchfork contributing editor Jenn Pelly, WXNP Nashville editorial director Jewly Hight, Penguin Books author Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, critic Steacy Easton, Slate pop-culture critic Jack Hamilton, and Chris Molanphy, the host of Slate’s Hit Parade.
Coming into this, I knew that I wanted to celebrate the beauty and breadth of R&B this year, but I was unsure as to how to do it. The truth is writing hasn’t come easy for me since the pandemic uprooted our lives. I’ve returned, in many ways, to listening for the sake of listening. No particular analysis and unpacking—just feelings I didn’t even have the energy to try to name. It was liberating to have the space to do so, despite the circumstances under which it came.
But last week, we lost bell hooks. And nine days before that, we lost Greg Tate. As I scrolled and scrolled, I remembered wishing my timeline could be filled with tributes to writers everyday (death not necessary). I learn so much from these odes and get to read gorgeous writing from both the ones giving and receiving the showers of appreciation, as peers and progeny alike share the words that have inspired their own. Lindsay, I love that you included the quote that you did, because so much of hooks’ work was about love, implicitly and explicitly. She insisted on showing us how to better love ourselves so that we might one day better love each other. Mulling this essay, I was reminded of another from her instructive and essential book All About Love: New Visions: “All too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget. In actuality, when we love rightly we know that the healthy, loving response to cruelty and abuse is putting ourselves out of harm’s way.”
Two of the year’s most acclaimed releases—Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales and Summer Walker’s Still Over It—encapsulate that spirit. Sullivan’s concept album is a reclamation of sexual agency that centers women and their pleasures, both erotic and emotional; Walker’s record is a declaration that she won’t remain where care and respect are not freely given. The particulars vary, but at their core, these albums are lighthouses of self-love guiding our hearts to safety. Each album’s kiss-off (Sullivan’s “Pick Up Your Feelings” and Walker’s “Unloyal”) makes it clear that, despite their acrimonious sentiment, the point isn’t vengeance but liberation.
Sullivan’s belting gospel-soul exists within a vocal tradition apart from Walker’s feathery coo, but their approaches are in spiritual agreement. Each one is unyielding in her demands and does not mince words. A song like the carnal come-on “On It,” from Heaux Tales, or the unwavering dress down “4th Baby Mama,” from Still Over It, revel in the power of forthright language. They exemplify word choice as a politic—direct, accessible—and this, too, is in step with hooks’ work. That these albums also rely on a chorus of women’s voices to provide texture and context only adds to their dynamism. We know that women are often pitted against one another, and this pressure abounds, especially on Still Over It. “We are taught that our relationships with one another diminish rather than enrich our experience,” hooks wrote in 1984, but in bringing other voices to the front, we find community to counteract it. (On the gorgeous And Then Life Was Beautiful, another album about self-healing, Nao weaves spoken word throughout, courtesy of poet Sophia Thakur, to similar effect.)
With hooks top of mind, I hear her everywhere, though I don’t know what she would think of any of these projects. The tension between theory and practice came to a head in 2016 with hooks’ critique of Lemonade, which spawned a fierce but illuminating discourse, but complexity and contradiction were exactly what made her so transcendent. Life and love are messy, and the heart and mind (to say nothing of the libido) are rarely aligned, and she didn’t hide from that. So when I listen to the women in R&B this year — Sevyn Streeter (Drunken Wordz Sober Thoughtz), Tink (Heat of the Moment), Joyce Wrice (Overgrown), Kirby (Sis. He Wasn’t the One), Ann Marie (Hate Love) — I hear a similar kind of sincerity.
I wanted to spend the rest of this highlighting how R&B proved itself to be in a healthy place this year, but there’s no way to even capture it all and do it any sort of justice. The genre shined as a site of fantasy where creative currency wasn’t always gained via autobiography but conviction. Artists like Leon Bridges, superduo Silk Sonic, and Dvsn in its partnership with Ty Dolla $ign collapsed time to channel the sound of bygone decades; the results are respectable entries into the hallowed tradition of Sunday morning soul aka music to clean your house to. Tinashe and Shelley FKA DRAM found magic in reinvention, while Lucky Daye and Khalid were testaments to the potential of collaboration. From the traditionalists to the renegades, it was consistently rewarding to listen to these singers who proudly lean into their own styles and voices.
One more parting thought: I know some artists have shied away from R&B as a classifier and from genre labels as a whole. And rightfully so, considering how race and genre still function to elevate some and marginalize others. I remain fearful of claiming for someone what they haven’t claimed for themselves, and I hope I haven’t done too much of that here. On the flipside, still more are leaning into the distinction, honoring this tradition as a sacred space and a source of pride. (Notably, Serpentwithfeet in particular, as he was promoting his staggering album Deacon, made sure to let people know as much, which I appreciated.)
Talking to Vulture in 2016, Greg Tate observed that “all of these artists we think of as being boundaryless I would argue are actually in the tradition of R&B…everything, when you get to the stage when you’re talking about it from a historian’s standpoint, is all R&B.” I think the hands pulling the levers of the music industry could afford to put a little more respect on its name.
20 more essential R&B albums from 2021:
Absolutely — Dijon
An Evening with Silk Sonic — Silk Sonic
Azeb — Mereba
Bicoastal — Bathe
Cheers to the Best Memories — Dvsn and Ty Dolla $ign
Constellations — Rini
Deacon — Serpentwithfeet
Digital Tears — Rimon
FWM /Still FWM — Tone Stith
Gold-Diggers Sound — Leon Bridges
Homegrown — Vanjess
Lovesick — Raheem Devaugn and Apollo Brown
Magic 8Ball — Mac Ayres
Mother — Cleo Sol
Neptune — Gallant
Pink Planet — Pink $weats
Scenic Drive — Khalid
Shelley FKA DRAM — Shelley FKA DRAM
Thicker Than Water — rum.gold
“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is-it’s to imagine what is possible.” — bell hooks.