Whatever happened to R&B?

A cursory glance down the Billboard R&B singles charts reveals a lot of what a lot of hip-hoppers once called “rap and bullshit.” Not to say that there isn’t still good soul music being made these days (because there is,) but it often gets overlooked due to the Drakes of the world. Nothing against Drake, but wouldn’t you rather hear some SWV or Dru Hill?

That’s part of the reason we decided to come together and put together this list. Another reason? VH-1 recently tried their hand at putting together a list of the ’90s best R&B songs…and we thought it kinda sucked. So, without further ado, here’s the first installment of the Popblerd staff’s version of the Best R&B Songs of the ’90s. As K-Ci from Jodeci would say: ooooooh yeah!

100. “It Never Rains (In Southern California)” by Tony! Toni! Tone! (1990)

From the album The Revival | #1 R&B (2 weeks)

Up until “It Never Rains” comes out, the Tonyies were known for their funky side. However, this song revealed a softer version of the trio. Swiping the title of an easy listening classic, Raphael, Dwayne and Tim took the opportunity to pine for a love who was apparently in a part of the country where it does rain. Weather-related issues aside, this song gave the Ts their third consecutive #1 R&B single from The Revival, their platinum breakthrough album. I’m partial to the video version, which spices the song up with some Spanish guitar. Also, the stylish video marked the directorial debut of Cosby vixen Lisa Bonet. (Big Money)

99. “Fortunate” by Maxwell (1999)

From the soundtrack to the motion picture Life | #1 R&B (8 weeks)

Saw Maxwell at the Orpheum 10 or so years ago. Not a lot of dudes in the audience.

Classic, R.Kelly-working-the-middle ballad here. In the wrong hands, this can get boring, but R? He keeps it ethereal. And Maxwell? He’s like:

“and I never sang a song with all my might”

…and you’re like “WHOA.” (Carlos Halston)

98. “My Boo” by Ghost Town DJs (1996)

From the compilation So So Def Bass All-Stars | #18 R&B

To most of America, “My Boo” is an unfamiliar song. To Black America, it’s a party classic. Throw it on at any house party, cookout, club, or on any car ride and you are guaranteed to get the party started. It’s just that infectious. It’s the pinnacle of mid-to-late 90s Atlanta bass music that was the perfect balance of fun, depth and, a lil hoodrat.

Released in 1996 – the same year the Telecommunications Act effectively solidified the end of black radio – “My Boo” could rightly be considered the last great black song that’s classic status is almost solely the result of black radio airplay. Such a thing just doesn’t happen anymore. Sadly. (Tyler)

97. “Always Be My Baby” by Mariah Carey (1995)

From the album Daydream | #1 R&B (1 week)

Pure happiness, distilled into a digestable 4 minutes. That seems weird to say, given that a quick glance at the lyric sheet would essentially unmask it as a post-breakup lament, but Mariah’s coy, wistful vocal seems unfettered by what she clearly believes to be a momentary romantic hiccup. Her enthusiasm is infectious, her optimism unshakable, her vocals crisp and buoyant. And that track! A small smattering of interlocking piano chords; nothing special on paper, but pregnant with hope in practice. All these years later, that breezy, plucked acoustic guitar intro emanates warm waves of nostalgia. A song of remarkable heart and purity, uncool in theory, phenomenal on wax. (Drew)

96. “I Love Your Smile” by Shanice (1991)

From the album Inner Child | #1 R&B (2 weeks)

Remember when R&B could be deliriously happy and almost corny? “I Love Your Smile” is one of the last songs to toe that line and still become a hit. A grown up Shanice Wilson dropped her last name and her teenybopper image with this #1 smash (which also hit the Top 5 on the pop charts.) “I Love Your Smile” defined “bubbly,” from Shanice’s girlish delivery to Branford Marsalis’ peppy sax solo. One listen to this jam and you will have reached your daily sugar allotment for the day. (Big Money)

95. “Sexy MF” by Prince & the New Power Generation (1992)

From the album (Symbol) | #76 R&B

Prince always flirted with The Godfather’s stock and trade; “Sexy MF” is the point at which he dropped the pretense and laid down a singular groove so hot that he couldn’t help but drop enough profanity to make Madonna blush. This was a jam genetically designed to get some asses wigglin’. Built around a bass line that deserved to be turned way the hell up and Levi Seacer, Jr.’s droning guitar, Prince was given a platform to talk about his lady’s brain.  Hell, even Tony M.’s rhyme is … entertaining. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again–and I’m certain I’m not alone–I miss Prince. (Michael Parr)

94. “Got ’til it’s Gone” by Janet (Jackson) featuring Q-Tip & Joni Mitchell (1997)

From the album The Velvet Rope | #3 R&B (airplay only)

For such a smooth, mellow jam, Janet Jackson’s 1997 single “Got ‘Til it’s Gone” is mired in controversy. Although Joni Mitchell gave her blessing for the “Big Yellow Taxi” sample, Des’Ree sued Jackson claiming that the song sampled her “Feel So High” without permission (a credit to Des’Ree on subsequent pressings seems an implicit admission of guilt). Also in contention were the production credits, initially awarded to Janet’s go-to duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Q-Tip, J Dilla and Ali Shaheed Muhammad claimed that “Got ‘Til it’s Gone” was in fact their production, a feud that led to Dilla’s “Revenge” mix of the song. Underneath all of this controversy however is a strong Janet Jackson track, one among many from the excellent Velvet Rope album. In addition to the Mitchell sample, Tribe co-founder and perennial guest artist Q-Tip lends his characteristic flow, complementing the laid back, jazzy groove of the track. The track’s fair amount radio play, as well as the Mark Romanek-directed video clip gave “Got ‘Til it’s Gone” significant exposure, one among many of Janet’s shining moments in the 1990s. (Dr. Gonzo)

93. “Who Is It” by Michael Jackson (1991)

From the album Dangerous | #6 R&B

The King of Pop has had bigger hits, more enduring classics; few are as pitch-black, passionate, and ominous as “Who Is It”. It’s the stuff of solid r&b, this crippling paranoia over a cheating partner, but MJ’s delivery here launches “Who Is It” into the stratosphere. Fraught with sobbing, yelping passion, “Who Is It” is the sound of a man slowly unraveling, and it packs more white-knuckle tension into its pre-chorus than most movies manage to muster up in 90 minutes. (Drew)

92. “Before I Let You Go” by BLACKstreet (1994)

From the album BLACKstreet | #2 R&B

“Before I Let You Go” essentially gave Blackstreet its career. Before it was released, two singles were minor hits that (while actually quite good) failed to distinguish the group from Teddy Riley’s first group, Guy, and all the other black male vocal groups out at the time. Its hit status made it possible for Blackstreet to even record a second album and it remains the most memorable of the self-titled debut album’s six singles.

And that is, of course, due almost entirely to Dave Hollister’s masterful lead vocal. His work here is just beautiful, a perfectly modulated gospel-inflected performance with expert phrasing. It so solidified him as one of the most promising vocalists of his generation that no one thought Blackstreet would be able to recover when he left the group. Of course they did, but “Before I Let You Go” is probably still their greatest song. And you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who (as much as they like Mark Middleton and Eric Williams) didn’t wish Dave had stayed with the group. (Tyler)

91. “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” by TLC (1992)

From the album Ooh…on the TLC Tip! | #2 R&B

Created as a female version of Bell Biv DeVoe, the ladies of TLC announced their entry on the music scene in a big way with 1992’s “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.” Over a cacophony of samples (almost 20 songwriters are listed in the song credits,) each element of the group introduced themselves: there was T-Boz’s sexy rap, Chilli’s girlish croon and, of course, Left Eye’s ribald rap (using clever wordplay to discuss things later rappers would take to a literal low.) Even before they coined the term, “Ain’t 2 Proud” was crazysexycool. (Big Money)

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