The conflation of R&B with hip-hop on most of Billboard's genre charts can make for an inaccurate portrait of the year in R&B music. Cross-genre collaborations dominate, especially since they benefit from Top 40 radio support, and musicians with years in the business overshadow burgeoning artists. So finding all the new and excellent R&B released every year is a scavenger hunt, one that winds through blogs, Tumblr and Twitter, but can miss mainstream music media and commercial radio. Here are the 10 songs I came across that should have got more love.
King, "In the Meantime"
Each year in R&B, there are a handful of new artists who burst on the scene and ride a buzz with two or three debut cuts. This was the case with King back in 2011, when they put out an EP called The Story. In 2012 we heard from the L.A. trio through a collaboration with Robert Glasper. This year they delivered two more teasers to keep us hanging for a forthcoming album, a gorgeous midtempo version of Fela Kuti's "Go Slow" for the Red Hot + Fela compilation and this song. Amber and Anita glide across Paris' atmospheric arrangement and toy with the listener through the hook. Well played, ladies.
The Foreign Exchange, "On a Day Like Today" from Love in Flying Colors
Producer Nicolay and M.C. and singer-songwriter Phonte have released four albums as divergent from each other as their dedicated and diverse fans. This year's Love in Flying Colors is the brighter side of its predecessor, Authenticity. Phonte's pen offers an insightful view of love lost and found, while track by track, he writes through his adjustment to a new skin. Nicolay's continuous evolution as a producer is best heard on the lead single, "Call it Home," and "On a Day Like Today," which goes great with sunshine and a two-step.
Stacy Barthe, "Flawed Beautiful Creatures" from P.S. I Love You
You probably know Stacy Barthe's work even if you've never heard her name. The major labels have her on speed dial, and she's worked with everyone from Britney Spears and Katy Perry to T.I. to John Legend. But she's managed to keep a few gems tucked away for her own projects. This year she put out her third offering, P.S. I Love You. The track "Flawed Beautiful Creatures" was the absolute standout of the EP, with its deceptively simple statement, "I'm only human" beautifully elaborated.
The Hics, "Tangle" from Tangle
If you long for the good old days of PG-13-rated R&B, look right across the pond to the U.K. Meet The Hics, a London sextet whose members all studied music at the same school. While they aren't bound by a specific genre, the group's sound is clearly influenced by R&B and soul music. The title track of the EP The Hics put out this year is a composition that starts small and swells into something we haven't heard in quite a while. The way the band's chord sequences fuse with Roxane's gentle tone and Sam's downright eerie vocal is stunning. Next year, look for The Hics to make that jump from "slept on" to "best of" lists.
Iman Omari, "Gravitate" from Vibe(rations)
Everything about Iman Omari's method is unpredictable. In 2011, with virtually no warning, he put out his debut EP, Energy, and set the Internet ablaze. He was tapped for a number of guest spots and collabs but no solo offerings until this summer when he released an LP called Vibe(rations). The album was available to stream only for a few weeks, then vanished for another few and, finally, in August, was made available for purchase. His sound is equally convoluted and intriguing. The song "Gravitate" serves as the best illustration of this, with vocal layers stacked to create fascinating harmonies.
Kelly Rowland featuring Pharrell, "Feet to the Fire" from Talk a Good Game
I'm confident pinpointing 2013 as the formal resurgence of Pharrell Williams. He's had his paws on everything from the #1 pop hit of the year to random album and mixtape placements. He was so prolific, some of his tracks ended up sleepers — most notably a bonus track on Kelly Rowland's Talk a Good Game. On "Feet to the Fire" Rowland and Pharrell tag-team verses over a crispy snare and sticky Rhodes to create a classic mid-'00s Neptunes feel. It'll never get old.
Omar, "Bully" from The Man
Omar is another example of an artist from the U.K. schooling today's American singers. He returns after a seven-year hiatus with his best album to date, The Man. The writing and subject matter on his latest opus shows distinctly that Omar has stayed sharp while away from the game. The glaring horns and percussion on "Bully" dare you not to move at least one body part, sugarcoating a message of peace in a West Indian-inspired jam.
Bilal, "Lost for Now" from A Love Surreal
Many great songs are the result of great pain. Bilal's "Lost for Now," from his latest album, A Love Surreal, exposes his agony during the darkest hour of heartbreak. It's the moment he accepts the fact that it's undoubtedly over. Backed by just guitars and drums, Bilal's lyrics poke at his fresh wound. In the past he's displayed vocal acrobatics over tracks by some of hip-hop's greatest producers (Dr. Dre, J. Dilla), but it's refreshing to hear him subdued on a stripped-down instrumental. The song is a brilliant moment of maturity.
The Stepkids, "The Lottery" from Troubadour
The Stepkids stuck to the script on their second go-round (Troubadour) after making waves with their 2011 debut LP. "The Lottery" is a summer jam whose jagged groove spans genres. Although there's an initial correlation to Fagan and Becker, the trio sonically infuses Parliament Funk, Philly soul and a curveball of Nashville country into one arrangement without sounding contrived. When the synths and harmonies kick in, the sound is completely organic. Only thing missing is the crackle of vinyl.
SZA, "Teen Spirit"
TDE's sole singer unleashed "Teen Spirit" following her signing to the former all-male, all-hip-hop label. The accompanying video brings teenage producer Wondergurl's cryptic soundscape to life. SZA crawls over the track, injecting passion but never overpowering it. I think it's safe to say that this song showcases only one facet of SZA's abilities. After all, she ends by repeating, "You don't even know me." She's been drafted into the big leagues, but it'll be interesting to see which way the pendulum swings for SZA in 2014.