The Best 90s R&B Songs

From classics like SWV's "Weak" to Ginuwine's "Pony," these are the top R&B songs from the '90s that will have you feeling nostalgic, and ready to party.


This feature was originally published in 2012.

The R&B of the ’90s has never left our hearts. It’s still there in form of nostalgia-tapping playlists, and in the music being made today. Even as we creep further from the golden era, acts like Brent FaiyazSnoh AalegraGivēon, and more have set the stage for a new, burgeoning fan base of the still-bustling genre. Still, it’s always important to pay homage to those who came before.

For the fans who can recall Changing Faces album cuts and name each member of Subway, this is a vindication. It’s an enshrining of an insanely fertile and formative chapter of black music, one that yielded classic albums and singles, and expanded the framework of pop songwriting and production (and thus, the entries on the Billboard Hot 100), thanks to the next-level genius of artists like Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Boyz II Men, and Chucky Thompson. The era deserves its accolades; it is some of the best American music ever. We do have a list with The 50 Best R&B Albums of the ‘90s, but these are the best ‘90s R&B songs.


50. Soul for Real, “Candy Rain” (1994)

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Producer: Heavy D, Samuel “Red Hot Lover Tone” Barnes, Jean-Claude “Poke” Olivier

Album: Candy Rain

Label: Uptown

Remember when young teen/child acts were all the rage during the early '90s? Kriss Kross, Another Bad Creation, etc.? Other than the former, none had a bigger hit than Soul For Real. The group's frontman and youngest member, Jase, sung his heart out. “Candy Rain” was that song you dedicated to your crush. Andre Harrell was a key instrument in the New Jack Swing sound that eventually evolved into a hip-hop/R&B fusion of sorts. There are only a handful of songs on this list that still get replay value in 2014 and “Candy Rain” is in that conversation. Check the views on their Vevo page for further proof. —Angel Diaz

49. Xscape, “Just Kickin' It” (1993)

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Producer: Jermaine Dupri

Album: Hummin' Comin' At 'Cha

Label: Sony

You can tell “Just Kickin’ It” was written by men. Xscape was initially positioned as a “ghetto En Vogue,” but by that same logic, their debut single comes across as a trap version of the kind of man-woman relationship dichotomy as heard in Leave It to Beaver and those other old-ass sitcoms from yestercentury. Even so, while it wasn’t the most modern outlook on how relationships ought to go, it is sang impeccably. The production value, which is frankly as simple as the logic employed in the lyrics, allowed the women to best showcase their impressive vocals. Maybe some of you want a girl who can cook you greens and turkey necks, has amazing sex, and considers both their “duties.” Maybe you don’t. However you feel about that, though, when this song comes on, you will be undeniably soulless if you don’t bop along to the Atlanta foursome’s breakout hit. —Michael Arceneaux

48. Color Me Badd, “I Wanna Sex You Up” (1991)

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Producer: Dr. Freeze & Howie Tee

Album: C.M.B/ New Jack Swing Soundtrack

Label: Giant Records

In 1990, R&B started to move with a decidedly sexual thrust—Tony! Toni! Toné’s orgasmic “Feels Good,” Bel Biv Devoe’s silly “Do Me”—but everything was still covered in a thin veil of slang, innuendo, and euphemism. Enter interracial boy band Color Me Badd, who finally cut the bullshit with “I Wanna Sex You Up,” a smash on R&B and top 40 radio that became the second biggest pop song of 1991. Hitman Howie Tee and Dr. Freeze's hip-hop lite track had just enough swing for black radio, while the group's handsome white lead singer Bryan Abrams made sure it didn't stay there. But really, it was the lyrics that crossed all boundaries. How could you not pay attention to that hook?

First heard during a pivotal scene in New Jack City—when Gee-Money’s girlfriend seduces kingpin Nino Brown—”I Wanna Sex You Up” sounded like romantic R&B on crack. Things start out innocently enough: “Come inside, take off your coat / I'll make you feel at home / Now let's pour a glass of wine / 'Cause now we're all alone.” And just when you thought Bryan was trying to chill and get to know you, BAM, the fellas come in with the hook and let you know what he’s really trying to do. SEX!

This juxtaposition of horny bravado and smooth sensitivity became the blueprint for some of the greatest moments in ’90s R&B, from Silk’s “Freak Me” to H-Town’s “Knockin’ Da Boots.” Hell, R. Kelly basically made an entire career out of the formula. This was R&B made for a generation who had lost its innocence, where polite sincerity seemed too corny to take seriously, and keeping it real was the only option. —Brendan Frederick

47. Brandy & Monica, “The Boy Is Mine” (1998)

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Producer: Darkchild, Brandy, Dallas Austin

Album: Never Say Never The Boy Is Mine

Label: Atlantic/Arista

How is it that Brandy and Monica so roundly outwrote and outsung the King of Pop and a Knight of the British Order? Everything that's corny and castrated about Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney's storied “The Girl Is Mine” duet, teenagers Brandy and Monica pull off with all proper tension, as if the bickering were real, sneers and dismissive ad libs and #WellActually harmonies and all. “You're the past; I'm the future / Get away, it's my time to shine,” sang Brandy Norwood to Monica Arnold in 1998. Sixteen years earlier, MJ and Paul were playing pattycake. —Justin Charity

46. Deborah Cox, “Nobody's Supposed to Be Here” (1998)

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Producer: Anthony “Shep” Crawford

Album: One Wish

Label: Arista

A ballad so grand and powerful that gospel radio used to spin it as if Deborah Cox were the choir. Which isn't quite blasphemy, considering the gist: a woman suffers heartbreak, withdraws unto herself, only to find “the love who'll stay for eternity, the heaven sent to fulfill my needs.” (Much of Cox's One Wish album does indeed sound like late-90s gospel radio-styled Brandy and Whitney Houston.) If you're among at least three black women when this song starts playing from the nearest speaker, brace yourself for the refrain, flawlessly harmonized, all together now: “So I place my heart under lock and key/To take some time to take care of me.” Can I get a hallelujah! —Justin Charity

45. Tony! Toni! Toné!, “Feels Good” (1990)

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Producer: Tony! Toni! Toné!

Album: The Revival

Label: Wing

"Play this record as frequently as possible." Check. Dwayne Wiggins, his brother Charles, a.k.a. Raphael Saadiq, and their cousin Timothy Christian Riley had experienced success with the soul and funk hat tips on Tony! Toni! Toné!'s first album, Who?. But it was the party-starting "Feels Good" off of their sophomore release, The Revival, that got them into the top 10 on the Hot 100. The beat is the textbook definition of New Jack Swing, letting rhythms of dance, hip-hop, and pop music congregate to make something so wonderfully scattered and incessant that the group built in a response to their command, "If the rhythm feels good to you, baby, let me hear you say": an orgasmic female vocal sample of "oh, oh baby." Quite scandalous at the time, and it got its point across. How good did it feel to you? That good. —Christine Werthman

44. Zhané, “Hey Mr. DJ” (1993)

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Producer: Naughty by Nature, 118th Street Productions

Album: Pronounced Jah-Nay

Label: Motown

Riding high on Naughty by Nature’s second top 10 pop single, “Hip-Hop Hooray,” the group’s DJ and producer, Kay Gee, was looking to spread his wings. Naughty’s management company, Flavor Unit, was putting together a compilation called Roll Wit Tha Flava in early 1993, and Kay used it as a platform to introduce his two new acts: a hip-hop trio called the Rottin’ Razkals, and a pair of former backup singers called Jhané (a combination of their names Jean and Renée). The unknown duo’s track was one of two R&B cuts on the rhyme-heavy album, and it was such a standout that Epic released it as a single, adding a “Z” to their name for some extra flavor.

Written by Kay Gee and the girls, “Hey Mr. DJ” was based on R&B singer Michael Wycoff's "Looking Up to You,” a post-disco boogie groove from 1982. Lyrically, it’s a simple ode to dancing the night away to your favorite song, a universal sentiment that helped the record hit No. 6 on the pop chart. The summertime party anthem featured a Grand Puba vocal sample (“On and on and on and on”) and a hype verse from the Rottin’ Razkals’ Fam, but the music’s jazzy vibraphones and dramatic violin accents gave it a sophisticated aura not heard until the neo soul movement years later. If only Erykah Badu made a jam like this. —Brendan Frederick

43. Sade, “No Ordinary Love” (1992)

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Producer: Sade Adu, Stuart Matthewman

Album: Love Deluxe

Label: Epic

Throughout the 1980s, Sade was such a singular R&B sensation, her voice is so otherworldly, a mother from another planet; which is to say, Britain. She's the furthest thing from pop crossover R&B yet still has a string of hits that would make placement on the official soundtrack for Earth, if not this entire galaxy. “Smooth Operator” was Sade's 80s breakout in the U.S., and “No Ordinary Love” is her commendable 90s twilight, with Sade singing live and direct from the matrix. In the music video, she's a mermaid making slo-mo sex faces at a white boy. Where are the R&B mermaids (and mermen) of yesteryear? —Justin Charity

42. Dru Hill, “In My Bed” (1996)

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Producer: Daryl Simmons, Ralph B. Stacy

Album: Dru Hill

Label: Island

Through the years we've heard Lotharios sing about the hurt they felt after discovering their loves were loving someone else. One of Stevie Wonder's (and by extension Jodeci's) most beautiful and heart-wrenching songs is about just that. Dru Hill would add its own to the canon with the second single from the group's 1996 debut. Slower in tempo than their debut song, the lust-drenched "Tell Me," "In My Bed" showed a different side of the kids from Baltimore. More serious in tone than what competing groups, like 112, were releasing, "In My Bed" was self-effacing, emotionally resonant, and a little embarrassing. Who wants to sing about getting cheated on for nearly five minutes? No one, but Sisqo did it more than ably, using his remarkable vocal talents to perfectly channel the anger and anguish one must feel going through that kind of ordeal. "I gave you the world, cause you were my girl, but you still ran out on me," he sang, before belting out a string of "why oh why oh why." When he ends the chorus with "and you know just what I mean," you got the feeling that he was talking to us, not the girl who did him dirty.  —Damien Scott 

41. Shai, “If I Ever Fall In Love” (1992)

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Producer: Carl “Groove” Martin, Darnell VanRensalier

Album: If I Ever Fall In Love

Label: Gasoline Alley, MCA

Shai’s “If I Ever Fall in Love” is so good that the only song that managed to keep it from going to the top spot of the Hot 100 was Whitney Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” Moral victories are for minor league coaches, sure, but not hitting the top spot because of one of the best Whitney songs is a victory. To me, at least. But who cares. Name another a cappella song you can recite from memory. As soon as you hear the opening “Ohs” you know what it is; you’re already onto “the very first time that I saw your brown eyes.” If you were like me, you gathered your siblings and cousins into a makeshift barbershop quartet and sang it for people waiting to get their haircut, waiting to order food at Golden Krust, waiting to buy tickets to Aladdin, and family members as they tried to watch TV or have conversations. You listened to it on an endless loop thinking about the day you'll fall in love with a girl with brown eyes who, you know, could also be your friend; someone to be with you through thick and thin. Dare I say this was the song that made me want to be in love? I think I do dare. It was that good. —Damien Scott 

40. TLC, “Waterfalls” (1995)

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Producer: Organized Noize

Album: CrazySexyCool

Label: LaFace

Death and religion are strange topics for a pop song to tackle. But such are the talking points on TLC's “Waterfalls,” the biggest single on the group's sophomore album. T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli were flannel-wearing, new jack swing tomboys when they dropped their debut, Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip. Two years later, they reemerged with crop tops and bedroom eyes on CrazySexyCool, an LP of low and slow rhythms that journeyed further into R&B than anything the group had done before.

The Organized Noize-produced “Waterfalls” is drenched in water-droplet synth notes, live drums, rising horns, and a bass line that walks wherever it pleases. Like some sultry-voiced Ghost of Christmas Present, T-Boz introduces a drug-dealing son who ignores his mother’s pleas and ends up “another body laying cold in the gutter.” Next, there’s a guy who has unsafe sex with his girlfriend, contracts HIV/AIDS, and dies. And then Left Eye caps it off with a rap about god.

It's a heavy song, but the warnings in the verses are buoyed by a rich, singable chorus, which certainly helped it get radio play. “Waterfalls” also came with a big-budget video that ran constantly on MTV and made it even more popular. This is thanks in large part to the song’s easily acted-out story lines and, of course, the trio's T-1000-style water morphing. —Christine Werthman

39. Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You” (1992)

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Producer: Bob Ferguson

Album: The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album

Label: Arista

A cover of Dolly Parton's farewell to country music benefactor Porter Wagoner, made this the biggest, highest-charting, most profitable swagger jack of all time. This resoundingly platonic love song that helped launch an R&B diva's film career via The Bodyguard soundtrack. Stars are born, but no, not everyday. Not like this. —Justin Charity

38. Keith Sweat, “Twisted” (1996)

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Producer: Keith Sweat, Eric McCaine

Album: Keith Sweat

Label: Elektra

Depending on what R&B circle you’re in, Keith Sweat is either praised for his contributions to the world or cracked on for so many of his songs being themed around “begging.” No matter how you feel about Sweat, though, there is a reason why “Twisted” was his biggest crossover hit to date—with the track peaking at number two on the Hot 100. Sure, it sounds like the sort of song you typically hear at the end of some cookout hosted by a Black auntie, but it’s damn catchy. More importantly, it features the vocals of Kut Klose, or, if we’re being completely honest, the group’s lead singer, Athena Cage. I will never forgive you people for not supporting Athena Cage enough. She was like Coko but without even a fifth of her success. And just so we’re clear, if not for songs like “Twisted,” you wouldn’t be enjoying the likes of Future and his vocally-challenged but still catchy brand of crooning right now. Thank you, Keith. —Michael Arceneaux

37. The Fugees, “Killing Me Softly” (1996)

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Producer: A Tribe Called Quest, Fugees

Album: The Score

Label: Ruffhouse

If you're thinking of discrediting this because it's technically a cover, let's acknowledge that covers come in two categories. First, there's what I do when I slaughter innocent songs at karaoke in an attempt to mimic the originals. Second, there's the cover that's more about reinterpretation, taking the original and transforming it, like Sinead O'Connor did with Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" or what Whitney Houston did with Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," which is also on this list. These covers share the melody and the lyrics of the original, but they're so reworked that at first glance, they sound like entirely new songs.

This is what the Fugees did with "Killing Me Softly With His Song." Lauryn Hill—you know, the girl from Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit—follows the blueprint of Roberta Flack's Grammy-winning song of the same name from 1973. But Hill's hurt is different even as she sings the same words: "Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words/Killing me softly with his song." Where Flack is broken, Hill is bruised—she'll survive this. The meatier hip-hop bounce on the Fugees' version toughens things up, and even though Hill stands by herself as she sings over it, she has backup with Wyclef and Pras, meaning she isn't going through it alone. Only the Fugees could take something so sad, such a catch-your-breath moment, and turn it into a party jam. By the time they get through it, "Killing Me Softly" is a different song. —Christine Werthman

36. Erykah Badu, “On & On” (1996)

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Producer: Madukwu Chinwah, Erykah Badu

Album: Baduizm

Label: Kedar/Universal/MCA

“Oh my my my: I'm feeling high / My money's gone, I'm all alone / The world keeps turning.” That is, a righteous high by which Erykah Badu, with her debut single, “On & On,” predates Jay Electronica's holy allure by a decade, singing of human wickedness, spiritual exhaustion, and blackness abiding. Badu won a Grammy for “On & On” in 1998, and she's only gotten quirkier—yet wiser–ever since. “Don't feed me yours cuz your food does not endure / I think I need a cup of tea; the world keeps burning.” —Justin Charity

35. Janet Jackson, “I Get Lonely” (1998)

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Producer: Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis

Album: The Velvet Rope

Label: Virgin

In September, Janet Jackson fans converged across various social media platforms and Web sites to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. In 2013, those same fans celebrated the 20th anniversary of her breakthrough album, janet. However, for the most devoted of Damita Jo’s flock, 2017 will be an ultra special year as it marks the 20th anniversary of The Velvet Rope. It is less commercially impactful than previous releases, but no less monumental because it was admittedly recorded during a bout with depression. There is a sadness and longing felt throughout the album and no better song illustrates that than “I Get Lonely.” Janet may not be the most naturally gifted singer, but she is often overlooked for knowing to maximize what voice she does have. On this track, which was purely R&B as opposed to many of her previous dance-R&B-pop singles, Janet sounds wonderful. In her harmonies. In her emoting. In her—gasp—raising her volume from that damn trademark Jackson family whisper and singing. —Michael Arceneaux

34. Brandy, “Sittin’ Up In My Room” (1995)

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Producer: Babyface

Album: Waiting to Exhale: Original Soundtrack

Label: Atlantic

Babyface bestowed his Midas touch on the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, producing every song and writing all but one—“My Funny Valentine,” as performed by Chaka Khan. The soundtrack gathered together a host of established female R&B artists, from Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige to Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. And among this list of greats was Brandy Norwood, a 16-year-old who had released her debut album only a year before. She might not have had the credentials of the rest of them, but she staked her claim with her voice, a lithe instrument with a textured finish that she used to emote more elegantly than any teenager had a right to. But she was still young, and Babyface gave her words to match: “How can one be down? Tell me where to start/’Cause every time you smile, I feel tremors in my heart.” He surrounded her with daydreaming synthesizers and sharp funk guitars, keeping it playful but not cutesy, never acting condescending toward this young girl sussing out her feelings in her bedroom.

And of course, in the Hype Williams-directed video for “Sittin’ Up in My Room,” Brandy’s crush is Donald Faison; after Clueless came out that year, who didn’t want to be the girl of whom Murray demanded “Woman, lend me five dollars”? —Christine Werthman

33. Mary J. Blige, “Not Gon’ Cry” (1997)

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Producer: Babyface

Album: Share My World

Label: Arista

By the time the 1995 cut from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack was released, Mary J. Blige had long proven that she was especially skilled at encapsulating the most unsettling of emotions through song. Even so, there was something different—no, special—about the way she sang “Not Gon’ Cry,” a song fans will force her to perform in concert for the rest of her life. Perhaps it was direction from Babyface, who wrote and produced every song on the classic soundtrack, Mary’s own growth as a singer, or some combination of both. Whatever the driving force behind her delivery was, the urgency she sang this song with made it immensely impactful.

There is a power in anger, especially when it comes from being wronged by someone you love. However, when you get to the point that your anger turns into indifference, thus making you unwilling to even give the offending party the satisfaction, it’s a strength that’s palpable. Mary hadn’t reached that point in her personal life yet, but in this song, she sure sand like she did. —Michael Arceneaux

32. Boyz II Men, “Motownphilly” (1991)

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Producer: Dallas Austin

Album: Cooleyhighharmony

Label: Motown

Remembered as the finest balladeers of the ’90s, Boyz II Men initially burst onto the scene in early 1991 with a totally different sound. A little East Coast swang, you might say. The group’s first single “Motownphilly” was the hypest R&B song of the year, and one of the last great New Jack Swing anthems before Michael Jackson’s Dangerous effectively put the nail in the genre’s coffin.

Produced by Dallas Austin, the prolific young musician who would go on to write some of TLC’s biggest hits, the song was a clear extension of the dense sound that the group’s mentor Michael Bivins had fostered on Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison” and Another Bad Creation’s “Iesha.” It had that swing, yes, but it swapped clean drum machines for hip-hop’s dirty breakbeat thump and added a melange of choppy samples that created a sense of controlled chaos. Electric guitar stabs, an ominous synth line, shouts from James Brown and Chubb Rock, frantic harmonizing, a jack-hammer drum fill, and one of the most brilliantly-placed trumpet riffs of all time—this was a wall of noise that would make Hank Shocklee proud.

In retrospect, the song probably made the Boyz seem way cooler than they were in reality. Lyrically, they’re pretty much just poppin’ shit like rappers, singing about cruising down South Street in a jet black Benz while eating cheese steaks, and mythologizing their origin story (who can forget Wanya’s star-making line “Back in school we used to dream about this every day!”). The song was a No. 3 pop hit, which was huge, but nothing compared to the success they later saw with their ballads. So they never made another fast song worth listening to again. “Motownphilly” is a treasure because it’s the moment when Boyz II Men seemed like guys you wanted to be, rather than some romance robots who executed Babyface songs with perfect precision. Not too hard, not too soft. —Brendan Frederick

31. Usher, “Nice & Slow” (1997)

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Producer: Jermaine Dupri

Album: My Way

Label: LaFace, Arista

In three years, Usher Raymond went from just thinking of you to actively promising to freaking you right x4. That’s the difference between 16 and 19 (and maybe the difference between no Jermaine Dupri and hell yes Jermaine Dupri). Compared to his self-titled debut, My Way, his second album, is full of carnal possibility, and “Nice and Slow” is the play-by-play of one hopeful encounter. We open on Usher driving to his beloved’s house: “I’ll be there in about, uh, gimme 10 minutes.” This is still a teenage affair. You can tell from the way he says he knows a quiet place to take her (it’s obviously not his house) and from his desire to just pull over and get this thing started right now. This thing. He can’t even call it what it is. But what is it when you’re 19? It’s still magic, just like this song. —Ross Scarano

30. Mariah Carey, “Honey” (1997)

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Producer: Mariah Carey, Puff Daddy, Stevie J, Q-Tip

Album: Butterfly

Label: Columbia

In 1997, Puffy and Stevie J hopped in the booth with Mariah Carey, and #NothingWasTheSame. The entire Butterfly album (f/ Krayzie Bone and Wishbone) is hip-hop's grand pop coup of the late 90s, with “Honey” being Mariah's definitive pre-TRL smash. An airy pop bridge and hook with verses that don't let you forget for more than fifteen seconds that Mariah Carey could sing the door off your Honda Accord. Notoriously, the remix and attendant music video features Ma$e and the LOX ducking back and forth in those shiny suits, which, despite the LOX's rather public anxiety about that phase of their career, is hardly worth the shame. They got to hug all up on Mariah Carey in a helicopter. Count your blessings. Yes, “Honey” is a blessing, still. —Justin Charity

29. Silk, “Freak Me” (1992)

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Producer: Keith Sweat, T.H.

Album: Lose Control

Label: Keia/Elektra

There's something inherently funny (intimidating?) about a quintet of men serenading you, singing simultaneously, “Let me play with your body, baby.” It's the aural equivalent of that scene in Watchmen when Silk Specter realizes she's in bed with multiple Dr. Manhattans and they're all tonguing her down with identical blue tongues.

Silk's “Freak Me” is a master class in '90s R&B excess from the first note. Thumping bass, group of men intoning “Freak me baby” like cult members around a campfire, and then the starburst moment where the sweet voices join for “Let me lick you up and down.” And then, jumping up in register, a single voice declares, “Cause tonight, baby, I wanna get freaky with you!"

But '90s R&B connoisseurs know that the song's ultimate expression of ecstasy/comedy comes at 2:37, with the triumphant “YOUYOUYOUYOU” chorus. It is the epitome of everything awesome and hilarious and earnestly beautiful about young men wanting to get laid via the magic power of falsetto vocals. This is everything music should be. —Ross Scarano

28. Lauryn Hill, “Ex-Factor” (1998)

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Producer: Lauryn Hill

Album: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Label: Ruffhouse, Columbia

It wasn't Lauryn Hill's biggest song—that would be "Doo Wop (That Thing)" or her rendition of "Killing Me Softly." It wasn't her most personal song—that honor goes to "To Zion," the ode to her first-born son. But "Ex Factor," an achingly beautiful lovelorn ballad, would prove to be—at least for a generation who came of age when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill racked up eight Grammys—her most enduring. Like all great love songs, it perfectly expresses what one feels in a situation most—if not all—people experience at least once in their life. For "Ex Factor," it was the detrimental tug of war that happens when one can’t find the strength to leave a bad situation alone. It was a situation many believed involved her former lover and bandmate Wyclef Jean.

Each line is perfectly written and perfectly emoted. Little bits like the elongated “e” that rises up the scale at the end of “be” when she sings, “Tell me who I have to be to gain some reciprocity.” Or when she matter-of-factly states that “no one loves you more than me and no one ever will.” All of this is helped along greatly by a fitting sample of Wu-Tang’s “Can It Be All So Simple.”

When you’re young, as I was when I first heard this song, you believe that love is, and should be, simple. The complications so plainly listed in this song seem worlds away. I thought, Why would loving someone be like a battle? It’s a question that would be answered for me later in life, much the same way, I imagine, it would for many people who grew up with this song. Beyoncé now covers the song frequently at her live shows. For that reason, it will continue to endure. —Damien Scott 

27. SWV, “Right Here (Human Nature Remix)” (1992)

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Producer: Brian Alexander Morgan, Allen “Allstar” Gordon, Christopher Cuben-Tatum, Teddy Riley, Pharrell Williams

Album: It's About Time

Label: RCA

You almost have to feel bad for the original version of SWV's “Right Here.” It's the debut single from Sisters With Voices, and while it's not bad, listening to it feels kind of cheesey. Might be the new jack swing vibes or that weak rap in the middle—it just didn' work. And while SWV could've just been that, Teddy Riley had the genius idea to flip Michael Jackson's Thriller-era smash “Human Nature” and throw everything that worked about “Right Here” over it. Pure genius. You've got young Pharrell with the “SWV” chant, Coco going ham with the vocal, and an altogether cool surrounding the track that blew the original away. End result? One of the longest-running singles for the year 1993. It murdered charts in Europe, and ended up being one of SWV's most well-known songs. All because someone said “you know what'd be dope? We should put that 'Human Nature' up under this.” Hell, it made it to the Free Willy soundtrack. Free Willy, yo. Loved that goddamn whale.—khal

26. H-Town, “Knockin' Da Boots” (1993)

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Producer: Keven Conner, Solomon Conner, Darryl Jackson, Stick

Album: Fever for da Flavor

Label: Luke

A baseball bat connects with a black hiking boot hung in the air like a target, and water pours out of the boot as it swings wildly, dripping. Is this a description of sex? Sure. The video for H-Town’s debut single, “Knockin Da Boots” is an ode to intercourse as an ode to euphemisms. In 1993, the Houston-based group found success on the R&B charts with a song inspired by people who are so quick to get to fucking they neglect to remove their footwear. As Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell puts it in the video, “Knocking the boots actually means two boots coming together making tasteful lust.” Actually. Tasteful. But actually tasteful? No, of course not.

After catching the demo tape, Luke signed the trio of Keven “Dino” Conner and his twin brother Solomon “Shazam” Connor and their friend Darryl “G.I.” Jackson, and the distinct lack of taste that is Luke’s trademark is what makes this song so great. “All you ladies go get your towels,” the spoken interlude instructs. You saw that boot, right? It was wet. —Ross Scarano

25. Aaliyah, “One in a Million” (1996)

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Producer: Timbaland

Album: One in a Million

Label: Blackground/Atlantic

The title track from Aaliyah's sophomore album solidified her pop appeal, and sensual, strong R&B legacy. But more importantly, the song introduced an innovative new sound to the genre, all thanks to the relatively unknown-at-the-time producers, Missy Elliott and Timbaland. Influenced by drum-n-bass, complete with Timb's now-recognizable shimmering synths paired with wildlife samples (most notably, those crickets), "One in a Million" made a name for the trio that the world would come to worship for years to come. Her tranquil vocals combined with Timb and Missy's sultry production was the start of something incredible, and created an entirely new sound in R&B. —Lauren Nostro

24. R. Kelly, “I Believe I Can Fly” (1997)

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Producer: R. Kelly

Album: R./Space Jam: Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture

Label: Atlantic/Jive

Like it or not, R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” works because of R. Kelly. There’s not another singer alive with the same combination of ability, earnest conviction, and personal demons—demons that Kelly believes he needs the listener’s support to fight. (This is something truly remarkable and disquieting about Kelly’s music, this boundless desire and open pleading for help and uplift.) On “I Believe I Can Fly,” the most successful single of his long career, Kelly calls on strings and a choir and every bit of strength available in his lungs and vocal chords to rise above the broad struggle described in the lyrics. There’s something about a breakdown and a loud silence, an awful song that replaces the richness promised by a successful life. It’s generic enough for anyone to step into the skin of “I Believe I Can Fly” and find something to root for. —Ross Scarano

23. Next, “Too Close” (1997)

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Producer: Kay Gee

Album: Rated Next

Label: Arista

When Next released “Too Close” at the end of the summer of 1997, I was 10 and so it was my babysitter who explained to me that the song was about what happens when a boy gets excited by the reality of a girl’s butt in his vicinity and he finds he can’t quell this very physical reaction and wow I can’t believe this is how, if I’m being totally honest here, I learned about the sexual implications of an erection. The crazy thing is that the song doesn’t hide the content inside innuendo or entendre. The first words heard are “I wonder if she can tell I’m hard right now.” From the jump there’s no attempt made to suggest that “hard” could even possibly refer to a mental situation, to the circumstances of a guy trying to talk himself down from arousal while dancing enthusiastically. No. Literally, the first line of this song refers to an erect dick.

Baby, when we’re grinding

I get so excited

Ooo, how I like it

I try but I can’t fight it

Ooo, you’re dancing real close

Plus real, real slow

You’re making it hard for me

This is a song that hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s worth noting that “Butta Love,” the first single released from Rated Next, contained the lyric “you’ve got that bomb clit” but it did not reach the same level of success. America wasn’t comfortable with that kind of frank talk about a woman’s genitalia. But it got behind a song about inadvertent middle school dance boners 100 percent. Admittedly, “Too Close” is a catchier song. It makes you wonder, though… —Ross Scarano

22. Destiny’s Child, “Say My Name” (1999)

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Producer: Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins

Album: The Writing's on the Wall

Label: Columbia

It’s a shame that original Destiny’s Child members LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson were given the boot by the time “Say My Name” was released. Not simply because it was the group's breakout single from their hugely successful The Writing's on the Wall album. That had to have stung, but for LeToya, it has to hurt especially because it was the first time you could actually hear her ass on a song. Yes, kids, in the chorus, those are LeToya’s vocals nestled nicely under Beyoncé’s. To this day, if that song comes on, you can hear LeToya in the background. They never bothered to replace her. Then again, like most things Destiny’s Child related, “Say My Name” was about Beyoncé.

“Say My Name” was Destiny’s Child first real foray into a more mature means of talking about the pitfalls of love. It wasn’t about a man failing to pay her car note, some bugaboo that required AOL to make Yoncé’s email stop, or some dude that actually belonged to some other woman. And it was a preview of Destiny’s Child, masters of the ladies anthem. Sorry again, LeToya. —Michael Arceneaux

21. Jodeci, “Feenin’” (1993)

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Producer: Devante Swing

Album: Diary of Mad Band

Label: Uptown/MCA

20 years ago, you could be considered among the coolest men in R&B and be open about your longing and vulnerability for your woman. These days, most contemporary R&B singers treat the women in their lives as if they gave them an STD on the way to stealing their identity and smashing their best friend in front of their mamas. Even on social media, so many worry about expressing too much interest in another for fear of coming across too “thirsty.” But on “Feenin’,” Jodeci confidentially and earnestly sang lines like, “Lady, I’m hooked on you. There’s nothing I’d rather do. Spend my last dime for a drop of your time.” If this came out today, it’d probably spark numerous Twitter debates and endless word memes about “the thirst” on Instagram. And everyone one partaking in such nonsense would be dead wrong. You can be cool and open about your feelings. It doesn’t make you a simp; it makes you human. Jodeci understood that and thankfully, the times still allowed it without ridicule. —Michael Arceneaux 

20. Toni Braxton, “You're Makin’ Me High” (1996)

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Producer: Babyface, Bryce Wilson

Album: Secrets

Label: LaFace

In some ways, the first single from the husky-voiced singer’s sophomore album, Secrets, was both the best and worst thing that happened to her. Best because it allowed Toni Braxton to tap into her sensual side while earning both her first No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart and third Grammy. In the video for “You’re Makin’ Me High,” the eldest Braxton, in a white body suit and fresh wig and curly weaves, captured the song perfectly: sexy without being over the top and absolutely captivating with seemingly minimal effort. Unfortunately, many of Toni’s post-Secrets missteps were rooted in her trying far too hard to top this song and her peers in selling sexy—including her attempt at duplicating Jennifer Lopez’s infamous Versace gown the year after she wore it at the 2000 Grammy Awards. It’s one reason why I look to her as sort of like the Shug Avery of R&B. That’s fine, but in terms of expressing her sexuality in song, she had it right the first time with “You’re Makin’ Me High.” —Michael Arceneaux

19. En Vogue, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” (1992)

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Producer: Denzil Foster, Thomas McElroy

Album: Funky Divas

Label: East West

En Vogue’s sophomore album starts with a skit where the group is getting ready in a dressing room for a show. The four women are scrambling for pantyhose and lipstick before being led to the stage and starting in on “This Is Your Life,” a song about listening to mom’s advice and following your dreams. Fine, fine, but the album doesn’t live up to its title, Funky Divas, until track two, “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It).” The foursome lures you into this one with a crescendoing “Ooo” but stops you short with a sharp “bop”—the vocal equivalent of the song’s two-part title. A looped electric guitar sample from James Brown’s “The Payback” funks up the melody and gives the song its built-in swing, while Maxine Jones and Dawn Robinson tag team the lead vocals, the woman wronged and the reinforcer, respectively.

En Vogue’s four-woman makeup and emphasis on vocal harmonizing make it easy to liken them to 1960s girl groups. But “My Lovin’” isn’t some polite rejection; it’s a hope-the-door-hits-your-ass-on-your-way-out tell-off. “Maybe next time, you’ll give your woman a little respect,” Robinson taunts. That just as well may have been an R-E-S-P-E-C-T as the four divas say everything the Chiffons never could. —Christine Werthman

18. R. Kelly, “Bump N Grind” (1993)

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Producer: R. Kelly

Album: 12 Play

Label: Jive Records

For those of us who loath the reality that R. Kelly gets to roam free and effectively troll his detractors with the continuation of his all-too-telling Pied Piper impersonation and songs like “Drown in It,” his duet with Chris Brown, it’s easy to dismiss his more recent material because so much of it sucks. Yes, that includes his projects in which he’s doing an hour-long Sam Cooke impersonation. But when you get to his old shit, notably works from 12 Play, that’s when it gets tricky. No matter which version you’re listening to—the album version, the "Old School Mix", or the "How I Feel Extended Mix"—“Bump N Grind” is so fucking catchy. It’s infectious, you grew up with it, and damn-damn-damn, the song is so fucking good. I feel like the worst person alive when I sing, “I don’t see nothing wrong with a little bump ’n grind.” Ditto for the line “Imma have you singing like a mockingbird…word” from the Old School Mix. Ugh, it’s so good. Still. —Michael Arceneaux

17. Michael Jackson, “Remember The Time” (1992)

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Producer: Teddy Riley, Michael Jackson

Album: Dangerous

Label: Epic

Teddy Riley gave MJ a beat so hard that 2Pac could've spit three verses f/ TLC over it, and it likely would've worked out just as well. Thankfully, what we indeed have is a clinger's anthem so cool that you'd have guessed heartbreak was in style. A slow build, climaxing with MJ's signature shouts and a maniac's trill, powerful as P90 fire. I've indeed hopped from a bar stool, mid-convo, to prance away from and then dramatically back to a shawty as this song played throughout. I was so serious. She wasn't feeling it. Fuck her. —Justin Charity

16. Adina Howard, “Freak Like Me” (1995)

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Producer: Mass Order

Album: Do You Wanna Ride?

Label: East West/ Lola Maxx

For many a child born in the 1980s, we had no damn business singing Adina Howard’s debut single. Oh well, most of us turned out just fine, and if anything, Adina Howard provided us with valuable lessons about life. Like, it's perfectly fine for a woman to be aggressive about her sexuality. Although there were other girl groups like TLC and SWV singing up about wanting to get some, Adina stood all her own and unabashedly sang, “Let me lay it on the line, I got a lil’ freakiness inside and just know that the man has gotta deal with it.” She also played the role of coach, noting, “Boy, you’re moving kind of slow. You gotta keep it up…now there you go.” Adina was a defiant freak and owned her sexuality. And unlike other acts, this was the introduction, Adino's opening statement: Hey, I want to fuck, in the freakiest way preferably, and any time would be ideal. Amen. —Michael Arceneaux

15. Ghost Town DJs, “My Boo” (1996)

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Producer: Carlton Mahone, Rodney Terry

Album: So So Def Bass All-Stars

Label: So So Def

For the entirety of summer 1996, Ghost Town DJs hit "My Boo" flooded the airwaves. The Miami bass-influenced track has been interpolated for dozens of songs, most recently Ciara's "Body Party" in 2013, but there's nothing quite like the original. A late night weekend ode to your man, "My Boo" was written by Carleton "Carl Mo" Mahone and Rodney "Kool Kollie" Terry and got most of its momentum at Freaknik 1996, in Atlanta. The R&B ballad, fresh with all of its bass-y glory, was nowhere near close to So So Def's biggest hit, but it's longevity speaks to its success. —Lauren Nostro

14. Usher, “You Make Me Wanna” (1997)

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Producer: Jermaine Dupri, Manuel Seal

Album: My Way

Label: LaFace/Arista

Usher should never forgive the people who didn’t listen to his criminally under-appreciated debut album. But in hindsight, the failure of that project rightly forced the label to step away from Puff Daddy and turn to Jermaine Dupri. Puffy was skilled at putting together a team that could cultivate a certain sound, but that sound often said more about the team than the artist singing. By contrast, Dupri helped Usher create his own thing with “You Make Me Wanna.” It dealt with relationships, but in a way that didn’t sound “too adult” like previous songs. Likewise, the upbeat track better suited Usher’s then-youthful vocals. Usher had plenty of opportunities to sing about love and sex, but he needed to do so in a more age-appropriate way. Dupri provided that with “You Make Me Wanna,” and it’s a great thing that he did. If Usher had stuck with Diddy, he might have turned into Sammie. —Michael Arceneaux

13. Janet Jackson, “That's the Way Love Goes” (1993)

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Producer: Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis

Album: janet.

Label: Virgin

The squeaky, optimistic funk of Control; the introspective sexuality of janet.; and the vulnerability of The Velvet Rope, all present on this one song, with a hook so profound that it's nearly wasted as a hot streak Billboard hit. “Like a moth to a flame, burned by the fire/My love is blind; can't you see my desire?/That's the way love goes.” That conflation of fatalism and yearning, those bedroom crooners in the background, and those drums. A new jack sex jam that sweats but never falters; now run along with your lil Weeknd playlist. Cute. —Justin Charity

12. Mariah Carey, “Always Be My Baby” (1995)

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Producer: Mariah Carey, Jermaine Dupri, Manuel Seal, Jr.

Album: Daydream

Label: Columbia

Nothing has ever made me regret not going to summer camp more than Mariah Carey’s video for “Always Be My Baby.” But leading a life of bunk beds, tire swings, and moonlit underwater makeouts is not required to understand the sentiment of Carey’s everlasting “moment in time,” that, well, didn’t pan out. The video for the song, written by Carey, Jermaine Dupri, and Manuel Seal Jr., is so charming, so innocent that it temporarily makes you forget that these verses are about a fractured relationship. “Now you wanna be free, so I’ll let you fly,” Carey coos in her breathiest head voice. She “ain’t gonna cry” or beg her guy to stay, but that’s mostly because she is convinced that he’ll come back eventually. Because “time can’t erase a feeling this strong”…right? The words alone convey a sad hope, but no bleakness triumphs over the joyous keyboard chords, the snapping beat and Carey's conviction that it will all work out. This might be the cheeriest torch song ever written. —Christine Werthman

11. Blackstreet, “No Diggity” (1996)

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Producer: Teddy Riley, William “Skylz” Stewart

Album: Another Level

Label: Interscope

In 1996, there was no way Blackstreet, Dr. Dre, Teddy Riley, and Queen Pen on the same song together wouldn't be a hit. The hypnotizing sample of Bill Withers' "Grandma's Hands" was a perfect foundation for the slick Riley production, and the success of the single held Dre's career afloat for the year. "No Diggity" went platinum in no time and won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. But Blackstreet's success was short lived after the success of their album, Another Level, because shortly thereafter they teamed up with Ma$e and Mya for a cut off of the Rugrats soundtrack and broke up two years later. Still, we'll always have diggity.—Lauren Nostro

10. Montell Jordan, “This Is How We Do It” (1995)

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Producer: Montell Jordan, Oji Pierce

Album: This Is How We Do It

Label: Def Jam

“This Is How We Do It” is the pinnacle of Montell Jordan's career. That's not meant to be some serious shade toward a man who now leads a life for Christ. The talented singer/producer enjoyed immense success in the '90s, capitalizing on the New Jack Swing sound and scoring a multitude of hits. As far as legacies go, he had one of the best runs in Def Jam history. But that all started with this debut single from the South Central native.

The record is anchored by a noticeable flip of Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” which Montell Jordan amps up with an indisputably groovy bassline and sing-rap slang that matches seamlessly with the West Coast house party vibe. “I'll never come wack on an old school track,” Jordan waxes on the hook. He ain’t tell no lie. “This Is How We Do It” represents the other mentality in the hood, where street activity took a backseat to enjoying a Friday night out with the crew. “It feels so good in my hood tonight/The summertime skirts and the guys in Kani/All the gangbangers forgot about the drive-by.” What a powerful statement, in an R&B song no less.

“This Is How We Do It” spent seven consecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1995, which pretty much established it as a staple song of the '90s. And as big as it was then, it still gets burn in early DJ sets as a party starter today. Time has been kind to Montell Jordan's opening salvo in music. And with good reason. —Edwin Ortiz

9. 112 f/ The Notorious B.I.G. & Mase, “Only You (Bad Boy Remix)” (1996)

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Producer: Puff Daddy, Stevie J

Album: 112

Label: Bad Boy

Using the same formula that thrust Mary J. Blige to the top of the Hip-Hop/R&B foodchain, Puffy hit everyone in the head with the all-female group Total toward the end of 1995. He then followed up their success with the all-male group 112 in 1996. Bad Boy had already released the original song and video with Biggie on it, but needed a remix and accompanying video to really set it off while introducing their new artist. Mase's signature cadence made his lyrics easy to remember, and soon enough you found yourself rapping along whenever the song came on. And let us not forget the video in which 112, Puffy, Biggie, and Mase “diddy-bop'” and shut down Times Square in a Hummer. —Angel Diaz

8. Bell Biv Devoe, “Poison” (1990)

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Producer: Dr. Freeze

Album: Poison

Label: MCA Records

New Jack Swing sputtered its last breaths in the early 90s. But before it gave way to R&B’s new sounds, a few classics cut from the cloth Teddy Riley spread dropped. One of them was Bel Biv Devoe’s cautionary club banger “Poison.” Produced by Dr. Freeze, the writer and producer behind Color Me Badd’s decidedly more poppy “I Wanna Sex You Up, “Poison” not only showed that the former New Edition members could make it on their own, but that they could flourish while doing so. With drums that could break through concrete, a vocal sample from Kool G. Rap, and some unforgettable lyrics that have since become dogma (“Never trust a big butt and a smile.”), “Poison” became an undeniable hit. It peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100 and topped the R&B singles chart. More important, though, is its legacy as one of the best party starters in history. Go to any party in any city in the U.S., and you will hear this song. It doesn’t matter what the theme of the night is—it could be Latin night, and there’s a good chance the DJ will spin this. —Damien Scott 

7. Ginuwine, “Pony” (1996)

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Producer: Timbaland

Album: The Bachelor

Label: 550 Music

While Ginuwine has lived largely in benefactor R. Kelly's shadow, his original hit, “Pony,” is still his most distinct and effective, such that you can upend the mood and any wafting ill will of any given just by flipping this shit to a soundsystem with decent bass. “Pony” is, of course, the least sophisticated, least subtle metaphor a sex jam could lead with, yet Ginuwine milks it for all it's worth, and you love it, tho: “If you're horny, let's do it/Ride it: my pony.” The song's doubly valuable for having telegraphed a decade-plus of Timbaland hits, with “Pony” dropping just a week after the Timmy-produced lead single (“If Your Girl Only Knew”) of Aaliyah's second album, One In a Million. —Justin Charity

6. Mariah Carey, “Fantasy” (1995)

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Producer: Mariah Carey, Dave Hall

Album: Daydream

Label: Columbia

Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” is an American masterpiece. Like two hydrogen molecules encountering water, Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” met Carey’s voice, and the result was essential to life. If you think of music as a life-changing force, the kind of thing that can turn your day’s experience on a dime and make you feel alive and good in a way that didn’t initially seem possible, then you already know how buoyant the groove of “Fantasy” is, how the string-laden 20-second build-up clears the air for pure uplift. Carey climbs to the top of her range, reaching that whistle register that will forever be hers, and then the world explodes like a lit sparkler as the drums kick, the bass locks, and the synths twinkle.

“There's no beginning and there is no end” is a great description of pleasure when you’re finding it in the moment. There is a reason why this song placed Mariah Carey in the company of Michael Jackson as the first two artists to have singles debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it’s because this song makes you levitate. Because she’d been unhappy with earlier results, Carey made sure that she directed the video, and in it she rides in the front seat of a roller coaster alone, smiling. That feeling you get in your guts when the car plummets and shakes as you fall, that effervescent good-bad feeling—“Fantasy” is everything before that, all the excitement and jubilation before you drop. —Ross Scarano

5. SWV, “Weak” (1992)

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Producer: Brian Alexander Morgan

Album: It's About Time

Label: RCA

There may be some revisionist history at hand when looking back at SWV's influence with the slow-burning hit "Weak" because the only record it set was for the fewest characters needed to make up a title and artist's name on a No. 1 single. But let's be real, there are very few anthems by females that are able to affect as many men as women—and that's exactly what SWV accomplished. "Weak" is a simple, melodic ode to the dizzy feelings of falling in love, and countless artists have covered the ballad over the years, solidifying its impact on R&B as a whole. —Lauren Nostro

4. Aaliyah, “Are You That Somebody?” (1998)

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Producer: Timbaland

Album: Dr. DoLittle Soundrack

Label: Blackground/Atlantic

In the continuum of female R&B vocals and general influence, styles diverge with Beyoncé on the one hand, Aaliyah on the other. And while Beyonce is the living, global queen of pop, Aaliyah's fairy vocals and light-touch eroticism are now more apparently influential than ever, what, with singers from Tinashe to FKA twigs rehearsing their various takes on the role of the weeded, ethereally cool songstress. She gave us sweet serenade on “Rock the Boat,” “I Care 4 U,” and “At Your Best”; she gave us saucy and cruel with “If Your Girl Only Knew”; she gave us crisp, choreographed bounce on “Back & Forth,” and among the biggest R&B crossover hits of the late '90s, “Are You That Somebody?” Sly, inexplicit, all proper qualities of the ultimate sidepiece anthem: “Boy, won't you pick me up at the park right now/Up the block, while everyone sleeps (sleeps, sleeps)/I'll be waiting there with my trench, my locs, my hat/ Just so I'm lowkey/If you tell the world . . . " Aaliyah's falsetto was made daring by Timbaland's bass and spray-can beatboxing. Thank Aaliyah, thank Timbaland, thank the video break-dancers, and that ticklish-ass baby, too. —Justin Charity

3. Mary J. Blige, “Real Love” (1992)

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Producer: Cory Rooney, Mike Morales

Album: What's the 411?

Label: Uptown

Mary J. Blige changed R&B music. Simple statements such as that seem empty because, well, duh. It’s Mary J. Blige, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. But it bears remembering that there was no such thing as hip-hop soul before Mary. It’s like if you invented a sport, let’s say Squareball, and was then bestowed with the title “Best Squareball Player Ever.” It sounds silly, but it’s true. Before Puffy got Cory Rooney and Mark Morales to pair the Yonkers native’s vocals with drums and a bassline from two popular rap songs ( “Top Billin’” and “10% Diss”), R&B was the land of the smooth curvatures. Women sang ballads over cushiony soundbeds that didn’t make you want to bop your head or move your knee above your waist. 

Mary helped change all that. Her first single, the softer “You Remind Me,” cracked open the door. But it was “Real Love” with its indelible opening (if you didn’t try to replay the keys in music class at some point during your educational career, you’re not like us) that signaled a new day had come. Sure, the subject matter wasn’t different than traditional R&B (her looking for a “real love”), but the way it was delivered surely was. Each line was delivered like a rap lyric; precise like a dagger, completely in the pocket. The combination of it all made for something at once empowering, saddening, and joyous. For such a sad song, it’s tough not to smile when you hear it and start dancing. Then there’s that chorus; built like a steamroller powerful enough to plow through the industrial drums, and simple enough to remember after only one listen.  —Damien Scott 

2. TLC, “Creep” (1994)

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Producer: Dallas Austin

Album: CrazySexyCool

Label: LaFace

In terms of subject matter, aesthetic, and approach to performing, TLC is one of the most innovative groups ever. Yet, in terms of their music, many songs outside of the CrazySexyCool album now sound dated. Such is the problem sometimes with looking for a “futuristic” sound. In many ways, TLC at least musically, were best when they were the most subtle. Case in point, “Creep,” their first single from their sophomore album and their first no. 1 hit on the Hot 100. It offered a darker, mellower, and far jazzier sound than any track that proceeded, which was perfect for T-Boz’s alto. And though it was revealed years later than Left Eye objected to the release of the song as a single—based on her belief that if a man is cheating on her, she should leave as opposed to cheating on him as a means of payback—it was refreshing to see women muddy up right and wrong in a relationship. —Michael Arceneaux

1. Boyz II Men, “End of the Road” (1992)

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Producer: Babyface, L.A. Reid, Daryl Simmons

Album: Boomerang Original Soundtrack

Label: LaFace/Arista, Motown

Boyz II Men finally lived up to their name on “End of the Road.” Prior to the song's release, the quartet emerged out of Philly as a group tied to New Jack Swing and soul on their 1991 debut album, Cooleyhighharmony. That all changed when Boyz II Men linked up with the Motown triple threat of Babyface, L.A. Reid, and Daryl Simmons, who crafted a bona fide R&B ballad that was initially released as a soundtrack single for the 1992 film Boomerang and eventually climbing to No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart, staying there for 13 consecutive weeks. 

“End of the Road” captured pure, unfiltered heartbreak. The kind that makes you clutch your chest as tears stream down your face, each one representing the blood you would shed to have one more chance with the love of your life. Soaring harmonies, impassioned pleas, and a beautifully pieced-together backdrop make “End of the Road” such a flawless moment of heartache. 

“When I can't sleep at night without holding you tight/Girl, each time I try I just break down and cry.” That’s real. “Said we'd be forever/Said it'd never die/How could you love me and leave me/And never say goodbye?” Damn. “Girl, I know you really love me/You just don't realize/You've never been there before/It's only your first time.” Notice how they could suggest mutual affection without sounding nefarious or creepy? It was all in the approach, and Boyz II Men did it with class. A mark of excellence, indeed. —Edwin Ortiz

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