Illustration by: Dan Evans
2015 was a preposterously good year for R&B.
Here’s a short list of things that happened in the genre last year: Janet Jackson made a comeback, Jeremih and Ty Dolla $ign both released albums fans were getting beyond impatient for within weeks of each other, we saw new music released by everyone from Tamia and Babyface to Jazmine Sullivan and The Internet to Van Hunt and Raheem DeVaughn — and, oh yeah, just about everyone on FACT’s R&B artists to watch in 2015 won.
And while we were crying, “Fuck alt-R&B!” from the top of our lungs, the world listened and acknowledged that these innovations were more than just a quirky trend. We saw it with Tessa Thompson’s character and her musical output in the enormous Rocky movie Creed and we understood it was going away even better when The-Dream demanded people knew that R&B is always the alternative until it becomes mainstream. And then R&B finds new ways to be, once again.
A lot of the people finding those new sounds are in this list. They are global artists pulling from varied influences, whether it’s a former K-pop idol looking to lap the still-popular Chris Brown or a group of kids from West London bringing back the sorely missed R&B group dynamic. There are singers who are activists, L.A. girls who know how to make the Beach Boys sound like soul and much, much more.
These are the 10 R&B artists in 2016 to watch, but, really, the whole genre demands your attention.
22-year old South Korean singer DΞΔN has been in the game for a minute, starting off as a rapper at the ripe age of 16 (working with Keith Ape, who scored a hit last year with his trap-indebted ‘It G Ma’) before finding success in K-pop boy bands VIXX and EXO. But like 2NE1’s CL, DΞΔN has found himself breaking out of the K-pop mold — only his sound leans more toward Omarion and Trey Songz.
His radio-ready pipes and penchant for synth-swathed beats snagged him a collaboration with Mila J. for his first single ‘Here and Now’ before landing him with legendary R&B songwriter and singer Eric Bellinger. That song, ‘I’m Not There’ stands to put DΞΔN in the running with artists who have previously gotten work from Bellinger, like Justin Bieber and Chris Brown. With ties to Anderson Paak and Soulection, DΞΔN’s diversity is deep enough, we should see him all over the place in the next 12 months.
dvsn is an anonymous OVO Sound affiliate whose Nineteen85 collab ‘The Line’ debuted on the crew’s Beats 1 show last fall to much fanfare. While there isn’t a whole lot to uncover about dvsn’s identity — some speculated it is actually Nineteen85 himself — his falsetto was so undeniable on the cut, it didn’t even need a face. The rest of his minimal output is higher octane, clearly influenced by Swing Mob’s reign over 90s R&B but smoothed over with OVO’s signature sound.
Nineteen85 is responsible for Drake’s ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’ and ‘Hotline Bling’, both of which would have been made even better with dvsn’s buttery chops. But with those connections, and his mysterious profile growing, the hits should soon be a no-brainer.
He may have first grabbed attention for covering Frank Ocean’s ‘Thinkin Bout You’, but his style is entirely his own. A mix of smooth jazz, pop and subtle yacht rock vibes, his album Painting Sounds, due out this month, is a compendium of twinkling dancefloor tenderness and syrupy modern bedroom fare that recalls a kinder Abel Tesfaye in his falsetto. (And he’s unafraid to kick off a song with brazen “fuck you” on ‘Another Life’, even if it’s one of his most bubbly offerings.)
If his voice is familiar, you may recognize him from Kehlani’s ‘How We Do Us’ from her 2014-released Cloud 19 EP. The Bay Area singer made this list last year, before landing herself a Grammy nod for her debut full-length You Should Be Here. Not bad company for Dion to keep, we’d say.
Virginia-born R&B singer Melissa B. went hard last year, releasing the Exclusively EP at the top of 2015 and closing it out with her Feels Good mixtape. Both collections occupy a similar space—one where gauzy modern R&B meets the empowerment vibes of Keyshia Cole or Mary J. Blige, with a little bit less wear.
But strength is what Melissa B. is all about. On top of her music, she works as an activist for women’s education via the NYC post of the non-profit Girl Geek Dinners, which seeks to encourage women in technology and computer science fields.
Based in London, Nao first made an impact via her work with A.K. Paul, brother of the equally elusive Jai. And while the allure of the Paul siblings initially overshadowed Nao’s bubbling star, her 2015 EP February 15 helped her to stand on her own.
After an especially soulful guest appearance on Disclosure’s Caracal track ‘Superego’, Nao capped off last year with ‘Bad Blood’. It’s a nod to her jazz origins that builds atop the woozy world within her EPs, and an indicator of the intricate genre-melding to expect on her upcoming debut full-length.
L.A.’s PJ released her debut EP Walking Around Pools last March, giving us a preview into her soul-drenched, almost pop-rock leaning take on R&B. Signed to Atlantic, with songwriting credits under her belt for Wiz Khalifa, Tyga and Lupe Fiasco (who she collaborated with on her own work, ‘Say’, last summer), PJ promises to refine her sound throughout the year, delivering a smoother sound on the radio-ready pop-R&B we’re so familiar with.
Just take a listen to her latest, ‘Wi$hlist’ featuring K-Camp, which teeters more toward early 2000s R&B while still maintaining her edge.
Philip Oteka, aka Summertime Stories, is an anti-gravity Tevin Campbell. A little-known independent artist out of Atlanta — like, fewer than 100 followers on Twitter little-known — his output straddles the line between moody vocal collages and breathless crooning.
The sense of longing in both the weightlessness of his beats and the air of the vocals is more palpable than in many of the R&B big dogs’ music lately. Most of the music on his SoundCloud, which is updated fairly regularly, volleys between steamy and brooding, but has a tight grasp on maintaining a full atmospheric domain.
The French singer, who dabbles with residency in Japan, has a penchant for vocal experiments, teetering between pop vox over spacey electronics, occasional near-rapping, and powerhouse R&B sanging. While she tends to play close to the chest, there should be even more swoony, moody innovation from her in the coming months.
Singer-producer Tala’s initial output leaned more on the strict electronic side, but after the release of her 2015 EP Malika, it was clear she was in the running for being one of the best new modern R&B artists. Aside from the clear influence of her background — her father is Iranian and her mother is British — Tala creates something sensuous, a thing that is often overlooked in the more lo-fi or dance-related underground.
But what really makes Tala stand out is Malika lead track ‘Wolfpack’. A duet with BANKS about tightly-knit female friendship with an anthemic chorus that is anything but sugary, it not only acknowledges the importance of unity, but that the real also comes with keeping your circle close and closed up. If she keeps this kind of seal on her upcoming work, the kind of exclusivity should more than pay off.
This West London three-piece are the newest group in the bunch. They released their debut single ‘In2’ only last October and saw immediate success, breaking into the UK Top 5. But their triumph wasn’t orchestrated like this — their popularity was more social media and Shazam word-of-mouth than anything else. And now they’ve been tapped to collaborate with Pixie Lott and Rita Ora, with only two singles to their name. Still, don’t write them off as just a boy group — which is, frankly, something the genre has been missing for almost a decade.
‘In 2’ didn’t just appeal to pop artists, as it got a remix from Kehlani earlier this year. With interest pulling from different sides of the R&B spectrum, WSTRN stands to lead where people like Jagged Edge left off and recreate the lane where men singing R&B together doesn’t just have to be supergroups and DJ Khaled posse cuts.