We are nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century, an unfathomable reality when one considers where we were 25 years ago on the cusp of Y2K.

Remember back then?  With all the apocalyptic fears associated with the turn of the century (about our computers not being able to handle the transition), who could even see this far into the future, much less imagine what it would be like musically?

Now those computers (well, not those same computers) are actually a huge part of how we consume music in 2024 — less than a year away from the century’s quarter-point — and one music trade publication has taken it upon itself to reflect on the past 24 years by ranking what its writers consider to be among R&B’s best. 

In an article published on January 3, Rolling Stone ranked “the 100 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century,” based on the collective views of its writers who admitted up front that they spent less time debating what “R&B” was than “letting (their) taste guide (them) to the music (they) couldn’t live without.”

In other words, this list is clearly the subjective opinions of a handful of the magazine’s staff-writers who began the article with this dubious premise: that R&B has “never been more successful, relevant, or ambitions” as it is now, citing blockbuster albums by Usher (2004’s Confessions), Beyonce (2016’s Lemonade), Mariah Carey (2005’s Emancipation of Mimi) and Rihanna (2016’s Anti) as evidence.  They further made the dubious claim that “R&B hits omnivorously dominate the Top 10, often leaving room for little else.”

Those lofty statements alone offer reasons why it’s always best to take such articles with a grain of salt.  As “expert” as those writers might appear to be, based solely on their association with Rolling Stone, the fact that they had to cite albums that range in age from eight to 20 years old in painting the fantasy of R&B’s current “relevance” is evidence of an alternative reality they’ve created to sell the article and its content.

In fact, R&B has arguably never been less relevant than it is now.  It is a splintered genre consisting of a number of hybrids like “adult R&B,” “neo-soul,” “afro-beats” neither of which alone garner a large share of music consumption consistent with what the genre as a whole did for much of the last century, especially during the 1990s and around the turn of this century.

The article’s suggestion that R&B “omnivorously dominates the Top 10, often leaving room for little else” couldn’t be further from the truth, particularly in the current decade when, in fact, it’s been pop, country, K-pop, hip-hop, and Taylor Swift (yes, she’s essentially a genre of her own now) that largely obscures R&B music from the Hot 100’s top-10 (although many of the songs in those genres do take on R&B traits, owing to the music’s undeniable influence on many non-R&B acts).

Still, if it weren’t for recent strides by SZA, Beyonce, The Weeknd (is he really R&B?) and maybe a few others, R&B would be almost non-existent in the Billboard Top 10 – presumably the charts to which RS’s writers were referring.  Yes, R&B/Hip-Hop – as a combined genre with the emphasis on the hip-hop part – dominates all others when it comes to music consumption in America, but that’s largely due to hip-hop’s emergence, which Billboard and its data suppliers lump together with R&B now because the two have been synonymous with one another for the better part of three decades (Billboard renamed its main R&B charts as “Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks” — now “Songs” — in its December 11, 1999, issue).

If Billboard and its data supplier, Luminate, were to split data for the two genres back into their original components, it’s likely that R&B would be a much lesser force on the music consumption landscape than it was in, say, the 1990s or early 2000s, when it completely dominated the charts – both the genre-specific Black music charts as well as the all-inclusive Hot 100.  R&B/Hip-Hop dominates today because of one reason: Hip-Hop.

Yet, with that backdrop, Rolling Stone still managed to come up with 100 R&B songs they considered worthy of being deemed the century’s best, songs that were hits from the beginning of January 2000 right on through the end of last year (2023) … songs that were considered pure R&B, not hip-hop.

Here are the 30 Greatest R&B Songs of the 21st Century, according to Rolling Stone magazine (the entire Top 100 can be found at the links near the top and bottom of this article):

1.“Confessions Part 2”Usher2004
2.“Untitled (How Does It Feel)”D’Angelo2000
3.“Dangerously In Love”Beyoncé2003
4.“Be Without You”Mary J. Blige2005
5.“We Belong Together”Mariah Carey2005
6.“Thinkin About You”Frank Ocean2012
7.“Fallin’”Alicia Keys2001
8.“Ordinary People”John Legend2004
9.“Bag Lady”Erykah Badu2000
10.“Full Moon”Brandy2002
12.“Frontin’”Pharrell Williams ft. Jay-Z2003
13.“Best Part”Daniel Caesar & H.E.R.2017
14.“Love on Top”Beyoncé2011
15.“Rock the Boat”Aaliyah2001
16.“Pretty Wings”Maxwell2009
17.“He Wasn’t Man Enough”Toni Braxton2000
18.“Cranes In the Sky”Solange2016
20.“You Rocked My World”Michael Jackson2001
21.“Cater 2 U”Destiny’s Child2004
22.“John Redcorn”SiR 2019
23.“All For You”Janet Jackson 2001
24.“You Don’t Know My Name”Alicia Keys2003
25.“U Don’t have to Call”Usher2001
26.“Pick Up Your Feelings”Jazmine Sullivan2021
27.“1+1”Beyoncé 2011
28.“Yo! (Excuse Me Miss)”Chris Brown2005
29.“Leave the Door Open”Silk Sonic 2021

Right off the bat, the first thing one notices about the entire Top 100 list, aside from the dubious choice for the No. 1 greatest song of the century and the omission of anything by R. Kelly (both of which I’ll get to later), is how the rankings refute the very premise the writers began with – that R&B is currently dominating the scene.

Of the 100 songs ranked in the article, 71 of them – perhaps fittingly – came from the century’s first 12 years (2000-2011), while only 29 came from the last 12 (2012-2023).  Of those 29 songs in the century’s latter half (so far), only twelve reached the top 10 of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and only four reached the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10, further refuting the notion on which RS premised its whole article regarding R&B’s current “dominance.”

SZA’s current top-10 smash “Snooze,” the only song to spend the entire year of 2023 on the Billboard Hot 100, is among the 100 greatest R&B songs of the 21st century, according to the Rolling Stone list.

It is worth noting that several of the newer songs, including hits by Childish Gambino (2016’s “Redbone”) and Daniel Caesar & H.E.R. (2017’s “Best Part”) did top the “Adult R&B chart,” the niche format that almost all non-hip-hop Black music has been relegated to in the past decade-plus.

More noteworthy, however, are the songs (and artists) from the first part of the century that were noticeably absent from the rankings.

For instance, there are no tunes by R. Kelly on this list, despite classics like “I Wish,” “Ignition (Remix)” and “Step In the Name of Love” all hailing from the 2000s.  The latter tune was one of the longest-charting singles in Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs history (spending 70 weeks on the chart), and it is considered by many to be one of the greatest stepping songs of all time!

Also missing from these rankings is Trey Songz, the Petersburg, VA. native who topped the charts during the century’s first twelve years with hits like “I Invented Sex,” “Say Ahh,” “Bottoms Up,” and “Can’t Be Friends.”

Both Kelly, who was once considered the greatest R&B singer alive during the ‘90s and early aughts, and Songz, one of the most promising young talents to come out of this century’s first decade, have been under fire for their alleged (and in Kelly’s case, jury-convicted) sexual and other assault cases. 

Still, their music was very relevant during the time they were hits and nothing can change the fact that those songs were big parts of this century’s R&B fabric.  With retrospective lists like this excluding the songs because of the artists’ well-documented legal woes, it takes on a cancellation feel … unless, of course, these writers would have us believe that none of the aforementioned songs by Kelly or Songz is as worthy of inclusion as, say, B2K’s “Bump, Bump, Bump” (No. 99) or Pretty Ricky’s base-level ode to phone sex, “On the Hotline” (No. 78).

Curiously, the equally derided R&B king Chris Brown, whose own troubled past looms over his career like a dark cloud, has maintained a consistent presence at the top of the charts for the past nearly 20 years.  He is represented here – albeit with just one song, his 2005 single “Yo! (Excuse Me Miss)” from his self-titled debut album.  Surprisingly, more recognizable hits like the No. 1 “Run It!,” or later material like “No Guidance” (feat. Drake, 2019) or “Go Crazy” (feat. Young Thug, 2020), didn’t make the cut.

Other artists with little or no representation on the RS list include Jill Scott, whose “A Long Walk” is her lone entry at No. 49 (what about the equally sublime “He Loves Me (Lizel in E Flat)” from the same award-winning debut album, or the self-affirming 2004 single, “Golden.”).

Adult-R&B leaning artists like Charlie Wilson (whose 2008 smash “There Goes My Baby” is considered one of the subgenre’s greatest hits of the ‘00s) and Ledisi (there are many candidates but the single “High” from her 2017 Let Love Rule album deserved some love) are nowhere to be found.

Neither are critical favorites like Kem (“Love Calls”?), Chaka Khan (“Angel”?), or Angie Stone.

Stone’s 2001 sophomore album, Mahogany Soul, is considered among that decade’s best.  Yet, classics like “Brotha” (still one of this century’s most uplifting songs dedicated to Black men) and “Wish I Didn’t Miss You” don’t appear.  Instead, oversexed songs like Jerimih’s “Planes,” where he lamely attempts to make innuendo out of airplane metaphors, are all over the list, particularly its bottom third.

Another missing artist is crooner Donell Jones, who kicked off the century with his 1999 sophomore album Where I Wanna Be.  That album included two smashes in the title track and the Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes-featuring “U Know What’s Up,” the latter of which spent two months at No. 1 R&B at the turn of the century and made the pop top 10.  Both songs rode the charts well into the year 2000, qualifying them for this list.  But Jones was left off the RS rankings.

Neo-soul mainstay Anthony Hamilton is listed at No. 36 with “The Point of It All” (2008), but songs like “Charlene,” “Can’t Let Go” and “Comin’ From Where I’m From” seemed like better candidates.

Erykah Badu’s only entry is the 2000 song “Bag Lady” (at No. 9 on the RS list), while the Grammy-winning and fellow chart-topper, “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)” featuring Common, was left off.

Similarly, ‘00s chanteuse Keyshia Cole is only repped by one song, the 2005 hit “Love,” while memorable No. 1 smashes like “Let It Go,” “I Remember” and the dreamy “Heaven Sent” were overlooked.

Jamaican singer Sean Paul’s iconic No. 1 pop and R&B smash “Get Busy” from 2003 isn’t on the list, despite the dancehall/reggae classic being one of the most endearing songs of the century’s first decade.

The only white artist who merited an entry on the RS100 was Amy Winehouse, whose “Tears Dry on Their Own” seems like a worthy entry at No. 72.  But it begs the question: where are artists like Robin Thicke, whose smooth No. 1 throwback smash “Lost Without U” got lots of love from the R&B faithful in 2007 before The Masked Singer judge went rogue with a Marvin Gaye rip on “Blurred Lines” six years later?

And while Mary J. Blige, the Queen of Hip-hop/R&B, is understandably slotted high at No. 4 with “Be Without You” — the song that holds the record for most weeks at No. 1 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in the pre-streaming era — it is her only entry on the list.  Meanwhile, equally impactful 21st century MJB songs like “Family Affair,” “No More Drama,” and the eternally uplifting “Just Fine” are glaring omissions.

Perhaps the biggest omission from the RS list, however, is by the artist who happens to be ranked at No. 1: Usher.  His “Confessions Part 2” (from the iconic 2004 Confessions album) is considered by the Rolling Stone collective to be R&B’s greatest creation of the 21st century to-date!

But that song, along with his earlier single “U Don’t Have to Call” (at No. 25), are the only entries on the RS100 from this year’s Super Bowl halftime performer. Meanwhile, the 45-year-old superstar’s biggest hit (and the biggest song in a year that was completely dominated by R&B/Hip-Hop music) was “Yeah!” featuring Lil Jon & Ludicris.  In fact, a better case could be made for that song being ranked at or near the top of the RS list than “Confessions Part 2.”

Rolling Stone‘s writers voted Usher’s “Confessions Part 2” as the greatest R&B song of the 21st century so far.

I’m not hating on “Confessions Part 2.”  It’s a great bop that deserves inclusion somewhere on the RS100, but few songs by any artist had the impact of “Yeah!,” the success of which clearly created the momentum for follow-up singles “Burn” and “Confessions Part 2” to further Usher’s 2004 chart dominance.  “Yeah!” was the cream of the crunk/R&B (or Crunk&B) crop and stood alone as the biggest pop hit of its year.  To try and convince us that “Confessions Part 2” was superior to “Yeah!” and completely omit the latter jam from a 100-position 21st century list is bordering on blasphemy.

Part of the problem lies in the writers’ apparent attempts to bring artist equity to these rankings.  No act has more than three entries (Beyoncé and D’Angelo are tied for the lead with that number, with Beyonce getting a fourth by way of Destiny’s Child).

But you could argue that Usher, one of the biggest R&B artists of the past 30 years, deserved more than his two entries as songs like “Burn,” “U Got It Bad,” and “Caught Up” (and, of course, “Yeah!”) could easily have been included alongside “Confessions Part 2” and “U Don’t Have to Call.”

Despite all of that, there are some pleasant surprises and good choices throughout the RS100, including ubiquitous songs by MJB (“Be Without You”), Mariah Carey (“We Belong Together”), Maxwell (“Pretty Wings”), and memorable classics by Toni Braxton (“He Wasn’t Man Enough”), Ella Mai (“Boo’d Up), Amerie (“1 Thing”), Musiq Soulchild (“Love”), and Solange (“Cranes in the Sky”).

The inclusion of Steve Lacy’s alt-rock-leaning No. 1 smash “Bad Habits” and his former group The Internet’s “Special Affair” (both in the top 50) are interesting but appealing choices.

In addition to the one’s already mentioned, I would have loved to see these other songs on a list like this: Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies,” “Blame It” by Jamie Foxx ft. T-Pain, “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child, “Don’t You Forget It” by Glenn Lewis, “Heard It All Before” by Sunshine Anderson, “Window Seat” by Erykah Badu.

But there can only be 100 songs, right?

The thing about lists like these is that anyone could sit here and pick them apart for what they did or didn’t include and for what order the songs are ranked.  You ask 100 people what they consider the century’s greatest hits and you’re likely to get 200 answers. 

Given more time, I could probably further pick the list apart with songs and artists I felt deserved inclusion over the ones that the RS writers did. 

If nothing else, the biggest takeaway from the RS rankings (the earlier noted omissions notwithstanding) is the fact that the list is weighted more heavily towards the earlier part of the century, which offers evidence of one of the following: either we humans are programmed to more fondly remember the things that are further back in time, or the quality of R&B music has indeed diminished over the past decade or so.

The fact that RS could even come up with a list that ranks the top 100 songs over a 25-year period shows the dearth of quality R&B from which they had to choose.  Can you imagine anyone trying to take on that task for, say, the last 25 years of the 20th century?  Limiting that list to 100 songs would be next to impossible.

Still the Rolling Stone list is an interesting read, which you can do by clicking here.

And you can enjoy all 100 songs by playing the below specially created playlist on Spotify, which also includes some of the songs mentioned above that RS sadly omitted.


DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, disco, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

DJRob (@djrobblog) on Threads

You can also register for free (select the menu bars above) to receive notifications of future articles.

By DJ Rob

Your thoughts?