50 Greatest R&B Artists of the Past 40 Years, Courtesy of the Soul In Stereo Cypher (2024)

Two months ago, a gathered a panel of hip-hop enthusiasts to help determine the greatest rapper of all time.

Check it out here if you missed it.

Chances are you already saw it already. The traffic from that post was so heavy that it literally BROKE MY INTERNET, crashing the Soul In Stereo servers for days.

I spent my birthday weekend STRESSED. But it was worth it.

So let’s do it all again, this time for the world of R&B.

Once again, I’ve gathered a panel of R&B enthusiasts from around the world – from ages ranging from 16 years old to Knees Crack When We Stand Up – to help determine the biggest, most influential and most important R&B artists of our generation.

Here’s the thing – R&B is a much bigger beast than hip-hop. While hip-hop is roughly 40 or so years old, R&B’s roots run back a good 80 years, perhaps even longer. There’s no way we could properly cover that history in a top 50 list.

That’s why this ranking comes with a caveat – we will ONLY be ranking artists who released their solo debut in the year 1980 or later. That means no Stevie, no Michael Jackson, no Prince, etc.

I can’t wait until people in the comments yell about MJ being omitted and I get to copy/paste the above sentence to make them feel bad.

Why just 40 years of R&B? Well, most of our panelists’ expertise only go as far back as the 80s. It’s not fair for them – or the legends of previous decades – to have to guess about hitmakers that they aren’t familiar with. Plus, if we open it up too wide, this will just become The Greatest Motown Artists of All Time, and I’ll have to deal with angry Aaliyah stans mad that she was pushed aside for Aretha Franklin n’ dem.

PERISH THE THOUGHT, PLAYA.

Here’s how the list came together:

Each of the 20 panelists (myself included) submitted a list of 25 nominees for R&B’s greatest stars, ranked from bottom to top. Remember, this isn’t a list of our personal faves, nor is it a “best vocalist” list. Rankings were determined by ability, influence, creativity, impact and, maybe most importantly, legacy.

Once all the nominations came in, they were compiled into one master list. Only one artist received nominations from all 20 participants – that person landed at the No. 1 spot.

The next three artists received 19 nominations. I averaged their scores and they became Nos. 2-4 on this list. Nos. 5 and 6 received 18 nominations; 7-10 received 17 nominations, etc. Y’all get the point. Also, the No. 50 spot was reserved for the artist who had only one nomination but was ranked highest on a nominee’s list.

Of course, I have to shout out the panelists from the Soul In Stereo Cypher and beyond who worked hard to make this a reality: Damon Dunn, Shaquille Perry, Javacia Harris Bowser, Darius Keeton, Derrick Dunn, Erica Scott, Nguyen Nam Anh, Troy Smith, Vocalz Getupradio, Chizoma Ihebuzor, LaToya Hagler, Justin Jones, Da Brown, T. Nicole, Dorean Rose Pugh, Jay Connor, Mel Smith, Nijia Vaughn, and Jason J. Clark. Y’all are dope.

R&B has had quite a tumultuous history in recent years. But when the genre is at its strongest, it’s everything that makes music matter – the passion, the emotion, the joy, the pain and the love that defines us, captured in melody.

Here are the 50 artists who made the past four decades unforgettable.

Artists who received nominations but didn’t make the final cut: Anthony Hamilton, The Weeknd, Janelle Monae, Mint Condition, Lalah Hathaway, Tamia, Anderson Paak, Amy Winehouse, Bell Biv DeVoe, Eric Roberson, Teddy Riley, Vesta Williams, Kashif, Morris Day, Loose Ends, Soul II Soul, Troop, After 7, Angela Winbush, Klymaxx, Howard Hewett, Jody Watley, SOS Band, LeVert, Miki Howard, Zapp, Bryson Tiller, Ginuwine, Jeffrey Osborne

50. Karyn White

One nomination

Nijia: Karyn White has one of the most distinctive voices I’ve ever heard. Her voice is sensual and smooth. She has given us songs like “Superwoman,” “Love Saw It” as well as being able to do R&B and new jack swing.

49. H.E.R.

48. 112

47. Xscape

46. John Legend

45. Musiq Soulchild

44. Brian McKnight

43. Johnny Gill

42. DeBarge

41. Joe

40. Tony Toni Tone

Two nominations

Da Brown: Tony Toni tone deserves to be on this list because of how good their discography is, because of their influence, and because they managed to stand on their own as one of the few bands to dominate during the 90’s.

39. Jagged Edge

38. Faith Evans

37. Lionel Richie

36. Jill Scott

35. Monica

34. Jazmine Sullivan

33. Dru Hill

32. Charlie Wilson

31. Lauryn Hill

30. Ne-Yo

Five nominations

Derrick: What makes Ne-Yo great is his ability to write a song effortlessly. He deserves to be on this list not only for his solo contributions but for what he’s done for other artists. Beyonce was already a force in music, but when Ne-Yo gave her “Irreplaceable,” she started to go to another level. Furthermore, Ne-Yo has one of the most impressive first four solo album runs of any male R&B singer in the 21st century.

29. Guy

28. SWV

27. Bobby Brown

26. Destiny’s Child

25. Chris Brown

24. En Vogue

23. Maxwell

22. D’Angelo

21. Keith Sweat

20. R. Kelly

12 nominations

Edd: Sooooo, yeah. If you know me, you know my personal opinion of Robert Kelly. This guy is the devil. But most of our voters agreed that despite his VERY complicated legacy, you can’t objectively look at the history of 40 years of R&B and erase his contributions. That work goes well beyond his personal catalog – his writing and production credits run deep in R&B’s DNA, creating lasting hits for dozens of artists on this very list. His personal actions are inexcusable but his impact is undeniable.

19. Erykah Badu

18. Aaliyah

17. Alicia Keys

16. Brandy

15. TLC

14. Toni Braxton

13. Babyface

12. New Edition

11. Jodeci

10. Anita Baker

17 nominations

Erica: Anita Baker’s sultry voice easily lulled and enchanted you into the stories she wove in her songs. Each album represented different aspects of relationships and love. Her songs are timeless and relatable to people of different ages and ethnicities.

9. Sade

17 nominations

LaToya: When I hear the name Sade, one word comes to mind: Ethereal. Her music has the ability to transcend time and space. Sade is an artist that understands and harnesses the power of mystery. If you are someone who is unfamiliar with the greatness that is Sade, just ask your momma. Or Drake. They would be happy to put you up on game.

8. Beyonce

17 nominations

Javacia: Beyoncé’s impact on R&B and pop culture as a whole is undeniable. She’s essentially the patron saint of Black women, yet her music transcends, race, nationality, gender, and age. From her surprise releases and visual albums to her epic live performances that celebrate life, love, and Black culture, Beyoncé continues to raise the bar and shift the landscape of music. While many other artists have abandoned the art of album making, King Bey always gives us a cohesive body of work, weaving together a captivating story with both her lyrics and videos. A vocal powerhouse who’s been in the game for decades, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter knows how to stay relevant while also growing into the most authentic version of herself and empowering her fans to do the same.

7. Luther Vandross

17 nominations

Troy: You didn’t have to look far to justify the claim that Luther Vandross was “The Best Voice of a Generation.” It’s right there in songs like “Never Too Much,” “Here and Now” and “Superstar.” But Vandross’ artistry often gets overlooked. He was a brilliant hook writer, producer and vocal arranger. By studying the female singers of his youth – Aretha, Dionne, Patti, etc. – Luther’s was a unique male voice that came from a softer space. His songs defined the meaning of love for multiple generations all the way up until his death.

6. Janet Jackson

18 nominations

Dorean: We know about her contributions to pop music, but when Janet Jackson does R&B she does not miss. The janet. album is an absolute classic and gave sexy R&B from a woman’s perspective with mature lyricism. Her influence on the R&B girls has been evident from the 90s to today, and with R&B hits like “Let’s Wait a While,” “Love Will Never Do Without You,” “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “I Get Lonely” it’s easy to see why.

5. Mariah Carey

18 nominations

Damon: Mariah Carey was the voice of the 90s and early 2000s. Consistently releasing hit after hit and breaking records helped her music define an era. Her ability to seamlessly transition from pop ballads, soul and hip-hop heavily contributed to her success, making her one of the most successful artists of all time.

4. Boyz II Men

19 nominations

Vocalz: Boyz II Men is the best selling R&B group of all time. Their longevity, talent, and work ethic has kept them touring and performing at major events and tv shows since the 90s. They continue to delight audiences while doing what true R&B fans love, sing about love and doing it well. Their voices have remained in shape and their Las Vegas residency is a must see. They are the greatest R&B group of all time.

3. Usher

19 nominations

Justin: Excellent vocal ability and stage presence throughout Usher’s 30-year career has made him into one of the most popular artists of ANY genre, let alone R&B. His Confessions album was the last blockbuster R&B album, with over 15 million sold, and My Way and 8701 has heavily inspired today’s R&B. But then again, what do you expect from an artist who has received nods of approval both James Brown and Micheal Jackson?

2. Mary J. Blige

19 nominations

Chizoma: Mary J. Blige is simply one of the most significant figures in R&B from the last 40 years. Aside from her incredible list of accolades (8 platinum albums, 9 Grammys, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, etc.), she helped usher in a new sound and style dubbed “Hip-Hop/Soul” that changed R&B forever upon the release of her 1992 debut, What’s The 411? Mary’s greatest contribution to R&B is her ability to foster deep connections with her audience through her music. She’s made us cry, fall in love and feel empowered with her rich catalog for well over two decades and doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.

1. Whitney Houston

20 nominations

Mel: To no one’s surprise, Whitney Houston is our first place winner. She was the ONLY artist to receive all 20 nominations. And rightfully so. From her 1985 eponymous debut, Whitney Houston, to her final 2009 album, I Look to You (and everything in between), Houston consistently wowed and wooed the world with her anomalous voice, massive personality, and record-breaking achievements. Houston’s talent and cultural relevance continues to inspire generations of artists across mediums and genres to find and project their own voice. Although R&B lost its ‘Voice’ in 2012, Whitney Houston still remains the most influential vocalist of the last 40 years. We will always love you, Nippy.

50 Greatest R&B Artists of the Past 40 Years, Courtesy of the Soul In Stereo Cypher (2024)

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