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Time Out's Best Old R&B Songs Ever Including Usher, Miguel and Rihanna

The 20 best R&B songs ever made

Get slow, smooth and sexy with our ultimate playlist of the best old school R&B songs


Nothing fills a UK dance floor like a playlist of old school R&B songs, which is why you’ll hear it at every club in the country come Friday night. These undeniable bangers are party tunes that never seem to get old. But this innovative genre can also be smooth and seductive – check out our list of the 50 best sexy songs for evidence – and at times, tenderly romantic. When you’re with that special someone, R&B love songs can really set the mood. Still, for a handy primer to this enduringly popular genre, look no further than our list of the best R&B songs ever.

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Best R&B songs, ranked

‘No Diggity’ – Blackstreet

1. ‘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


2. ‘Oops (Oh My)’ – Tweet

One-hit-wonder Charlene Keys, aka US singer Tweet, set hearts racing when this sexy strip-off old R&B song 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


‘Pony’ – Ginuwine

3. ‘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 Ginuwine, 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


4. ‘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 old R&B song 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



5. ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ – The Weeknd

What happens when one of the sleekest hitmakers of his generation, Abel ‘The Weeknd’ Tesfaye, teams up with superstar producer Max Martin? A stunning update of Michael Jackson’s electro-funky ’80s sound that became a global megahit, that’s what. And we have to hand it to him: subtly comparing face-numbing romantic bliss to the, ahem, face-numbing qualities of cocaine is really quite a clever lyrical conceit. Nick Levine


‘Waterfalls’ – TLC

6. ‘Waterfalls’ – TLC

This era-defining 1995 hit has a melody so fluid you could almost swim in it – watery metaphors definitely intended here – and lyrics with impressive depth. Safer sex advocates from the start, TLC and their producers conceived this song as a cautionary tale rooted in the devastated HIV/AIDS epidemic. So when T-Boz sings, ‘His health is fading, and he doesn’t know why / Three letters took him to his final resting place’, it’s a profoundly moving moment. Nick Levine

‘Doo Wop’ – Lauryn Hill
Image: Ruffhouse

7. ‘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


‘Fantasy’ – Mariah Carey

8. ‘Fantasy’ – Mariah Carey

Mariah is rightly lauded for her multi-octave vocals and late-career reinvention as the Queen of Christmas, but as a songwriter, she's still somewhat underrated. This effervescent mid-'90s R&B song shows off her formidable musical brain: sampling Tom Tom Club's 1981 hit 'Genius of Love' is a total boss move, and refashioning it into all-time great summer jam is pure class. Mariah: we salute you. Nick Levine

‘Bootylicious’ – Destiny’s Child
Image: Columbia Records

9. ‘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. This whole R&B 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

‘Poison’ – Bell Biv Devoe

10. ‘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


‘Milkshake’ – Kelis

11. ‘Milkshake’ – Kelis

Written and produced by The Neptunes a.k.a Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, this minimalist R&B banger became an instant classic when it dropped in 2004. Kelis sells its brilliant hook so convincingly – who could doubt the fact her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard? – that it’s kind of weird to hear it was originally offered to Britney Spears. In R&B as in life, some things are just meant to be. Nick Levine

‘This Is How We Do It’ – Montell Jordan

12. ‘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 his unashamedly raunchy, upbeat, Billboard Chart-smashing debut R&B song. Tristan Parker


‘Freak Like Me’ – Adina Howard

13. ‘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


‘What’s My Name?‘ – Rihanna

14. ‘What’s My Name?‘ – Rihanna

Before she was a billionaire businessperson, Rihanna Robyn Fenty was one of the most reliable and exciting hitmakers in the game. This 2010 collab with fellow A-lister Drake demonstrates her knack for making R&B music that’s catchy but cool, mainstream yet understated. It’s her quiet confidence that really sells it: when Rihanna asks ‘Ooh na na, what's my name?’, she knows the whole world has the answer. Nick Levine


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

15. ‘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


‘Climax’ – Usher

16. ‘Climax’ – Usher

Usher Raymond IV has a brace of potential entries into the pantheon of best old R&B songs. 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


‘Bump N’ Grind’ – R Kelly

17. ‘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 R&B songs, 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


‘My Boo’ – Ghost Town DJs

18. ‘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 a classic underground old R&B song. Tristan Parker

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

19. ‘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 old school R&B song: 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


‘Adorn’ – Miguel

20. ‘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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