1 SWV – Give it to Me
The 1990s golden age for American all-woman R&B trios – Brownstone, Kut Klose, Jade, Monkenstef, 702, BlackGirl – was an era ushered in by New York City’s Sisters With Voices. Lelee, Coko and Taj were gospel choir-honed singers who crafted sweet, melismatic harmonies, with Coko’s nasal, almost Martian soprano giving them an inimitable edge. The previous decade’s R&B scene had found paragons in restrained, classy soul artists such as Anita Baker and Luther Vandross, but by the early 90s, a rowdy new kind of R&B reigned, one that had shacked up with hip-hop to morph into the hopped-up Keith Sweat and Teddy Riley-helmed new jack swing sound. Taking cues from the processed dance pop that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had crafted for Janet Jackson in the late 80s, swing was accelerated, slang-driven and sexually charged, and while SWV’s biggest hit, Right Here, was wholesome, radio-friendly gold, the sisters were equally adept at turning out provocative, feministy do-me classics like Downtown (“You gotta go downtown/ That’s the way to my love”), Black Puddin’ (“Women in the 90s want more from a brother than a part-time lover who’s wack undercover”) and the overlooked but joyously quintessential New Jack banger, Give It to Me.
2 TLC – Creep
Originally conceived as a female Bell Biv DeVoe by execs at by Atlanta’s LaFace Records – an Arista imprint dubbed the Motown of the South – TLC would fast succeed their male equivalents. TLC’s early sound was classic new jack, but with a rowdy, girl gang edge: Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas harmonising sweetly with Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins’s alto while Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes dropped feisty, nasal rap verses about safe sex and sisterhood. Their sound quickly matured, taking R&B next-level with 1994’s sophisticated urban pop groundbreaker CrazySexyCool – the first girl-group album in music history to reach diamond status. The trio could move from slinky slow jams to socially conscious grooves with ease, and their reputation as one of R&B’s most badass groups was fully legit: when shoddy record contracts saw them broke despite CrazySexyCool’s monster profits, the trio responded by storming their label’s offices with a crew of female ex-cons in tow, holding Arista’s then-president Clive Davis hostage. The Organized Noise-produced Waterfalls became TLC’s signature, but Creep, the darker, Billboard-charting boom bap-and-trumpet hit that preceded it in 1994, was 90s R&B at its most thrilling.
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3 Total – No One Else
Rap-R&B hook-ups are ubiquitous now, but up until the early 90s, hip-hoppers guesting on R&B songs was daring new territory. This new form of collaboration required singers who could hold their own next to their MC peers, and Kima, Keisha and Pam – the New Jersey trio who’d made their debut on the hook of Notorious BIG’s Juicy – proved they were up to the challenge with No One Else, weaving their voices around a typically rambunctious verse from Da Brat. Total were the self-styled bad girls of P Diddy’s Bad Boy Records. While TLC were swaggering around in baggy jeans and Dr Martins, Total were rocking pre-Matrix chic: sleek leather trench coats, slick, cropped hair and black shades. Their 1996 eponymous debut album was tender, romantic and occasionally filthy, and while No One Else proved Total could sample one of hip-hop’s cornerstones – Boogie Down Production’s 1987 South Bronx – and make it their own.
4 Mary J Blige – Mary Jane (All Night Long)
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A cover of Anita Baker’s Caught Up in the Rapture saw Bronx-raised, gospel choir star Mary J Blige signed to Uptown/MCA at 18 years old. With P Diddy mentoring from the executive producer’s chair, Blige pioneered hip-hop soul: a sub-genre of R&B that married streetwise soul songs with hip-hop instrumentals. Ruthless Records’ artist Michel’le had lain the groundwork for hip-hop soul with her 1989 self-titled debut, but Mary’s 1992 debut – What’s the 411? – proved to be the true game-changer. There were elements of swing, but Blige radiated a melancholic Lady Day vibe that set her apart from her peers. 1995’s My Life established her skill for mining the darker aspects of 90s living – depression, addiction, abuse – speaking to the tribulations of a black America ravaged by HIV/Aids, gang violence and crack epidemics. But in Mary Jane (All Night Long), Blige offered a joyously retro-sounding respite: warm, booming drums, soft funk bass, breezy flutes and a playful, lover’s call.
5 Adina Howard – Freak Like Me
By the mid-90s, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown had successfully bumrushed the hip-hop boys’ club with an aggressive, pornographic breed of femme-fatale rap, and R&B’s solo vocalists – notably Smooth (the “female mack”), Joya and Michigan’s Adina Howard – were perfecting a similarly hardcore sound. Howard’s 1995 single set a new benchmark in urban raunch pop; Freak Like Me was hood romance at its most graphic, a pheromone-fuelled G-funk anthem for the ladies – empowering or degrading, depending on which feminist set you claimed. While LL Cool J was romancing women in the back seat of his jeep, Adina was steering her own ride, cruising the ghetto for “roughneck bruthas”. Six years later, Sugababes would reboot Howard’s platinum-selling single, stripping out the Chronic-style synths for Gary Numan’s Roland-assisted new wave. But the original – all suspension-rocking beats, summer funk and Howard’s brittle caramel vocals – has grown old flawlessly.
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6 Aaliyah – One in a Million
By 1996, R&Bs babygirl – a baggy-jeans-and-Timbaland-boots-wearing tomboy with a smooth, soulful falsetto – was collaborating with Timbaland and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot, the duo responsible for the eerie, dislocated cyber-funk that would become the bedrock of R&B and hip-hop for the best part of a decade from the mid-90s, propelling the likes of Ginuwine and Destiny’s Child to success. One in a Million set the standard for this new breed of sound, a spacious, cosmic slow jam built on stuttering slo-mo/triple-time percussion and Aaliyah’s silvery night song. One in a Million was the antithesis of new jack’s turbo drum machine rhythms, and established Aaliyah as the voice of a new R&B age.
7 Jodeci – Freek’n You
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Elliot and Timbaland won their first major label paycheques working behind the scenes on Jodeci’s 1993 opus Diary of a Mad Band. The pair were onboard courtesy of Jodeci’s DeVante Swing, who’d recruited them into his R&B-hip-hop collective Swing Mob – a side project that would fizzle out (only to be reborn as Da Bassment) shortly before Jodeci’s last album dropped in 1995. Diary … marked the pinnacle of K-Ci, JoJo, Dalvin and DeVante’s reign as R&B’s leading Romeos, delivering an album rich with swagger, seduction exquisite harmonies. Cry For You – which the Isley Brothers would sample in 2001 – saw them turning male vulnerability into high devotion: “Do anything you want me to/ Get on my knees for you.” But later single Freek ‘n You – a potent fever dream of sexual yearning – epitomised the quartet at their lusty best.
8 D’Angelo – Brown Sugar
By the time D’Angelo appeared on the scene in the mid-90s, R&B fans were feeling desensitised by swing’s bombastic, processed vibe, and found themselves hankering after something more grounded. Neo soul sated that desire, with a mellow, Afrocentric jazz sound that valued live instrumentation and paid homage to past titans such as Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Erykah Badu became neo soul’s de-facto queen, but D’Angelo – the son of a Pentecostal minister – was just as instrumental to neo soul’s coming of age, a triple-threat heartbreaker who could song write, perform and produce. Chart-riding single Lady helped make his 1995 debut album into a sleeper hit, but Brown Sugar’s title track was the album’s true sweet spot – a smoky, sensual, boom bap-lite jazz joint.
9 Lauryn Hill – Ex-Factor
Motherhood, faith and the politics of love were central themes in Lauryn Hill’s debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. New Jersey’s finest had risen to fame in Grammy-bagging hip-hop trio the Fugees, under the nom du rap L Boogie, proving herself as a polymath vocalist capable of switching from intellectual rap verses to soaring velvet melismas. Hill was frequently included under the neo-soul umbrella, but where artists such as Badu and D’Angelo were channelling African elements into their oeuvres, Miseducation – which had been recorded in Jamaica’s Tuff Gong studios – drew on West Indian flavours, including Hill’s reworking of Bob Marley’s Turn Your Lights Down Love. Ex-Factor lacked the tempo-riding punch that Doo Wop (That Thing) packed, but it typified Hill’s skill for gifting R&B with rich, erudite ghetto-soul anthems of the heart.
10 Monica – Before You Walk Out of My Life
Let us end with Monica’s Before You Walk Out My Life, a fittingly sentimental closer. Once the noughties had rolled round, Monica had been eclipsed by 90s glamazons such as Mariah Carey – but millennials who were old enough to buy Pure Swing compilations with diligently saved pocket money (or bootleg copies from better-funded school friends) will remember Monica as one of R&B’s primo round-the-way sweethearts. Don’t Take It Personal (Just One Of Dem Days), which became known rather crudely to some as “The PMS song”, proved Monica could do hip-hop-sampling jams for the jeeps and the club, but Before You Walk Out My Life, from Monica’s debut 1995 album Miss Thang, was chaste mid-90s R&B at its finest – a bittersweet, sappy soundtrack to moving on.
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