We've said it before, and we'll say it again: There's something special about '90s R&B. It's difficult to pinpoint why, exactly. It's not like it was new. The genre, which was given a name in 1948 by Jerry Wexler, who wanted to call it something other than "race music," has been in practice since at least the '30s. So what made the stuff of '90s so noteworthy? Perhaps it was the collision of rap, new jack swing, gospel, and soul that stretched the genre wide open. Or maybe it's because it felt like R&B ruled the world back then.
It's the decade in which megastars like Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, and Mariah Carey all came into their own. It was a time when label rosters overflowed with talented artists from every corner of the country. It was when groups were not only plentiful but successful. Movie soundtracks were buoyed by R&B. But most importantly, it was when we got a great number of modern-day classics released from everyone, from legends like Sade to rookies like Faith Evans. While Johnny Gill was reinventing himself, Tevin Campbell was just getting started.
Now that we're far enough removed from the decade, it's time to look back and decide which albums were good, great, and best. On this list you'll find albums that were life soundtracks, from road trips and gradutions, to first loves and breakups. From Aaliyah to Xscape, these are the best R&B albums of the '90s.
50. Mariah Carey, Mariah Carey
It's the album that launched a million runs. "Vision of Love" opened Mariah Carey's eponymous debut in 1990 and gave an entire generation of would-be divas something to sing into their hairbrushes. Beyonce says it's the song that made her want to want to go pro; Rihanna sings it in the shower; Christina Aguilera cited it as her first inspiration. Aside from launching the five-octave songbird's career, that single impacted vocal (over-)performances from there until eternity.
The album itself—danceable pop with gospel–inflected vocals—offered Carey lessons that would influence the rest of her career. Behind "VOL" came three more singles ("Love Takes Time," "Someday," "I Don't Wanna Cry") that hit number one, making her the first female artist to have four straight chart-toppers to start her career, all of which she co-wrote.
Despite the success of the nine-times platinum album, however, Mariah Carey is filled with adult contemporary tracks and videos from which Mariah Carey has spent the rest of her career distancing herself. She's referred to her early career, and marriage, as her own version of "Sing Sing" prison. And while we remember the way her voice sledgehammered onto the stage, the glare she gives the band at the beginning of her first Grammy performance did as much as Carey's whistle register to announce that a diva had arrived. —Elena Bergeron
49. Guy, The Future
As of 1990, Teddy Riley was, indeed, the future. The groove mastermind who engineered New Edition and Keith Sweat would go on to produce several of the acts and albums on this list, including the three-peat discography of Riley's cutting-edge R&B group, Guy. One of the earliest R&B albums to incorporate feature rapping all throughout, The Future with a Heavy D verse of cuckhold comedy on "Do Me Right." Anchored by the strut groove of "Wanna Get With U," The Future is 73 minutes of new jack swing at maximum swagger, with minimal filler. "Let's Chill" is the only listless moment on a project that's otherwise thumping from start to finish, bursting with energy and black cool. "Total Control" and "Gotta Be a Leader" are rebellious cuts. "Teddy's Jam 2" is funk-futurism at the Reagan decade's edge. —Justin Charity
48. Waiting to Exhale Soundtrack
The '90s was a platinum era of soundtracks, especially with black films with hip-hop, R&B, and gospel curation. The Bodyguard in 1992, Waiting to Exhale in 1995, and The Preacher's Wife in 1996. While all three films and soundtracks sold respectably, the Exhale soundtrack is the essential gallery of 90s royalty, featuring Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Chante Moore, CeCe Winans, SWV, and Babyface. A heartbreak soundtrack for the grown and sexy, with era-definitive highlights "Let It Flow," "Not Gon' Cry," "Sittin' Up In My Room" that are as classic as the film itself. —Justin Charity
47. Mary J Blige, What's The 411?
Before Sean Combs was Puff Daddy, face of Bad Boy Records, he was a talent scout for Andre Harrell's Uptown Records, where Yonkers-born singer Mary J. Blige was his protege. Mary's debut, What's the 411?, was an early indication of what Sean's empire would look like: she sang slick jazzy runs reminiscent of Anita Baker, but the production underfoot hit hard enough for an MC to flow over. The pairing was as natural as Henny and apple juice, as the "Top Billin'" sampling smash hit "Real Love" would bear out billowing from stereos throughout the summer of '92.
She tipped the scales as she pleased too, ditching the blue notes to kick a verse on the title track, when just a few songs earlier she'd tried her hand at a cover of Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing." Before the once-distant worlds of hip-hop and R&B were fully aligned, What's the 411? stood as a shining example of what a little soulful grace and a little hip-hop swagger could do for each other, a blueprint for the army of symbiotic rap&B hybrids that stormed the charts in its wake. —Craig Jenkins
46. Prince & The New Power Generation, Diamonds and Pearls
Label: Paisley Park/Warner Bros.
The story of Prince in the '90s is one fraught by label drama and its ensuing theatrics as the idiosyncratic artist battled with Warner Bros. over what he perceived as restrictions over his creativity. The label wanted him to push one single; he wanted to push another. But before things took a turn toward unpronounceable symbols and rushed albums credited to "Prince 1958–1993," Diamonds and Pearls was released, producing the singles "Gett Off," "Cream," "Insatiable," the title track, and "Money Don't Matter 2 Night." The album is restless, full of clashing sounds, from power ballads to hip-hop. The latter should be especially clumsy, but the almost spoken-word bars about ripped dresses on "Gett Off" are charming instead of wincing. And the soft rock molten cheese of the title song is so excessive it sweeps you off your feet. Especially once Rosie Gaines really starts to belt. Church. —Ross Scarano
45. En Vogue, Funky Divas
En Vogue's 1990 debut Born to Sing introduced Cindy, Dawn, Maxine, and Terry's throwback quartet-style harmonies to the world, but the 1992 follow-up Funky Divas fashioned it into a weapon. Born to Sing's brash hip-hop-centric mood stays, but here it's aided by songwriting that's more assured and empowering. "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)," "Love Don't Love You," and "Give It Up, Turn It Loose" all swat away worthless suitors, and "Free Your Mind" parlays a Funkadelic lyric into a hard rocking strike against racism and misogyny. Funky Divas isn't all warfare; "Desire" pulses with an intoxicating yearning, and "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" reinterprets a tender Curtis Mayfield gem about coupling. The pervasive something-old-something-new vibe peaks later on with a soulful cover of the Beatles' "Yesterday." Funky Divas paved the way for T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli's international takeover a few years on, and you can see more than a little of its spirit in the work of Destiny's Child too. —Craig Jenkins
44. Allure, Allure
In 1997, Mariah Carey was one of the most bankable stars in music. Her first six albums each moved at least four million copies. The songstress couldn't miss. The time seemed ripe for her to launch her own imprint. The venture was christened Crave Records and housed under Sony Music Entertainment. The label's first signee came curtesy of Poke, one half of the platinum production duo the Trackmasters, who thought a NYC-based female quartet he named Allure had what it took to become a success. He was sort of right.
Allure's self-titled first album was a powerhouse of a project. Primarily produced by Tone and Poke (the Trackmasters handled 10 of the 14 tracks), it featured an assemblage of some of the most popular hip-hop samples. The album's lead single, "Head Over Heels," which featured Nas, was built around M.C. Shan's "The Bridge." The third single, "No Question," a beautifully harmonized upbeat groove featuring LL Cool J was based on MTume's "Juicy Fruit." The thinking went, we imagine, "if you like early Mary J. Blige and rap, you'll like this" Not a bad formula.
The album's undeniable banger, however, didn't feature a blatant pandering to rap sensibilities. It was the pained ballad with 112, "All Cried Out." Allure had the vocal abilities to do whatever they pleased; this song proved they could make a song to match. It turned out to be their biggest single, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Despite the album's Gold-selling success, Mariah Carey decided to shutter the label a year after its release. The ladies of Allure would move onto MCA for their 2001 follow-up Sunny Days. It would peak at #68 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop charts, coming nowhere near the success of the debut. But that's no matter, for one album, Poke was right: Allure was a success. —Damien Scott
43. Bel Biv Devoe, Poison
New Edition was an R&B Wu-Tang Clan: when the group went on hiatus after 1988's N.E. Heartbreak, its members unleashed a train of formidable solo and splinter projects, from Bobby Brown's post-departure classic Don't Be Cruel through Ralph Tresvant's Sensitivity and Johnny Gill's self-titled debut. Ronnie, Ricky, and Mike struck gold (platinum, actually) as Bell Biv Devoe, unleashing a string of heaters on their group debut Poison.
Poison paired the N.E. alums with Public Enemy's legendary Bomb Squad production team (just weeks before Fear of a Black Planet) as well as in-demand R&B whizzes Dr. Freeze and Carl E. Bourelly. The mixture was peak new jack swing excellence, street-ready breakbeat workouts holding court with reflective ballads like a calculated study on the sweet spot between lust and longing. The title track's one for the ages, from the dancefloor friendly instrumental sections to the anthemic but wounded and lovelorn counsel in the lyrics ("Can't trust a big butt with a smile!"). Throw that on in a crowd of a certain age to this day and watch that crowd explode. —Craig Jenkins
42. Faith Evans, Faith
Label: Bad Boy
Mary J. Blige is widely known as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, but for a while she had some competition. Faith Evans' debut album Faith found the singer working with Puff in much the same respect as Mary, imbuing Puff and his Hitmen's rap/soul beats with torch song emotionalism. The uptempo material (lead single "You Used to Love Me," "Fallin' in Love") smacks, but the true spirit of Faith radiates from its bounty of slow jams. Opener "No Other Love" sees Faith putting her own spin on the same Isaac Hayes flip her then-husband Biggie graced for Ready to Die's "Warning," and mid-album cuts "Soon As I Get Home" and "Come Over" bubble with barely contained desire. Faith grapples with the pleasures and pitfalls of commitment, and it's tough not to see it as a diary of Faith and Big's peaks and valleys as newlyweds at the time. —Craig Jenkins
41. Dru Hill, Enter The Dru
After carving out a lane for themselves with their self-titled debut album, the four guys from Baltimore rightfully shot for the stars on their sophomore project. Instead of enlisting a bevy of songwriters and producers, they opted to handle most of the duties on their own. It was the first album for which they were the executive producers. The results varied. The album wasn't packed end-to-end with slow to mid-tempo grooves that either bounced or swayed. Enter the Dru tried to have it all.
The first single, "How Deep is Your Love," which was also featured on the Rush Hour soundtrack was something new for the group as it featured skittering drums, Latin guitar, and more salacious lyrics they were ever used to singing ("He can't make it get wetter than me, but I bet he keep telling you he better than me.") After finding success with the So So Def remix to "In My Bed" and Foxy Brown's "Big Bad Mama," the group called on fellow Island Def Jam labelmates Method Man and Redman to contribute features. Everything felt a bit more rough around the edges than on Dru Hill.
But while things were a little more hardcore, the slow jams remained right on the money. People saw Dru Hill as a group wanting to be both Boyz II Men and Jodeci. This album showed they were right. On an album with a song called "Real Freak" we got "These Are the Times," a Babyface-produced ballad so saccharine, Sisqo could have used it to treat his hair. "Beauty," a stripped down pulsating ode to an unknown lover stands as one of the groups classics. And, like on the first album, everyone here gets time to shine. Leads switch from Sisqo to Jazz. Woody, or Big Woody Rock as he called himself, gets his own interlude and song. Everything didn't hit. (The album could have been 14 tracks instead of 17), but before the group disbanded for a brief spell, it tried to do it all and nearly pulled it off. —Damien Scott
40. Babyface, For the Cool in You
Very few people were cooler than Babyface in 1993. Thanks to the lasting success of his second solo album, 1989's Tender Lover, Kenneth Edmonds was one of the most indemand songwriters and producers in music. Among other projects released '93, he produced the soundtrack to Eddie Murphy's cult classic Boomerang. He also put a young woman by the name of Toni Braxton on the road to stardom by creating for her some of the best and most memorable songs of the '90s. And then there was the album he created for himself.
For the Cool in You saw Babyface fully hone his sound, which could be aptly described as a mix between R&B, new jack swing, and quiet storm. With sax gently riffing behind lush chords and clattering drums, the album's title track painted the soundscape for the rest of the album. It was a calm and cool affair. Babyface never got too worked up—never too happy or too upset. Even on the album's biggest single (and one of Babyface's most successful songs), "When Can I See You," a song about a man yearning for a lost love, Babyface maintains an air of cool. Turns out the album was really about the cool in himself. —Damien Scott
39. Zhane, Pronounced Jah-Nay
Zhané's debut album Pronounced Jah-Nay struck at the precise moment the early '90s hip-hop soul boom began to coalesce into what we'd come to call "neo-soul." The duo of Renee Neufville and Jean Norris dispensed cool close harmonies with help on production from their Flavor Unit cohorts in Naughty by Nature. Pronounced Jah-Nay struck a balance between tasteful smooth jazz elements (see: samples of George Benson and Grover Washington Jr.) and hip-hop ones. Early singles "Hey Mr. D.J." and "Groove Thang" are rollerskating jams toasting the nightlife, but Pronounced was about more than clubbing.
"Sending My Love" pulled off the impossible trick of posting up a love song that could be dedicated to a man away from home either at work, across the country or overseas at war. "You're Sorry Now" kicks an ex-lover while he's down, but "Off My Mind" pines for the one that got away. The effortless vault from lighthearted zest to knotty sadness and from sparse rap production to lusher band arrangements sets this record apart from many that came before it and quite a few that followed. —Craig Jenkins
38. Total, Total
Label: Bad Boy
Puffy's hitmen are all over Total's 1996 debut. After Bad Boy launched Total's stardom via two singles from the Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Total's own debut project led with Biggie returning the favor. "Can't You See" is the essential hip hop/R&B collabo, while, elsewhere, Da Brat thumps just as hard on "No One Else." On the softer side of things, there's the daydreamy "Kissin' You," and the nightcrawling "Spend Some Time," which does girl group justice to a classic Teddy Pendergrass bassline. As always, Puffy's production team drives the album with heavy, genre-spanning samples, including Boogie Down hip-hop and New Jack Swing. Total's not as acclaimed as the group's many contributions to singles that defined late 90s hip hop, including hits from Biggie, Ma$e, LL Cool J, and Missy Elliott, would have you believe. Still, after all these years, Total holds up. —Justin Charity
37. Jon B, Bonafide
Label: Yab Yum Records/550 Music/Epic
If you name your debut album Bonafide it’s clear you’re out to prove something. For Jon B it was that, as a longtime songwriter to bigger stars like Toni Braxton and Color Me Badd, he could hold his own in an arena filled with heavyweights. His succinct 13-track first album, came at a time when guys like R. Kelly, Usher, and Babyface were dominating the charts and radio. Good thing, then, that the latter lent his talents to his B’s album and helped him create the project’s biggest song, the beautifully melancholic “Someone to Love.” The album sold gold, proving in the process that Jon B was indeed a bonafide R&B star. If that wasn't enough, his uneven follow-up, Cool Relax, would go platinum off the strenght of his biggest song to do, "They Don't Know." —Damien Scott
36. Usher, My Way
Before Usher let it burn and offered up his confessions he struggled to find his footing on an early self-titled album. While the first album took a rangy chopshop approach to the songwriting and production, follow-up My Way reigned it in, as Jermaine Dupri (alongside Seal and Babyface) gifted Usher an ultra-sleek, hooky veneer and a spate of songs deterministically trained on bedroom matters. The more grown up material suited the 19 year old in a way the stuffy teen love pap of the debut didn't; the new songs presented Raymond as an unflappable Casanova with a healthy libido trapped in a planet full of willing partners. He more than played his part, selling this volley of come-ons with a preternaturally accomplished command of his instrument. —Craig Jenkins
35. Toni Braxton, Toni Braxton
Toni Braxton, among many others, owes Anita Baker a major debt of gratitude. And not for the reasons you may think. While performing in a group with her four sisters, the eldest Braxton caught the attention of L.A. Reid and Babyface, who were working to build their new label LaFace Records. They recruited the young Maryland singer to sing "Love Should Have Brought You Home," a song Babyface wrote for Baker to sing for the Boomerang soundtrack. Baker had declined due to her pregnancy, so Babyface was on the hunt for someone who could match the legend's powerfully elegant vocals. Braxton fit the bill perfectly.
A year later, she released her highly anticipated solo debut. Primarily written and produced by L.A. Reid and Babyface, the album was stacked with hits. In addition to the aforementioned "Love Should Have Brought You Home," there was "Breathe Again," "Another Sad Love Song," "Seven Whole Days," "You Mean the World to Me," and "I Belong to You." That's literally half of the album. People like to note that the album drops off a cliff after the run of singles end. While "Best Friend" is a bit too adult contemporary and feels overwrought and out of place, as if it should be on a Celine Dion album, it's a fallacy to claim it's a bad song. Other non-singles like the new jack swing-ish "Spending All My Time With You" would have been standouts on any other album in the same way Pippen would have been a star on any other team.
She may have gotten her start filling in for Anita Baker, but when it came to her excellent debut, Toni Braxton did all that on her own. —Damien Scott
34. Tony! Toni! Toné!, Sons of Soul
While Tony! Toni! Toné! began as a modestly successful new jack swing outfit, it quickly became evident they were too big and weird to fit the bill. By album three they'd blown audience's expectations to bits, reaching past the music of their peers and into the past for inspiration. At the helm was one Raphael Saadiq and his brother D'wayne, prodigious writers, producers, and multi-instrumentalists at home toying with funk, soul, and jazz with an alchemical predilection for fusing all of them to hip-hop underpinnings. Picture 1993's Sons of Soul as the brothers (and their cousin and drummer Timothy) mixing colorful test tubes and its songs as the resultant explosions of color. Its closest rap analogue would have to be Prince Paul era De La Soul; both are sunny, psychedelic, delightfully unpredictable, and above all, teeming with the sense that their only limitations lie in the imagination. —Craig Jenkins
33. Boyz II Men, II
Boyz II Men's 1991 debut Cooleyhighharmony was a respectable first shot with its fair share of great songs that periodically got bogged down by a few dry patches and jerky hairpin shifts in mood (especially if you copped the reissue that haphazardly appended remixes, soundtrack cuts, and Spanish language versions to goose sales). Its 1994 follow-up II pursued a more sophisticated songwriting tack, maintaining the first album's split between pep and introspection while avoiding its drippier tendencies. It also had tighter sequencing. The front end establishes a danceable midtempo mood on songs like "Thank You" and "Vibin." Then the turn happens on the mid-album "Khalil (Interlude)," an ode to their fallen road manager, and from there out it's a home run derby of slow jams anchored by the smashes "I'll Make Love to You," "On Bended Knee," and "Water Runs Dry." As any good sequel does, II took a serviceable intellectual property and restructured it to accentuate the strengths and flush out weaknesses. Its reward? Diamond album sales, record-breaking Hot 100 dominance, and the first ever Best R&B Album Grammy. —Craig Jenkins
32. Stevie Wonder, Jungle Fever Soundtrack
The last essential Stevie Wonder album so happens to be the soundtrack to a Spike Lee joint. There's the pomp harmony of "These Three Words," the skittish and quarrelsome drums of "If She Breaks Your Heart" and "Each Other's Throat," and the signature harmonica-frolic of "Fun Day," which pairs well against the lounge denouement of "Make Sure You're Sure." I'd argue that the title track is, in fact, the weakest, most wearily dated ("She's gone black boy-crazy;/I've gone white girl-hazy.") songs of the bunch. Not among the strongest LPs of Stevie's half-century career, but Jungle Fever is his definitive gift to the 90s. —Justin Charity
31. Destiny's Child, The Writing's on the Wall
It's worth noting that The Writing's on the Wall, the second album from Destiny's Child, has one of the more embarrassing intros of any '90s R&B album. If you've winced at Pain in da Ass's Tony Montana impersonation on Reasonable Doubt, it's likely that you bit through your bottom lip during knockoff Godfather monologue that opens The Writing's on the Wall, an album that otherwise contains some of the best late-'90s R&B ever recorded.
Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett rewrite Ray Liotta's "Fuck you, pay me" from Goodfellas as "Bills, Bills, Bills." The album is very focused on trifling men and the techno-capitalist means through which they either fail to meet the standards of Destiny's Child, or come off too strong. These sad excuses for men can't pay bills, but they can sure run up a phone bill harassing our heroines ("Bug A Boo"). These lames can't even run a clandestine affair. Speaking of "Say My Name," that was when we all knew, right? Beyoncé sings every verse. The writing was on the wall. —Ross Scarano
30. Donell Jones, Where I Wanna Be
The year was 1999. It seemed as though R&B had seen its heyday and rap was in full focus. That's when Donnell Jones swooped in with his single "Where I Wanna Be"—a soulfully honest story of a man's struggle to stay committed to his high school love. And while this song wasn't his best selling hit ("U Know What's Up" took that honor), it was the ethos of his sophomore album with the same name, which went on to go platinum.
But it's not like "U Know What's Up" and "Where I Wanna Be" carry the project. Songs like "All Her Love," "Have You Seen Her," "This Luv," and "Think About It (Don't Call My Crib)" make this one of the most flawless albums of 90s. —Shannon Marcec
29. Mariah Carey, Music Box
A common misconception about Mariah Carey's career posits her turn toward hip-hop as a sudden occurrence situated around mid-'90s singles like "Fantasy" and "Honey," but the truth is that her move away from the stately balladry of her early '90s beginnings was much more gradual. Look no further than her third album Music Box, where Mariah and her elite team of writers and producers sought to evolve her sound by expanding it in every direction possible. Cuts like the swinging lead single "Dreamlover" and the boom bap infused deep cut "I've Been Thinking About You" anticipate the style makeover she'd complete with 1997's Butterfly, while "Now That I Know" pairs her with the C+C Music Factory braintrust for a dance music excursion.
This being a Mariah album, there's still plenty of workouts for her elastic vocals and powerhouse sentimentality: "Hero" is a timeless piano ballad that disguises a motivational pep talk inside what looks like a fairy tale, and "Anytime You Need a Friend" pushes the inspirational bent further with a message of solidarity and a full gospel choir. Where Mariah's earliest records were mainly set pieces for The Voice, this is the one where she begins to cut loose and showcase a stylistic range to match the vocal one. —Craig Jenkins
28. Tevin Campbell, I'm Ready
27. Johnny Gill, Johnny Gill
New Edition desperately needed to transition from lightweight boyband to grown-up new jack swing superstars when they recruited Johnny Gill as a ringer on their 1988 album Heart Break. His robust baritone added a mature new dimension to the group's juvenile sound—listen to their No. 1 hit "Can You Stand The Rain" to hear his husky voice contrasted next to lead singer Ralph Tresvant's reedy tenor. The juxtaposition is like sipping a full-bodied Bordeaux and then sucking down a pouch of Capri Sun fruit punch.
With the group on hiatus at the close of the '80s, Gill returned to his solo career in the new decade with a dream team of collaborators. Released through Motown Records in 1990, Johnny Gill featured songwriting and production by Heart Break masterminds Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, along with the duo behind Bobby Brown's solo success, L.A. Reid & Babyface. The 10-song album might be the most consistent, well-rounded release of the new jack swing era, tightly-packed with mid-tempo pop jams and effortlessly seductive love letters. With the spotlight fully focused on him for the first time in his adult life, Gill's voice proved powerfully captivating and versatile.
The album's first single "Rub You The Right Way"—the most aggressive song ever written about giving a massage—hit No. 1 on the R&B chart thanks to Gill's sassy delivery over a frantic, bass-heavy swing beat with hip-hop embellishments. He hit No. 1 again with "My, My, My," an an irresistibly sultry ballad featuring Kenny G on sax where Gill marveled at his lady's beauty: "Slide on your lipstick / And let all your hair down / 'Cause baby when you get through / I'm gonna show off you." Recorded before R&B fully co-opted rap music's disaffected pose and boorish attitude towards the opposite sex, the entire album is like a warm hug. In fact, the album's third no. 1 single "Wrap My Body Tight" (featuring some of Jimmy Jam's most kinetik drum programming) was about just that.
Unlike his peer Keith Sweat, Gill was never quite able to make a successful transition to the later hip-hop soul era of R&B (although he would experience some success with Sweat as a member of LSG in 1997). But Johnny Gill stands as an often-overlooked masterpiece of the early '90s, and a perfect showcase for Gill's unique voice. —Brendan Frederick
26. Blackstreet, Another Level
Jodeci was the future; Blackstreet was the now. And while Teddy Riley insists that the group's debut was their best foot forward, Another Level was Blackstreet's seizing the R&B zeitgeist with innovation beyond the familiar New Edition mack daddy vibe of their debut. "No Diggity," which kept Dr. Dre afloat in a year when Snoop Dogg floundered. Hip-hop influence prevails via prominent samples of "The Message," "Troglodyte," and James Brown. Another Level's first half is funky, and it's second half is precious. "Good Lovin'" is Blue Notes old school with contemporary bass twang. "I Wanna Be Your Man" is the boys singing about holding hands with a pretty girl in a park. After dark. Yes, there was a recent time when the gist of most R&B was a bit more delicate than, "We gon smash or nah?" —Justin Charity
25. Ginuwine, The Bachelor
Aaliyah's One in a Million was the real salvo in Timbaland and Swing Mob's mid- to late-'90s takeover, but Ginuwine's debut Ginuwine... The Bachelor holds the distinction of being the first album entirely produced by Timbaland to see commercial release. The Bachelor wows straight out the gate with "Pony," which slays in spite of (because of?) the quirky noises scattered throughout the talkbox-laced mix. The production stays just as enticingly left-field throughout, and Ginuwine proceeds unfazed by the ruckus, pleading for lost loves and new ones, too, as if the bizarre drum programming, curveball Stevie Wonder and Stylistics flips, and kitchen sink sound effects ringing off aren't anything out of the ordinary. Tim's sound was always wonderfully weird, but much of his best work was with players who knew how to cut through and just emote in the middle of all that chaos. —Craig Jenkins
24. Groove Theory, Groove Theory
This R&B duo was short lived but, because of this self-titled album, will never be forgotten. Amel Larrieux's nectarous vocals, engaging songwriting, and captivating arrangements paired with Bryce Wilson's mellow beats made for a lasting album in 1995—a time when R&B was at its peak and there was plenty of competition.
Old heads still lose their minds when "Tell Me" finds it's way onto a playlist at their local bar—as they should. But Groove Theory had other great songs, including the encouraging yet un-preachy "Keep Tryin'." Of course there was "Baby Luv," too, but let's be real: Like many singles in the '90s, the album version wasn't as good as the Summer Groove Mix. —Shannon Marcec
23. Monica, Miss Thang
She's younger than Brandy, which you wouldn't have guessed in 1995. At 15, Monica dropped a debut that's as tender-loving and mature as her R&B elders; though she's less funky than Janet Jackson, Monica stepped correct with New Jack confidence on Miss Thang. "Like This and Like That" solicits; "Don't Take It Personal" shoves: "I find myself in misery, and that ain't cool." She and Usher trade relationship woes as blues lovers on "Let's Straighten It Out." "Before You Walk Out Of My Life," "Why I Love You So Much" (despite its quaint "feminine" passivity), and "Never Can Say Goodbye" are how you mend from a bedroom quarrel. In 1995, Monica was dope beyond her years. —Justin Charity
22. Michael Jackson, Dangerous
A shameless concession on our part that "Remember The Time" alone justifies Michael's position on this list, despite Dangerous' straddling the market distinction between warehouse pop and R&B. But make no mistake: Dangerous is a Teddy Riley production, and the bucket-beating choreography of "Can't Let Her Get Away," "Jam," and "In the Closet" vaulted MJ into the post-Quincy Jones phase of his career; not a twilight so much as an afterparty. While we celebrate many of the albums on this list as forward-looking, Dangerous' gentlest tracks, including "Gone Too Soon" and the divisive "Heal The World" are quite folksy and sentimental. "Gone Too Soon" opens with a choral excerpt from "Ode to Joy," sung in German, which is, in retrospect, a tribute to the severity of MJ's circus persona and personal weirdness circa 1990.—Justin Charity
21. Maxwell, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite
Since its release, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite has frequently been discussed as a foundational touchstone of the late-'90s neo-soul movement, but being one of the first out of the gate meant grappling with industry trepidation. Label execs who'd given Maxwell free creative control over the album's direction were shocked to find he'd tracked down a bunch of storied session musicians and pieced together a big-band soul exodus that blissfully stepped around the preceding decade of R&B and hip-hop courtship.
Alongside players whose résumés included sessions for greats like Marvin Gaye and Sade, Maxwell hammered out a set that was lavishly instrumented and bedroom-y, but not lasciviously so. His voice cut through Urban Hang Suite's thick soundscapes effortlessly, charging these songs with a sensuality that studiously retraced the moves of bygone classics like I Want You and Musical Massage. Columbia sat on it a calendar year, fretting over its tenuous connection to the hip-hop soul movement that ruled the mid-'90s, but the minute they let it out it was apparent they'd been sitting on a game-changer. Sales were respectable, but beyond that he helped alter the course of '90s R&B, briefly loosing the union with hip-hop to set the scene on a journey to mine its '60s and '70s roots. —Craig Jenkins
20. Janet Jackson, The Velvet Rope
After asserting herself (and her sexuality) on janet. four years earlier, Janet Jackson returned to the studio to craft the sprawling and diverse sounds of The Velvet Rope. The level of confidence she achieved by baring her soul and psyche on janet. was nothing if not elevated here (even if the results were sometimes less memorable). The first two singles, "Got Til It's Gone" and "Together Again," paint a picture of an artist comfortable working across genres (and, you know, sampling one of the greatest singer-songwriters ever). The house record "Together Again" became her most successful single ever, but it's not even the high point of the album. The aching, sultry "I Get Lonely" takes that title. Vulnerability as confidence is a difficult tightrope to walk, and very few artists have the poise of Janet Jackson. —Ross Scarano
19. SWV, It's About Time
If you wanted to help someone understand '90s R&B in all its youthful, sweet, rap-loving glory, play SWV's first album. The NYC-based trio of Cheryl "Coko" Clemons, Tamara "Taj" Johnson-George, Leanne "Lelee" Lyons—Sisters With Voices, if you didn't know—recorded some of the most enduring singles of the era: the Rufus-referencing "I'm So Into You"; the school-days-crush anthem "Weak"; the Michael Jackson-sampling "Right Here"; the very necessary cunnilingus ode "Downtown." The harmonies powering these classics propelled the album to triple-platinum certification by the RIAA. But sales aren't the true testament—the sticky melodies and rush of memories any given track brings on, that's the proof. —Ross Scarano
18. Ginuwine, 100% Ginuwine
Label: 550 Music/Epic
Another round of applause for Timbaland—his dojo rhythms helped launch Ginuwine, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliott to MTV stardom in the latter half of the decade, and here they're in full effect. While he's never topped the national anthem of dancefloor sex, "Pony," his debut single, Ginuwine's second album is a font of black radio vibe and throaty vibrato. "Wait a Minute," "Final Warning," and "Do You Remember" honor Ginuwine and R. Kelly's mastery of the first-person lover's plea in the spirit of Old Motown. "So Anxious," the definitive hit, is so predictive of modern R&B that you'd assume Ginuwine laid his vocals in a TARDIS. As much as Jodeci's greatest hits, Ginuwine's "Same Ol' G" would prove a precursor to not one but two decades of R&B fame ballads to follow, word to Breezy and Trigga. —Justin Charity
17. Dru Hill, Dru Hill
Who knew what to make of Dru Hill when the group first hit the scene in 1996? On the surface, they seemed regular enough. Four childhood friends of varying vocal abilities and physical presences. They wore scowls and velvet jackets. Their names were unusual: Nokio, Woody, Jazz, and, strangely of all, Sisqo. Also, one of them had bleached hair. Then there was the music. You expected a retreading of tired new jack swing conventions, but Dru Hill instead delivered expertly tuned harmonies accented with vocal acrobatics. They could seemingly do it all: R&B, soul, gospel, and, yes, new jack swing. They looked as if they were the real backstreet boys, a group of kids from the wrong side of the boulevard who could clean up nice and sing their asses off. They were, as many pointed out, the nexus between Boyz II Men and Jodeci.
The group's first album album perfectly showcased exactly who the group was. "Tell Me," originally written for Dave Hollister, was a sensual track with a bouncing bassline and lyrics that would make Nathan, Wanya, Shawn, and Michael blush. But that's not all they were capable of. Songs like "April Showers," "Never Make a Promise," "So Special," and "5 Steps" showed a group just as comfortable un-furrowing their brows as they were turning up about the joys of sex. The latter track, "5 Steps," could have passed as a gospel tune, what with its allusions death and the Lord, and a chorus designed to soar well past the heavens. On paper it all seems very disparate. How could the sinners and lovers coexist so beautifully together? It's a good question. One that Dru Hill attempted to answer with every song. It's what made Dru Hill, Dru Hill. —Damien Scott
16. R. Kelly, 12 Play
If you're the child of hip-hop loving parents born between the summers of 1993 and 1995 there's a strong chance R. Kelly played a role in your conception. His solo debut 12 Play, a concept album literally about love-making, doubtlessly soundtracked scores of meetings of the... er... minds in its day thanks to its fixation on matters of the flesh. Concerns about Kells' viability as a solo artist after stepping out of his new jack swing group Public Announcement mere months behind their debut Born into the '90s were immediately massaged away by 12 Play's advanced skill set.
From yearning, suggestive slow jams like "It Seems Like You're Ready" and "Your Body's Callin'" to straight up rap cuts like "Back to the Hood of Things" and "Freak Dat Body," 12 Play presented R. Kelly as a sex-obsessed jack of all trades, a gifted singer, writer, player, producer and arranger who could work around collaborators or just stitch all the parts together by himself. The latticework for the subsequent decades of raunchy genius is all here, and the concept is such a winning one that Kells came back to it twice over the years (three times, really, counting 2008's shelved 12 Play: 4th Quarter). —Craig Jenkins
15. Mariah Carey, Daydream
1995 is Year Zero for Mariah Carey's rebirth as hip-hop R&B diva, and Daydream is the evidence. For this album, she called on Jermaine Dupri for songwriting and production assistance and the result was "Always Be My Baby." This is like hydrogen and oxygen coming together for the first time and going, "Yeah, this works pretty well." Elsewhere, Boyz II Men dropped in for "One Sweet Day" and Babyface co-wrote and produced "Melt Away." But the real cold fusion reaction is Mariah x Tom Tom Club on "Fantasy," which became the first single by a female artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 upon its release in September, 1995. The song, pure romantic jubilance buoyed by one of the most definitive samples of all time, is an American masterpiece. Say thanks. —Ross Scarano
14. Xscape, Off the Hook
After the success of Kriss Kross, Jermaine Dupri founded So So Def Records and signed a teenage girl group from Atlanta named Xscape. The group's decent debut Hummin' Comin' at 'Cha produced the No. 2 pop single "Just Kickin' It," which remains the label's biggest hit to date, so expectations were high for the follow-up. Produced primarily by Dupri, his frequent collaborator Carl So-Lowe, and Babyface's secret weapon Daryl Simmons, Xscape's often-overlooked 1995 album Off the Hook didn't chart as highly on the pop charts as their debut, but it deserves recognition as a nearly-perfect snapshot of the hip-hop soul era.
Xscape was a well-rounded group, with sisters LaTocha and Tamika Scott's dueling, gospel-influenced mezzo-sopranos, and Tameka "Tiny" Cottle's light, cutesy soprano. But their trump card was Kandi Burruss, the deep-voiced contralto who sang lead on many of their best songs. Their more celebrated Atlanta peers TLC also had a deep-voiced contralto lead singer, but where T-Boz could come off as monotone and soft-spoken, Kandi brought a boldness to the lower register and exhibited a remarkable multi-octave range. The effect was a laid-back and effortlessly powerful sound—the key to Xscape's appeal.
At her best, like on the MC Lyte duet "Can't Hang," Kandi sounds like she just hopped on the mic to pop some shit: "You claim, you've been waitin'/With no game, just anticipatin'/How it would be, if you and I were in the sack/But to me, you look like you wouldn't know how to act." But while Kandi stands out any time she takes the lead, the group's other members have plenty of memorable moments in the spotlight on Off the Hook too. The Scott sisters show off their breathy, dramatic voices on the No. 1 R&B single "Who Can I Run To," a perfectly chosen cover of a forgotten '70s album cut by Gamble & Huff group The Jones Girls. Even Tiny—arguably the group's Ringo—sounds heartbreakingly vulnerable on the standout Daryl Simmons slow jam "Do You Want To."
The album has a few requisite samples from Isaac Hayes and Slick Rick, but Off the Hook is refreshingly light on beat jacking. But everything—even the ballads—still works as jeep music, thanks to the tightly-programmed drum machines and the girls' cool charisma. The album's most unique track, "Keep It on the Real," comes courtesy of Atlanta superproducers Organized Noize, who melt psychedelic keyboards into a popping bassline and stuttering drums. But aside from weaving in a few unexpected threads, Executive Producer Dupri avoids flashy gimmicks on Off the Hook, focusing instead on easily-digestible production and instantly relatable songwriting. Sometimes the best R&B is just that simple. —Brendan Frederick
13. Brandy, Brandy
Before we knew her as Moesha and, later, the first black Cinderella, she was just Brandy. Despite being thrust into the spotlight by her family at a relatively young age, Brandy, wide-eyed teenager from Carson, California, was a simple girl. Her wide-ranging debut proved as much. Released five months after Aaliyah’s Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, Brandyis a well-rounded look into the life of teenage girl trying to figure it all out. Unlike Aaliyah, however, Brandy very much acted all of 15 years old. While Aaliyah believed getting down wasn’t nothin’ but a thang, Brandy was sining, “I’m young, but I’m wise enough to know that you don’t fall in love over night.” Even when she’s expressing interest in a guy she likes, it comes off as a mix between youthful naivety and cautiousness, as seen on the album’s standout “I Wanna Be Down.”
But that innocence is all a part of the project’s charm. The album’s third single, the top 40 hit “Best Friend,” is about the undying love she has for her brother (yes, Ray J). There’s also a quasi-gospel tune with backing (and production) from Somethin’ for the People about letting Jesus take the wheel (“Give Me You”). Even when things become a bit doe-eyed, as they do on “Sunny Day” and “Best Friend” the album’s mix of sharp soul and hip-hop production keeps heads bopping and things from teetering into corniness. Brandy may not have been wise beyond her years like Aaliyah, but she was great at being herself. Which is all we could really ask for. —Damien Scott
12. Erykah Badu, Baduizm
The epitome of neo-soul, Baduizm brought commercial success to a subgenre with fewer hits than its hip-hop soul counterpart. Badu's sugary voice, along with slow and heavy rhythms, paved the way for Baduizm to earn a Grammy for the Best R&B Album of the Year in 1998.
"On & On" was a hugely successful single, with poetic lyrics told through hypnotic vocals, that won 1998's Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. But impassioned songwriting played a major role for the other singles off Baduizm: "Next Lifetime," "Appletree," and "Other Side of the Game." Overall, Baduizm is a consistently prodigious neo-soul album that requires no track skipping. —Shannon Marcec
11. Mary J. Blige, Share My World
On May 10, 1997, Mary J. Blige's Share My World hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart, knocking Biggie's Life After Death from its four-week reign at the top. The albums are two sides of the same coin: big-budget blockbusters with all-star casts that defined the jiggy era, one for hip-hop and the other for R&B. Although it's rarely cited as her best, Share My World remains Mary's most successful album, selling over four million copies and cementing her superstar status.
After releasing the moody masterpiece My Life in 1994, Mary broke up with her label Uptown, her manager Puff Daddy, and her fiancé K-Ci Hailey, leaving her with a clean slate at a crucial moment in her career. Her first move was teaming up with Babyface for "Not Gon' Cry," a song from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack that became Mary's biggest hit yet, peaking at No. 2 on the Hot 100 in 1996. But the queen of hip-hop soul needed to look beyond somber slow jams if she wanted to create a complete album, so she recruited a new partner who understood the convergence of R&B and rap almost as well as Puff. Her new manager Steve "The Commissioner" Stoute had helped production duo the Trackmasters walk a similar line, and he had just executive produced Nas' glossy No. 1 album It Was Written, the follow up to his overwhelmingly adored debut Illmatic. If anyone could help Mary take things to the next level, it was Stoute.
While My Life was essentially the work of a single producer, Chucky Thompson, Share My World cast a wide net for contributors. Stoute's hitmakers The Trackmasters were obviously on board, and Babyface came through with another soul-baring ballad ("Missing You"). Super-producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis took a break between Janet albums to contribute a booming Rick James loop (the Nas duet "Love Is All We Need") and a futuristic take on The Stylistics' 1971 hit "You Are Everything" (The No. 2 R&B single "Everything") Auteurs like R. Kelly and Groove Theory's Bryce Wilson lined up their unique brands of seduction for "It's On" and "Get to Know You Better," and R&B icon James Mtume brought back the '70s on the Natalie Cole cover "Our Love."
But the producer at the heart of the album was Rodney Jerkins, who at the time was best known for writing and producing singer Gina Thompson's debut. Jenkins would go on to be one of pop's biggest hitmakers, but Share My World was where he made his name. Like the Trackmasters and the Hitmen, he pushed hip-hop's sound into HD, building slick, ambitious arrangements of synthesizers and instrumentation around the breakbeats and well-known samples that make up rap's core. On the album's lead single "I Can Love You," his own groove overshadows the spooky Roberta Flack piano sample from Lil' Kim's "Queen Bitch," and on the Roy Ayers remake "Searching," he recruits the jazz legend himself to play the vibraphone. On the Lox duet "Can't Get You Off My Mind," Jerkins proves he doesn't even need a sample to create a funky bounce that rivals Bad Boy's best upbeat club bangers-a sign of the sample-free direction that Jerkins would push R&B in the late '90s.
Mary's voice sounds as magnetic as ever throughout, a brilliant mix of raw timbre and effortless control that transforms straightforward love songs into captivating blues music. On Share My World, she perfectly captures the polish and ambition that characterized black pop music in the late '90s. This was the album that destroyed any doubt: Mary's talent was bigger than any one producer. Her voice was the real star. —Brendan Frederick
10. Janet Jackson, janet.
By 1993, Janet had emancipated from the Jackson family brand. Soft-spoken yet confident on both counts—creatively, sexually—as a goddess of siren songs and chic beatbreaks. "If" is a tease; "Throb" is the hip-house tantric jam that's Janet at her most explicit: moans, groans, "damn, baby," you get the picture, yes. The album's second half takes a tender turn for ballads "Again" and "Where Are You Now," with all yearnings converging to "Any Time, Any Place" and motif denouement "Are You Still Up." janet. is a rebellious tour of Jackson's sexuality, ideology, and vulnerabilities.
1997's The Velvet Rope and 2001's All For You would rebrand Janet Jackson as sexy, immodest, and emotionally conflicted but janet. was her funkiest articulation of political disquiet, sexual urge, and unfiltered chill. "New Agenda," a sisterhood jam featuring Chuck D, is at once uncanny and flawless in its integration of Public Enemy's hip-hop edge and Janet's drive-time whisper. —Justin Charity
9. Sade, Love Deluxe
There isn't a bad song on Sade's fourth album, Love Deluxe. (Even "Pearls," the sorta stuffy socially conscious number, features one of her most haunting vocal performances.) If you've ever wondered why smooth jazz radio stations existed, Love Deluxe is the reason. (Which isn't to say that the imitators captured the coke-white sound of her group—after all, no one else sounds like Sade Adu; no one else has her cool alto tone.) Every city-lights-at-night guitar lick, every liquid sax note, every crystalline keyboard tone, every sound from her mouth is set to lounge. This album is sex on a white leather couch in front of an obnoxiously large aquarium, and if you aren't into that, why are you reading an R&B list? "No Ordinary Love" is a lite-FM soundscape epic; "Like a Tattoo" is a ghost story; "Kiss of Life" is love imagined as a Carnival parade; and "Cherish the Day" is the reason why a bunch of babies were born nine months after the 26th of October, 1992. Some people owe their very lives to Sade. —Ross Scarano
8. Jodeci, Diary of a Mad Band
By 1993, R&B's new jack swing era had come to a close, replaced by the rise of hip-hop soul, a slowed-down style that embraced g-funk's beats, fashion sense, and irreverent outlook. Jodeci had flirted with the aesthetic on their uneven debut, changing the direction of R&B and inspiring a wave of copycats. But when their second album, Diary of a Mad Band, was released, just days before Christmas 1993, their image and music connected into one neatly-wrapped package.
While Jodeci was a quartet, their brilliance essentially boiled down to two unique gifts: the voice of Cedric "K-Ci" Hailey, and the songwriting ability of Donald "DeVante Swing" DeGrate. K-Ci was the magnetic lead singer with an overwhelmingly powerful delivery and raspy timbre unlike anything in R&B since the days of Bobby Womack. On "Cry for You," the group's fourth No. 1 R&B hit and lead single from Diary, K-Ci can't seem to contain his frustration, blurting out like a madman, "What else is there to do?/I don't know...I don't know.../BUT I'LL CRY!" He sounds unhinged, and that's the point.
Indeed, there's a theme of unabashed intensity and desperation in the face of love that weaves throughout the album, as if the group had grown impatient with the polite requests of "Stay" and "Come and Talk to Me." Instead, we get "Feenin'," Jodeci's finest moment, where the pull of love is compared to drug addition, and K-Ci's ready to flip his house and his cars for "one hit" of his special lady. On "Won't Waste You," K-Ci acts like he doesn't care about a girl who plays mind games with him, but it feels like he's lying. On "Alone," he's more direct: "Girl I live for you/I don't give a fuck about the news/So please turn off the TV." Sorry, Peter Jennings.
DeVante's songwriting and production had become more intense too, with glossy synthesizers and surreal vocoders popping up all over the album, including "What About Us," which interpolates Zapp's "Computer Love." The corny new jack swing that marred their debut is replaced with West Coast-flavored jeep music, including "In the Meanwhile," which features Timbaland's first-ever appearance (Missy debuts on two tracks too). But Jodeci's really all about slow jams-grinding, bass-heavy ones like "My Heart Belongs to You" that have plenty of space for K-Ci's wild ad-libs and the group's perfectly timed bursts of harmony (thanks to DeVante's often-overlooked vocal arrangement skills).
Diary of a Mad Band is by no means a perfect album (listening to them accost a reporter on the intro to "You Got It" is a particularly uncomfortable moment). Too many tracks tinker with half-baked hip-hop instead of playing to the Jodeci's core strengths. But the highs are so ridiculously high that the buzz never wears off. Sometimes one hit is all it takes. —Brendan Frederick
7. Aaliyah, One in a Million
6. D'Angelo, Brown Sugar
Brown Sugar is the supreme artifact of D'Angelo's cult status, and the neo-soul album that deified D'Angelo among the likes of Erykah Badu, Babyface, Maxwell, and Bilal. The album's snap-and-slither groove is equal parts funk and incantation, with tracks like "Smooth" and "Me and Those Dreamin' Eyes of Mine" standing as counterweights to the bigger, bombastic vibes of arena R&B acts of the day such as Blackstreet, Boyz II Men, and Jodeci. With "Cruisin'," D'Angelo reformats a free-love, open-air Smokey Robinson classic as a date night candlelight anthem. Here's an album that flickers, brilliantly.
Brown Sugar is intimate and, at times, confrontational; "Shit, Damn, Motherfucker" is, at once, as funky and smooth as any track from The Chronic: "I'm telling you what's on my mind; I'm bout to go get my nine, and kill both of y'all's behinds." Never as articulate as Erykah, or as bombastic as R. Kelly, D'Angelo's strength was his sex, abs, and attitude. He's a hometown hero of mine, and so it's been insufferable reading D'Angelo's fall from grace. Will he ever bounce back? I hold no breaths, even as D'Angelo's gut is chiseled back into a brand new six-pack. —Justin Charity
5. Mariah Carey, Butterfly
If Daydream was the first hint of Mariah Carey's hip-hop reinvention, "Honey" was her shiny suiting-up to co-star alongside Bad Boy during its Harlem World prime. Once Sean John and Stevie J began working with Mariah, she was never again just some effusive chanteuse.
Like most singers who've flourished across multiple decades, Mariah Carey can be broken down into phases and moods. In this case, there's Ballad Mariah, Bubblegum Mariah, Hood Mariah. Butterfly was her earliest synthesis of all three styles. As a work of R&B, pop, and hip-hop, the range between even Butterfly's first two tracks, "Honey" and "Butterfly," typifies this. Likewise, "The Roof" interpolates Prodigy's vocals and Havoc's canny "Jessica" loop from "Shook Ones Pt II." "Breakdown," a low-key favorite of homegirl's catalogue, is MC's signature whisper song paired with appropriately understated Bone Thugz vocals. After '97, she'd never again be shy about flaunting her more vulgar influences. A butterfly, indeed. —Justin Charity
4. TLC, CrazySexyCool
TLC's debut Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip succeeded on the same girl-group-over-hip-hop-beats conceit that aided peers like En Vogue in the early '90s, but by the time work on a sophomore album commenced, the ship had begun to sail on the new jack swing movement. Unaffected by the shift, the group met up with the first album's brilliant songwriting/production team (Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri and Babyface) and some new faces (OutKast collaborators Organized Noize, Puffy, and Hitman Chucky Thompson) to switch up the strategy. The result was 1994's CrazySexyCool, which pared down the first album's heavier hip-hop sound in favor of a more mature and melodic one.
The sex jams were delicate where they'd once been heavy-handed, but deep cuts like "Kick Your Game" and "Case of the Fake People" pulsed with a coolly over-it world weariness. The singles karate kicked the charts for the better part of a year, from the album opening kissoff "Creep" through the sultry "Red Light Special" and "Waterfalls," which reigned supreme in 1995 despite themes of drug trafficking and AIDS awareness.
By the end of 1995 CrazySexyCool had sold a whopping eleven million copies and has since more than doubled that. It remains the best selling American girl-group album of all time, holding court with Nevermind, Purple Rain and Off the Wall in the Soundscan era's esteemed 20 million club. —Craig Jenkins
3. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
When the Fugees took a break after their 1996 breakthrough The Score, fans were poised to see Lauryn Hill take her place among the great women in hip-hop with a solo album showcasing her righteous mindset and menacing mic skills. Hill, of course, had other plans.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released in the summer of 1998 to the confusion of her hip-hop audience and the delight of her R&B listeners. It was an emotional song cycle about love, faith, loss, and perseverance that saw her rap skills taking a back seat to smoky vocals as she leveraged fallout from a bad breakup with new fulfillment from a growing family. As a result, these songs find space for both the fed up resignation of opener "Lost One" and "Ex-Factor" and tender odes to motherhood ("To Zion") and cohabitation ("Nothing Even Matters"). Miseducation covers a lot of ground and features a few dozen session players, but the show's always Lauryn Hill's, and the album's central concept, tracing her winding path to enlightenment, holds together. It was a runaway success from day one, breaking sales records at every step of the way and bringing home the first Album of the Year Grammy for a hip-hop artist. —Craig Jenkins
2. R. Kelly, R. Kelly
R. Kelly's masterful, audacious solo debut, 12 Play, was an immaculate project with a very singular motive. Nearly every song was extremely suggestive and dripping with salaciousness. The former Public Announcement frontman blazed a trail for himself as the R&B bad boy with a deep soul who wanted, more than anything else, to get his freak on around the clock. Songs like "Your Body's Callin'," "Bump N' Grind," and "It Seems Like You're Ready," all displayed R.Kelly's penchant for sumptuous instrumentation mixed with sex-glazed lyrics. Detractors zeroed in on Kelly's seemingly one-track mind. Robert Cristgau wrote at the time that the album was "crude" before crowing it "black pop's most depressing development."
It's impossible to know for sure if any of the reviews had an effect on R. Kelly while he was creating his excellent follow-up record. It very well could have been the backlash from the public's discovery that he attempted to marry a 15-year-old Aaliyah. Whatever the reason, R. Kelly is a decidedly more even-keeled and introspective project. That's not to say R. Kelly completely cleaned up his act. The album's lead single is, after all, "You Remind Me of Something," a tender song that compares women to automobiles.
However, most of the album showcases a man laying his soul bare, down on his knees at the alter of women. On "Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby..." he even goes as far as to thank god for the partner who's showing him affection. Even when he's going through relationship turmoil, he's never malicious or crass, as displayed on the standout "(You To Be) Be Happy." He pledges to be "down until the day I die"—not a mention of a woman's crotch in sight. Then there's "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)," a blue-collar love song you'd never expect from an R&B singer coming off a platinum debut to create.
The entire project is buoyed by production as fresh as Kelly's lyrics. There's none of the tired new jack swing sound carried over from his Public Announcement days. It was a fresh start; a new, refined direction for R&B's brightest star. It's no wonder he named it after himself. —Damien Scott
1. Mary J Blige, My Life
What's the 411? made Mary J. Blige a star but in the months following its release her life began to slip into chaos. Her tumultuous, abusive relationship with Jodeci's Cedric "K-Ci" Hailey grew worse, and she fell into a deep depression she tried to medicate through substance abuse. She took her troubles to the studio in late 1993, elbowing her way into the songwriting process alongside Puff and the Hitmen to offload some of that hurt on a batch of songs that would become her sophomore album My Life.
It's an album that's lovelorn and introspective even in its highest spirits. When she's happy, she's happy to not be fighting for once. When she shows appreciation for her partner on "You Bring Me Joy," it's through a subtly dire turn of phrase ("I don't know what I would do without you in my life, boy"). The deeper into My Life you get, the more transparent and downtrodden the songs become. "Don't Go," "Be With You," and a cover of Rose Royce's "I'm Going Down" all pine for a lover whose faithfulness and commitment don't seem in to match hers.
Mary's dark night of the soul is anchored by production that cleans up the wonkier synthetic instrumentation of the first album in favor of a sample-based sound that culls its warmth and depth from classic '70s soul. My Life siphoned Mary's rough year for fuel and turned heartbreak into platinum plaques, cementing her rep as a voice for the mistreated and the underappreciated in the process. —Craig Jenkins