There's so much music available at our fingertips now, it's easy and fairly common to miss out on a great album release. This especially holds true in R&B, a genre that has seen its mainstream pool evaporate over the past five years.
While 2016 brought fans new albums from Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Alicia Keys, Usher, Maxwell and Solange, in addition to releases by new school phenoms such as Tory Lanez and PARTYNEXTDOOR, it also delivered a cascade of outstanding, under-the-radar releases.
You might have missed them when they were originally released, but here are the three most impressive, slept-on R&B albums of 2016.
Phonte & Eric Roberson - Tigallerro
Phonte and Eric Roberson build upon the chemistry they previously displayed to reflect classic R&B while simultaneously creating their own sound. The album’s lead single, "It's So Easy," is a feel-good record, ready to be added to your cookout playlist alongside classics from Jeff Redd and Frankie Beverly. Throughout the project, Phonte and Roberson are honest in their approach—even if it leaves them vulnerable. This is most clearly evidenced by "Never the Same Smile," a track that finds the duo addressing how a man's infidelity can damage a couple's bond even if the woman takes him back.
Vocally, Eric proves that he's one of the best, while Phonte, best known for his work as an emcee, impressively holds his own. The duo showcases both raps and rap cadences across the 10-track project, in particular, during the chorus of "Grow This Love." Although such a move is common practice these days, Phonte and Eric pull off the feat without it sounding forced.
If you’ve ever heard a Little Brother album, you know to expect some humor from Phonte and “Hold Tight” is that moment for Tigallerro; there are lots of Migos- and Travis Scott-like ad-libs on the song. The record honestly made me laugh when I first heard it, but I've grown to genuinely love it.
Tigallerro ends with "Something," an introspective song that reflects the honesty heard throughout the album. It touches on relationships, but brings in other topics as well, including courage and faith. Eric sings, "Forgiveness is something hard to do / And truth is something we all should chase / To find something that’s meant for you / Well, risk is something you have to face."
Hopefully, this album isn’t the last of its kind from the Phonte and Eric pairing.
Ro James - ELDORADO
"Permission," the lead single from Ro James’ debut album, isn't slept-on considering the success it has enjoyed on Urban A/C radio, as well as its GRAMMY nomination for Best R&B Performance, but ELDORADO as a full body of work hasn’t received nearly the amount of attention it deserves.
Across 13 tracks, Ro does justice to the album’s Cadillac-inspired title by delivering songs that are tailor-made for a late-night cruise. There’s a mix of slow jams and mid-tempo tracks, all distinct in sound from the work of his peers. As a vocalist, Ro can be placed in a genealogy with such esteemed names as Prince and D’Angelo thanks to his tone and passionate delivery. Yet, there’s an edge to his lyrics that reveals a strong hip-hop influence, most notably on “Already Knew That.”
The album’s true highlights are “Last Cigarette,” which finds Ro singing about taking a chance on a new relationship despite the trouble he faced in his previous one, and “Everything,” an emotional track that provides a sobering moment of vulnerability. Over an acoustic guitar line, he sings, “By myself, crawling right back to you, yeah / You hurt me so good and that’s why I can’t leave you / You got me so weak like I need you / Maybe I’m addicted to pain.” It may not come across through text, but Ro pulls off lyrics like these without sounding sappy.
From his vocal delivery to the style seen on his album cover, Ro James is truly an individual. You can tell he’s an R&B artist when you listen to his work, but it’s also clear that he’s not bound to convention.
Yuna - Chapters
Yuna’s latest album is her first featuring R&B as her guide and the soundbed suits her well. The instrumentation on Chapters fits the gracefulness of her singing.
On “Lanes,” she sings about how the actions of the person she’s with have made her question his commitment, while “Places to Go” proves that she can pull off an up-tempo song. The track, produced by the legendary DJ Premier, has the feel of ‘90s R&B cuts that borrowed sounds from hip-hop. Although the music is upbeat, Yuna’s lyrics create a juxtaposition as she calls for a break from some of her stresses.
As for “Time,” Yuna gives listeners another glimpse into her life as she discusses a family loss that deeply affected her. Songs like these are a breath of fresh air given how new age R&B has turned away from love-driven material over the past ten years. We know that there’s more to singers’ lives than romance, so it’s good to hear that reflected in their music.
The standout track on Chapters is “Crush,” Yuna’s duet with Usher. As soon as Usher’s verse begins, it feels right—you just know he was the best choice for this collaboration. From his falsetto vocals to the way he harmonizes with Yuna, the veteran singer reminds us of how skilled he is as a vocalist. The duo complements one other well on “Crush,” placing the single among the best R&B records of the year.
It’s definitely my personal favorite.
Kenneth is a freelance writer born and raised in the Bronx. You can follow him on Twitter.