In his recent review of R&B singer Miguel’s fantastic Art Dealer Chic series of EPs, The A.V. Club‘s Evan Rytlewski explained the singer’s rise in popularity by floating the idea that his 2010 album All I Want Is You contained “arguably the most engaging singles run of any R&B album since Usher’s Confessions.” This argument is much closer to the truth than it may seem on first blush.
Though the genre has experienced a bit of a downswing in the past few years, it’s been a reliable source of great pop music since Confessions‘ release in March 2004. But is Rytlewski’s claim correct? Let’s look at the R&B albums with the best runs of three consecutive singles since the beginning of 2004 and find out.
But first, some ground rules: The three singles must have been released consecutively—a dud single at any point breaks a string—and off a single album (sorry, Ciara and Ne-Yo); each must have charted on Billboard‘s R&B chart; and the three singles don’t have to be the first off the album, though on this list they all ended up that way.
10. T-Pain, Thr33 Ringz (“Can’t Believe It (ft. Lil Wayne),” “Chopped n Skrewed (ft. Ludacris),” “Freeze (ft. Chris Brown)”)
The public’s waning interest in T-Pain started to show in the response to Thr33 Ringz, which produced three top 40 singles, but nothing that hit the top five and only one (“Can’t Believe It”) that was a top 20 hit. That said, the three singles released off the album represented his best run since his debut Rappa Ternt Sanga, which would’ve been high on this list had a third single ever been released. The first two singles are perfect examples of Pain’s zany songwriting, cheeky personality and ballsy approach to pop songcraft.
“Can’t Believe It” floats along on a twinkly beat that is almost aggressively low key, features Lil Wayne so enamored by Auto-Tune that his lyrics are at times illegible and has a charming Pain famously rhyming “mansion” and “Wis-can-sin.” “Chopped n Skrewed” uses Texas’s famous rap sub-genre as a launching pad for a song about getting turned down by girls, and also managed to get a chopped-up chorus on pop radio. “Freeze” may seem like an afterthought, but the refreshingly cute dance-pop song about challenging a girl at a club to a dance-off may actually be the best of the three.
9. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds (“SexyBack,” “My Love (ft. T.I.),” “What Goes Around… Goes Around”)
You can’t really go wrong with any stretch of three singles off FS/LS. I was tempted to include “Summer Love,” but the more I hear “SexyBack” in malls and at the gym (which is more often than you’d think), the more I appreciate how good the production is. It will live on because of its kitschiness, but it’s a pretty fantastic piece of music. I hesitate to put FS/LS any higher, though, because all of its singles actually sound better on the album, where you can appreciate the extended intros or outros and really immerse yourself in the album’s playfulness. In that sense it’s the opposite of Justin’s debut album, which still has the three most killer singles of his solo career, anyway.
8. Mariah Carey, Emancipation of Mimi (“It’s Like That,” “We Belong Together,” “Shake it Off”)
This album famously returned Mariah to the top of the pop world after the double-disaster that was the Glitter/Charmbracelet one-two. “We Belong Together” is maybe the best song on this entire list (hell, sometimes it’s my favorite song ever), and it lords over the other two, both of which may be a bit underrated but aren’t standout songs on this list or in Mariah’s career. “We Belong Together” is so awesome that it gets Emancipation here by itself, but there’s also a distinct, radiant warmth coursing through all three singles that make them really nice to go back to, especially in the summer.
7. Chris Brown, Chris Brown (“Run It (ft. Juelz Santana),” “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” “Gimme That (ft. Lil Wayne)”)
Before Chris Brown rightfully became music’s most reviled shithead, he was just another young kid perfectly wedding the Ferris-wheel innocence of puppy love to pop’s grownest genre. “Yo (Excuse Me Miss),” a ballad with achingly sweet synths, is the best song of his career. “Run It,” with its post-“Yeah!” keyboard vamping, and “Gimme That,” with its string riff courtesy of one Scott Storch, are fossils of bygone eras, but they’re still really fun songs, assuming you can stomach even old Breezy nowadays.
6. Keyshia Cole, Just Like You (“Last Night (w/ Diddy),” “Let it Go (ft. Missy Elliot & Lil Kim),” “Shoulda Let You Go (ft. Amina)”)
“Last Night” is more famously known for being a single off Diddy’s Press Play, but it also appeared on Just Like You, so we’ll count it. Cole can definitely go off-the-rails with melisma, but she reins herself in just enough on that and “Let it Go” that she falls on the right side of raspy emotionality. There’s also a nice contrast between the two, with “Last Night” being cold, mechanical and distant and the “Let it Go” getting over heartbreak by bringing in Keyshia’s friends to quote Biggie. “Shoulda Let You Go,” one of the last great Darkchild productions, is a sleeper in the third spot.
5. Maxwell, BLACKsummers’night (“Pretty Wings,” “Bad Habits,” “Cold”)
Maxwell scoring two of the biggest hits of career and two of the biggest R&B hits of 2009 while not compromising his music is a testament to both how good of an artist he is and how good “Pretty Wings” and “Bad Habits” are. Those two songs were omnipresent on R&B radio three years ago, and there was something so nice about hearing a voice as good as Maxwell’s as well as live instruments and real humans playing music on the radio. Which would be a really rockist thing to say if I didn’t have Ciara beating this out. This album is knocked down a peg on account of “Cold” coming in between “Bad Habits” and “Fistful of Tears,” the fourth single, and only song on the album that scrapes the titanic heights of those first two.
4. Miguel, All I Want Is You (“All I Want is You,” “Sure Thing,” “Quickie”)
So, no, Miguel’s debut doesn’t feature the most engaging singles run of any album since Confessions, but it’s pretty close. Aside from all three songs being flat-out awesome, each sounds different from the other, and that helped ring unpredictability back to R&B radio. Most people favor “Sure Thing” but the best track of the three is “Quickie,” which nods at Bob Marley and Babyface equally and features spindly, squiggly guitar lines that are my favorite production flourish in recent memory.
3. Ciara, Goodies (“Goodies (ft. Petey Pablo),” “1, 2 Step (ft. Missy Elliot),” “Oh (ft. Ludacris)”)
The crunk&b of Goodies might sound a bit dated eight years on, but these three songs (all of which went top two on the Billboard Hot 100) are still absolutely impossible to fuck with. If anything, listening back, it makes me a bit sad to think that dancey, club-oriented R&B like this would have no shot at being a huge crossover hit unless it was produced by Dr. Luke, Stargate or RedOne. Ciara only hit the heights of these three songs a few more times across her career, but the quality of her singles discography still runs really deep, and her last album, Basic Instinct, would’ve been on this list somewhere if not for the (obviously arbitrary) “one album per artist” rule.
2. The-Dream, Love/Hate (“Shawty is a Ten,” “Falsetto,” “I Luv Your Girl”)
The-Dream would go on to make more critically acclaimed albums and songs, but the dirty secret about his discography post-Love/Hate is that the singles off those albums (save “Rockin’ That Shit”) kinda suck. Everything here, though, is pretty close to perfection, from the bouncy, summery pop of “Shawty is a Ten” (which got easily the biggest response during his tour this year) to the wordless chorus of “Falsetto” to the flippant, slyly tuneful snap music of “I Luv Your Girl.”
1. Ne-Yo, Year of the Gentleman (“Closer,” “Miss Independent,” “Mad”)
Stargate are currently a few of the most demanding producers in pop, but not too long ago they were anonymously churning out hits for British pop groups that had no impact on American soil. But in 2005 they began working with an unknown songwriter named Shaffer Smith, and the sessions birthed the bulk of the debut album by Smith, who adopted the stage name Ne-Yo. Stargate’s early work with Ne-Yo could arguably occupy this spot, but they collectively hit god status with the run of singles that powered Year of the Gentleman, his third album.
Lead singer “Closer” predicted that urban radio would soon begin to approach dance music, but instead of the bludgeon-house that we’re largely subjected to now, the song reworks the muted, acoustic guitar-inflected funk of previous collaborations like “Because of You” and “Sexy Love.” The airy synths of “Miss Independent” sounded so good that Stargate would eventually rip them off for Rihanna songs like “Rude Boy” and “What’s My Name,” but they never were as novel as they were here. The same can be said for Ne-Yo’s detail-oriented songwriting, which peaked on “Miss Independent” and its followup “Mad,” a piano ballad that’s a bit unassuming comparatively but really blooms during the chorus.
Unfortunately, Ne-Yo hasn’t really written a great song since those three singles. It’s hard to complain, though, after the run he had with Stargate, which culminated in the best string of three singles from any R&B album of the past eight or so years.