The 20 best R&B songs ever

Get slow, smooth and sexy with our ultimate playlist of the best R&B songs
Best R&B Songs, 2016
By Time Out Music Editors |
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There's a reason R&B music has been filling dancefloors for well over three decades: the combination of beats, bass and bravura is incredibly infectious. But R&B is also a genre that's proved remarkably adaptable since pioneers like Janet Jackson and Cameo were strutting their stuff in the mid-'80s. R&B can be smooth and seductive (think Boyz II Men), brash and boastful (Kelis's 'Milkshake' springs to mind), and cool and classic (here's looking at you, Rihanna and Pharrell). Our definitive R&B songs playlist captures all facets of this fantastic, ever-evolving genre to give you a big fat slab of pure ear candy.

RECOMMENDED: The best songs ever

 

The 20 best R&B songs ever

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The 20 best R&B songs ever - Ghost Town DJs - 'My Boo'

‘My Boo’ – Ghost Town DJs

Heavily influenced by Miami bass (an amped-up hybrid of hip hop and ’80s electro), ‘My Boo’ was the first and only hit from the little-known outfit Ghost Town DJs. Filled with silky vocal harmonies layered over punchy beats, it’s instant and infectious, and remains an underground R&B classic. Tristan Parker

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The 20 best R&B songs ever - Lumidee - 'Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)

‘Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)’ – Lumidee

It’s a marvel of simplicity. There are only two things at work on this deep, seductive 2003 hit: a dubby vocal and a smoking-hot beat. The latter is actually a well-worn mix of kicks and claps, created in Jamaica by dancehall producer Steven Marsden and known as the ‘Diwali’ rhythm. Though used numerous times by Sean Paul, ODB, Elephant Man and more, it never sounded better than when Harlem-born singer Lumidee blessed the track with a vocal so haunting and hazy it practically invented hipster R&B at a stroke. Oliver Keens

 

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18
Best R&B songs: Rihanna - 'What's My Name?'

‘What's My Name?’ – Rihanna

Following the infuriatingly repetitive hook of 'Umbrella', which sent Rihanna to Number One pretty much everywhere, the prolific Barbadian singer dropped another in 'What's My Name?'. This time in the form of 'oh na-na', which she intones in the video at Drake while flashing her come-to-bed eyes. Asides from her sex appeal, which Rihanna's never been afraid to flaunt (see: 'Rude Boy'), this track showcases her knack for fluidity. The beat is undeniably danceable, yet Rihanna maintains a gentleness throughout that's endlessly easy on the ears. Danielle Goldstein

 

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The 20 best R&B songs ever - R.Kelly - 'Bump N' Grind'

‘Bump N’ Grind’ – R Kelly

The second single off Kelly’s 1994 solo debut ‘12 Play’, ‘Bump N’ Grind’ keeps it slow and simple. It’s got a bedroom-friendly beat, some sexy synth and straightforward, unapologetic lyrics (unlike some of Kelly’s later hits, in which sex is creatively compared to, um, ‘Jurassic Park’). R Kelly knows what you want, he knows what you need and frankly, he sees nothing wrong with it. Kate Wertheimer

 

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16
The 20 best R&B songs ever - Miguel - 'Adorn'

‘Adorn’ – Miguel

Smooth-singing Miguel toes the line between lothario and sweetheart: in his voice, one can hear shades of a young Marvin Gaye. The dichotomy is laid plain in his impassioned 2012 breakout single, ‘Adorn’, a song about love and sex in equal measure. Andrew Frisicano

 

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The 20 best R&B songs ever - Usher - 'Climax'

‘Climax’ – Usher

Usher Raymond IV has a brace of potential entries into the pantheon of R&B. So, why 2010’s ‘Climax’? Well, firstly, factor in the uncharacteristically restrained production from Diplo (not to mention the string arrangement from Björk collaborator Nico Muhly). Then, add that falsetto: a thick stream of high-pitched, sadsack emoting that only a few men on the planet could pull off without serious injury. Mix them together and you have the perfect modern R&B record – one that proves the genre has the ability to reinvent itself for generations to come. Oliver Keens

 

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14
The 20 best R&B songs ever - Adina Howard - 'Freak Like Me'

‘Freak Like Me’ – Adina Howard

The slow, sultry grooves and anthemic, gospel-indebted chorus of Adina Howard’s Sly And The Family Stone-sampling debut single still sound just as slinky today as they did in 1995. She never really came close to bettering ‘Freak Like Me’ (though she certainly tried to out-sex it in songs like ‘Buttnaked’ and ‘Sexual Needs’), but she never really needed to. Tristan Parker

 

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The 20 best R&B songs ever - D'Angelo - 'Untitled (How Does It Feel)

‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ – D’Angelo

If R&B be the music of sweet, sweet love-making (yes, that’s the word we’re using here), then for God’s sake let’s cue up some D’Angelo. Specifically, this glistening anthem from the ‘Brown Sugar’ singer’s 2000 album, ‘Voodoo’. Seduction is everything here, and what’s so glorious about ‘Untitled’ is that for all D’Angelo’s intimate (okay, explicit) come-ons, the music takes its sweet time, slow-building to an ecstatic climax. And then there’s that videoSophie Harris

 

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12
The 20 best R&B songs ever - Kelis - Milkshake

‘Milkshake’ – Kelis

Who’d have thought that anything on the McDonald’s menu could inspire something this funky? An edgy Neptunes beat keeps it pumping, while star-in-the-making Kelis gets braggadocious about her dairy drinks. Other highlights: the twerktastic video (with a cameo by Kelis’s future husband Nas), an excellent use of the word ‘thee’, the blasting bass synth pushing up against the delicate darbuka drum percussion, and the inexplicable ‘ding’ noise every few bars that you can’t unhear now. You’re welcome. James Manning

 

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The 20 best R&B songs ever - Montell Jordan - 'This Is How We Do It'

‘This Is How We Do It’ – Montell Jordan

Did anyone happen to wonder, back in 1995, how a young, Def Jam-signed singer got his sexy A-game on before a weekend of partying? If they did, Montell Jordan was only too happy to explain, via this unashamedly raunchy, upbeat, Billboard Chart-smashing debut single. Tristan Parker

 

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10
The 20 best R&B songs ever - Bel Biv Devoe - 'Poison'

‘Poison’ – Bell Biv Devoe

A title card at the start of this 1990 video declared, ‘Our music is mental,’ which (depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re reading this) can mean two separate things – both applicable here. With ‘Poison’ the three-least-likely-to-succeed-from-New Edition shut the door on the ’80s, smartly pushing teen bubblegum into sex-hungry rap territory. It’s the sound of boy bands coming out on the other side of puberty, with the shuffling rhythm of synthetic snares – the epitome of New Jack Swing – prefiguring jungle and trap. It’s also just as silly as it is AIDS-conscious, with Ricky Bell shouting one of pop’s greatest non sequiturs in the chorus: ‘Never trust a big butt and a smile!’ Brent DiCrescenzo

 

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The 20 best R&B songs ever - Destiny's Child - 'Survivor'

‘Bootylicious’ – Destiny’s Child

Kelly, can you handle this? Underpinned by the distinctive guitar riff from Stevie Nicks' 'Edge of Seventeen' (it apparently reminded Beyoncé of a 'voluptuous woman'), 'Bootylicious' is one of Destiny's Child's most infectious and energetic floor-fillers. The whole song shimmers with a very feminine kind of sexual confidence ('You gotta do much better if you're gonna dance with me tonight') as it rolls out a dazzling succession of vocal, lyrical and musical hooks. Released in 2001, it became such an era-defining hit that the term 'bootylicious' has since been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Nick Levine
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8
The 20 best R&B songs ever - Mariah Carey - 'Fantasy'

‘Fantasy’ – Mariah Carey

For all her cartoonishness, Mariah is no dummy, and this Sean Combs-produced track marked a deliberate move towards a more R&B sound for the wonder-warbler in 1995. But what’s great about ‘Fantasy’ is that its sugar-sweet sentiment is completely convincing and beguiling – an irresistible update on the 1981 Tom Tom Club single it samples so liberally. Sophie Harris

 

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The 20 best R&B songs ever - Lauryn Hill - Doo Wop (That Thing)

‘Doo Wop’ – Lauryn Hill

The simplest two-chord piano riff, a few familiar shoop harmonies and a burst of horns announced the former Fugee as a formidable, rare talent in 1998. Ms Lauryn Hill in her prime was a force like no other: some 15 years later, few artists – hip hop, R&B or otherwise – have been able to approach ‘Doo Wop’s combination of political empowerment and pure musical pleasure. Andrew Frisicano

 

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6
The 20 best R&B songs ever - TLC - 'Waterfalls'

‘Waterfalls’ – TLC

Conspiracy theories involving members of The Beatles are mostly tedious and ridiculous. Still, it’s hard to deny the strange lyrical similarity between Paul McCartney’s 1980 song ‘Waterfalls’ and TLC’s 1995 hit of the same name. So was Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopez actually Macca in disguise? Definitely not. Treading a tasteful line between bumping neo-soul and classic balladry, TLC’s world-weary tale of sex, drugs and death has aged significantly better than Macca’s tank top. Oliver Keens

5
Best R&B songs: The Weeknd - 'Can't Feel My Face'

‘Can't Feel My Face’ – The Weeknd

Following the seductive 'Earned It' that The Weeknd wrote for softcore erotic film 'Fifty Shades of Grey', he released something that is so hot it literally set him on fire. Well, in the video that is, where he channels Michael Jackson both physically and musically while alight. Funk guitar wah-wahs behind a disco beat on 'Can't Feel My Face' that complements The Weeknd's outrageously silky vocals so well you'll be humming this infectious number until your face goes numb. Danielle Goldstein

 

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4
The best R&B songs: Cameo - 'Candy'

‘Candy’ – Cameo

I defy you to find an R&B club out there that won't have at least one person in it who knows the 'Candy' dance. More often than not when this funk-laced, smooth groove jam drops a flash mob kicks off. Even if you don't know the moves, you won't be able to resist body popping to its ’80s drum machine and the slick sax at 'Candy's climax. Danielle Goldstein

 

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The 20 best R&B songs ever - Ginuwine - 'Pony'

‘Pony’ – Ginuwine

At 15 years old, budding hip hop producer Timothy Mosley was shot in the shoulder at a Red Lobster restaurant and was temporarily paralysed on his right side. So he taught himself to DJ with his left hand. Even after moving from Virginia to New York and being christened Timbaland by mentor DaVante Swing, Mosley continued to craft beats that sounded curiously leftist. Tasked by Swing to produce a track for Swing Mob crooner Ginuwune, Timbaland revolutionised R&B into pure studio art, replacing drum machines and guitars with beatboxing and cartoon sound effects. The low grind of ‘Pony’ is all belching and Looney Tunes boings. ‘You’ll be on my jockey team,’ Ginuwine sings from his hips. Sex can be silly. Brent DiCrescenzo

 

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2
The best R&B songs: Tweet - 'Oops (Oh My)'

‘Oops (Oh My)’ – Tweet

One-hit-wonder Charlene Keys, aka US singer Tweet, set hearts racing when this sexy strip-off featuring Missy Elliott came out. 'Oops, there goes my shirt…oops, there goes my skirt,' Tweet coos over Timbaland's pounding bassline. It probably made grans blush worldwide when it hogged the airwaves in 2002, but in its intended setting on the dancefloor it never fails to get hips thrusting. Danielle Goldstein

 

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The 20 best R&B songs ever - Blackstreet - 'No Diggity'

‘No Diggity’ – Blackstreet

The word ‘diggity’ has many meanings, but let there be no confusion as to how it’s meant in Blackstreet’s stone-cold R&B smash featuring Dr Dre and Queen Pen: no diggity, no doubt. And indeed everything about this 1996 hit is as flawless and clean as a diamond, from the instantly recognisable piano riff that kicks the song off to the hummed refrain that underpins it (courtesy of Bill Withers’s ‘Grandma’s Hands’) – and of course, that unforgettable chorus. Play on, playa. Sophie Harris

 

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