The Year of Cerebral R&B

Moses Sumney had a certain feeling he wanted to capture when he recorded Aromanticism, 2017’s most irresistibly sumptuous debut album. “That moment as you’re feeling asleep,” he told the New York Times in September, “or right when you wake up, when you’re still one foot in and one foot out of the dream world, and everything is really murky and you feel like you’re floating.”

The L.A. breakout artist is hardly alone in his quest to capture that ineffable state. This year yielded a startling abundance of music that had the same alluring softness as Sumney’s blissed-out R&B. Fellow travelers like Sampha, Kelela, Nick Hakim, and Syd all double-downed on the combination of smudgy beats, pillowy synths, and diaphanous vocals that had once marked Frank Ocean as an outlier but now seems everywhere. More cerebral and less carnal than the R&B sound that had been dominant since the rise of Drake, it aims to evoke a more solitary variety of bedroom experience than the genre has typically prioritized.

That’s not to say there aren’t great songs about love and sex, too. But there’s definitely a more introspective bent to the new R&B, as well as a more adventurous musical sensibility. Though Frank Ocean gets the most credit for charting out this dream space and building a home there, the Weeknd certainly used to know the neighbourhood. Neo-soul mavericks like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Bilal explored it as well. In their own music and productions for FKA twigs, Kelela, Solange and more, the likes of Dev Hynes and Arca approach it from other angles. In any case, Sumney, Sampha, and other sleepy-eyed occupants of R&B’s vanguard made this space just as inviting to listeners this year.