This time last January, we were rubbing hands together for what we thought was an imminent Beyoncé album. She topped our 2013 list of the most anticipated R&B projects on the calendar, but nearly 12 months would go by without a release.
We hit "publish" on our year-end lists, made resolutions we were bound to bail on and planned new lists for a New Year. It would've been a great 12 months for the genre anyway: K. Michelle held down the 'hood with sensual street-thumpers like "V.S.O.P.," Robin Thicke channeled Marvin Gaye on the inescapable "Blurred Lines" and Jhené Aiko spoke our language with her Sail Out EP, for real. But Bey was determined to leave her impression on the final 2013 tally. Her midnight surprise breathed new life into the proceedings and, suddenly, nothing was the same.
Here's to more (pleasant) surprises in 2014.
Chris Brown: A voice like fine china, but the bad-boy persona is bad news. But Brown must know that: After repeated delays of his X album — meant to commemorate his 10th year in the game — the Virginia native released instead an X Files mixtape in the fourth quarter. An animated CB appeared on the cover dressed in a white straitjacket, arms crossed over his belly. In April, Chris visited MTV News' studio and shared, "Hopefully in 10 years, I'll be bigger than I've ever been — hopefully," We hope so too.
Frank Ocean: Enigmatic Ocean made songs in the key of his life on Channel Orange, but the vibes will come via the Beach Boys and the Beatles, not Stevie Wonder, on this 'go-round. If an R&B album inspired by 1966's Pet Sounds has you scratching your head (*opens new tab, Googles "God Only Knows"*), know that Frank's manager assures there's always a method to the singer/songwriter's vision.
"This is a guy who has the ability to change things, and for him to change things, he has to follow his intuition," Christian Clancy said.
Elle Varner: The "hug life" crusader's follow-up to 2012's Perfectly Imperfect should earn her a deserved spot in the pop&b mainstream. But let's call it the warm-up. The NYU grad's debut saw her delving into "Girl Code"-approved topics from weight issues and feeling insecure to falling hard for a guy friend.
"I love that about the album: It's so relatable for guys, girls, kids, adults," Varner told MTV News in 2012. It's like the human experience. I think that's my gift in this world is to put experience into music."
Jennifer Hudson: These days it feels like the only singing JHud does is about carbs and calories in those Weight Watchers commercials. But in the past year, Hudson has been racking up surprising rap cameos from J. Cole to Macklemore, appearing onstage at VH1 and MTV awards shows with the MCs to belt hooks on hit songs "Crooked Smile" and "Same Love," respectively. Are those live features a clue about the direction for her third studio album?
Jessie Ware: One of the many highlights of seeing Ware last spring at NYC's Webster Hall was her uptempo cover of girl group Brownstone's "If You Love Me." The U.K. singer helped usher in the nineties revival with 2012's Devotion, and the rhythm-and-blues golden age is likely to figure on her sequel, too.
Jhene Aiko: It should be nothing but smooth sailing for the "Bed Peace" crooner on the Def Jam follow-up to her sultry Sail Out EP. Tentatively titled "Souled Out," and due out this spring, Aiko told Billboard mag she's "grateful to finally put out something people can buy. I didn't want them to wait any longer."
The Los Angeles native made noise last year with a series of noteworthy co-signs, from signing to No I.D.'s Atrium imprint to an opening slot on Drake's Would You Like a Tour? jaunt. But none of that would have been possible without her real-talk lyricism (Aiko penned every track, including verses like "We make love, and then we f---, and then you give me my space") and clear-as-crystal soprano (stream "Stay Ready (What a Life") featuring Kendrick Lamar).
Kelis: Her ex-husband, Nas, spun their breakup into chart gold with the release of his album Life Is Good. But all we know so far about is TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek will helm and the project's title at press time is Food. The record reportedly promises to be raw and soulful. Whether the former Mrs. Jones has an answer track to "Bye Baby" remains to be heard.
Mack Wilds: Who knew quarter waters could inspire borough ballads?
The "90210" star and producer Salaam Remi revived the '90s essence of the Rotten Apple on New York: A Love Story. The actor-turned-singer/MC hails from gritty Staten Island, a hometown he lovingly put on display in a 2013 documentary that took some of the polish off the Hollywood heartthrob.
And we don't know about you, but we couldn't go anywhere without hearing Mack's falsetto-fueled "Own It," with that driving Eric B and Rakim sample and a throwback sound that feels somehow very right now. We can't even imagine Ne-Yo on the record. More please.
Mariah Carey: The title track from her 14th studio LP, The Art of Letting Go, is the reason every girl ever sang into a hairbrush. Just ask Ariana.
Features from Nas, R. Kelly, The-Dream and Q-Tip, along with Rodney Jerkins and Jermaine Dupri behind the boards, ensure more of the same.
Miguel: "I'm still creating every day. I don't think I'm necessarily focused on the next album," "the "How Many Drinks?" singer admitted to us last summer at the TIME 100 gala. "I'm still so in love with this album," he added of his acclaimed Kaleidoscope Dream.. "But I'm creating all the time. When we get to that bend, I think we'll be ready."
Is it even possible to follow up an instant-classic like "Adorn"? We're ready to hear Miguel try.
Pharrell Williams: After blessing countless hooks in 2013, Skateboard P gets understandably greedy as he embarks on plans for a bars-free solo effort. "That's the difference between 30 and 40. 'Cause I was 30, now I'm 40 -- and I'm not rapping," he explained to Complex magazine recently. Now Pharrell just has to find time to record this masterwork. Production for Pusha T, Mac Miller, Charlie Wilson, Clipse and more are on his loaded schedule.
Sampha: Drake could always side-hustle as an A&R for an R&B roster because he rarely misses when it comes to his ear (see: The Weeknd, PartyNextDoor, Jhené Aiko). And he continued the trend when he tapped this South Londoner to drop his whispery wail on the Nothing Was the Same track "Too Much."
Sampha's vocals always come to you as if at a far-off distance and are impossible to shake. A full-length of his brand of electronic soul is definitely in order for 2014 for the singer's Young Turks label.
Solange: Since the release of her True EP, Solo's moved from Brooklyn to the Bayou, where an infusion of blues could very well color her next album.
The EP followed years of tiresome, if inevitable, comparisons to superstar sister Bey. Eventually, the younger Knowles teamed with Dev Hynes and found the recipe for a sound all her own: a blissful mix of everything from soul, pop, indie and afrobeat. "I walked in and Dev was standing there, playing this beat, and it was like a light bulb went off<' she said of their very first introduction. "I thought, 'That's the sound I've been waiting for.' "
SZA: Rather than gunning for Beyoncé's platinum throne on her TDE debut, SZA has made DIY divas like Bjork her prototype. And in fact, glittery tracks like "Castles," from her buzzworthy spring 2013 EP, S share far more DNA with that of the Icelandic pop diva's catalog than the Queen Bey's.
Toni Braxton and Babyface: The eldest Braxton sister threatened to retire from music last year but came back after encouragement from legendary producer/songwriter 'Face to properly serve that soundtrack-to-your-love-life R&B realness.
Check the veteran duo's vintage 1992 "Arsenio" performance if you needed proof that Love, Marriage & Divorce, due February 7, is two decades overdue. Braxton and Babyface first generated heat last year with their chart-topping collab, "Hurt You."