2023 has featured a bevy of amazing R&B, pop, hyperpop and afro beats releases. HipHopDX will be narrowing down the year’s releases to the essentials, providing readers with a list of the must-listen projects. It’s been a pretty slow year so far for R&B albums, but we did get a couple solid entries from Coco Jones & Vedo. SZA also continues to dominate with her masterful SOS from back in December.
Struggling to find a list of the Hip Hop Albums that have been shifting the culture? Take a look at our lists for Hip Hop, Rap and R&B to get a complete survey of the projects that are dictating the conversation around Hip Hop culture.
Need some new songs to throw in the rotation but Spotify and user-created playlists are way too long? We kept it simple and added only the best of the best songs from each month to make sure you get the songs you need without a hassle. Peep the lists below.
Looking for some up and coming rappers and underground gems? We’ve done the work for you and highlighted the short EPs, mixtapes and projects to check out if you’re tired of the mainstream album cycle.
Editor’s note: Albums from this list were released between February 2, 2022 – January 31, 2023.
Mood Swings – Vedo
Vedo’s album Mood Swings is a solid album that showcases the singer’s versatility and musical range. With a mix of R&B, soul, and pop, the album explores themes of love, heartbreak, and self-discovery. Vedo’s powerful vocals and emotive delivery bring the lyrics to life, making each track a standout piece of art. Overall, Mood Swings is a must-listen for fans of smooth R&B and soul music.
SOS – SZA
It’s been five years since her debut album CTRL, and though she hasn’t gone completely missing in action since then – she’s appeared on Summer Walker, DJ Khaled, and Doja Cat projects – it’s the first time we get to hear her perspective on her absence and everything that’s been going on in her world, not through Twitter interpretations, or he said/she said drama, direct from the source. Throughout her career SZA has operated in the space of experimental R&B, foregoing traditional song structures, power vocals, and one dimensional writing for other techniques. Though SOS finds itself experimenting with new sounds, there’s a clear shift to a more pop focused sound. In her decade-long career SZA has proven that her strength as an artist lies in her sharp writing and the blending of genres to build her own unique sound world. This mingled with the stream of conscious flow many of her songs emote shapes much of SOS into a deeply personal – sometimes too much so – testament of work.
What I Didn’t Tell You – Coco Jones
With her powerful vocals, smooth beats, and introspective lyrics, Coco Jones’ What I Didn’t Tell You (Deluxe) showcases Coco’s versatility and musical range. From soulful ballads to upbeat pop tracks, the album offers something for everyone and highlights Coco’s growth and evolution as an artist. If you’re looking for a powerful and impactful listen, What I Didn’t Tell You is definitely worth checking out.
TT FREAK – Akon
Akon has an affinity for identifying talent in artists along with an eye for emerging technology within the world. After all, he did nearly sign Billboard chart-topping rapper Moneybagg Yo and is also in the midst of building a multi-billion-dollar, crypto currency-powered tech city in Africa, in his native country of Senegal. It’s also part of the reason why Akon’s Konvict Kulture record label has teamed up with social media giant TikTok to release his compilation EP TT Freak. The extended playing record includes contributions from artists such as African sensation Nektunez and the Atlanta-bred rapper Amirror.
AGE,SEX,LOCATION – Ari Lennox
The season of Dreamville is in full swing. In August Atlanta’s JID dropped The Forever Story, his first release since 2018’s DiCaprio 2 (not counting his work on Spillage Village’s 2020 project Spilligion). Cozz and Bas have both been actively unveiling new music, and now Ari Lennox has arrived with her latest album, age/sex/location.
On the final day of August, Ari Lennox released Away Message, an EP which prepared listeners for her upcoming project. Among those songs were “Queen Space” with Summer Walker and the smooth sounds of “Tatted.” Adding to those tracks are features from Lucky Daye on “Boy Bye” and Chloë on “Leak It.”
RENAISSANCE – Beyoncé
Ahead of the release of her seventh studio album Renaissance, Beyoncé released a message; this project would be dedicated to JAY-Z, her uncle Jonny and the LGBTQ+ community. The album has been framed as an escape from a seemingly endless pandemic, regressive politics and uneasiness in the world. So, despite the early leaks, copyright claims and drama, RENAISSANCE still feels like a blessing. Spanning 16-tracks, Bey’s most recent effort is eclectic and grandiose in scale. It enlists the help of Drake, 070 Shake, Grace Jones, Tems and more, not to mention superstar producers ranging from The-Dream, Mike Dean and The Neptunes. The introspective and intimate ballads of Lemonade have given way to something more lively, a dance-fueled album which pulls from the sounds of House, Afrobeats, Pop and more.
WASTELAND – Brent Faiyaz
Brent Faiyaz starts his new album WASTELAND with a philosophical inquiry: can a man still be fundamentally good with a past tarnished by sins and mistakes? The binary between good and bad has been a theme Faiyaz has played with since his previous album Fuck The World, but on WASTELAND he bares all of his faults and forces the listener to reckon with their perception of him. Where Fuck The World and 2017’s Sonder Son embraced plug-and-play formats, WASTELAND feels more insular, as though it was created in a vacuum, safe from the ubiquitous drone which fills so many playlists.His latest doesn’t stray too far from his past work, but the inscrutable attention to detail is the closest he’s gotten to nailing his intention.
GEMINI RIGHTS – Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy will play both sides of the Gemini antagonist card, lover and/or heartbreaker, as long as he gets his feelings out on paper. Gemini Rights, his sophomore album, may be his most divulging work to date, a delightful insane experience of colors through sound. Ten songs capture ten moments in time through prancing drums, liquid riffs and sometimes, by simple crooning syllables. “Bad Habits” sounds like the 2019 demo track “Dark Red,” featuring distinct lackadaisical funk. That’s thanks to bouncing snares and whimsical synths, a signature sound Lacy remains tried and true to because it’s quite effective. Even still, his Gemini Rights take new heights, peeling back the layers of Lacy with each song. “Give You The World” pulls from 70s’ dance floor slow jams, soft grunge rock and R&B meet in “Buttons,” and a Mariachi band carries the rhythm in “Mercury.” And if his range wasn’t expansive enough, his feature selections prove less is more with Matt Martian and Foushee (who practically made “Sunshine” her own). Gemini Rights is an ear-pleasing saga and evidence of Lacy’s comfortability with self and creative freedom. The album focuses on feels rather than facts, resulting in a project with the potential to withstand the wear of time.
HONESTLY NEVERMIND – Drake
The only way for Drake to get bigger is to go back to the songs that did a billion streams and embedded themselves in listeners’ collective consciousness: “One Dance,” “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” “Take Care.” Minimal swearing, friendly to all settings, inoffensive enough to play in the background but thoughtful enough to reward closer listening. Honestly, Nevermind is an understated pop album made to be listened to with other people, a Drake album with refreshingly low stakes, much to its advantage. This pivot also offers Drake a way to relate to listeners without sharing too much of himself. Pop music often hinges on non-specificity, allowing listeners to fill in the silhouettes of “you” and “me” with their own personal details. Throughout Honestly, Nevermind, his verses are spare, often allowing the production to communicate as much of the emotion as his pleas for connection. Honestly, Nevermind isn’t for everyone, but it will be everywhere. As the late Virgil Abloh says halfway through the album, “We weren’t supposed to come up with something this clean. Like, something happened.” He stopped making the Drake album we want him to make and made the Drake album Drake wanted to make.
BLUE WATER ROAD – Kehlani
While Kehlani’s sophomore work pined for growth without knowing how to get there, the singer’s third album Blue Water Road is assiduous in examining internal faults.Blue Water Road’s frank maturity, even with its brief detours, reveals an artist’s authentic pursuit of happiness. From Kehlani’s candid songwriting to Blue Water Road’s vibrant backdrops, the album serves as evidence of what happens when someone finally begins to take responsibility for their own happiness. What emerges is something that treads into uncharted waters and even if it isn’t fully understood yet, it can at times be quite a spectacle.
HEART ON MY SLEEVE – Ella Mai
Ella Mai’s sophomore release is far easier felt than understood. Between songs about making up and breaking up, there is no obvious resolution offered to the soft-hearted singer. At the same time, the tracklist is one that forgoes logic for emotion; and so, there isn’t as much of a need for a clear cut solution. What truly allows the album to pull off the back and forth of heartache is the consistency with which Ella Mai enters into a state of total surrender.
HYPNOS – Rayvn Lenae
Ravyn Lenae’s first full length feature pours vocal melodies over a more stripped down sound for a lucid listening experience. HYPNOS houses a fundamental shift in focus from Steve Lacey’s live instrumentals to Lenae’s vocals; although Lacey still shreds sweetly on “Skin Tight,” soft percussive productions and electronic synths are prioritized to showcase the Chicago R&B icon’s uniquely high but dulcet soprano. The pleasantly simplified production of looped beats leave ample room for Lenae to stretch out her lyrical limbs. Playing with perspective on “Venom,” the singer is omniscient as she knowingly asks an unsuspecting partner, “Why do you play me for a fool?” Given how Ravyn Lenae clearly challenged herself with pen on paper, HYPNOS is seemingly reminiscent of her very own evolution. “Where I’m From,” is a testimony of a track that enlists the help of Mereba. Accompanied by a trickling acoustic guitar, Lenae looks at her life like a landscape, watching it and singing even as it unfolds right before her eyes. “Watch me spread my wings,” she demands. Ravyn Lenae moves through each song at her own intuitive pace. With Smino on call, “3D,” arrives as an opportunity to pick up sonic speed; instead, a natural rhythmic progression is built and maintained over the course of the dreamily cohesive record. “Keep it light (keep it light) things are better movin’ slow / Feelin’ nice (feelin’ nice) let’s keep it flowin’ natural,” Lenae muses, holding the listener captive in the trance that is HYPNOS.
BROKEN HEARTS CLUB – Syd
Graduating from group to solo success isn’t a leisurely transformation. Despite it, the R&B antihero, Mrs. steal your girl, Syd, does it like child’s play. Her latest album, Broken Hearts Club, details Syd’s tale of passionate pre-pandemic heartbreak. Even though Syd’s music in the past has painted a portrait of carefree relationships, this time, she’s more vulnerable than ever before. Broken Hearts Club makes way for celestial-‘80s-R&B that dives into other portals of sound while never breaking too far off. Soul and early ‘00s R&B guitar grooves melt their way through the record, ditching the pop mindset she once harbored with albums like Fin and the 3-track EP Always Never Home. Heartbreak might be the tying theme, but in the end, Syd respectfully drives back to what she knows: freedom and learning to let her lovers go. Broken Hearts Club mirrors Syd’s journey, and it’s one we can’t help but watch all the way through.
SUNSET VISIONARY VOL. 2 – Tom The Mail Man
In a music industry dominated by flashy trends and repurposed nostalgia, it’s an increasingly difficult task to determine what’s real and what’s posturing. This dilemma is what makes listening to Tom The Mail Man’s Sunset Visionary, Vol. 2 so refreshing: across the emo punk-riddled tracklist of Tom’s latest, there’s nothing fraudulent in sight. There’s a handful of artists who have leaned into the revival of pop-punk and emo, but more often than not, these attempts feel forced, gripping onto a sonic moment with the hopes of making a quick buck. Tom’s art is rooted in the emotional delivery; the guitar-forward sound is just a byproduct. Songs such as the steamrolling “FWM2” are ripe with unbridled angst. Others, like “Brown Eyes and Backwoods,” are delicate and light, a youthful dedication to a lover. Exuberant, lively and grippingly real, Sunset Visionary, Vol 2. is a landmark achievement in the young artist’s career.
BEFORE YOU GO – Blxst
Taking the reigns from the past vanguard of R&B legends, Blxst, the breakout Los Angeles sensation, first turned heads on 2020’s No Love Lost and its deluxe, a sweeping project which featured Ty Dolla $ign, Dom Kennedy and longtime collaborator Bino Rideaux. The emotive crooner’s latest album Before You Go picks up right where he last left off, blending the sounds of traditional R&B with more contemporary Californian notes. Blxst rides between the borders of R&B subgenres on Before You Go, playing with the tones of classic soul and regional L.A. sounds. There’s something for all occasions; love ballads, like the Arin Ray-assisted “Fake Love In LA,” smooth club bops such as “Sometimes” with Zacari and dusk driving tracks like “Still Omw.”
CANDY DRIP – Lucky Daye
For all your smooth-tunes needs, look no further than Lucky Daye’s Candydrip. One of R&B’s most promising rookies, Daye’s been at it for a while but last year’s Table For Two was one of 2021’s best releases in the genre. Candydrip is similarly paced, a rolling album full of emotive singing and impassioned features from Lil Durk, Smino and Chiiild.
ALPHA – Shenseea
Shenseea, the Jamaican Dancehall sensation, was spotted on the Donda stage during one of Kanye West’s listening sessions and has used that attention to catapult herself into Hip Hop and R&B’s mainstream with latest album ALPHA. On her latest album, Shenseea managed to wrangle an impressive cast of guests from Tyga and 21 Savage to Megan Thee Stallion and Sean Paul.