The 20 Best R&B Radio Hits of 2018

OK, I've now done my year-end lists of rap, pop, country, and rock singles, and it's time to wrap things up with R&B. And while my country list centered on the continued trend toward male artists dominating the format, I'm happy to say that R&B has more gender balance this year than it's had for most of this decade. Last year SZA helped shake things up with the biggest breakthrough from a woman in R&B in years, and in addition to her continued success this year Ella Mai and H.E.R. and Queen Naija made major hits, among others, and it actually feels like the all-men-but-Beyonce-and-Rihanna era might be over. 

Here is the Spotify playlist of these songs, and here are the R&B lists I did for 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017

1. Ella Mai - "Boo'd Up" 
#1 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #5 Hot 100
Ella Mai has been #1 on the R&B chart fo rnearly half the year (16 for boo'd up plus ? for Trip)
When I hear "Boo'd Up" sometimes I think about the popular meme from a few years ago with the caption "DJ Mustard's piano" on a picture of a tiny piano with 3 keys to mock the dinky one-finger piano riffs on his early hits like "I'm Different" and "R.I.P." Credit where it's due to "Boo'd Up" co-producer and pianist Larrance Dopson for giving a Mustard track a more lush bed of piano chords than anybody would've expected back in the "Rack City" day. But Ella Mai herself clearly came into her own this year, topping the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart for a total of 23 weeks in 2018 (and that number may continue to rise, "Trip" is still #1), and she had to fight off Drake's most ubiquitous album campaign ever all 23 of those weeks, that's pretty incredible for a new artist. 

2. Jacquees - "You" 
#19 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #90 Hot 100
I was a Jacquees skeptic who was pretty firmly won over by the album and the string of hits he released this year (which are two separate things, for the most part -- as good as 4275 is, its new songs didn't create much buzz, and the previously released soundtrack cut "You" was appended to the album as a bonus track when it picked up steam as a single). So it's bittersweet to get to the end of a year where I really appreciated Jacquees and see him kind of shoot himself in the foot this week by declaring himself "the king of R&B right now for this generation" and spurring a huge onilne debate in which the only thing people seem to agree about is that Jacquees is feeling himself too much. 

3. Daniel Caesar f/ H.E.R. - "Best Part"
#11 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #75 Hot 100
After 3 decades of R&B merging with hip hop and following its trends, I had started to feel like the pendulum would never swing back the other way even a little and we'd never escape trap hi-hats and rap cadences in the overwhelming majority of R&B hits. So I've been pleasantly surprised by kind of a return of smooth placid quiet storm ballads to mainstream R&B radio in the past year or two. Daniel Caesar and H.E.R. have been two of the most prominent examples of that trend, so it makes sense that their duet would be a pretty big hit. And "Best Part" is delicate acoustic soul in the tradition of some of my favorite quiet storm staples like Tamia's "Officially Missing You" or Maxwell's "Whenever Wherever Whatever." 

4. Gallant - "Doesn't Matter"
#29 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Christopher Gallant is from a few miles up the road from where I live in Maryland and his 2016 debut album Ology was excellent, so I've been really rooting for his success. But his sound and his collaborations (with Seal and Sufjan Stevens) have been so wide-ranging that I really never expected to hear him on mainstream R&B radio, and was pleasantly surprised to hear how he'd been able to do that with "Doesn't Matter" while maintaining his unique voice. 

5. Bruno Mars f/ Cardi B - "Finesse (Remix)"
#2 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #3 Hot 100
I always thought the New Jack Swing sound had more mileage in it than artists got out of it during its brief reign, but that whole approach to drum programming is so far out of step with most subsequent trends in R&B that I think a lot of people just didn't know how to approach it before Bruno. "Finesse" was my favorite song on 24K Magic from the jump, so I was pretty pleased when it was remixed as the album's final single, giving it huge hits in 3 different calendar years. 

6. Queen Naija - "Medicine" 
#8 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #45 Hot 100*
Compared to contemporaries like H.E.R. and SZA, Queen Naija doesn't sound nearly as current -- the first time I heard "Medicine," I half wondered if it was an Ashanti song. Still, there are worse things to evoke than early 2000s slow jams. 

7. Jeremih & Ty Dolla Sign - "The Light" 
#27 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Jeremih and Ty Dolla Sign both have more hits as featured artists than have solo artists, and share an effortless way of sprinkling the right melody on a track. So their duo project MihTy was quietly a better and more natural combination than pretty much any of the countless rap duo albums we've gotten in the last couple years, and they had the back-and-forth balance of voices down perfectly on the lead single "The Light." 

8. Tamia - "Leave It Smokin'" 
#16 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Tamia's indie album Passion Like Fire was pretty good, and included her biggest radio hit in almost a decade, with Salaam Remi chopping up the "Ashley's Roachclip" breakbeat seldom heard on a hit song since the early '90s. 

9. SZA "Broken Clocks" 
#12 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #82 Hot 100
Not many non-Beyonce R&B albums even get to a 3rd single these days, and even rarer are they any good, but "Broken Clocks" was one of my favorites from CTRL that I was happy to see get a run on the charts after all the awards. 

10. Teyana Taylor - "Gonna Love Me" 
#26 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Kanye West produced 36 tracks across 5 different releases in May and June, and still managed to overshadow that output with all the, um, other non-musical stuff he said and did this year. "Gonna Love Me," the Delfonics-sampling highlight from my favorite of those G.O.O.D. releases, was the only song that was even a moderate radio hit amidst all the antics, and Teyana Taylor definitely deserved a more traditional promotional rollout for her record. 

11. Jacquees and Dej Loaf "At The Club"
#10 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #86 Hot 100
I totally slept on Jacquees and Dej Loaf's collaborative mixtape Fuck A Friend Zone when it came out in 2017, but their unconventional voices sound surprisingly good together. I like how they each take a particular melody and cadence on the first verse, and then trade melodies on the second verse. 

12. Ne-Yo - "Good Man"
#17 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Ne-Yo's slick smooth sound seems like a totally different kind of R&B from D'Angelo's loose, gritty live band aesthetic, so Ne-Yo sampling "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" kind of looks like a disaster on paper, but this really sounds great if you're not too offended by its playful reinterpretation of a modern classic. 

13. Miguel f/ J. Cole and Salaam Remi - "Come Through And Chill"
#20 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Miguel and J. Cole have both come a long way since both got their first radio hit together 8 years ago. So it almost sounds odd to hear them reunite with "All I Want Is You" producer Salaam Remi for a similar-sounding track, but it works, give or take Cole's awkward attempt at shoehorning activism into the song's romantic them ("you've been on my mind like Kaepernick kneelin'"). 

14. John Legend f/ BloodPop - "A Good Night"
#31 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
John Legend has transitioned into being almost more of a pop culture figure than a singer at this point, and when I first heard this song with the producer behind some of Justin Bieber's biggest EDM hits, I thought he was really reaching for more Top 40 success. So I was surprised to see "A Good Night" do better on R&B radio, but I really do dig the song, it still has a soulful edge to it. And even more surprising was my recent realization that Mike D. of the Beastie Boys has a writing credit on this song. 

16. H.E.R. - "Focus"
#16 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #100 Hot 100
I think the Grammy nominations I was most surprised by last week were H.E.R.'s noms for Album of the Year and Best New Artist. She makes good music, I just didn't think she was gonna get recognized on that level. And I was happy to see DJ Camper still making R&B hits 5 years after breaking through with Tamar Braxton's "Love And War," he also did Ne-Yo's "Good Man." 

16. Mary J. Blige - "Only Love"  
#24 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, # Hot 100
In the rollercoaster ride of emotions that is Mary J. Blige's autobiographical catalog, "Only Love" feels like Mary emergent elated and victorious once again after the darker hues of the 2017 divorce album Strength of a Woman

17. Tory Lanez f/ Rich The Kid - "Talk To Me" 
#10 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #72 Hot 100
Tory Lanez is a volume shooter who seems to succeed in part by virtue of the sheer bulk of music he puts out relative to most other R&B artists. And this year he released 2 albums that both debuted in the top 5 on the charts, which seemed to bring him back some of the commercial momentum he had in 2016, with a single from the latter becoming a sizable hit. 

18. Maxwell - "Shame" 
#38 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
The first single from blacksummers'NIGHT hasn't made much of a commercial impact relative to Maxwell's previous work, and in some ways I wonder if it's a little too much of a sonic departure, but I really dig the restrained, muffled texture and how the groove gradually gets more detailed and syncopated over the course of the song. 

19. Janelle Monae - "I Like That" 
#19 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Janelle Monae is probably the biggest R&B star of the decade for whom radio has not really been a major part of her story -- her previous biggest hits had help from Miguel and Jidenna, and TV performances and film roles have done a lot to bolster the visibility she has. But this year "I Like It" became her biggest solo radio hit, and kind of a mission statement for her whole left-of-center aesthetic (although personally I wish the Prince-flavored lead single "Make Me Feel" had gotten some of its spins. 

20. Lil Duval f/ Snoop Dogg and Ball Greezy - "Smile (Living My Best Life)" 
#1 R&B R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #56 Hot 100
It's weird to say that one of the biggest songs on R&B radio this year was a weird Frankie Beverly & Maze pastiche where a standup comic best known for mugging it up in T.I. videos yells "smile, bitch!" like he's harassing women on a street corner. But for whatever reason it caught on as the feelgood song of the summer, and I enjoyed it for a minute before its ubiquity started to haunt me. 

The 10 Worst R&B Hits of 2018: 
1. Stefflon Don f/ French Montana - "Hurtin' Me" 
2. Drake f/ Michael Jackson - "Don't Matter To Me" 
3. Major. - "Honest" 
4. Vivian Green - "I Don't Know" 
5. HoodCelebrityy - "Walking Trophy"
6. Queen Naija - "Karma" 
7. En Vogue - "Rocket" 
8. After 7 - "If I"
9. The Weeknd - "Die For You" 
10. Jhene Aiko f/ Rae Sremmurd - "Sativa (Remix)"  
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