It happens. The moment you hear a song that reignites an outpouring of emotions from the past; a slow jam inspires you to go back to your record stash as you are reminded of your love for a particular song or artist. It could be something as obvious as D’Angelo’s 2000 “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” the gorgeous track that had fans recalling some of Prince’s most storied ballads. Or it could be Sevyn Streeter’s underrated 2017 standout, “My Love For You,” which would have fit in nicely during a recording session for Aaliyah’s 1996 R&B landmark, One in a Million.
Indeed, all of the tracks chosen for this list recall some of the smoothest, romantic songs from the ‘60’s, ‘70s, ‘80’s and ‘90s whether through sampling or recapturing a signature melody or feel. Which is why coming up with the following 15 love songs was a laborious exercise. Our diverse range of ballads goes as far back as 2005, the same year that pop diva Mariah Carey–who is also featured on our list–made one of music’s biggest comebacks with her bleeding heart single “We Belong Together.”
15. “Do U Wrong”—Leven Kali feat. Syd (2018)
This is 4 minutes and 41 seconds of attraction and agonizing self-doubt. In other words, the laid-back funk of “Do U Wrong,” courtesy of Santa Monica vocalist and rapper Leven Kali–with some sensual backing from the Internet’s critically-acclaimed front woman Syd–is the perfect nuanced love song. With lines like, “I can do you wrong if you want babe/Would it keep you on your mind long enough babe?” the newly released head-turner was made for a generation too self-aware to get bogged down in sentimentality.
Reminds You Of: George Duke’s 1977 jazz-funk opus, “Reach For It”
14. “Hard To Do”—K. Michelle (2015)
When you are one of the last true believers of traditional soul and guts R&B you tend to get right down to the point. A focused K. Michelle wants to re-connect with an estranged lover, and really, who could say “no” when she brags, “What you gonna do when I put that pretty thing on you?” This seductive number, which has climbed up to no. 23 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart, has no time to play around.
Reminds You Of: A clever nod to Total’s breezy, Raphael Saadiq-penned 1996 gem, “Kissing You”
13. “Muse”—PartyNextDoor (2014)
So, who exactly is Canadian import PartyNextDoor? Is he OVO’s resident secret weapon, a mercurial talent who has at times had a strained, complicated relationship with omnipresent label boss Drake? Is he the chart-topping songwriter who helped transform the seemingly unstoppable Rihanna into a supreme dancehall queen with “Work”? Or is PartyNextDoor the loveable scoundrel on the trippy “Muse.” Answer: All of the above.
Reminds You Of: Ginuwine’s 1996 standout, “Only When Ur Lonely”
12. “Play No Games”—Big Sean feat. Chris Brown and Ty Dollar $ign (2015)
It’s a testament to the sheer lasting power of the Guy, the kings of New Jack Swing, that Big Sean’s throwback favorite “Play No Games” comes off so…infectious. Not the prototypical “love song,” this Chris Brown and Ty Dollar $ign assisted cut proudly mines the past even down to its light-hearted tribute to ‘90s sitcom fixture Martin. Somewhere Bruh Man is smiling.
Reminds You Of: Guy’s gospel-tinged, Teddy-Riley produced 1988 ballad, “Piece Of My Love”
11. “Déjà Vu”—J. Cole (2016)
The controversy surrounding J. Cole’s “Déjà Vu” came close to overshadowing its love-sick brilliance. The issue? The unpretentious track, featured on the North Carolina superstar’s 2016 platinum statement 4 Your Eyez Only, shares a close musical resemblance to Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange”–which is also featured on our list. Where Tiller goes for a more soulful emotional gut punch, Cole secretly pins away for another man’s girl (“He introduced you as his girl and I was heartbroken…”) and plays it cool.
Reminds You Of: If you listen close enough, you can hear a sped up sample of K.P. & Envy’s bass-fueled, 1998 R&B mash-up, “Swing My Way”
10. “Exchange”—Bryson Tiller (2015)
On Trapsoul, Bryson Tiller’s genre-expanding 2015 debut album, the Louisville, Kentucky crooner drew a line in the sand. In his mind, the ever-Lit hardcore frenzy of the trap movement could just as well co-exist with his own quiet storm sensibilities. And so “Exchange” succeeds by never forgetting what it feels like to have a broken heart.
Reminds You Of: K.P. & Envy’s 1998 R&B mash-up, “Swing My Way”
9. “Say It”—Tory Lanez (2015)
Tory Lanez’ “Say It” follows a three-year trend of rhythm and blues trap-fueled slow jams sampling the ‘90s soul explosion. Larenz has the good sense to speak his piece and let the Pop Wansel-orchestrated, driving groove do the rest.
Reminds You Of: A clever reworking of Brownstone’s 1994 signature song “If You Love Me”
8. “That’s What I Like”—Bruno Mars (2017)
The Grammy-winning “That’s What I Like” continues Bruno Mars’ ode to the power of late ‘80s/early ‘90s black music with a wink and knowing smile. Playful, but never diving into the realm of silliness, you can honestly envision Justin Timberlake all over this randy sing-along. That is if Timberlake actually had the chops to pull off such a grown-folks-business pleasure.
Reminds You Of: The best R&B from the New Jack Swing era.
7. “Lotus Flower Bomb”-Wale feat. Miguel (2011)
Who knew that the usually closed Wale was capable of so much committed bliss? “Lotus Flower Bomb” works as a love song because it hits all the spots: “Turned on” mood music? Check. Heart-grabbing vocals from Miguel? Check. Wale’s witty pillow talk (“Shawty, where’s your baton, racing through my mind…”). Triple check. It all works.
Reminds You Of: Listening to Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996) on a Saturday night
6. “Take You Down”-Chris Brown (2007)
Let’s get right to it. No matter what Chris Brown achieves his legacy will forever be overshadowed by his controversial relationship with Rihanna. But Brown’s early career, before he was branded R&B’s most infamous bad boy, has its high points, most notably on the slow burning coolness that is “Take You Down”.
Reminds You Of: The hook on Michael Jackson’s pulsating 1991 workout, “Keep It In The Closet”
5. “Poetic Justice”—Kendrick Lamar feat. Drake (2012)
Before Kendrick Lamar became hip-hop’s most important voice of the decade, he was just a rookie trying to carve out his niche in the cluttered rap landscape. Listening to “Poetic Justice” takes you back to a time before K. Dot and Drake became polar-opposite rivals. Here Kendrick showcases a softer side and a glimpse of his future as a radio staple.
Reminds You Of: Janet Jackson’s criminally-underrated “Anytime, Anyplace,” chopped up gloriously.
4. “Love On The Brain”-Rihanna (2016)
It’s clear that Rihanna enjoys toying with the public’s perception of who she is as an artist. The Barbadian beauty has boldly jumped from pop, reggae, hip-hop, synth rock, adult contemporary balladry and R&B. So it came as no surprise that Rihanna could pull off the ‘60’s inspired soul of “Love On The Brain.” No, RiRi does not possess the muscular pipes of the legendary Etta James. But what she does have is the unbridled emotion of a woman who is so beyond enraptured that she is “fist-fighting with fire.”
Reminds You Of: A Chess Records-stamped torch song
3. “Redbone”—Childish Gambino (2016)
The man doesn’t even try to hide it. Yes, Childish Gambino’s simmering, slinky “Redbone” is basically a P-Funk love letter. And that’s okay because it soars with the kind of uncut black love (“My peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid/I’m trying not to waste my time…”) that finds its allure in a potent bass line that lays it on heavy.
Reminds You Of: Booty’s Rubber Band’s 1976 strutting funk ballad “I’d Rather Be With You”
2. “We Belong Together”—Mariah Carey (2005)
Mariah Carey’s monster comeback single and album (The Emancipation of Mimi) relied heavily on the hit-making mystique of the record-breaking chart-topper. How mammoth was “We Belong Together”? The summer burner spent 14 consecutive weeks no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and on the R&B. Hip-Hop Songs charts. The regal Carey is not one to beg. Maybe that’s why it resonated so deeply with the public. Even super women need love.
Reminds You Of: The Deele’s 1988 Babyface and L.A. Reid-produced single, “Two Occasions”
1. “Drunk In Love”—Beyoncé feat. JAY-Z
This is the hypnotic sound of Beyoncé deliriously smitten. That much is clear when she muses, “Why can’t I keep my fingers off you, baby?” Of course we all know what happened next: Beyoncé unleashed 2016’s empowering Lemonade. And an inspired Jigga produced the cathartic 2017 self-examination 4:44. But “Drunk In Love” paints a united portrait of a couple that today stands as the most powerful duo in popular music.
Reminds You Of: The more laid-back twin sister of Queen Bey’s anthemic 2003 hit, “Crazy In Love”