Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly” (TDE): Pulling from free jazz, Parliament-Funkadelic era funk, slam poetry and live instrumentation helped Lamar craft the year’s toughest listen. “To Pimp a Butterfly” spoke directly to black America and provided the necessary soundtrack in the age of #BlackLivesMatter.
Kehlani, “You Should Be Here” (self release): The year’s finest R&B album came from a largely unknown 20-year-old. Self-assured tales of romantic yearning and heartbreak are woven over refreshingly bright productions reminiscent of early 2000s neo-soul. Kehlani’s versatility is astounding as she flips among being earnest, hopelessly optimistic, lustful and inspirational.
Janet Jackson, “Unbreakable” (Rhythm Nation): With her comeback album, Jackson focused on connecting her groundbreaking past to a present that’s still deeply affected by her influence. “Unbreakable,” her first album in seven years, took the fusion of R&B, funk, disco and rock that drove her early discography and added a more mature spin — without chasing the trends of current pop.
Jazmine Sullivan, “Reality Show” (RCA): Using the drink-throwing, backstabbing betrayal of trashy reality shows as inspiration, Sullivan crafted a witty character study with her third album. The beats are heavier, but her sumptuous vocals about vanity, pain and self-love never sounded so sweet.
The Weeknd, “Beauty Behind the Madness” (Republic): His “Beauty Behind the Madness” straddled the hazy, drug-and-sex-fueled alternative R&B that made him an Internet sensation with expertly crafted pop tunes. It’s dark, sexy hedonism without regret or consequences.
Shamir, “Ratchet” (XL): The 20-year-old Las Vegas singer with a countertenor that could pierce a cloud put out one of the year’s most vibrant debuts. Between his soulful approach to sweaty disco-house sonics and the youthful vigor of his lyrics, “Ratchet” is a pure delight.
Ty Dolla Sign, “Free TC” (Atlantic): Hip-hop’s favorite hooksmith took the blend of R&B and “ratchet” rap that made him a mixtape sensation and expanded it with stripped-down acoustics and sticky pop beats. The lyrics are brazen (raunchy, even), but his sandpaper rasp is intoxicating.
Drake, “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” (Young Money): Drake’s surprise mixtape isn’t about big ideas and concepts. Instead, he opted for mood. The beats are murky and hypnotic. There are plenty of seductive hooks, but his usual vulnerability took a back seat to assured raps showing he’s well aware that he’s at the top of his game.