An Introduction to 90s R&B

The rhythm and blues records that bring nostalgia to our eardrums

R&B, the acronym for rhythm and blues, is a genre that sometimes gets lost in the shadows of hip-hop nowadays. In the 90s, just like hip-hop, R&B prospered, changed and grew. The move into experimental R&B set the scene for talented contemporary artists. In case you aren’t familiar with the smooth, cool, funky sound of 90s R&B, here are some picks for best artists and albums of the era.

Aaliyah – One in a Million (Blackground Records & Atlantic Records, 1996)

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was “more than a woman,” and she remains an R&B legend to this day. Her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, was released in 1994 when she was only 15 years old. The album sold three million copies in the U.S according to Billboard Magazine. Two years later, she worked alongside producers Timbaland and Missy Elliott to release an essential album of the 90s, One in a Million. It sold another three million copies in the U.S and over eight million worldwide according to Billboard Magazine. Aaliyah was known for her smooth seductive voice. You can hear the maturity in her vocals and lyrics—she inspired class, professionalism and dedication. The song, “One in a Million,” is one of Aaliyah’s classic hits, it is a romantic tune that will definitely make you fall in love with her. “If Your Girl Only Knew,” “4 Page Letter,” and “Hot Like Fire” were her top hits from that album. She had the voice of an angel and was taken from us much too soon at the age of 22 years old. A week after her death, her self-titled album, Aaliyah was released. She truly was “one in a million,” and her musical influence lives on and on and on.

Trial Track: “One in a Million”

Mary J. Blige – What’s the 411? (Uptown/MCA Records, 1992)

If you’re searching for some “Real Love,” Mary J. Blige gave it to you on her debut album, What’s the 411?, back in 1992. The album was produced by Sean “Puffy” Combs (now known as P. Diddy). It peaked at number six on the Billboard 200 and sold 3.4 million copies in the U.S according to Billboard Magazine. She is known for her soulful voice. Mary J. Blige was praised for mixing her powerful vocals with hip-hop—she was one of the first R&B artists to do so. This blend of genres can be found in “You Remind Me,” featuring Greg Nice, which peaked at number one on the R&B singles chart in the summer of 1992. Critics view her album, What’s the 411?, as one of the most important records of the 90s. Her second album, My Life, spoke about her dealing with an abusive relationship, drugs, alcohol and depression. She expressed feelings that every woman has felt at one time: “How can I love somebody else/If I can’t love myself enough to know when it’s time to let go?” are the lyrics from her top hit, “Be Happy.” She expressed how happy she truly wanted to be, yet she admitted “I don’t know why, but every day I wanna cry.” Her strong voice, along with her powerful emotional messages, touched fans across the globe.

Trial Track: “Real Love”

D’Angelo- Voodoo (Virgin Records, 2000)

Few artists do R&B with as much soul and funk as D’Angelo. Fusing jazz, soul and R&B, D’Angelo is one of the most important figures in the neo-soul movement that emerged in the 90s.  The artist’s second album, released in 2000, captures D’Angelo’s emphasis on complex musicality with original use of instrumentation and rhythm.  The artist’s first album, Brown Sugar, released in 1995, abided more to the traditional R&B and hip-hop conventions of the time. Voodoo was, in a sense, revolutionary to 90s R&B.  It reflected the jams and flows of the artist’s music collective, Soulquarians. The sound of D’Angelo’s second album moved in a more contemporary direction—a direction in which the artist continued and strove for in his latest album, the 2014 jazzy neo-soul masterpiece, Black Messiah. The sexual, sensual and personal album was part of an important shift in R&B. D’Angelo and Voodoo’s influence are still tangible in today’s R&B, in artists like Solange Knowles and Frank Ocean.

Trial track: “Untitled (How Does it Feel)”

Erykah Badu- Mama’s Gun (Motown/Universal Records, 2000)

Another prominent figure in the neo-soul movement, Erykah Badu was part of the Soulquarians music collective alongside D’Angelo.  Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer for The Roots, produced Badu’s second studio album, Mama’s Gun, which was released in 2000.  The album beautifully showcases Badu’s unique, identifiable voice and experimental R&B sounds.  She conveys raw, powerful emotion so naturally through her lyrics and vocals. The album is vulnerable—a painful but beautiful heartbreak album. What is particularly interesting about Mama’s Gun is how vulnerable the confident, sassy Badu lets herself be, in a musical genre that doesn’t necessarily encourage heartbreak or vulnerability in the same way pop and folk do. “I can’t imagine why I feel so weak, say, say/That’s when he took my heart in his hands, and kissed it gently,” she sings in “In Love With You.”

Trial Track: “Didn’t Cha Know”

Anthony Hamilton- XTC (MCA Records, 1996)

Hamilton’s debut album, XTC, released in 1996, is so pleasingly 90s. The sound is less experimental than Badu’s and D’Angelo’s, and has more of a classic, early 90s R&B vibe. Hamilton’s voice was made for R&B—both smooth and nasally, his vocals match his jazzy guitar and bluesy, slow drumline. Next time you’re chilling with friends or hosting a dinner party, switch this gem on for a groovy soundtrack. “And she said ‘baby baby, I know it might sound crazy, but I just want to spend some time to relax your mind/Spend some time with you is what I really wanna do,’” he sings in his smooth, sax-backed ballad, “Spend Some Time.”  The lyrics and music are simple, but that is part of what makes the album work. In R&B, simplicity often translates to smoothness.

Trial Track: “Fallin”

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