Machine-tooled funk, hip-hop soul, and sexually charged new jack swing- here is a whistle-stop tour of the best R&B artists that defined the 1990s as follows:
Originally conceived as the female equivalent of Bell Biv DeVoe by executives at Atlanta’s LaFace Records, TLC would soon go on to eclipse their male equivalents. Their early sound was classic new jack albeit with a rowdy, girly edge: Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Watkins harmonizing sweetly with Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas while Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes dropped nasal, feisty rap verses about sisterhood and safe sex. TLC’s sound quickly matured, taking the genre to a new level with their critically acclaimed CrazySexyCool in 1994- the first girl-group album in history to reach diamond status. Although their later hit Waterfalls would go on to become their signature, it was the darker, Billboard charting bap-and-trumpet boom hit, Creep, which was 1990s R&B at its finest.
The 1990s golden age for all-woman R&B trios was ushered in by New York’s Sisters With Voices comprising Taj, Coko, and Lele who were choir-honed Singers (gospel) and who crafted melismatic, sweet harmonies that were given an inimitable edge by Coko’s almost Martian soprano. While their biggest hit, Right Here, was radio-friendly, wholesome gold, the sisters were equally adept at churning out feminist, provocative do-me classics such as Black Pudding, Downtown, and the joyously quintessential but often overlooked New Jack hit, Give It to Me.
By the mid-1990s, Foxy Brown and Lil Kim had managed to bum rush the hip-hop boys’ club with a pornographic, aggressive breed of femme-fatale rap that would soon be perfected by R&B’s solo vocalists- notably Joya, Smooth, and Michigan’s Adina Howard. The latter’s 1995 single indeed established a new benchmark in raunchy urban pop with Freak Like Me widely acknowledged as a pheromone-fuelled, hood romance at its most graphic- degrading or empowering, depending on which feminist set you belonged to.
R&B-Rap hookups may be ubiquitous now, but in the early 1990s, hip-hop artists making guest appearances on an R&B song was daring new territory. Such collaboration required singers who could hold their own next to their more established MC peers and Pam, Keisha, and Kima- the New Jersey trio who made their debut on the hook of Notorious BIG’s Juicy proved they could mix it with the best with their song No One Else. Their 1996 debut album was romantic, tender, and occasionally filthy characterized by their pre-Matrix chic style of sleek leather trench coats, black shades, and cropped hair.
By the mid 1990s, R&B’s baby girl- a Timberland boots and baggy jeans wearing tomboy with a soulful, smooth falsetto- was collaborating with Missy Elliot and Timbaland, the duo responsible for the dislocated, eerie cyber-funk that would soon become the bedrock of hip-hop and R&B for the next decade, propelling the likes of Destiny’s Child and Ginuwine to success. Her single One in a Million set the benchmark for this new breed of sound- a cosmic, spacious slow jam founded on stuttering triple-time/ slo-mo percussion and established the late star as the undeniable voice of a new R&B age.
Politics, faith, and motherhood were the overriding themes in Lauryn Hill’s breakthrough album- The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. While New Jersey’s finest had made her name with the Grammy Award Winning Fugees under the nom du rap of L Boogie, Miseducation drew on West Indian flavors including her reworking of the classic Bob Marley hit- Turn Your Lights Down Low. This polymath vocalist’s skill in gifting R&B with erudite, rich, ghetto-soul heart anthems remains unparalleled.
The album Diary marked the pinnacle of Jojo, K-Ci, DeVante, and Dalvin as R&B’s leading Romeos. Here, they delivered an album full of exquisite harmonies with seduction and swagger, especially Cry For You, later sampled by the Isley Brothers, which saw them turn male vulnerability into high devotion. Also, a later single- Freak’n you- epitomized this quartet at their lusty best.
Mary J Blige
Signed to Uptown/MCA Records aged just 18, this Bronx-raised gospel choir star pioneered hip-hop soul (a sub-genre of R&B that fused hip-hop instrumentals with streetwise soul songs). While artist Miche’le had laid the groundwork for hip-hop soul in 1989, Mary J Blige’s 1992 debut- What’s the 411?- was the undeniable game changer with elements of swing and a melancholic Lady Day vibe that made her stand out from her peers. Also, 1995’s My Life established her skill set in mining the darker aspects of the 1990s living such as addiction abuse, depression, gang violence, HIV/Aids, etc.
Despite being eclipsed somewhat by 90s artists such as Mariah Carey, Monica was, undoubtedly, one of R&B’s round-the-way sweethearts with hits such as Don’t Take It Personal proving that she could do hip-hop sampling jams for the club and the jeeps. Before this, however, was Miss Thang from her 1995 debut album- chaste mid-1990s R&B at its most sublime- a sappy, bittersweet soundtrack to moving on.
By the time D’Angelo appeared on the scene in the mid-1990s, fans were beginning to feel desensitized by swing’s processed, bombastic vibe and yearned for something more grounded. Neo Soul was to sate this desire with an Afrocentric, mellow jazz sound that valued live instrumentation while at the same time paying tribute to past greats such as Curtis Mayfield and Marcus Gaye. Although Erykah Badu is widely considered neo-soul’s de-facto Queen, D’Angelo was just as instrumental in this genre coming of age as he could write, perform, and produce as evidenced in his 1995 classic debut album.
Enjoy a nice mix of all the best R&B Songs from the 1990’s