30 Reasons We're Still Obsessed With '90s R&B

 However history remembers PBR&B — that woozy strain of cool-kid R&B typified by artists like The Weeknd, Miguel, and How to Dress Well — it's served at least one important purpose: broadening the scope of '90s musical nostalgia. 

The conversation used to center on grunge and gangsta rap, with Kurt Cobain, Tupac, and Biggie Smalls getting all the love. Now, with the rise of this hazy-sexy-cool music, a fresh crop of old-school artists — many of them female — are finally getting their due. Chief among them is the late, great Aaliyah, whose legend has grown exponentially in the 14 years since her death, and she's not the only one benefiting from overdue reassessments.
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The Epic Battle Of Brandy Vs. Monica
With headshakes and sideways glances deadlier than Tomahawk missiles, Brandy and Monica take petty high school drama to ballistic levels in the video for “The Boy Is Mine,” their joint 1998 chart-topper. The song isn’t particularly feminist or empowering for young women, but it’s true to teen life, and at the end of the clip, the warring ladies come to their senses, call a truce, and kick two-timing Mekhi Phifer to the curb.
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Photo: Alex J. Berliner/BEImages.
The Enigma That Was Aaliyah
Often seen in dark shades, with hair swept over one eye, Aaliyah was R&B’s mystery girl. She made her name as a 14-year-old tomboy with “Back & Forth,” the hard-edged lead single from a 1994 debut record produced by R. Kelly, to whom she was briefly married. Once she’d put that Kells business behind her, Aaliyah hooked up with Missy Elliott and Timberland, who gave her brilliant sophomore LP, 1996’s One In a Million, a spacey, sexy vibe that influenced a generation of soul singers and indie rockers alike. Were it not for the 2001 plane crash that took her life, she’d still be daring us to figure her out.
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Photo: Ilpo Musto/REX USA.
Lauryn Hill Ruled The World
In 1998, two years after singing the hook on Nas’ “If I Ruled the World,” Fugees frontwoman Lauryn Hill really did conquer the planet with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a neo-soul triumph and strong candidate for greatest solo debut of all time. Featuring the chart-topping single “Doo Wop (That Thing)” — an irresistible blend of old-school soul and brutally insightful modern-day hip-hop — Miseducation is a record about love, motherhood, celebrity, and music’s duty to inspire. It debuted at No. 1 and earned L-Boogie five Grammys, including a much-deserved Album of the Year.
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Photo: Rex USA.
Hip-Hop And Soul Finally Hooked Up
Before the '90s, hip-hop and R&B had made eyes at one other, but on tunes like Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s “Crossroads,” the two sounds knocked boots and produced mutant offspring that, much like the X-Men, changed the world for the better. And, those are just two examples. As the decade wore on, genre lines became increasingly meaningless, and it became the norm for R&B stars to sing hooks on rap records and rappers to drop verses on R&B hits.
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Photo: Brian Rasic/REX USA.
That Piano On “No Diggity”
Speaking of hip-hop meeting R&B, the union produced few snippets of music doper than that low, churning piano sample on Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” It’s gangsta meets gospel, and on Nov. 9, 1996, when the tune hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and ended a 14-week reign of terror by Los Del Rio’s “Macarena,” it was nothing short of divine intervention.
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Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images.
So Many Girl Groups
Not since the '60s had pop music been so full of terrific female vocal outfits. Everyone remembers TLC, En Vogue, and Destiny’s Child, but there was also SWV, Jade, Xscape, Brownstone, 702, Total, Allure, Zhane, and about three dozen others.
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Photo: Ron Galella/Getty Images.
So Many Guy Groups
The ‘90s R&B scene was kind of like that 1979 movie The Warriors, only instead of gangs roaming the streets in leather vests and bashing each other with baseball bats, there were vocal groups in leather vests gyrating on MTV and telling ladies about the sweet, sweet lovin’ they were about to receive. The biggies were Boyz II Men and Jodeci, but Dru Hill, 112, Silk, Shai, Jagged Edge, and Mint Condition also deserve props. There are almost too many to keep track of, but luckily, the Complex '90s Male R&B Group Pyramid of Excellence provides a handy reference.
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Photo: Rex USA.
So Many Mariahs
When Mariah Carey came on the scene in 1990, she quickly notched four No. 1 singles, three of them adult-contemporary ballads. The outlier, “Someday,” was a New Jack Swing track hinting at a wild side she finally started exploring with 1996’s “Honey,” produced by Puff Daddy. In between, Mimi delivered sweet summer jams (“Dream Lover”), talked us through tough times (“Hero”), served up red-hot holiday chestnuts (“All I Want for Christmas Is You”), and made boatloads of cash with Boys II Men (“One Sweet Day”). There weren’t two sides to her personality — there were 50, and they were all awesome.
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Doom, Doom, Doom Da-Da
Or, more correctly, “Doom, doom, doom, da-da / Doom, doom, doom, da-da / Da, da, da, da / Da-da / Da-daa-daa-daa.” That’s roughly how you express in words the second a cappella break from Boyz II Men’s “Motownphilly.” It’s meaningless scatting meant to showcase the group’s vocal chops, and yet it says more than every single All-4-One song combined.
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Photo: Getty Images.
Also, Those Spoken-Word Bits In Boys II Men Songs
Two thirds into every good Boys II Men song, the music gets soft and Michael McCary steps to the mic to say something super heartfelt, beginning with the word “baby” or “girl.” The best example is “End of the Road,” where he takes the high road and assures his cheating lady he won’t run around like she did, just as long as she comes on back to him. It probably doesn’t work — the song is called “End of the Road,” after all — but it’s a valiant effort.
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Photo: BEImages.
TLC’s “Waterfalls” Woke Us The Hell Up
No one thinks of the mid-'90s as a time of social upheaval, and that’s what makes “Waterfalls” such a pivotal track. It’s a splash of cold water to the face: a pair of vignettes about inner-city violence and HIV/AIDS coupled with a profound chorus. The idea of being grateful for what you’ve got was refreshing, and best of all, TLC administered the medicine with plenty of sugar, making this a lecture anyone could vibe to.
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Photo: Graham Wiltshire/REX USA.
Whitney Sang The Greatest Note Of All Time
It goes from about 3:10 to 3:15, the show-stopping “I-i-i-i-i” in “I Will Always Love You,” Whitney Houston’s inescapable smash from 1992’s soundtrack to The Bodyguard. In that five seconds is a lifetime of joy and pain, and in light of how things played out for poor Whitney, the song hits even harder today.
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Photo: David Fisher/REX USA.
So Many Feminist Anthems
Ladies in the '90s looking for girl-power jams weren’t limited to the Spice Girls. There was Whitney’s “I’m Every Woman,” Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills,” TLC’s “No Scrubs,” and of course, “What a Man,” that ace collabo between En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa.
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Photo: Getty Images.
New Jack Swing Really Swung
Technically, New Jack Swing was born in the late '80s, when tunes like Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” signaled a new era of rap-informed R&B. But, the sound reached its pinnacle in the early '90s, as groups like Bell Biv Devoe, Guy, and Tony! Toni! Toné! dropped “orchestra hit” sound effects (a standard feature on your Casio keyboard) and hi-hat triplets all over the place. New Jack Swing-ers ranged from one-hit wonders Joe Public, the group behind the forgotten gem “Live and Learn,” to Michael Jackson, who gave the sound his signature pop touch with “Remember the Time.”
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Photo: Tim Roney/ Getty Images.
So Many Sexy Phrases
Thanks to lusty hits like Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” R. Kelly’s “Bump n' Grind,” (released years before his alleged videotaped sexual abuse of an underage girl), H-Town’s “Knockin’ the Boots,” and Bell Biv Devoe’s “Do Me, Baby,” kids in the '90s had no shortage of colorful ways to describe the physical act of love. Sex-ed teachers really should’ve been more appreciative.
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Photo: Alex J. Berliner/BEImages.
One Tony Wasn’t Enough
Formed in Oakland in the late '80s, Tony! Toni! Toné! didn’t actually have a guy named Tony in the band. (The main members were D'Wayne Wiggins and Raphael Saadiq, who’s now best known as a solo artist and producer for people like D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige, and John Legend.) What the group did have was a singular mix of old-school R&B and New Jack Swing, and that led to timeless tunes like “Feels Good,” “If I Had No Loot,” and “Anniversary.”
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Photo: David Graves/REX USA.
Sade Reclaimed Her Crown
In 1992, Sade Adu and her band returned with Love Deluxe, their first album in four years. Featuring the supernaturally sensual singles “Cherish the Day,” “Kiss of Life,” and “No Ordinary Love,” the CD became a mainstay in bedside CD players across the land, reestablishing Sade as the smoothest, sexiest, most elegant vocalist around.
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Neo Soul Kept It Real
Like New Jack Swing, the neo-soul movement was born in the '80s, when singers like Sade and Terence Trent D’Arby started kicking jazzy, funky, retro-style R&B jams characterized by organic instrumentation and lyrics that actually meant something. The sound peaked in the mid-'90s, as D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, Erykah Badu’s Baduizm, and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill gave the hip-hop generation a history lesson while showing the way forward.
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Janet Jackson Reinvented Herself At Least Three Times
In the '80s, Janet Jackson was Michael’s cute kid sister — a talented singer and dancer not yet in control of her life and career. That all changed with 1990’s Rhythm Nation 1814, a musically tough, lyrically thoughtful reinvention that spawned five Top 5 hits. Two years later, she ditched the black clothes and clanging beats and returned softer and sexier with janet. With 1997’s The Velvet Rope, Jackson changed her look and sound yet again, this time dying her hair red, getting a bunch of body piercings, and incorporating a wider range of musical influences. As far as the Jacksons were concerned, Janet won the '90s, and her rise was as thrilling as Michael’s descent was heartbreaking.
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Photo: Rex USA.
And Michael Jackson Sorta Stayed Relevant, Too
Though the '90s marked the beginning of the end for the King of Pop, MJ scored big with the albums Dangerous and HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, both of which showed he could keep pace with R&B trends. The former featured the hits “Jam” and “Remember the Time,” while the latter found him collaborating with R. Kelly on the tender “You Are Not Alone.”
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Photo: c.S Roberts/Everett/Rex USA.
Toni Braxton Invented The Word “Un-break”
Un-break (verb): to undo the hurt caused by walking out of one’s door and out of one’s life. (Related: un-cry.) In fairness, Braxton shouldn’t be blamed for the iffy linguistics of “Un-Break My Heart,” her second No. 1 single from 1996. The tune was penned by Diane Warren, who’s broken many a heart with schlocky ballads like Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me,” LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live?” and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
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Photo: Des Willie/Getty Images.
'90s R&B Could Be Really Sweet And Really Dirty
The focus of R&B tends to be love, and that can mean everything from innocent infatuation to getting buck wild on the kitchen floor. In the '90s, no matter what type of romantic situation you found yourself in, R&B had you covered. There was Shanice’s “I Love Your Smile” for the sweet times, Jodeci’s “Freek’n You,” for the dirty ones, and D’Angelo’s “Untitled” for those in-between moments when Boys II Men just wouldn’t do.
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Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages.
Age Wasn’t Nothing But A Number
Four years before a 14-year-old Aaliyah broke through with the aptly titled Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, a 13-year-old Tevin Campbell played pint-size Lothario on the Top 20 single “Round and Round,” written and produced by Prince. Then, in 1994, the trio Immature scored two Top 20 singles (the wistful ode to friendship “Never Lie” and the preternaturally smoove “Constantly”) with Playtyme Is Over, which dropped when founders Jerome “Romeo” Jones and Marques Houston were 12 and 13, respectively. That’s even more impressive than Usher, though he had the swagger to debut at 14 with a song called “Call Me a Mack” — five words most of us can’t utter at 24, 34, or any point in our lives, really.
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Photo: Ron Galella/Getty Images.
K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” Met All Your Romantic Needs
In 1998, if you were at a prom or wedding and didn’t hear “All My Life” at least once, it’s a safe bet the DJ got chewed out afterward. It’s an ooey-gooey love song baked to sugary perfection for any and all occasions, and it works precisely because it contains stomach-churning lines like, “I cherish every hug.”
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R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” Met All Your Inspirational Needs
Whether you think this song is about finding salvation in God or in a lover — or simply learning to have faith in yourself — you’re absolutely right. “I Believe I Can Fly” is whatever you need whenever you need it most, and in 1996, it gave Space Jam — that wrenching drama starring Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan — the emotionally charged theme song it demanded.
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Photo: Andre Csillag/REX Shutterstock.
Duh, The Clothes
From those neon overalls and vibrant Starter caps of the early ‘90s to Boys II Men’s preppy bowties, En Vogue’s red skintight “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” dresses and Jodeci’s badass leather vests — not to mention Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’ trademark condom-lens glasses — the genre’s fashions are nearly as memorable as the music. May our colors always pop and our jeans never lose their sag.
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“Dick In A Box”
If it weren’t for those marvelous sexytime facilitators Color Me Badd, Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake never would’ve teamed up for the 2006 spoof “Dick In A Box,” arguably the greatest "SNL Digital Short" of all time. It’s too bad this wasn’t a real song in 1992 — it would have been a riot to hear Casey Kasem introduce it on American Top 40.
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Photo: Courtesy of YouTube.
Keith Sweat’s “Twisted” video Is The Best Law & Order Episode Never Made
This 1996 clip has it all: sex, murder, a leopard-print throw pillow, and some of the most inept police work of all time. If the story is “ripped from the headlines,” as L&O liked to say, it’s based on that New York Times piece you read about the high-ranking detective who twice let a beautiful murder suspect escape (the first time after forgetting to lock his car doors, the second time after knockin’ her boots) and then watched as his colleagues gunned her down in cold blood. You know, that story.
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Photo: Courtesy of YouTube.
Ginuwine’s “Pony” Goes The Distance
A ludicrous sex jam even by '90s-R&B standards, Ginuwine’s 1996’s “Pony” features a throbbing beat from then-unknown producer Timbaland and lyrics that liken lovemaking to horseback riding. It’s almost to good to be true, and it got even better in 2014, when Ginuwine performed the song on Parks and Recreation, giving local hero Lil’ Sebastian the tribute he deserves.
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Photo: Courtesy of YouTube.
It All Comes Down To One Song
If '90s R&B has a single all-encompassing theme song — an anthem that sums up the sounds and attitudes that made the decade so special — it’s Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It.” Lyrically, it’s R. Kelly-hedonistic (“I reach for my 40 and I turn it up”) yet TLC-responsible (“Designated driver, take the keys to my truck”), and musically, it nods to both hip-hop (“To all my neighbors, you got much flavor”) and classic soul (“Let’s flip the track, bring the old school back”). In 1995, this was how we did it, and it was glorious.
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