You Need To Hear These Seven Girl Groups From The ‘90s
When it comes to R&B, we were unduly blessed in the 90’s. Endlessly bestowed. Showered and gifted with timeless ear candy, the likes of which we probably won’t ever see again in the same volume, or at the same level of quality. The charts were full of it. It was all over the radio. It was booming out of car windows on hot summer nights (at least here in NYC). TLC were the Beatles. En Vogue were the Stones. Janet was Janet. It was ubiquitous, it was everywhere.
At this point it’s safe to say that as far as musical decades can be retroactively rated, the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s were, are, and always will be, the golden era of R&B and soul. That’s not to say that since the turn of the century there haven’t been worthy and wondrous artists out there creating indisputably cool music. SZA, Dawn Richard, Jazmine Sullivan, and Tierra Whack in particular are exceptional. It’s just that compared to those aforementioned eras, the number of R&B-focused artists out there has significantly decreased. Since the early 2000’s the tide of popular taste has turned, hard. Interest in R&B has waned, and it is not the dominant musical force it was in years gone by.
I know. Tastes change. There isn’t always a definitive reason. But watching R&B slowly slip out of favor over the past 15 plus years (at least) has been fucking depressing. There is no twenty-first century equivalent to TLC, the ridiculously charismatic trio who were armed to the gills with classic tunes and creative videos. Nor is there an SWV, with their city swagger and unforgettable choruses. And even sadder, to plug into a historical context, the soul girl group boom of ‘90s was the last bonafide physical evidence of Motown’s once-monumental influence on music culture. Those glorious songs from the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Marvelettes that were full of urgency and love and appealed to every demographic. They created a foundation that remained solid and strong through the entirety of the ‘90s. (Destiny’s Child were one of the last torch bearers to take it into the 2000s, albeit briefly.)
But here we are. It’s 2018 and things are different. R&B, as we know it now, is populated almost exclusively by solo artists, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon. Okay, I know this sounds like a eulogy, but it is not. This is a celebration of what came before, the artists that we, maybe, took for granted at the time. There was a lot of magnificent R&B produced within that last decade of the 20th century, more than we could possibly consume the first time around. Now is the time to discover—and rediscover, in some cases—the most kick-ass, underappreciated artists and songs from 90’s R&B. We may never live in such a soul-dominated era again, and so in the words of Janet Jackson, let’s go.
Before we start, a last bit of food for thought. While the 90’s brought us a handful of truly classic albums, such as Janet Jackson’s self-titled LP and its follow up The Velvet Rope, Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411, TLC’s CrazySexyCool and, of course, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, at the end of the day, it was all about singles. Which, yes, as expected, made for a lot of spotty albums, just like Motown in the 60’s. But, on the flip side, it also meant the singles tended to be so sublime that the bar was set ridiculously high. Sustaining that quality level over a whole LP was nearly impossible—again, just like Motown in the 60’s. With that in mind, let’s go, for real...
Artists You Should Know:
For Real were a four piece group in which there were no weak links; i.e., every member could sing. In 1996 they kicked out one of the finest singles of the era, “Like I Do”, a throwback of the highest order in sound, style and video that perfectly meshed Motown with that 90’s groove. It’s both reverential and modern, a singular piece of soul art. I’m telling you, it really stood out at a time when the R&B world was still rife in new jack swing and all its variations. It didn’t sound quite like anything else, and remains a glorious thing.
SWV were a juggernaut. If you ever wanted to describe the absolute essence of 90’s R&B to an uninitiated person or space alien, the unquestionable first step would be to give them a copy of SWV’s debut album “It’s About Time”, which is a complete blueprint of the sound and feeling of the whole genre at the time. SWV were one of the most successful soul acts of the ‘90s, with two platinum albums, one gold, and a handful of rightfully classic singles, including the evergreen number one song “Weak”, to their name. For some reason, though, it feels like they never get the adequate amount of love they deserve, which is why we’re going to mention them here. We highly recommend checking out the first three albums, and want to call out the absolutely perfect “Rain”, as well as “Right Here (Human Nature Radio Mix)”, which remains utterly sublime 25 years later.
Shanice was a teenager when she released her biggest album, 1991’s “Inner Child”, the success of which was fueled by the ridiculously catchy and admittedly sickly sweet “I Love Your Smile”. As a result, she was written off as as light silly pop artist, someone whose entire career seemed to be based on one song, Deniece William’s ubiquitous 1984 number one “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” in terms of tempo and production style. But here’s the thing, Shanice could sing, and when she got her hands on a good song, she absolutely owned it. Case in point, “I’m Cryin’”, off the aforementioned LP.
Shara Nelson came to fame singing with Massive Attack on their seminal debut album and had a hand in writing one of THE hands-down greatest songs of the ‘90s, “Unfinished Sympathy”. She was never a full-fledged member of the band, and by the mid-’90s had embarked on what has turned out to be a criminally underrated solo career. Her 1993 debut LP What Silence Knows is a stone-cold classic, all killer, no filler, featuring Shara’s keening, desperate siren song of a voice over what are almost exclusively, dark, sad, melodic soul epics. This album isn’t safe to hear if you are feeling emotionally vulnerable, but if you are feeling brave and are willing to take the journey and head down, you will be duly rewarded: despair has rarely sounded this good.
Songs That Absolutely Burn:
Nu Soul Habits made only one LP, in 1994, and vocalist Tonye Hilmon’s sinewy, deep, and Michael Jackson-esque vocal tones on the title track are completely hypnotic.
Blaque were proteges of TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and went platinum with their first album in 1999. Unfortunately, things did not fall in the group’s favor after that, through a combination of bad luck and timing. They ended up recording two albums that went unreleased upon completion, and were later dropped by their label. In 2012, chief songwriter Natina Reed passed away. Go on and check out Blaque’s self-titled debut album, which is full of fine and fun pop soul, including this beauty:
All we’re gonna say here is that this 1996 collaboration between the Las Vegas trio and Missy Elliott off their debut album No Doubt still absolutely rules. It still moves and does its thing.