The 20 Best R&B Radio Hits of 2012
R&B is in an interesting place at the moment. Its crossover to pop audiences continues to flatline (the highest any of these songs got on the Pop Songs chart was #27, and only a couple others charted there at all), and even on urban radio rap has its biggest market share in years, perhaps ever, so there are fewer R&B hits to even choose from. Meanwhile, there have been some new artists and new sounds generating excitement, and some bogus critical narratives grossly misinterpreting what they mean or even what they sound like. As with the pop list, there is an accompanying Spotify playlist of all these songs:
1. Miguel - "Adorn"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, #17 Hot 100
Miguel also made my #1 R&B single of 2011, "Sure Thing," and when "Adorn" first came along, as an intriguing 2-minute trifle on a free stopgap EP, I certainly didn't think it would ever feel like song of the year material for me. But when his label decided to pick up on it as a radio single, and he went back in the studio and added a third minute, the song's bridge and final chorus brought it all together, making it complete as well as sublime, a master class in both vocal performance and vocal production, at once one of the most idiosyncratic and most traditionally soulful things on urban radio all year.
2. Elle Varner - "Refill"
#10 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
Elle Varner's debut single "Only Wanna Give It To You" was such a cloying, ear-bleedingly shrill bit of third hand retro that I was shocked when the follow-up managed to funnel Varner's same voice and persona into something so much more appealing, with a seesawing fiddle loop scissoring its way in circles around the song's hook in such a delightfully weightless way.
3. Trey Songz f/ T.I. - "2 Reasons"
#7 R&B Hip-Hop Songs, #43 Hot 100
This year one of my favorite pet obsessions was to track the growing number of clappers on on urban radio, mostly because it'd been kind of an otherwise unremarked-upon phenomenon, but also because no one producer owned the sound, and pretty much every one that tackled it had their own take. And my favorite in 2012 was definitely "2 Reasons," which is just a fucking killer beat with all these squeaky turnarounds in the synth and an utterly ridiculous kick drum. I've always been kinda hot and cold on Trey Songz, but he's reliable with club bangers, and this one-ups "Bottoms Up" and even my beloved "Say Aah": "stop trippin', you can't control that freak" may be the single greatest vocal moment of his career. And unlike pretty much every other song on this list with a guest rapper, T.I.'s verse actually adds to the song. If the ignorant chorus bothers you, it's always easy to come up with replacement lyrics; my personal favorite is "I ONLY CAME HERE FOR 2 REASONS: DEEEEEEZ NUTZ!"
4. Rihanna f/ Chris Brown - "Birthday Cake (Remix)"
#2 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, #24 Hot 100
"Birthday Cake" was one of the year's other great clappers, full of almost obscenely noisy synths as if the claps weren't loud and obnoxious enough. But then the whole fact of this collaboration was obscene and obnoxious as it is, and Chris Brown being on such a good song this year caused me some frustration, with or without Rih's co-sign. But then, the original unfinished 78-second album version is probably better, it's just not the version that was a hit.
5. Beyonce - "Love On Top"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, #20 Hot 100
After Terius "The-Dream" Nash had about as good a hot streak from 2007 to 2009 as any songwriter in the history of urban radio, he started to get cold around 2010, when his only major hit was Ciara's "Ride" (and also Justin Bieber's "Baby" on the pop end of things). But by that point he was already in the good graces of a few superstars, and the bones a couple of them threw him on 2011 albums resulted in him finally landing back on the radio earlier this year, when "Birthday Cake" blew up and "Love On Top" completed its long rise to #1, almost 6 months after the classic VMA performance that gave it its Hot 100 peak. For several weeks in late 2011 and early 2012, "Love On Top" rose parallel with "Countdown," both singles just a few spots apart and steadily rising, until finally the latter peaked outside the top 10 and the former kept ascending. "Countdown" was my #2 single of 2011 but I didn't get around to listing "Love On Top" until this year, even though there was literally never a moment when the former was the bigger hit of the two, because the latter took a little longer to totally win me over, but once it did it got me pretty good.
6. Keyshia Cole f/ Lil Wayne - "Enough Of No Love"
#7 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, #84 Hot 100
Keyshia Cole is secretly one of the most consistent artists in the R&B game, in terms of keeping in control of her sound and persona no matter who's producing and always having a certain baseline of quality; it's just that baseline isn't especially high, her voice is an acquired taste, and she's gotten easier to ignore as her music had drifted into mellower adult contempo territory. So "Enough Of No Love" was a nice little wake up call that she's still really good at Keyshia Cole songs, which are a more distinct flavor from Mary J. Blige songs than most give her credit for. Wayne doesn't really help, but he also doesn't get in the way, which is rare these days.
7. Melanie Fiona - "4A.M."
#8 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, #81 Hot 100
I love Fiona's voice, and generally prefer it on more lush, soulful tracks like "Fool For You" and "Gone And Never Coming Back," but this was still definitely the year's best brooding nocturnal R&B hit of the year, and there were plenty.
8. Estelle - "Thank You"
#15 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, #100 Hot 100
In the last couple years, longtime Fugees producer Jerry Wonda finally got out from under Wyclef's shadow to produce on his own and has really just been killing it with shit like Diddy-Dirty Money's "Someone To Love Me," Lupe Fiasco's "Out Of My Head" and Ashanti's super slept on non-hit "The Woman You Love." His most enduring recent production so far, though, has been this sleeper hit penned by Akon where Estelle hits on a surprisingly convincing Sade vibe.
9. Miguel - "Do You..."
#36 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Jerry Wonda's current production rising up the chart, though, may really be the one that gets people talking with the simply dazzling basslines from his own 4-string. I should not that for more recent songs on the list, I used the chart peak from Billboard's airplay charts, since the genre chart makeover in October weighs downloads pretty heavily and distorts what urban radio's actually been playing, which is what this list is about. Also special shoutout to "Girls Like You," another Miguel single I wish had been much bigger this year (although "Do You..." is still rising, could be big).
10 Anthony Hamilton - "Pray For Me"
#21 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
Babyface remains a tremendous talent who, for a variety of reasons, just doesn't write hits like he used to. And when he does, as on Beyonce's "Best Thing I Never Had," the result is kind of underwhelming, so it's mostly been fun to hear him out of his element in surprisingly good ways with Fall Out Boy and Lil Wayne. But "Pray For Me" is a really striking, beautiful song that was a standout on Hamilton's latest album and ended up becoming a nice little sleeper hit over the course of the year.
11. Usher - "Climax"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, #17 Hot 100
I'm not as dazzled with this as a lot of people were, and I generally hate to give any grudging props to anything Diplo was involved in, but obviously this was a pretty major song in R&B this year, the production really stood out and the vocal performance was one of Usher's best.
12. Beyonce - "Dance For You"
#6 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #78 Hot 100
I remember seeing the video for this, months before it started getting radio play, and being kind of shocked and "what the hell?" that it existed, since "Schoolin' Life" was the only 4 bonus track that really got people talking. And as it turns out, it was kind of the sex bomb slow jam that the album proper was really missing, and made more sense on the radio than even some of the better earlier singles.
13. Trey Songz - "Heart Attack"
#3 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, 35 Hot 100
While Usher and Chris Brown and Ne-Yo were off diversifying their portfolios with dance pop crossover songs, Tremaine stood his ground as the biggest male star in R&B who's catering only to urban radio, to the point that even his lead single produced by Benny Blanco (of "Moves Like Jagger" and "California Gurls" fame) was a nice bombastic slow jam with no pop radio appeal.
14. Jennifer Hudson f/ Ne-Yo and Rick Ross - "Think Like A Man"
#33 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, #90 Hot 100
Maybe the movie tie-in was a little too on the nose, but this song really sounded tremendous to me, I don't know why it didn't catch on more, especially since that creepy John Legend/Luda song from the same soundtrack was so much bigger.
15. Robin Thicke - "Love After War"
#14 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
Thicke's impressive fifth album Love After War dropped too late in 2011 to make my year-end list last year, but the title track blossomed into a radio hit well into 2012, so it's nice to be able to include at least that here.
16. Frank Ocean - "Thinkin' Bout You"
#4 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #35 Hot 100
I have a lot of mixed feelings about Frank Ocean; his career this year has been remarkable, especially since this song actually grew on urban radio after he made the revelations that helped him as a critical darling but seemed like they might hinder his success with black radio. The album's very hit and miss for me -- I actually like the 10 minute prog single "Pyramids" best -- and there are parts of this song that are just eye-rolling and clumsy to me, and his falsetto is nothing special, especially compared to some other songs on this list. But it has a really pretty melody, and a great bridge (awkward spoken bit aside), I see why it was a hit.
17. R. Kelly - "Feelin' Single"
#13 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
R.'s last couple albums have been nice but kind of hollow victories in terms of the guy using his most basic talents, but not his most unique talents or personality traits, to make by-the-numbers retro soul (don't get me wrong, they're still preferable to new chapters of "Trapped In The Closet"). But when songs from these records take off as radio hits I tend to warm up to them more -- "Love Letter" feels like a minor classic of his catalog now, and "Feelin' Single," which felt like just kind of an empty "Lovely Day" pastiche at first, really sounds pretty great to me now.
18. Tamia - "Beautiful Surprise"
#24 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
Tamia was diagnosed with MS in 2003, the same year she took up permanent residence in my heart with the song "Officially Missing You," and had spent a few years out of the spotlight before coming back this year, and really recaptured the vibe of some of her great earlier hits like Fabolous's "So Into You."
19. The-Dream f/ Pusha T - "Dope Chick"
#33 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs
The-Dream's slight resurgence as a songwriter, as referenced earlier in the list, didn't help him much in reversing the downward trend in his solo career, but this song had a nice knock. The-Dream and Pusha T really deserve each other, too: both fairly talented guys who have let their critical plaudits and superstar patrons go their head and make them think they're the geniuses that they really aren't, both continually given chances in the spotlight despite being fundamentally unlikable and past their prime.
20. Mary J. Blige f/ Drake - "Mr. Wrong"
#10 R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, #87 Hot 100
Mary had a great opening line on this song ("bad boys ain't no good/ good boys ain't no fun"), it's a shame that she had to wait a minute through an excruciating Drake verse to deliver it.
The 10 Worst R&B Radio Hits of 2012
1. Alicia Keys f/ Nicki Minaj - "Girl On Fire"
2. The Weeknd - "Wicked Games"
3. Chris Brown f/ Kevin McCall - "Strip"
4. Kelly Rowland f/ Lil Wayne - "Ice"
5. Brandy and Monica - "It All Belongs To Me"
6. Ne-Yo - "Lazy Love"
7. John Legend f/ Ludacris - "Tonight (The Best You Ever Had)"
8. Aaliyah f/ Drake - "Enough Said"
9. Usher f/ Rick Ross - "Lemme See"
10. Brandy f/ Chris Brown - "Put It Down"