While Miguel and Frank Ocean dominated most of 2012's R&B press, there were many artists churning out great work that went mostly unnoticed by the mainstream. The term "underground" used to be exclusive to hip-hop, but the R&B underworld was alive and well this year. Here are five of the most slept-on R&B songs of 2012.
Robin Thicke, "Another Life"
2012 was indeed a great year for R&B music, but not in the sense of dance floor jams. Most highlights were 90 beats per minute or below. "Another Life" fell out of the sky and onto the Internet in the summer. The collaboration isn't a surprise, as Thicke is signed to the Neptunes' Star Trak imprint. With upbeat bongos, keys and claps, "Another Life" could've easily been an outtake from Justin Timberlake's Justified or some of Usher's earlier collaborations, and Thicke hopped in the pocket and rode the vintage Neptunes track perfectly. The Neptunes have been playing with new sounds and styles lately so it's always good when they throw out a reminder of why they're still among the best to do it.
Gwen Bunn, "Epitome"
Young singer/songwriter/producer Gwen Bunn has been on the grind for a couple of years now. Hailing from Decatur, Georgia, she's a musical student with a Berklee College of Music education under her belt. It's evident upon first listen that she's musically wise beyond her 20 years, but it appears she's steps closer to breaking through with "Epitome," which starts off with simple kicks, snaps and strings but builds as her soft rasp serenades the object of her desire. You're engulfed by the second verse and then blindsided by that thing that has faded further into R&B obscurity with each passing year: the bridge. Magical.
BJ The Chicago Kid, "Dream II"
After serving background vocals and hooks for Musiq Soulchild, Mary Mary, Kendrick Lamar and countless others in the hip-hop game, the kid from the south side of the Chi stepped out on his own this year with his album, Pineapple Now-Laters. The first single, "Dream II," begins with a snippet from one of Will Smith's many motivational messages. The thick, dirty bass and drums kick in as BJ belts from the gut about coming of age and the rough road to his dreams. The combination of BJ's church-influenced soul and THC's heavy sample with a pinch of synth track makes "Dream II" special.
Benny Sings, "Fake Love"
Dutch singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tim Berkestijn, a.k.a. Benny Sings, continues to build on his growing buzz. Four albums deep, and with a tour slot supporting Mayer Hawthorne this year, he released a best-of album in 2012 featuring two bonus tracks, but he's still criminally slept on in the United States. The two-step tempo and xylophone taps of "Fake Love" are reminiscent of Bobby Caldwell's "My Flame." Benny ponders aloud over gorgeous live instrumentation, asking if he should liberate himself or stay and "fake" love. Once you get over the bridge you're treated to a good-ole '80s-style saxophone solo.
Rashad, "For The Life of Me"
Rashad gained notoriety through his work on the bulk of Ohio MC Stalley's music prior to him signing to Rick Ross's MMG label. There were no collaborations between the duo this year — instead, Rashad moved to the forefront, writing, producing and performing his own debut, Museum, which should be near the top of any slept-on list of 2012. "For the Life of Me" shies away from Rashad's bottom-heavy muffled sample sound and takes on a stripped down approach. His harmonies shine though the track before it quickly fades and flips into a soulful '70s guitar sample. Museum is a free download, so there's no excuse for sleeping on it.