While the beloved, interconnected genres of hip-hop and R&B are some of the most widespread in today’s world, this year hasn’t been the easiest on the surface. Until Lil Uzi Vert recently shifted things with the advent of his well-received third studio album, Pink Tape, hip-hop had yet to produce an album worthy of reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart all year (though this is set to change soon with Travis Scott’s Utopia). This is the first time that this has happened since 1993, which is somewhat startling. However, this fact does not correlate with the eclectic, high quality of hip-hop and R&B music that has actually come out this year. There is still a sprawling array of artists who understood the assignment and who have executed on that accordingly this year with tact, passion and sheer dopeness. Here is a tasteful selection of projects that stand out in 2023.
A Gift & a Curse — Gunna
Despite pleading guilty to a single charge in the YSL RICO case and initially being sentenced to five years in prison (but only having to do one year, with the rest of his sentence being suspended), Atlanta rapper Gunna indubitably has had to endure quite a bit in his most recent year of life. Due to his legal issues, the “Met Gala” rhymer has faced scrutiny from some of his peers in the industry (i.e., Lil Durk). In any case, all the backlash he’s experienced hasn’t stifled his output, and instead it definitely feels like it’s functioned as much-needed fuel for his ambitions. Gunna uses this project as a therapeutic canvas where he can express all of his disillusionment and confusion with his current circumstances. On a recent episode of The Joe Budden Podcast, Budden described Gunna’s zeal as “rapping as if his life depends on it,” which may be considered an understatement given how hard he’s worked on this project. On tracks like “idk nomore,” “paybach” and “turned your back,” he’s beyond vulnerable and sheds light on the scorn and cynicism he’s received from people after his adversity. On the other hand, he exhibits a newfound vitality on this project, proving that he isn’t defeated, but that he’s back and stronger than ever before. It’s tough to know what his destiny will be moving forward, but for now, the legend of Gunna has reemerged.
The Age of Pleasure — Janelle Monáe
Completely immersed in what feels like both a liberating departure from her former aesthetic and a natural evolution, Janelle Monáe has channeled her fresh aura into something truly mesmerizing. Via a blazing combination of genres, some of which include reggae, Afrobeats and R&B, the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter has constructed a robust body of work totally apt for the summer season. Perhaps exuding the confidence that comes with living in her complete truth as a queer woman, Monáe is as carefree, positive and light as a bird on this record as one could ever be. She’s autonomous. She’s bold. She’s unapologetically confident. And she evidently doesn’t give AF what anyone says about her. This project is as much for her as it is for the world. On the record, she gracefully expresses that “if I could f**k me right here, right now, I would do that.” This line is emblematic of the sultry vibe that is present throughout the track. Some outstanding highlights on the record include “Know Better,” “Water Slide” and “Float.” If you’re seeking a worthy listening experience to accompany your frolics this summer, it would behoove you to look no further.
Jackman — Jack Harlow
Despite being a super-succinct listen, with its playtime coming in at just over 24 minutes, Jackman offers a compelling conduit into the current-day psyche and mind frame of Louisville’s finest.
Deliberately steering away from splashy features and point-blank radio appeal, Harlow maintains a no-frills vibe with this record, which yields a degree of vulnerability never before seen from him. While reflecting on the record, the “Common Ground” rapper chatted about the insights gathered from the five years he’s worked in the contemporary music industry. Out of the many epiphanies he’s reached, some of the most salient include the fact that his peers “don’t love” the craft as much as he does, that suburban white kids are often fascinated with rap music and that Harlow has a drive to reach the “next level” in his career. In terms of sonics, all of the instrumentation placed across the record is bare-boned, which accentuates the lyrics. In the grand scheme of his discography, this is an understated gem and something savory to come out of hip-hop this year.
KAYTRAMINÉ — Kaytranada x Aminé
In what has been undoubtedly one of the most highly anticipated releases of the year (as well as one of the most celebrated collabs), the forces of Kaytranada and Aminé have executed on the art of tasteful synergy. Meshing together what they each bring to the table, the two craft a dazzlingly fun record that appears as though it’ll stand the test of time. With Aminé bringing his patented, tongue-in-cheek braggadocio over a refreshing menagerie of beats exclusively selected by Kaytranada, their dynamic is infectious and keeps listeners tapped in from track to track. Adding a cherry on top of what is easily a dynamic duo, they enlisted captivating verses from some other hip-hop heavy hitters: Snoop Dogg, Big Sean, Freddie Gibbs and more. There was some chatter on Twitter about how the project didn’t live up to its expectations, but to set the record straight, all of that is unfounded and straight BS.
Never Enough — Daniel Caesar
After taking some time away from the limelight, with his last project coming out in 2019, the Canadian singer-songwriter has resurfaced with newfound tales of love, regret, dreams and heartbreak. Veering away from anything one would hear on the radio, a great deal of the project is stripped down to Caesar’s mellifluous vocals and minimalistic acoustics. He’s definitely offered up another collection of atmospheric, laidback and sentimental tracks. While there haven’t been many notable R&B projects to come out in 2023, Never Enough helps fill that void.
Fortune Favors the Bold — Dave East
Although this record just dropped on July 14, that doesn’t make it any less worthy of being on this list. Coming in straight out of the gate with something to prove, the Queens-bred rapper is swinging ferociously. From the very onset of the record — when he starts off with a feature from the iconic Kid Capri and production from the elite production duo Cool & Dre — one can anticipate that everything else is going to be remarkable. East brings his signature NYC vibe and gritty raspy voice to the lyrics on his second studio album, which has been long-awaited since the release of his first project back in 2019. Some of the matters he dives into include how far he’s come in his career, high-quality sex, and the newfound fruits of his labor. In terms of features, there’s a diverse bunch of people here, but they all seem to complement East well. Some consist of Cordae, G-Eazy, Ghostface Killah, Coi Leray, Tyga, Ty Dolla $ign, Jadakiss and more. All and all, East utilizes his record to reaffirm that he’s a complete and legitimate MC who is just as formidable as any one of your “favorite” rappers. At its nucleus, Fortune Favors the Bold is the blueprint of what a quintessential NYC record looks like in 2023.
Like..? (Deluxe) — Ice Spice
Doubling down on the widespread allure of its first iteration, “Like..? (Deluxe),” which features her biggest track to date by far, “Munch (Feelin’ U),” shows once again why the Bronx hip-pop sensation is one of the most popular names in the game right now. Unabashedly tailored to the Gen Z masses, Spice’s music features flourishes of simplistic choruses and provocative bars. Some highlights from the latest rendition include “How High?,” “Butterfly Ku” and “Deli.” If “talking her s**t” were personified, placed on stages and magnified across the nation, it would be Ice Spice. The tracks, cultivated by her producer RiotUSA, share a youthful spirit that channels the aura of her generation. With so much admiration coming her way and her reputation already established, it has been exhilarating to watch her evolution.
Grudges — Kiana Ledé
Totally immersed in raw, unapologetic emotion, Ledé bares her soul to the world with verve, relatability and unremitting courage. Grappling with the oftentimes hard to swallow, unsavory realities of love and relationships, the LA-based songstress has provided a comprehensive soundscape exhibiting what heart-wrenching R&B should sound like in 2023. As cathartic as it is revelatory, Grudges aptly captures a unique POV on myriad love-based stories, seemingly from a genuine place. In a genre that sometimes strays from authenticity, Ledé has succeeded at crafting something that feels true and indisputably real. Assembling a juggernaut collection of her contemporaries on this project, including Ella Mai, Khalid, Nija Charles and more, Ledé embraces being the driving force behind what is one of the best R&B albums of this year.