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In 2019 female R&B artists took their pleasure seriously—and thrived

Ari Lennox, Jamila Woods

Ari Lennox, Jamila Woods Photos courtesy of the artists

Several years ago the news looked grim for R&B women on pop radio.

But thanks to the success of singer-rapper Lizzo, female R&B artists have found an audience for work whose self-confidence and brash approach to the liars, cheaters, and gold diggers whom they date or fuck is a tonic. Lizzo ruling the autumn Billboard Hot 100—with songs released two years before breakthrough Cuz I Love You—and Solange Knowles scoring her second #1 album can hardly qualify as a failure for the genre, not when “genre” is an increasingly fluid term 

Lizzo’s pop penetration should cheer fans in her effort to sell uproarious, sometimes cornball, and catchy as hell anthems of body positivity. Other artists, themselves plugging away for a while, married beat-savvy approaches and a sensuous melodicism to an erudition reflective of a cultural moment in which texts are a couple iPhone clicks away. Here are four of 2019’s best. 

Every year a traditional R&B album impresses listeners with how it reminds them of values they revered growing up. What fascinates about Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Babyis how it modifies conventional notions of “tradition.” Aqueous, ruminative, Lennox’s debut sounds at first an awful lot like a Clinton-era Erykah Badu album (“Facetime” has a verse melody that echoes Badu’s “Window Seat”)—until you notice the whizzing beats, the explicitness with which Lennox insists on wanting her baby but also wanting a private space in which to appreciate her Dollar Store wine glasses on “New Apartment.” When she admits on “I Been” to enjoying Purple Haze she’s too grounded to imagine spacing out. J. Cole collaborators Elite and Omen provide many of those beats, incidentally: an example of how the Chicago rapper has used his profile to collaborate with female artists who take no shit (besides his appearance on Lennox’s title track, he contributes a precise best-ever rap to Rapsody’s “Sojourner”).

Demotic in language despite seeping herself in The Alchemist, Lennox uses stimulants, intellectual and otherwise, as aids in self-discovery; by contrast, Jamila Woods proffers a veritable syllabus of POC artists who help her prepare a face for the faces she’ll meet. Jean-Michel Basquiat, James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Huston, among others, aren’t ghosts on Woods’ second album LEGACY! LEGACY!; they’re benign if formidable presences whom Woods and her producers recontexualize at the center of limber, deceptively light electronic grooves drawing on Sly & Robbie electro-dub as much as Frankie Knuckles house and Betty Davis funk rock. “There must be a reason why” black women can’t show anger, she wonders over a chiming electric piano on “GIOVANNI,” and she doesn’t have to answer her own question. 

A slow boil of frustration turns Kehlani’s third mixtape While We Wait into her most focused effort to date. A pansexual-not-queer woman of color whose songs work as Venn diagrams of sexual intersectionality, she writes about relationships in which the players have exhausted modes of behavior. It takes a couple listens, for example, to understand that she and Ty Dolla $ign aren’t just singing to or about each other: while Ty, seething, reminds her he knows about the woman she’s sleeping with, Kehlani wanders in a sensual fog. “You gon’ get my hopes high, girl,” she warns, as multi-tracked harmonies and a mournful guitar figure smother her. 

Finally, a shout-out to the former Danity Kane singer-songwriter whose solo career has complemented her introspective streak with woozy, frantic rhythms. Released at the beginning of the year, Dawn Richard’s New Breed moves from the bedroom to the dance floor while retaining its essential weirdness. She throws shades at biz vets (“vultures | wolves”), sets Giorgio Moroder up with a trap beat (the title track), and poppin’ funk on “dreams and converse.” She’s having a blast finding aural correlatives for what’s in her head. Like Woods, Kehlani, and Lennox, Dawn pins down her pleasures with a musical specificity that raises questions about whether they’d date men who don’t love their albums. At the very least they’d write songs about them.