The 20 Best R&B Radio Hits of 2017

R&B's ability to cross over to pop radio and crack the top 10 of the Hot 100 has eroded over the past decade to the point that it's almost nonexistant beyond the occasional The Weeknd song. The even more discomforting new development of the last year or two is that R&B artists do frequently show up on Top 40 radio if SZA or Frank Ocean or Khalid or Ty Dolla $ign appears on a pop or dance act's song, but their own records are kept at arm's length (even Beyonce's only really big pop radio records since "Halo" have been the Lady Gaga song and, probably soon, that J Balvin remix). And this is all while streaming has boosted rap music on the singles charts like never before. So it's a weird moment for the genre, but 2017 managed to be full of some promising new stars and solid work from vets.

Here's a Spotify playlist of the songs, and here's the R&B lists I made for 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

1. SZA "The Weekend"
#6 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #37 Hot 100
For about 3 years after Tinashe and Jhene Aiko had their first hits in 2014, pretty much no women broke through to R&B radio, during a period when over a dozen new male singers got into heavy rotation with relative ease. The drought of new women in mainstream R&B finally ended in 2017 when the long suffering SZA came off of the Top Dawg Entertainment shelf and became a pretty big deal. But it's "The Weekend," CTRL's breakout conversation piece well before it was the album's second single, that I think will really be remembered from her big year.

2. Bruno Mars - "That's What I Like"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #1 Hot 100
For songs that are hits across multiple radio formats, I usually figure out which one of these lists to place it in based on where it was the biggest, regardless of the sound of the track or where the artist usually charts. So while Bruno Mars is nominally a 'pop' artist who has previously scored R&B radio hits with retro tracks like "Uptown Funk" and "24K Magic," this is the first time I'm actually putting his stuff on the R&B list. And that's because "That's What I Like" was by some distance the biggest song on urban radio this year, topping the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart for 12 weeks (whereas it was #1 for just 3 weeks on pop radio), the song that set him up to open the BET Awards and do a TV special at the Apollo Theater and generally recenter his career on his love of black music.

3. Khalid - "Location"
#2 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #16 Hot 100
I knew Khalid's debut single sounded like a hit the first time I heard it back in the summer of 2016, but I really had no idea that this guy with the deep voice was still in his teens, or that he'd become one of 2017's breakout stars, with several Grammy noms and multiple tracks on the Hot 100 for most of the year. I think most of his output has been a little spotty, but "Location" remains one of those perfect little slow jams that has enough idiosyncratic little production touches that I never got tired of it.

4. Sevyn Streeter - "Before I Do"
#15 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
After her debut full-length album languished for years without a release date from Chris Brown's Atlantic imprint CBE, Sevyn Streeter was quietly moved to Atlantic proper's roster and released the lovely Girl Disrupted. And its lead single, which smolders like Aaliyah's recording of "At Your Best," gave Sevyn her biggest hit without a Brown feature to date.

5. Daniel Caesar f/ Kali Uchis "Get You"
#30 R&B/Hip
"Get You" hasn't peaked yet. But since sleeper success of Daniel Caesar's Freudian, released in August, people have been getting engaged to this song at Caesar's concerts, so it'll probably be a wedding staple by this time next year.

6. Mary J. Blige - "U + Me (Love Lesson)"
#11 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
This year #DuDeadDay brought us Strength Of A Woman, Mary J. Blige's most emotionally resonant album in a decade, if not two. What's most impressive to me about the album's 2nd biggest hit is that "U + Me" works equally well in isolation as a radio single and in the context of the album, where it forms a 10-minute suite with the following track, "Indestructible."

7. SZA f/ Travis Scott - "Love Galore"
#5 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #32 Hot 100
At a time when not much thought is given to the session players who flesh out many of our favorite pop hits and contribute the sounds that make them unique, let's take a moment to thank bassist Carter Lang for the loping low end groove that drives "Love Galore." I might have put this song at the top of the list instead of "The Weekend" if not for Travis Scott's Mickey Mouse voice ad libs undercutting some of SZA's most emotional lines in the song.

8. Kehlani "Distraction"
#19 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #85 Hot 100
By this time last year no less an authority than Sean Combs was calling Kehlani the savior of R&B. I don't think her 2017 really shaped up that well -- more to the point, SZA had the year she was supposed to have. It doesn't help that Kehlani only sounds slightly more R&B than Halsey. But "Distraction" was a pretty enjoyable '90s pastiche.

9. Trey Songz - "Nobody Else But You"
#16 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #92 Hot 100
For nearly a decade, Trey Songz has been one of the few sure things in R&B, supplying a steady diet of goofy club bangers and soppy ballads. In 2017 he finally faltered and missed heavy rotation, which may be because he actually deviated from the formula with a relatively understated midtempo lead single.

10. Yuna "Best Love"
#19 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Malaysian singer-songwriter Yunalis Mat Zara'ai broke through to American radio last year via a duet with Usher, but I think it's more impressive that her solo follow-up got even higher on the airplay charts, very much on the merits of the very lovely track.

11. Miguel f/ Travis Scott - "Sky Walker"
#16 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #58 Hot 100
In 2015, I ranted about an epidemic of guest rappers ruining R&B songs with hacky wordplay. In 2017, the call is increasingly coming from inside the house as singers like The Weeknd and Bryson Tiller fill their songs with punchlines that would make Fabolous blush. The song that returned Miguel to radio's good graces relies on his own occasional penchant for bad puns, but "Sky Walker" manages to be pretty enjoyable even though that stupid "quick to dead the bull like a matador" line is looped nearly 30 times over the course of the song.

12. Stokley "Level" 
#23 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Stokley Williams named his recent solo debut Introducing Stokley, which is a little funny since he's been fronting Mint Condition for over 25 years. But "Level" is a catchy, unique little track that does a great job of rebooting the career or someone who's been quietly on the scene for decades doing session work on hits for other artists.

13. Tamar Braxton - "My Man"
#19 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
The most famous of Toni's sisters has had a good run of hits this decade, most recently with "My Man" emotionally chronicling the infidelity that undid their parents marriage (apparently coincidentally in the year of her own high profile divorce). "My Man" is a simple song done great justice by Tamar's execution, particularly when she lets out a fed up "HEIFER!" during the runs and ad libs in the second half.

14. Toni Braxton "Deadwood" 
#34 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Would you believe me if I said that the long-awaited feature-length finale of David Milch's cult HBO western Deadwood took the form of a Toni Braxton ballad? OK, it didn't, but this song really makes great use of Toni's trademark sultry delivery, and sets my hopes pretty high for her forthcoming album Sex & Cigarettes

15. Jacquees "B.E.D." 
#11 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #69 Hot 100
Speaking of people who are a few years away from suing Birdman for millions of dollars, Cash Money's latest upandcomer finally scored his radio breakthrough this year. And in a year when mining '80s and '90s R&B was in vogue, Jacquees went ahead and broke the Y2K barrier, interpolating Avant's 2003 hit "Read Your Mind."

16. Bryson Tiller - "Somethin Tells Me"
#19 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #74 Hot 100
After TRAPSOUL, the most successful debut R&B album of the decade, Bryson Tiller seemed to be poised for a good 2017. But even though True To Self debuted at #1 and his turn on DJ Khaled and Rihanna's "Wild Thoughts" was ubiquitous, radio was surprisingly cool on Tiller's second album. The lead single, which I found more subtle and charming than any of the hits from his first album, came and went pretty quickly, and the trend-chasing follow-up single "Run Me Dry" did even worse.

17. Kevin Ross "Long Song Away"
#12 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Kevin Ross has spent a decade kicking around the industry, winning competitions, touring with Ne-Yo and Maxwell, and writing singles for Trey Songz. And this year he finally got to release a debut album on Motown, thanks largely to the sweetly understated "Long Song Away."

18. Demetria McKinney "Easy"
#23 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Actress and singer Demetria McKinney has also been kicking around for a long time, and 2017 was a banner year in both of her careers. I didn't particularly like the SyFy series she starred in, Superstition, but I really enjoyed the lead single from her debut album Officially Yours, and she took on the mighty task of portraying Whitney Houston in the Bobbi Kristina TV movie.

19. Daley f/ Jill Scott "Until The Pain Is Gone"
#30 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
This is a pretty song, but it's funny how hard a time I have telling when it's Daley singing and when it's Jill Scott.

20. Childish Gambino "Redbone"
#2 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #12 Hot 100
I'm of the opinion that Donald Glover is consistently involved in exceptional TV and film and that his music is largely comprised of capable but cringe-inducing mimicry, whether he's doing a comedy writer's idea of Lil Wayne punchlines or millennial P-Funk. So I have a real love/hate relationship with Donald and his sitcom's music supervisor Ludwig's on-the-nose Bootsy Collins pastiche, even it grew on me over the course of the year. And I think Childish Gambino and Bruno Mars dominating R&B radio (and, recently, Grammy nominations) this year makes for an interesting contrast: career R&B artists are so caught up in capturing the sound of now that a pop star and a rapper/actor were able to take over their lane with a little old-fashioned funk.

The 10 Worst R&B Radio Hits of 2017: 
1. DJ Khaled f/ Rihanna and Bryson Tiller "Wild Thoughts"
2. 6LACK "Prblms"
3. Chris Brown f/ Usher and Gucci Mane - "Party"
4. Chris Brown - "Privacy"
5. Chris Brown f/ Yo Gotti, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and Kodak Black - "Pills And Automobiles"
6. The Weeknd - "Reminder"
7. PartyNextDoor - "Not Nice"
8. Tank - "When We"
9. Chante Moore - "Real One"
10. Khalid - "Young Dumb & Broke" 
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