You’re right to believe Frank Ocean was robbed by Mumford & Sons for Album of the Year at the Grammys Sunday. But nevertheless, last year was a good one for r&b, one that saw different facets of the genre take center stage. By extension, Frank Ocean is now a household name. And though Kelly Clarkson might not have been familiar with him, lots more people know the name Miguel than when the LA-based crooner dropped his Kaleidoscope Dream in October.
It got us to thinking about some other r&b artists we’ve been listening to for years that never crossed over into the limelight. Here now, five lesser-known soul men you should lend your ear to.
If it weren’t for D’Angelo and Maxwell, Bilal (pictured above) would be the most elusive, eccentric, progressive soul man out there. Just like those guys, he spent most of the last decade missing in action. The Philly native released an amazing debut album, 1st Born Second, back in 2001. With a slew of songs produced by such A-listers as Dr. Dre, ?uestlove and the late J Dilla, Bilal showed off his knack for hellacious, soulful vocalizing. He tried to follow that up with Love for Sale sometime in 2005, but that album never got an official release. (It did become a much-bootlegged favorite amongst r&b enthusiasts – the Extraordinary Machine of soul albums.) Eventually, he did legitimately release a second album in 2010 titled Airtight’s Revenge. And this month, he will release another album, A Love Surreal. Above you’ll find Bilal singing “Make Me Over,” perhaps the best Prince song Prince never recorded.
Coming out of the Atlanta soul scene that gave us India.Arie (who did a duet with him on one of his albums), Anthony David is a guitar-strumming troubadour with a deep, church-bred voice that makes any song he sings sound like the gospel truth. Speaking of truth, he released his debut, 3 Chords and the Truth, in 2004, and would go on to release three more albums, including last year’s Love Out Loud. (He also released Acey Duecy, a compilation of songs from Chords and his exemplary 2006 album The Red Clay Chronicles, after he briefly signed with Universal Republic.) Here is David doing a smooth r&b rendition of Level 42’s “Something About You.”
See also: Pazz & Jop: Miguel Is Living The Dream
Coming from the Motor City, this former rapper burst onto the scene when he provided the smooth hook work on Slum Village’s “Tainted” (one of my favorite hip-hop tracks of the last decade) in 2002. A year later, he dropped his national debut, Subject, which had him churning out soulful-yet-jazzy numbers that would be his calling card. He’s gone on to release four more albums, including last year’s Greater Than One. Although he continues to serve as a hook guy whenever MCs need him (he also did vocals for Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” and “Power”), he’s mostly known as the go-to guy if you need music to play while you’re at your place, sipping Courvoisier with that special someone. If you don’t believe me, above is his sexy, seductive track from his 2005 sophomore debut, Some Kinda …
Let’s go overseas for a moment and talk about this veteran British soulster. The dude has been my r&b man-crush ever since I heard his third album, For Pleasure, way back in the mid-’90s. He’s released six albums, with three of them getting legitimate release over here. His fifth album, 2001’s Best By Far, literally lives up to its name. However, his last album, 2006’s Sing (If You Want It), which includes appearances from Angie Stone, Common and Stevie Wonder, features my favorite all-time Omar song, the flamenco-tinged “Get It Together.” He supposedly has some new music dropping this year. But, until then, I’ll keep playing “Get It Together” while I wait.
If there’s a reigning prince of independently-distributed r&b, it’s this sensitive-voiced Jersey boy. After he got burned by Warner Bros. when they signed him while he was in college, Roberson would go on to release music his damn self, starting with The Esoteric Movement in 2001. He’s also written songs for Jill Scott and the aforementioned Dwele. He would go on to release six more studio albums and one live album on his own label, Blue Erro Soul. Thanks to recording albums and touring regularly, the man has amassed his own fanbase, who refer to him by his nickname, Erro. Here is Roberson doing a little sumthin’ with rapper –and a damn fine soul singer in his own right — Phonte Coleman.