The 100 Best R&B Songs Of The 21st Century

For many decades, going as far back as the 1940s, artists from the world of R&B couldn’t really claim mainstream success until they’d crossed over to Top 40 radio and the pop charts. This century, it often feels more like the pop world is crossing over to R&B. The genre has never been more successful, relevant, or ambitious. Many of this century’s epochal blockbuster albums are R&B records: from Usher’s 10-times platinum Confessions, to Beyonce’s Lemonade, to Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi, to Rihanna’s Anti. R&B hits omnivorously dominate the Top 10, often leaving room for little else. 

Aesthetically, it’s a sound that contains multitudes — there’s the organic traditionalism of neo-soul acts like Bilal, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu, and the new piano-driven classicism of Alicia Keys and John Legend, to the futurism of Janelle Monáe, the goth moodiness of the Weeknd, the unapologetic realness of Monica and SZA, the trap soul of Bryson Tiller, and much more. Hip-hop and R&B, which began to merge in the Nineties, have enjoyed a symbiotic cohabitation, so much so that in December 1999, Billboard changed the name of its R&B chart to the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks. You can hear that in many of the songs that made this list, including entrants from Outkast, Pharrell, and Drake. 

R&B and the indie-music underground used to exist on different planets; today innovators like Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino, and Solange are beloved by the mass audience and the hipsterati alike. Similarly, the music’s most towering figures, such as Beyoncé and Rihanna, can maintain their status as maga-stars without sacrificing their identity as R&B royalty, striking a balance that was nearly impossible to attain for Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston, even in their heydays. Solange exemplified that sense of aesthetic pride and self-assurance in 2013 when she famously tweeted in defense of the “culture of R&B,” a concept that would’ve seemed odd in the mainstream of 1995 or 1985.

Through all these musical variants, what’s made R&B great in this era has been what’s made it great in every era: incredible singers putting their stamp on unforgettable songs. To make our list of the 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century, Rolling Stone convened a panel of staffers and critics with deep knowledge of the genre. We spent less time debating what R&B was then letting our taste guide us to the music we couldn’t live without, from massive hits to lesser-known gems. We’ve included a playlist to help tell the story, and set the mood. We hope you have as much fun listening to it as we did making it.

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