Contemporary, female-led R&B music promotes empowerment, confidence and femininity. This is achieved through the messages of self-love and self-worth championed by certain talented women who dominate the genre. There have been many influential female R&B artists over the years who have created recognisable, popular anthems that I’m sure you’ll have heard. So, ranging from the late ‘90s, to the 2000s, and finally to the modern music scene, here are my top ten picks of some of the best songs within the female R&B genre.
The Boy Is Mine – Brandy & Monica
It only seems right to start off the list with this passionate, sultry mid-tempo tune featuring some incredible vocals. Released in 1998, The Boy Is Mine is a globally best-selling duet by American singers Brandy and Monica. It was launched as the lead single from both singers’ respective second albums and is rightfully considered by many as one of the most beloved R&B singles of the end of the millennium.
The song takes inspiration from The Girl Is Mine by Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney, from almost two decades prior, in 1982. I’d say ‘bittersweet’ is the best word to describe the track, as although the production makes you want to sing along and creates an almost sentimental vibe, you can’t easily be distracted from the possessive and jealous lyrics- the focal point of the song. Brandy and Monica are subtly yet intentionally battling each other’s vocals throughout the song to further emphasis that, as the stuttered articulation of the title stresses, ‘The. Boy. Is. Mine’. Despite this, I think that their voices complement one another, making this song one of my all-time favourites within the R&B genre.
Say My Name – Destiny’s Child
It is impossible for you not to have heard this ultimate contemporary R&B classic; Say My Name still plays in clubs these days, over twenty years after its release (as it should). Girl group Destiny’s Child released the hit in 1999 as part of their second studio album ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’. They soon saw it become the most successful single from that album and a breakthrough success.
The song is anthemic and catchy, with its title repeated throughout the chorus (the part everyone has to know). I have no complaints about the vocals being largely dominated by Beyoncé who, as usual and without fail, kills it with her powerful runs and high notes. Overall, it makes perfect sense that the song went on to win multiple awards, including the Soul Train Lady of Soul Award for Best R&B/Soul Single, Group, Band or Duo. In 2021, Rolling Stone actually placed the song on its list of the ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’.
Didn’t Cha Know – Erykah Badu
Didn’t Cha Know is the second single from legendary American singer Erykah Badu’s 2000 album ‘Mama’s Gun’, written by the artist herself, with production help from producer J. Dilla. It was soon nominated for the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song of 2001 and is one of my favourite feel-good songs, having been attributed also to the Psychedelic Soul genre as well.
The song flawlessly includes introspective, poetic lyrics on top of a soothing and mellow track. I particularly like the repeated lyrics of the outro section alongside Badu’s melodic ad-libs: “Love is life, and life is free / Take a ride of life with me”. To me the song, as a whole, has an air of light femininity and I love it.
(I have to give an honorary mention to Erykah’s later song Get MuNNY from her 2010 album as it’s also one of my favourites – which, with this list being limited to ten songs, hopefully won’t be counted as cheating.)
Ashanti’s debut single, Foolish, from her 2002 self-titled album is another classic and an ‘old-school’ female R&B staple. The single spent ten weeks at the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart and became a top ten hit in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
You might immediately notice the song’s sampling of The Notorious B.I.G. ‘s 1994 single One More Chance in the backing track. This allows the familiar repetitive piano riff to mirror the lyrics, which tell a story of a similarly cyclical romantic relationship in which Ashanti always gets treated badly, yet still finds herself going back to it time and time again. If you relate to the lyrics, I’m sure you can feel Ashanti’s frustration through her angelic vocals.
Let It Go – Keyshia Cole & Missy Elliott & Lil’ Kim
There are few better-fitting additions to this essential guide to female R&B than Let It Go, which features three confident and self-assured women of colour. The song immediately begins with strong, powerful vocals in the introduction which are then repeated in the chorus.
Produced by Missy Elliott and subsequently released in 2007, the song also interpolates Biggie and his 1994 hit ‘Juicy’, with a smooth backing track. Let It Go is the ideal upbeat anthem for a breakup or heartbreak, it’s sure to make you feel confident in your independence. An aspect I particularly love about this song is that it demonstrates the talent of female rappers, like Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim. The Rap genre had long been male dominated, so it is good to see these women achieved their deserved fame at this point.
I Want You Around – Snoh Aalegra
I keep telling people to listen to the Swedish-American singer Snoh Aalegra, who in my opinion, is criminally underrated. Her beautiful voice along with the chilled vibe of her music which means that much of her discography makes the perfect soundtrack to an early morning, or even a study session. I seriously recommend checking out the rest of her stuff, even if it’s not strictly R&B.
I Want You Around was released in Snoh Aalegra’s 2019 studio album ‘Ugh, those feels again’, which was accurately described as ‘cinematic soul’. This is one of her most popular songs, having gained further attention after a remix featuring rapper 6LACK was released a little later.
Essentially, it’s a relaxing, simple love song in which Snoh Aalegra’s floaty runs complement the soft lo-fi beat. The lyrics signify enjoying each other’s company and wanting to connect with someone you love on a deeper emotional level. The single reached number 1 on the Billboard Adult R&B Songs chart, marking the beginning of her getting the recognition she deserves.
Toxic – Kehlani
Kehlani is a versatile artist with an incredible voice. You might initially recognise the singer from her more famous songs Nights Like This (feat. Ty Dolla $ign) or Gangsta from the Suicide Squad soundtrack.
Her song Toxic has a slow production in a minor key, giving the song a haunting feel, which fits directly with the way the lyrics speak about reflecting back on an old toxic relationship. Kehlani metaphorically compares her toxic lover to a drug.
Released in 2020 as the first promotional single from her album ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’, Toxic is accompanied by a dark, moody music video made by the singer herself at home due to the pandemic. I particularly like how it includes some ad-libs by Ty Dolla $ign in the background, since this adds to the overall layered and echoey feel to the song, making it even more emotional.
Hu Man – Greentea Peng
Self-described neo-soul and ‘psychedelic R&B’ singer/songwriter from South East London, Greentea Peng is, in my opinion, even more underrated than Snoh Aalegra. She released the single Hu Man in 2020, which has a Latin twist.
Aria Wells (her real name) describes it herself as “an exploration of self and our attachment to identity, especially in this modern age”. In this sense, I find a lot of the lyrics, for example in the chorus – “Searching for balance, praying for clarity / Ma strip me naked, take this identity” – introspective and peaceful. At points, the song references a traditional Mayan saying and mentions healing. It generally seems to promote self-reflection, particularly for women.
I love how the song has an airy feminine, spiritual vibe by referencing clarity, balance and the soul, and I think it’s a perfect song for the summer. The production itself is very slow, soulful and repetitive, which I think only makes it better.
You Right – Doja Cat & The Weeknd
It’s hard not to love Doja Cat, or at the very least be familiar with a few of her songs. Personally, I’m annoying enough to be proud of the fact that I knew her before her music blew up on TikTok, contributing to her current mainstream fame. Doja is usually best known for her most famous hits like Kiss Me More (feat. SZA), Say So and Streets, which are all great songs as well.
Her long-anticipated and highly-acclaimed third studio album ‘Planet Her’ was finally released in June 2021, including You Right. This is a sultry R&B tune about wandering eyes and exploring attraction in an affair outside of her relationship, as she’s “got a man”. The song is highly addictive (it’s almost been a year and I’m still not bored of it) and sensual, plus the production/beat is very fitting with the galaxy, heavenly and goddess imagery in its official music video.
The vibe of the song, as well as the lyrics, make it a perfect one for Canadian artist The Weeknd to collaborate on. Even though this article is centred around women, I feel like I must give credit to his verse which makes the song even better; it’s an all-round great modern R&B track.
No Love – Summer Walker & SZA
The most recent song on this list is No Love, released in 2021 on Summer Walker’s album ‘Still Over It’. I felt that I couldn’t not mention her, as for me Summer is one of the best modern-day R&B artists.
It was difficult to choose just one song from that album to include in this list, as I had it on repeat when it first came out after already playing her prior album ‘Over It’ to death. Ultimately, I picked this song as it features one of my all-time favourite female artists, SZA. Their soft, yet addictive, vocals alongside one another make it a beautiful track about being exhausted from wasting time with love and now wanting a casual no-strings-attached sort of relationship. To me, it gives off a light, summery sex-positive and empowering vibe- especially SZA’s second verse.
It’s great to see Summer Walker rising continuously in popularity, as most of her initial fame and recognition came from a remix of Girls Need Love featuring Drake, although she’d already been making great R&B and Pop music prior to that.
Featured Image courtesy of Raph_PH via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.
In-article videos courtesy of Brandy, Destiny’s Child, Erykah Badu, ashanti, keshiacole, Snoh Aalegra, Kehlani, GREENTEA PENG, Doja Cat and Summer Walker via youtube.com. No changes were made to these videos.
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