The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (2024)

Table of Contents
Raheem DeVaughn, ‘Woman’ B2K, ‘Bump, Bump, Bump’ Ryan Leslie feat. Cassie and Fabolous, ‘Addiction’ Avant, ‘Makin’ Good Love’ Tems, ‘Free Mind’ Tank, ‘Please Don’t Go’ Jeremih feat. J. Cole, ‘Planez’ Brent Faiyaz, ‘Jackie Brown’ Goapele, ‘Closer’ Khalid feat. 6lack and Ty Dolla $ign, ‘OTW’ Bobby Valentino, ‘Slow Down’ 3LW, ‘No More (Baby I’ma Do Right)’ Lucky Daye, ‘Roll Some Mo’ Summer Walker, ‘Girls Need Love’ 112, ‘Peaches and Cream’ Ella Mai, ‘Boo’d Up’ Babyface and Toni Braxton, ‘Hurt You’ Lloyd, ‘You’ Drake, ‘Marvin’s Room’ The Foreign Exchange, ‘Take Off the Blues’ Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, ‘How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?’ India.Arie, ‘Brown Skin’ Pretty Ricky, ‘On the Hotline’ Dwele, ‘Find a Way’ Sisqo, ‘Incomplete’ Janelle Monáe, ‘Tightrope’ T-Pain, ‘Buy U a Drank’ Bryson Tiller, ‘Exchange’ Amy Winehouse, ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’ Ray J, ‘One Wish’ Teyana Taylor, ‘Gonna Love Me’ J. Holiday, ‘Bed’ Ciara feat. Petey Pablo, ‘Goodies’ Ari Lennox, ‘Whipped Cream’ Joe, ‘I Wanna Know’ Outkast, ‘Prototype’ H.E.R., ‘Every Kind of Way’ Muni Long, ‘Hrs and Hrs’ Jhené Aiko, ‘The Worst’ Mario, ‘Just a Friend’ Ciara, ‘Body Party’ Ashanti, ‘Happy’ Mya, ‘Case of the Ex (Whatcha Gonna Do)’ Keyshia Cole, ‘Love’ Monica, ‘So Gone’ Lil’ Mo feat. Fabolous, ‘4Ever’ Tamia, ‘Stranger in My House’ Jaheim, ‘Put That Woman First’ Floetry, ‘Say Yes’ Tyrese, ‘How You Gonna Act Like That’

For many decades, going as far back as the 1940s, artists from the world of R&B couldn’t really claim mainstream success until they’d crossed over to Top 40 radio and the pop charts. This century, it often feels more like the pop world is crossing over to R&B. The genre has never been more successful, relevant, or ambitious. Many of this century’s epochal blockbuster albums are R&B records: from Usher’s 10-times platinum Confessions, to Beyonce’s Lemonade, to Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi, to Rihanna’s Anti. R&B hits omnivorously dominate the Top 10, often leaving room for little else.

Aesthetically, it’s a sound that contains multitudes — there’s the organic traditionalism of neo-soul acts like Bilal, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu, and the new piano-driven classicism of Alicia Keys and John Legend, to the futurism of Janelle Monáe, the goth moodiness of the Weeknd, the unapologetic realness of Monica and SZA, the trap soul of Bryson Tiller, and much more. Hip-hop and R&B, which began to merge in the Nineties, have enjoyed a symbiotic cohabitation, so much so that in December 1999, Billboard changed the name of its R&B chart to the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks. You can hear that in many of the songs that made this list, including entrants from Outkast, Pharrell, and Drake.

R&B and the indie-music underground used to exist on different planets; today innovators like Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino, and Solange are beloved by the mass audience and the hipsterati alike. Similarly, the music’s most towering figures, such as Beyoncé and Rihanna, can maintain their status as maga-stars without sacrificing their identity as R&B royalty, striking a balance that was nearly impossible to attain for Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston, even in their heydays. Solange exemplified that sense of aesthetic pride and self-assurance in 2013 when she famously tweeted in defense of the “culture of R&B,” a concept that would’ve seemed odd in the mainstream of 1995 or 1985.

Through all these musical variants, what’s made R&B great in this era has been what’s made it great in every era: incredible singers putting their stamp on unforgettable songs. To make our list of the 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century, Rolling Stone convened a panel of staffers and critics with deep knowledge of the genre. We spent less time debating what R&B was then letting our taste guide us to the music we couldn’t live without, from massive hits to lesser-known gems. We’ve included a playlist to help tell the story, and set the mood. We hope you have as much fun listening to it as we did making it.

  • Raheem DeVaughn, ‘Woman’

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    “It’s official right now: In four minutes or less, we’re gonna crown ‘em all,” Raheem DeVaughn declares at the outset of this stretched-out ode to the feminine. “Woman,” from 2008, clocks in a little bit over that mark, but that can easily be excused by how much the singer-songwriter wants to praise the special, beautiful, strong, grown figure at this song’s center — his full-throated admiration is so divine that “Woman” turns into a full-on hymn as it fades out. M. Johnston

  • B2K, ‘Bump, Bump, Bump’

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    Designed to be the Jackson 5 of the 21st century, boy band B2K made a huge splash with Black preteen and teenage girls thanks to their hit“Bump, Bump, Bump.” Produced by Diddy, the song featured quintessential early 2000s staples such as the producer’s signature intro and ad-libs, unnecessary vocal runs from singer Omarion (who was trying to replicate writer R. Kelly’s demo), and the kind of “clubby” track that was popular at the time. “Bump, Bump, Bump” reached Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 for a week and was B2K’s second-to-last Top 40 hit before they disbanded in 2004. K.T.

  • Ryan Leslie feat. Cassie and Fabolous, ‘Addiction’

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    In a decade when too many R&B innovators struggled to crack the pop charts, Ryan Leslie stood out. A multi-talented songwriter and producer who famously masterminded Cassie’s memorable debut and was an early YouTube star, he earned credits with the likes of Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige. Yet his solo work sold moderately, even as his single “Addiction” became a cult classic sampled by Clipse and Wiz Khalifa. The track finds RLS chilling amidst a flurry of electronic keyboards like a new-gen Puff Daddy as he lavishes praise on a lover. “It started out with a kiss/I’m never expecting this,” he sings in falsetto. “Addiction” feels clubby and fresh, the kind of jam that fits on any dance floor, mainstream appeal or not. M.R.

  • Avant, ‘Makin’ Good Love’

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    “Makin’ Good Love” is a sultry lullaby that fully encapsulates the direction R&B would be heading in the late Nineties and early 21st century. With the rise of acts such as Jodeci and Tank, R&B love songs became more explicit, and this single from Avant’s sophom*ore album, Ecstasy, was a prime example of that trend. With lyrics such as “I got your legs spread all over the bed/Hands clenched in the sheets,” “Makin’ Good Love” is an early entry into the space artists like Chris Brown and Trey Songz would inhabit. K.T.

  • Tems, ‘Free Mind’

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    Afrobeats star Tems looks to a higher power to ease her struggles in “Free Mind,” a 2020 breakthrough hit on U.S. radio for the Nigerian artist. Accompanied by delicate electric keys and a gentle, syncopated beat, Tems expertly articulates what it’s like to deal with mental illness: “I try to be fine but I can’t be/the noise in my mind wouldn’t leave me,” she sings, as she falls deeper into darkness. She tries to find hope in God, and the song doubles as a prayer for release (“I need a free mind now,” she pleads), but the unexpected melodic shift near the end suggests the battle isn’t nearly over. J.F.

  • Tank, ‘Please Don’t Go’

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    Durrell “Tank” Babbs had a wide-ranging career as a songwriter and producer, working with Aaliyah,Beyoncé,Jamie Foxx, Pitbull, and others, as well as his own solo career, which included the minor 2007 hit “Please Don’t Go.” Tank might not be the most inviting stage name for a romantic crooner, but here he delivers a sensual performance as he dresses himself down for his infidelities, asking all men to do better. After hearing loss issues sidelined Tank from music, he has continued on in a mentor roll, co-hosting the R&B Money Podcast. J.D.

  • Jeremih feat. J. Cole, ‘Planez’

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    After his 2009 debut single, “Birthday Sex,” became an unlikely hit, Jeremih went off-script, recording a psychedelic masterpiece called Late Nights about a dimension in which the sun never rises. That release’s major-label follow-up, titled Late Nights: The Album, had the same general conceit but went wide screen with the vision, and “Planez” works as an aesthetic thesis statement, as seductive as it is shameless. Vinylz’s beat feels as airy and weightless as a plane breaking through the clouds into the night sky. Jeremih finds a half-dozen different hooks to play with before kicking it to J. Cole for an instantly notorious verse that has become central to the track’s enduring appeal. C.P.

  • Brent Faiyaz, ‘Jackie Brown’

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    With a title referencing Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 blaxploitation homage, “Jackie Brown” is a perfect mixture of the melodic R&B and rapping that has become Brent Faiyaz’s signature sound. The song kicks off with a high-pitched vocal that evokes the sense of reckless freedom, leading into a woozy track and lyrical quotes from the Tarantino film like, “Crib by the beach like Ordell/No Beaumont, my killas don’t tell.” Faiyaz’s 2022 album, Wasteland, dealt with the overhasty Gen Z obsession with luxury, coolness, and defiance, and that mood reached an epic high on “Jackie Brown.” K.T.

  • Goapele, ‘Closer’

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    Goapele released her independent EP just as the retro-meets-future neo-soul movement was hitting a commercial stride. The environment was ripe for the ethereal breakout track “Closer” to gain traction outside of an underground or indie niche, eventually landing on Bay Area radio station KMEL’s nightly countdown. The song’s soft, simple production, and accessible narrative about closing in on a long-held dream elevated “Closer” from a groove to a mantra for both original fans and generations to follow. The so-close-I-can-see-it theme is universally resonant, even in hip-hop with rappers Kendrick Lamar and Drake among those who sampled the track. N.C.

  • Khalid feat. 6lack and Ty Dolla $ign, ‘OTW’

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    On his skittering single “OTW,” Khalid is only in town for a moment and doesn’t have time to waste. In a considerable step up from hitting send on a late-night “you up?” text, the singer pulls up in a drop top (with proof of purchase, for good measure) and cruises through the streets. Gliding across Nineteen85’s slick Nineties production, the singer calls in reinforcements in the form of 6lack’s enthralling promises and Ty Dolla $ign’s amorous urgency. It’s not quite an outright R&B boy band team-up, but the trifecta of heavy hitters makes for masterful wingmen. L.P.

  • Bobby Valentino, ‘Slow Down’

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    Shedding his image as a former member of Nineties teen group Mista, the first single from Bobby Valentino’s self-titled debut album displayed maturity without spilling over into sleazeball territory.“Slow Down” was appropriately released on Valentine’s Day in 2005. V’s velvety vocals cruise perfectly over slinky, come-hither production from Grammy-winning producers Tim and Bob, as he croons about a woman he just wants “to get to know.” The grown-ass leap into the big leagues came with a warm welcome; “Slow Down” topped the Billboard Hip-Hop/R&B chart for four weeks. It would later (and indisputably) become his signature song. J.J.

  • 3LW, ‘No More (Baby I’ma Do Right)’

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    R&B girl group 3LW (an abbreviation for 3 Little Women) arrived in 2000 with their self-titled debut, singing and rapping over the herky-jerky production that TLC and Destiny’s Child had made radio staples. The biggest song, “No More (Baby I’ma Do Right),” is a scorched earth cheating anthem. Together, the trio —comprised of Adrienne Bailon, Kiely Williams, and Naturi Naughton — confirms that the protagonist’s man is indeed two-timing her, and she’s had enough. “You do or you don’t, don’t/You will or you won’t, won’t/No more/No more, baby, I’ma do right,” they assert in the chorus. I.K.

  • Lucky Daye, ‘Roll Some Mo’

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    After a brief run on American Idol, Lucky Daye graduated to behind-the-scenes studio fixture, popping up deep in the liner notes on albums by Keith Sweat, Mary J. Blige, and others. But in the meantime, he was quietly etching his own vision across a series of EPs he’d eventually release as Painted, a debut that kicks off with the irrepressible “Roll Some Mo.” Like a lot of Daye’s best songs, it sounds like it has existed forever, finding something sanguine in the liminal space between going out and staying in, late night and early morning, this joint and the next. C.P.

  • Summer Walker, ‘Girls Need Love’

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    Summer Walker’s arrival had a Sade-esque mystique, incorporating acoustic performances with emotionally exposed lyrics that addressed the insecurities of Black women in the millennial/Gen Z era. “Girls Need Love” ushered in a new era of R&B led by artists such as Walker, Victoria Monet, SZA, Ari Lennox, and others. With lyrics such as “I just need some dick, I just need some love/Tired of f*cking with these lame nigg*s, I just need a thug,” the Atlanta singer-songwriter joined her peers as part of a movement of artists authentically expressing the diverse experiences and emotions of contemporary women. K.T.

  • 112, ‘Peaches and Cream’

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    112’s “It’s Over Now” became a key track that contributed to Bad Boy Records’ continued prominence into the early 2000s. While the group didn’t reach the commercial heights of peers like Jagged Edge or Dru Hill, 112 were one of the last male vocal groups to seamlessly merge R&B and rap with a traditional flair. “It’s Over Now” is one of the many songs from their brief run at Bad Boy that underlined their ability to navigate the urban musical landscape, putting their own stamp on the R&B-hip-hop fusion co-pioneered by their former producer and boss, Diddy. K.T.

  • Ella Mai, ‘Boo’d Up’

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    “R&B is not dead,” Ella Mai told Rolling Stone as her breakout ballad “Boo’d Up” ascended the charts. The London singer exemplified an era of R&B artists evoking classic hits, whether subtly or through explicit samples. “Boo’d Up” falls into the former category — produced by DJ Mustard, it has a piano refrain reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “These Three Words.” But it also sounds wholly contemporary. Mai settles into the music with a warm and inviting voice and treats romance as a source of domesticated bliss. As she rhapsodizes about her partner, she confirms that yes, zoomers need love, too. M.R.

  • Babyface and Toni Braxton, ‘Hurt You’

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    Much as Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear decades before, Babyface and Toni Braxton’s Love, Marriage & Divorce is a gloriously feel-bad concept album. It learns hard into the reality-TV vibes that marked R&B in the early 2010s — also see Braxton’s sister Tamar’s “Love & War” — while relying on Babyface’s award-winning talent for writing and producing sturdy songs out of complex emotions. At the album’s center is “Hurt You,” a duet where Babyface and Braxton navigate feelings of regret and how his neglect pushed her to sleep with someone else. “God knows I never meant to hurt you,” Braxton sings in her famously wintry voice. “God knows I never meant to turn you on, to turn you out.” M.R.

  • Lloyd, ‘You’

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    On much of Street Love, Lloyd sings at a whisper, close to the mic, elucidating his feelings directly if discretely. But on “You,” something about the flip of Spandau Ballet’s “True” pulls the journeyman out of his shell. The track feels operatic, urbane, a heartsick neo-noir glide through various locales of late-night melancholy. Lloyd sings each come-on — “Let’s dip up out of here,” “You’re just my type” — as if his soul was on the line, and Lil Wayne, at his ’06 apex, banks in two easy-money verses that perfectly complement Lloyd’s in-the-red ardor. A later remix flips the sample differently, with a scene-stealing Andre 3000 verse; it’s just as good, somehow. C.P.

  • Drake, ‘Marvin’s Room’

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    Early in his career, Drake’s oscillating between boastful and bashful in his depictions of his romantic encounters created an air of mystery. The latter facade was often saved for his R&B entries, separating the rapper from the singer. On Take Care’s “Marvin’s Room,” the lines soften and blur in Noah “40” Shebib’swatery production. Drake’s vocals swim in the dull bass sound mirroring the way that his head swims in his inebriation as he hits dial on a late-night drunken phone call. It’s Drake in his most classic form. He wants the person on the other line to know that he’s doing fine, except that he’s not; that he’s living the life, but something is missing; that he’s only occasionally ashamed, but still stuck in his ways. —L.P.

  • The Foreign Exchange, ‘Take Off the Blues’

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  • Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, ‘How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?’

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    In the mid-Nineties, Georgia-born nightclub singer Sharon Jones began recording “heavy funk” 7-inches with a group of young musicians who would become the core of Brooklyn outfit the Dap-Kings. A decade later, they and other Daptone Records acts like Lee Fields and Charles Bradley were at the center of an increasingly popular retro-soul movement, thanks to brilliant singles like “How Long Do I Have to Wait for You?” The track found Jones and the Dap-Kings blending a funky Clyde Stubblefield-style rhythm with piping ska-flavored horns and wah-wah guitar. “Every hour seems like a day, and every day seems like a year,” Jones wailed over the melancholy yet imminently danceable track. Retro soul would eventually go mainstream, thanks to Amy Winehouse, while Jones, who passed away in 2016, is mostly appreciated by funk enthusiasts. But her excellent catalog deserves to resonate far more widely. M.R.

  • India.Arie, ‘Brown Skin’

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    “Brown skin, you know I love your brown skin,” sings India.Arie. The Colorado-born, Atlanta-raised singer-songwriter’s ballad stands out as an affirmation of pride in a community still afflicted by colorism as well as a deeply sensuous jam in which two bodies can’t tell “where yours begins” and “mine ends.” As she coos rhythmically, it feels like Arie’s slowly, emphatically strumming a guitar with her voice. Like Roberta Flack, India.Arie recognizes that Black love is both personal and political. “I know for certain that God made us the way we’re supposed to be,” she told a radio station in 2002. “I love everything about myself, the way I look, my nose, my skin.” M.R.

  • Pretty Ricky, ‘On the Hotline’

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    Pretty Ricky’s “On the Hotline” blended explicit allure with distinctive Southern twang. The unabashed sensuality of the group’s lyrics (“It’s five in the morning, and I’m up having phone sex with you”), the soft crooning of the phrase “So horny” in the background, and the charisma of each member got the song into heavy rotation on the BET video show 106 and Park, and catapulted the group into stardom. Solidifying its place as an all-time classic for R&B boy bands, “On the Hotline” not only pushed the boundaries of acceptable content but also showcased Pretty Ricky’s ability to infuse regional flavor into the genre. K.T.

  • Dwele, ‘Find a Way’

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    For a brief moment in the early 2000s, Dwele was your favorite artist’s favorite artist. A talented multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and producer from Detroit who took Marvin Gaye as his model, Dwele made neo-soul with a nod toward the alternative hip-hop sounds of acts like his Motor City contemporaries Slum Village, who appeared on Dwele’s great 2003 debut, Subject. “Find a Way,” Dwele’s only single to hit the Hot 100, is a smooth, upbeat tune that showcases his unique mix of nuanced vocal power and lyrical sensitivity. M.Jordan

  • Sisqo, ‘Incomplete’

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    Sisqo’s “Thong Song” was so huge it overshadowed the rest of the charismatic entertainer’s debut album, Unleash the Dragon. The standout “Incomplete” highlighted Sisqo’s virtuosity, demonstrating his ability to stand apart from the Nineties trio Dru Hill, which he’d recently left, as well as contemporaries like Usher. The song not only underscored his gifts as a hitmaker but unveiled Sisqo as a power vocalist, strengthening his place as a formidable force in R&B beyond the catchy allure of his more flamboyant tracks. K.T.

  • Janelle Monáe, ‘Tightrope’

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    Though not Janelle Monáe’s first release, 2010’s “Tightrope” was the moment where the multi-hyphenate performer’s expansive artistic vision really started to coalesce. Funky and futuristic, “Tightrope” clatters like James Brown if he’d been sharing a bill with Outkast (whose Big Boi gives Monáe a cosign by providing a few bars here) at some interstellar jazz club. Lyrically it’s all about maintaining balance — “This ain’t no acrobatics/You either follow or you lead” — but Monáe shows some serious range as she switches from a punchy, scat-style delivery in her verses to an all-out soul belt when she gets to the chorus hook. It’s a knockout performance, and she was only getting started. J.F.

  • T-Pain, ‘Buy U a Drank’

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    T-Pain’s self-produced, mid-2000s breakout combines the Floridian’s smooth delivery with the highly popular, Southern-bred “snap” sound of that period. Throughout “Buy U a Drank,” he references songs by acts like Lil Jon and featured artist Yung Joc, highlighting the importance of the relationship between R&B and hip-hop. The use of Auto-Tune here and throughout the early work of the “rappa ternt sanga” helped to cement the vocal processor as a fixture of pop music. But outside of the effect, T-Pain could actually sing, proving that while the machine may enhance other vocalists’ skills, true talent and a knack for finding what’s hot is what ultimately allowed him to thrive. J.J.

  • Bryson Tiller, ‘Exchange’

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    “Exchange” epitomizes the fusion of Drake’s introspective lyricism and the gritty vibes of Bryson Tiller’s hometown, Louisville. A breakout hit from his debut album, Trapsoul, “Exchange” showcases Tiller’s sudden emergence into R&B, blending soulful melodies with trap-inspired beats. The album marked a pivotal moment in the genre, offering a fresh take on classic themes like love and relationships. While subsequent Tiller releases have yet to surpass the impact of Trapsoul, the subgenre of the same name it helped spawn is still undeniably influential. K.T.

  • Amy Winehouse, ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’

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    “Tears Dry on Their Own,” one of the standout moments on of British soul icon Amy Winehouse’s final album, Back to Black, features a somber interpolation of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s Motown classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Over a quivering doo-wop-pop brass and bass melody, Winehouse’s raspy lilt is a commanding force as she sings, “We could have never had it all/ We had to hit a wall/And this is inevitable withdrawal.” I.K.

  • Ray J, ‘One Wish’

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    “One Wish” went against the grain at a time in which vocal performances were often downplayed by mainstream male R&B artists. The chameleonic Ray J not only delivered a memorable example of great vocals on this Darkchild-produced hit (which hit Number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100), but also crafted a meme-worthy moment by singing and dancing in the rain in the song’s music video. In a landscape where R&B singers were diversifying their styles, “One Wish” proved that in the midst of evolving trends, a genuinely good song is still as transcendent as ever. K.T.

  • Teyana Taylor, ‘Gonna Love Me’

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    “Gonna Love Me” is a particular brand of love song, one that situated itself in the casual realities of romantic reconciliation. “Sometimes we say things that we really don’t mean,” she sings. “I’m sorry if I made you feel less than who you are.” Its boom bap beat is cozy but strained, amplifying its feeling of familiarity, misgivings, and evolution, both in a relationship and of Taylor, who had been making music as an It girl since she was a teen but hit her stride much later. It was the highlight of Taylor’s K.T.S.E., the best body of work in a chaotic season of releases helmed by Kanye West for his imprint G.O.O.D. Music, to which Taylor was signed. M.C.

  • J. Holiday, ‘Bed’

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    The seductive smash hit from J. Holiday’s debut studio album, Back of My Lac, portrays the duality of bedroom lovin’. Over tom-tom drums and shimmering chimes, the DMV-bred artist croons about running his fingers through his lover’s hair, while she gets her beauty rest after a long day. In the same breath, he adds in more straightforward musings about gettin’ it on “until [her] eyes roll back.” Written and produced by Los Da Mystro and The-Dream, the song peaked at Number Five on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2007, and it spent an impressive five weeks in the top slot on the magazine’s R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart. J.J.

  • Ciara feat. Petey Pablo, ‘Goodies’

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    As the sexy title track of Ciara’s studio debut album, “Goodies” is a self-assured dance-pop anthem that flaunts her breathy, wanting vocals. “I bet you want the goodies (uh)/ Bet you thought about it (yeah)/Got you all hot and bothered (ow),” she taunts over a siren-like melody. The song has lived on as one of Ciara’s most career-defining hits and a staple of every R&B playlist. I.K.

  • Ari Lennox, ‘Whipped Cream’

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    Featured on the DMV native’s debut LP, Shea Butter Baby, the plucky, Seventies-inspired “Whipped Cream” finds Ari Lennox doing everything she can to forget her former flame. “You’ve been everywhere,” she laments, adding, “And I wish I didn’t care.” Throughout the groovy, Cameo-sampling tune, she grapples with the idea of moving on, which is daunting enough for her to reconsider her “deceivin’, receivin’, non-givin headass” of an ex. While maintaining her quirky relatability and contemporary songwriting approach, she marries the energy of R&B’s present with the best of the genre’s past.J.J.

  • Joe, ‘I Wanna Know’

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    This plush ballad by the Georgia singer Joe is a stretched-out plea to a lover who’s nursing their wounds from a recent breakup. “Baby, I’m the kind of man who shows concern, yes I do/Any way that I can please you, let me learn,” Joe croons over twinkling synths and a cupid’s-arrow acoustic guitar before the sumptuous chorus, which has a singsong melody that makes his pitch for being a safe haven even sweeter. M. Johnston

  • Outkast, ‘Prototype’

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    The Love Below remains a bracingly strange record from a pop star at their commercial peak — full of acid jazz, kicky punk rock, even a song about Dracula — but it’s also full of hooks, from “Roses” to the immortal “Hey Ya!” But the aqueous album centerpiece “Prototype” feels different, meditative, designed for some higher purpose. An ambling guitar figure traces the arc of a hazy afternoon romance, André 3000’s repeated, sigh-like exhortations “I think I’m in love/Again” giving the track the feeling of an exhale. It all evaporates into an outro (“Stank you/Smelly much”) as sublime and singular as the song itself. C.P.

  • H.E.R., ‘Every Kind of Way’

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    Gabriella Wilson has no shortage of top-notch R&B ballads, but the sexiest of the bunch for the artist known as H.E.R. is “Every Kind of Way.” An album cut from H.E.R.’s self-titled 2017 release, it’s an excellent showcase for Wilson’s singular talents. Her fluid electric guitar licks course through the track, which radiates cocoon-like warmth from little more than a simple drum pattern, bass, and her soft, flush-with-desire vocals. “I want you off my mind, and on me,” she confesses. “For you, I wanna take my time.” So hot that it should come with a warning. J.F.

  • Muni Long, ‘Hrs and Hrs’

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    Under her own name, Priscilla Renea penned hits for Rihanna, Fifth Harmony, and Kesha, then released the great, slept-on country-soul album Coloured in 2018. After dubbing herself Muni Long, she returned in 2022 with “Hrs and Hrs,” which found viral success on TikTok as people tried (largely in vain) to imitate Long’s jaw-dropping vocal runs and ad-libs. Her bravura performance also brought home the theme of finding life-altering love and its many sensual pleasures (“order shrimp and lobster towers, but it’s me that gets devoured,” she sings) that can make time seem like an abstract concept. J.F.

  • Jhené Aiko, ‘The Worst’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (39)

    Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo spent several years navigating the Black teen-pop scene before she found her identity with the 2011 mixtape Sailing Soul(s). As the Grammy-nominated breakout hit from her 2013 Sail Out EP, “The Worst” marked her as a talent to be reckoned with, thanks to her unforgettable hook. “Don’t take this personal, but you’re the worst, you know what you’ve done to me,” she sings over an aqueous, piano-flecked track produced by Fisticuffs. “I don’t need you … but I want you.” While Aiko flits between desire and despair, the accompanying video for “The Worst” leads to a starker result as it depicts Aiko being arrested for murdering her lover. M.R.

  • Mario, ‘Just a Friend’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (40)

    More than a decade after Biz Markie flipped Freddie Scott’s “(You) Got What I Need” into the left-field hip-pop smash “Just a Friend,” Baltimore smoothie Mario took the song and switched it up Y2K-style — it’s a bit sweeter and peppier, driven by unrequited love instead of cheating-related paranoia. Warryn “Baby Dubb” Campbell’s feather-light production allows Mario’s longing to take center stage, his rapid-fire questions to his intended coming off like overwhelming excitement about being in her presence. M. Johnston

  • Ciara, ‘Body Party’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (41)

    Ciara has always had great taste in producers, creating a string of uptempo party-starters with collaborators as varied as Lil Jon, Jazze Pha, and Rodney Jerkins. On her self-titled fifth LP, she pulled Mike Will Made It in the opposite direction, creating an iconically sexy slow jam full of billowing, satiny synthesizers. Director X’s low-key video captures the vibe perfectly: Ciara pitched at a grown-up party across then-paramour (and song co-writer) Future, breaking into easy dance moves and enjoying herself particularly in his presence. Each hook is its own little crescendo, a hint of breathlessness creeping in at the edges. C.P.

  • Ashanti, ‘Happy’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (42)

    You can’t talk 2000s R&B without mentioning Ashanti. The Long Island-born singer was discovered in her teens and signed to Murder Inc. Records, sweetening hits by rappers Fat Joe and Ja Rule. On her 2002 hit “Happy,” Ashanti’s positivity is contagious as she radiates joy on an airy, flute-flanked jaunt about her lover. “Boy, you got me feeling so good/You take all my pain away from me/Without you around, I couldn’t be/And I know you fell in love with me,” she sings with a dreamy lilt. It’s one of the reasons she also landed the nickname “princess of R&B” over the years. I.K.

  • Mya, ‘Case of the Ex (Whatcha Gonna Do)’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (43)

    With “Case of the Ex,” Mya made one of the defining no-good-boyfriend anthems of the 2000s. The brooding pop-meets-R&B number proved to be the singer’s breakthrough hit, as she probes her man’s desire to get back with his ex over an infectious, stuttering melody. “Now what is it that she wants?/Tell me what is it that she needs?/Did she hear about the brand new Benz/That you just bought for me?” she taunts, driving the song’ message with clinical precision and unmistakable authority. I.K.

  • Keyshia Cole, ‘Love’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (44)

    “Love” is a big, gorgeous ballad by Keyshia Cole, an Oakland native whose first industry credits involved singing hooks for mobb-music acts like Messy Marv and her brother Sean “Nutt-So” Cole. Much like the Bronx-born Mary J. Blige in the early ’90s, Cole nurtured a rough-edged persona that evoked a brokenhearted past. But on her most famous song, all that blissfully falls away in a gushy showstopper reminiscent of Judy Garland and Diana Ross. Cole, who co-wrote the song with Gregory Curtis, fully commits to the performance with an amazing, soaring vocal and demonstrates how the flip side of “keeping it real” is being unafraid to lose yourself in the life-changing possibility of a kiss. M.R.

  • Monica, ‘So Gone’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (45)

    There’s a reason we all call her Goonica. Monica’s “So Gone” etched itself into R&B history as an iconic anthem that combines her raw, hood personality with the characteristically excellent lyrics and production crafted by Missy Elliott. With its semi-orchestral track, crackling beat, empowering lyrics, Donna Summer-referencing refrain, and a rap that proclaims that Monica will “Kick down ya doors and smack ya chick!,” “So Gone” is a fearless fusion of authenticity, talent, and innovation. K.T.

  • Lil’ Mo feat. Fabolous, ‘4Ever’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (46)

    Across her first two LPs, Lil’ Mo etched out a persona as a tough girl with a heart of gold, unafraid to spit over the “Ten Crack Commandments” beat on one track and bear her soul on the next. She brings it all together on the wedding-day anthem “4Ever,” challenging her beau to commit to every side of her through sickness and health, ride or die, crazy and mundane. Producer Bryan Michael Cox’s beat, full of chiming, palm-muted guitars and shimmy-down-the-aisle drums, nudge a heart-on-sleeve Fabolous into saying “I do,” too. C.P.

  • Tamia, ‘Stranger in My House’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (47)

    You can hear the betrayal dripping from Tamia’s syrupy vocals on “Stranger in My House.” The Canadian singer laments her lover turning into someone she doesn’t recognize: “’Cause he wouldn’t touch me like that/And he wouldn’t treat me like you do (you do)/He would adore me, he wouldn’t ignore me/So, I’m convinced there’s a stranger in my house.” While the original version of the song emulates the deep pain of the protagonist, a remix took over nightclubs everywhere, turning “Stranger in My House” into a reclamation of sorts. I.K.

  • Jaheim, ‘Put That Woman First’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (48)

    “I forgot to be your lover,” Jaheim admits on “Put That Woman First” while referencing Stax artist William Bell’s 1968 standard. The New Jersey singer presented a modernized take on classic soul, with a soft and inviting voice burnished by surviving a childhood spent in public housing. You can hear his strong-yet-sensitive tone in the way he presents “Put That Woman First” as a lesson not to mess up a good thing the way he did. “If it wasn’t for the makeup on my shirt, still out there chasing skirts then, I couldn’t remember,” he admits, ruefully acknowledging how he acted like a louse even as he seductively draws the audience closer. M.R.

  • Floetry, ‘Say Yes’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (49)

    Toward the mid-2000s, the short lived neo-soul movement was beginning to crest, and Floetry’s 2002 debut album, Floetic, was one of the subgenres final mainstream staples. The duo of Marsha Ambrosius and Natalie Stewart delivered lyrics like “Don’t deny what you feel, let me undress you/Open up your mind and just rest” with a sultry allure over Andre Harris’ elegant production. One of the sexiest songs of all time, “Say Yes” is a testament to Floetry’s ability to merge soulful storytelling and a seductive realism, setting the table for future acts like Ari Lennox and Alex Isley. T.K.

  • Tyrese, ‘How You Gonna Act Like That’

    The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (50)

    Tyrese Gibson first appeared via a TV commercial in which he wowed a busload of people by crooning about the wonders of Coca-Cola, and he wenton to augment his singing career with roles in several action movies. He had his biggest hit in 2002 with this beautifully heartbroken ballad. “How You Gonna Act Like That” is a slow jam in the slowest, jammiest sense, stretching out to allow Tyrese all the room he needs to offer a forensic investigation of a brutal breakup that he can’t get over. The almost prayerful insistence in his voice as he goes from begging to pleading to full-on belting makes this a master class in the fine art of not being able to figure out when it’s time to get over it and just move on. J.D.

The 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century (2024)
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