11 Reasons Why R&B Rocked Harder in the ’90s

Musically, it was the best of times. Thanks, sisters with voices.

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End of the century: TLC rocked 1999 with FanMail (Photo: Creat1ve Creations)

Maybe it says more about how boring R&B has become (or how old I’ve gotten) than how great it used to be, but lately, I’ve found myself more nostalgic than I ever thought I’d be for ’00s soul.

I’m not pining for noughties oldies by R&B stars who can still put out the hits (Beyoncé, Rihanna, and …). I’ve been getting all misty-eyed over throwbacks by the ones who aren’t, the supernovas (mostly female) who flickered brightly but relatively briefly: Ashanti, Blu Cantrell, Ciara, Christina Milian, etc.

I even have a bit of a sentimental attachment to the longer-lived Destiny’s Child, especially the trio version. Although solo Beyoncé has her moments, there was nothing quite like The New Supremes, starring Beyoncé as Diana Ross, Kelly Rowland as Mary Wilson, and Michelle Williams as Cindy Birdsong.

When it comes to high-quality R&B from back in the day, though, the last golden era of soul would be the ’90s. On any given Thursday, I’m still stuck back there, somewhere between Toni Braxton’s debut album and Whitney Houston’s My Love Is Your Love, Lisa Fischer’s “How Can I Ease the Pain” and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411? and Mary.

Seven years ago, ’90s R&B threatened to make a comeback as some of the decade’s hottest talent re-emerged with new music. SWV returned in 2012, but I Missed Us, the trio’s comeback album, only made me miss their roaring ’90s hits like “Anything” and Can We” even more (though not nearly as much as TLC’s 2005 UPN reality show R U the Girl made me miss the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, of whom I was never all that fond).

That same year, Brandy released her most recent album, Two Eleven, which didn’t return her to her ’90s chart status, despite a fantastic first single, “Put It Down,” that would have been even better without Chris Brown on it. (If she needed a guest rapper, why didn’t she call a real one, like Lil Wayne? Everybody else was at the time.) Give me Brandy vs. Monica every day — not “It All Belongs to Me,” their 2012 reunion single that went nowhere, but “The Boy Is Mine,” the mini-diva summit that spent 13 weeks at number one in 1998.

During the Two Eleven era, Drake was in the midst of a creepy Aaliyah fixation, playing a solo game of the girl is mine. Although he never once met Aaliyah before her death in 2000, he inserted himself into her legacy as executive producer of a resurrection album that ended up never seeing the light of day. Thank God.

With or without Drake, my ’90s memories of Aaliyah and other artists from the 20th century’s final decade will always live on. Here are 10 simple reasons why.

1. Sisters (often in groups of three) were doing it for themselves again: Blaque, Brownstone, Jade, SWV, Total, 702, and, of course, TLC.

2. En Vogue brought funky-diva sexy back.

3. Changing Faces promoted blackgirl power.

4. Zhané just sound so so good.

5. Hello, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, and A Tribe Called Quest.

6. R&B boy bands were in the house again: From Boyz II Men to Jodeci to Next to Portrait to Riff to Shai.

7. New Edition rose again, via Bell Biv DeVoe, Johnny Gill, and Ralph Tresvant.

8. Lisa Stansfield brought blue-eyed British soul into a new decade.

9. Tracie Spencer gave us teen-queen appeal.

10. And introducing The Missy Elliott/Timbaland Posse, starring Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Nicole Wray, and Playa (with a special appearance by SWV singing “Can We”).

11. Digable Planets made jazz + rap cool like dat.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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