11 Reasons Why R&B Rocked Harder in the ’90s
Musically, it was the best of times. Thanks, sisters with voices.
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.
So many sisters with voices hadn’t sounded so harmonious singing in unison since the ’60s, when The Crystals, The Marvelettes, The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, The Vandellas, and, of course, The Supremes, all roamed the earth. And in the ’90s new wave, three seemed to be the magic number.
2. En Vogue brought funky-diva sexy back.
And then there were four, who ended the decade as three, and who kicked off the ’90s girl-group resurgence. If any hit-making act circa 1992 seemed most likely to still be making hits this millennium, I would have put my money on En Vogue, Boyz II Men, and, well, Arrested Development. Goes to show how little I knew.
3. Changing Faces promoted blackgirl power.
No group whose first (and only) two top-ten hits are called “Stroke You Up” and “G.H.E.T.T.O.U.T” is meant to last , but the latter single offered a welcome flava-filled flip to Spice Girls’ oh-so-vanilla version of girl power in 1997.
4. Zhané just sound so so good.
Sort of like Changing Faces, only more downtown, in sensible shoes (or barefoot, as on the cover of the duo’s 1997 second and final studio album, Saturday Night), and mentored by Queen Latifah instead of R. Kelly.
5. Hello, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, and A Tribe Called Quest.
The neo-soul movement, which would go on to spawn the likes of Alicia Keys, Bilal, India Aire, and Musiq Soulchild the following decade, and later Frank Ocean, helped define upscale R&B in the ’90s.
6. R&B boy bands were in the house again: From Boyz II Men to Jodeci to Next to Portrait to Riff to Shai.
Color Me Badd’s brief early ’90s heyday and a few New Kids on the Block singles aside, I’ve never been much into pop boy bands. (All-4-One? Ugh.) But when the soul’s on point, I couldn’t love a boy band more.
7. New Edition rose again, via Bell Biv DeVoe, Johnny Gill, and Ralph Tresvant.
Every act spawned by New Edition produced at least one big hit that I loved as much as everyone else did: “Roni” by Bobby Brown, “Sensitivity” by Ralph Tresvant, “Do Me!” by Bell Biv DeVoe, and “Rub You the Right Way” by Johnny Gill. The latter, a latecomer to New Edition who joined in 1987 after Brown departed and went solo first, gave us the best one.
8. Lisa Stansfield brought blue-eyed British soul into a new decade.
I’ve listened to her music, seen her perform live three times (once in a blues semi-dive in London), interviewed her, sipped wine with her, and taken a photo with her, and I’m still not totally convinced she’s not black.
9. Tracie Spencer gave us teen-queen appeal.
I recently revisited her 1990 album Make The Difference, which was one of the first albums I ever bought on CD. I’m surprised at how well some of the songs hold up, especially considering that Spencer was only 14 at the time.
10. And introducing The Missy Elliott/Timbaland Posse, starring Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Nicole Wray, and Playa (with a special appearance by SWV singing “Can We”).
Remember when it was perfectly acceptable to say “posse” (as in My Posse Don’t Do Homework, the original title of the 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer film Dangerous Minds, the one that spawned Coolio’s greatest hit, “Gangsta’s Paradise”)? Damn! I miss those days, the days when Missy Elliott still went by “Misdemeanor,” and she and her posse practically ruled the pop and R&B world.
11. Digable Planets made jazz + rap cool like dat.
My favorite rap group of the ’90s. If it weren’t for Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, DP’s Blowout Comb, their 1994 follow-up to Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) — the one that contained the jazz-hop trio’s only hit, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” — probably would be my favorite rap album of the ’90s. DP’s BC provided the soundtrack to many hours spent styling my flattop fade, using a hair pick that bore a striking resemblance to the one on the cover.