Words by: Maisie Goulsbra

The Ten Best R&B vocalists of all time, according to Tolaní

"I dare anyone to dispute that she belongs on this list."

From her local church choir in Lagos through moving to London, Afropop singer Tolaní has honed her craft by building on a broad list of influences including Fela Kuti, Asa, The Fray, Aerosmith, Tracy Chapman, Snoop Dogg and Patra.

Despite feeling the pressure from her parents to go down a conventional career path, she stuck to her gut and pursued her passion to be a solo artist. Outside of music, the topics close to her heart are the welfare of children, women and mental health awareness. She is an advocate for reproductive and menstrual health, normalising the conversation regarding menstruation and accessibility of menstrual products.

She recently released the Berat Tunç-directed visual for brand new single ‘F.O.T.M’ (Fire On The Mountain), and to celebrate she’s gone through her Top 10 R&B vocalists of all time, which she says is, “a lot to ask of lil’ ol me!” She also wanted to shout out some of her fave new age R&B ladies – Jhené Aiko, SZA, Summer Walker, Sabrina Claudio and Kiana Ledé. And she adds, “the only way to make this even remotely possible is to focus on those female vocalists that have significance, in some way or another, to me.”

1. Sade – ‘By Your Side’

“One of my favourite artists of ALL TIME, full stop. Growing up some of the time in the UK, there have been moments when I’ve felt lost.. a Nigerian girl, with a big Nigerian name – Olawunmi Motolani (that people couldn’t pronounce), and big dreams. In some small way, Sade – full name Folasade! (Nigeria We Hail You!) – was a beacon of light for girls like me. She showed that you could be different and still shine. And then there’s the voice… that ethereal, raspy tone that has you hooked on every, masterfully written lyric! She wrote with a simplicity that was magical, conveying gut wrenching emotion in the simplest of ways.”

2. Whitney Houston – ‘How Will I Know’

“Err can you say goosebumps?!! Every single note that came out of this woman’s mouth was a masterpiece all by itself. I’ve heard some people refer to her as THE VOICE… A title I think she’s completely deserving of. Whitney is, in my eye, incomparable. She had a way of infusing heart & soul into every piece of music, a legacy that lives on. Rest in Peace legend.”

3. Lauryn Hill ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’

“One album… ONE ALBUM! That’s what it took for this woman to leave a certified unshakable legacy in music. I mean her start with the Fugees was just as epic – a woman able to hold her own in that male dominated hip hop scene. That melodic rap thing she does… “It’s been 3 weeks since you been looking for ya friend.. the one you let hit it and never called you again..” She ate it! I also love the ethos of her music; not glossy and overproduced. There’s a real rawness and vulnerability in her voice and style that speaks to me.”

4. Aaliyah – ‘Rock The Boat’

“We can’t have a conversation about the most influential voices in R&B without talking about my girl ‘Liyah!! With Timbaland on her team, she was an innovator of a fresh take on R&B; sitting a soft vocal on hip hop beats with effortless style. My love for Aaliyah runs deep, deep! She was particularly influential to me on a personal level because she broadened the scope of what it means to be an R&B vocalist, showing that cool, laidback vocals could hold their own next to the big, riff-y, church vocals of early R&B.”

5. Brandy – ‘Almost Doesn’t Count’

“Has to be one of my personal favourite vocalists of ALL time – that smooth buttery voice! That tone that goes down like the smoothest Japanese whiskey on a cold night! I love, love, LOVE Brandy – and I dare anyone to dispute that she belongs on this list. I once saw her live at the O2 Indigo in 2016, and it was everything I imagined… there are not many artists I can say sound better in person than on records, and she got it!”

6. TLC – ‘Unpretty’

“Tomboys in silk pyjamas singing meaningful music! I’ve just listened to ‘Waterfalls’ a little while ago while making this list and it still moves me… Not much music today has such a wholesome message about being yourself and taking it easy in your own lane. AND the message is delivered in such and ageless style… In my opinion, TLC were ahead of their time.”

7. Mariah Carey ‘Honey (Bad Boy Remix feat. Mase)’

“This one may be a little controversial, a bit like Marmite I think… you either 100% agree or totally disagree. Talking with friends earlier while writing this list, the major objection came from the R&B purists – “Mariah Carey is NOT an R&B Artist, she’s POP!” Lol. What I think, is that Mariah Carey with her 5/6 octave pipes(!!!) is a part of the reason that today, in 2021, there’s such a huge blend in genre boundaries – our charts are filled with music that’s a blend of pop, hip-hop & R&B. That crossover appeal is why Mariah Carey is a giant.”

8. Alicia Keys – ‘How Come You Don’t Call Me’

“I love what Alicia Keys brought to R&B. I feel like for a minute, the singer-songwriter angle of R&B had disappeared, and Alicia brought that musicality back! I mean who else is blending classical piano with a touch of the blues, soul AND hip-hop (think ‘Empire State Of Mind’ with Jay Z)?! I feel like in a world where we’re all making music with DAWs, loops and samples, she’s made it so cool to play instruments again. She was my inspiration for taking piano lessons… then guitar and then violin. Haha”

9. Beyoncé – ‘Check On It’

“Queen B! I mean… need I say more? This woman is a tour de force of raw talent and a relentless pursuit of perfection. I read recently that she is now the most decorated woman in Grammy history… and she’s earned every accolade. I’ve seen her live and I don’t think I blinked once… she was like a tornado. Her voice is crazy powerful, and the stamina?! Who else do you know that is strutting up and down stages, dancing, running, all while delivering a flawless, pitch perfect, full volume belt! Her hard work and dedication to her craft is truly awe inspiring. Long Live Queen B.”

10. Janet Jackson – ‘All For You’

“I have a soft spot for Janet… maybe because I feel like I can relate with some of her struggles, particularly her desire and grind to emerge from the shadow of a huge family name, and come into her own. Some may argue that she’s not the best of singers, but I think her vocal ability is underrated. Louder doesn’t always mean better, Janet’s voice is soft but highly expressive, crystal clear and nuanced. And there’s more to being one of the best than vocal ability alone. She’s an icon of feminist expression with lasting impact on the genre.”

Stream FOTM here or watch the video below.

Read next: The 10 Best Fújì Artists, according to L.A.X.

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