Collage by Laura Alston
1998: The Year Black Artists Changed Music As We Know It
The year 1998 was more than a period where black hip-hop and R&B musicians released popular projects; it was a year that shaped the landscape of the music scene we know today.
It’s an exciting time for hip-hop and R&B. The former got its first Pulitzer Prize, the latter is experiencing a renaissance, and the two have joined forces as the new most popular genre in music. Inevitably, with hip-hop and R&B largely being helmed by African-American artists, this has ushered in another chapter of Black excellence in music. But while it may seem that these accomplishments are the result of these musicians’ efforts in recent years, the seeds were sown long before then—20 years ago, to be exact.
Today’s hip-hop and R&B scenes are direct reflections of the genres’ transformations in 1998, particularly R&B’s shift toward a slower pace and rap’s increasing diversity of sound and commercial appeal.
In 1998, the stars had aligned for hip-hop and R&B to make a seismic impact. With record labels focusing on experimental singles and the industry’s waning excitement over grunge and G-funk, audiences were hungry for something new. So, R&B stepped up to the plate, swapping its swelling vocal arrangements on hits like Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” for pared-down grooves. Initially popularized by TLC’s CrazySexyCool, Usher’s My Way, and Aaliyah’s One In a Million, the sound would become cemented in 1998 by the massive crossover success of one song: Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine.”
At the time, Brandy—then pausing her prosperous acting career to create her highly awaited sophomore album, Never Say Never—was eager to declare her maturity. The then-rising producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins assisted with the album’s relaxed tempo contrasting its assertive lyrics, and by playing into Brandy and Monica’s rumored beef with their vocal battle, “The Boy Is Mine.” It became the song of the summer, remaining at No. 1 on the Hot 100 for 13 weeks straight, —due in part to its unexpected but infectious subdued rhythm. Entertainment Weekly noted that the track didn’t have the “soul-baring theatrics we’d get if Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige had gone at it” because the singers “[keep] their voices so low you’d think they were afraid a teacher might overhear them.” That could easily describe the new wave of women currently reviving R&B, namely H.E.R. and Ella Mai, the latter of whose “Boo’d Up” is favored to follow in the footsteps of “The Boy Is Mine” by taking over airwaves this season. Brandy and Monica’s laidback collab successfully stood out against the exceedingly emotional R&B of its time, and “Boo’d Up” has made the admirable progression from online obscurity to the radio by reminding listeners just how much we miss that sound—and the Black female singers who delivered it.
But their mellow approach is not to be confused with lack of range. After all, Never Say Never was released into an R&B scene that still grasped onto its gospel roots, and Brandy’s runs on the album indicate that she was holding tight as well. With “The Boy Is Mine” topping both the Hot Hip-Hop/R&B chart and the Hot 100, Brandy’s new brand of R&B, a happy medium between Blige and Mariah Carey, found its way to mainstream pop — both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera cited Never Say Never as inspirations on their respective industry-transforming debuts. Thus, R&B became a significant building block of pop music of the new millennium, when artists such as Justin Timberlake and Adele would capitalize off of more soulful cuts. Today’s pop may incorporate EDM and rap to the point of overkill, but some artists — Dua Lipa, The Weeknd, Charlie Puth, Zayn, and Ariana Grande, in particular — still tend to dance the line between traditional pop and R&B. Grande has noted the influence of Never Say Never on her music, and even tapped Babyface, noted maestro of the smooth R&B of the ‘90s, to produce her album. Puth’s “If You Leave Me Now,” a collaboration with Boyz II Men, is a direct replica of the melodies that made the Philly group the face of R&B two decades ago. From the looks of it, R&B elements may become the saving grace of the industry’s current stagnancy the same way it did 20 years ago.
While R&B was slowing things down in 1998, hip-hop was charging ahead with full steam. The Lox’s Money, Power, Respect reinforced New York rap. DMX burst onto the scene with raw energy on two albums, It’s Dark and Hell It Hot and Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Lauryn Hill further blurred the already fuzzy line between hip-hop and R&B with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. This diversity of sound only expanded with the increasing number of successful rappers hailing from regions besides the east and west coasts. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Twista juggled melodies and tied tongues out in the Midwest. The South gave a resounding response to the rallying cry ofOutkast’s acceptance speech at the 1995 Source Awards, with Aquemini’s impressive live instrumentation and introspective lyrics funkifying the scene, and Cash Money Records bouncing onto the charts with Juvenile’s 400 Degreez. There would never again be a time when the only noteworthy hip-hop artists hailed from California or the New York Tri-State Area.
It was undoubtedly the most inventive time in hip-hop since its golden age, with the proliferation of subgenres, and even sub-subgenres: There was Goodie Mob’s southern-twanged G-funk, Cappadonna’s flashy boom-bap, Jay-Z’s aspirational street lore, Busta Rhymes’ apocalyptic horrorcore, Juvenile’s Southern gangsta rap, Will Smith’s kid-tested-mother-approved rhymes—the list goes on. Today’s charting hip-hop is similarly specific and varied, from Cardi B’s Latin trap to Post Malone’s grungy-folk rap, to Juice WRLD’s emo-pop-SoundCloud rap and Childish Gambino’s conscious hip-hop meets performance art on “This Is America.” (Not to mention, both Drake and Cardi B sampled Hill’s iconic breakup ballad of ‘98, “Ex-Factor,” on their smash hits “Nice For What” and “Be Careful,” respectively.)
And this current expansion of hip-hop’s range could partially be a result of artists’ efforts to remain relevant within the constant barrage of new music on streaming platforms. But despite online streaming being a relatively new technology, its foundation developed in—you guessed it—1998. Then, the Recording Industry Association of America filed suit against Diamond Multimedia, trying (and failing) to stop production of its Rio MP3 player, which paved the way for Napster’s birth the next year, the iPod in 2001, and eventually Spotify in 2008.
The influence of 1998’s hip-hop scene is apparent today not just in terms of the genre’s sound, but its commercial value as well. A record 30 rap albums released that year went platinum, but it was Master P who would establish hip-hop as the moneymaker that it is today. His self-made No Limit Records’ $110 million intake in 1998 made it one of the biggest independent labels of its time, the profits from which were parlayed into the rapper/entrepreneur’s films, clothing line, phone-sex hotline, sports management firm, real estate company, Foot Locker outlet, and gas station. It was the epitome of Black excellence, according to Solange’s 2016 magnum opus, A Seat at the Table. With rappers such as 50 Cent, Jay-Z, and Diddy following in Master P’s footsteps to make their marks in fashion, media, food and drink, and more, hip-hop’s status alongside R&B as the most influential comes as no surprise. It’s now a billion-dollar industry—and the only genre with dedicated Forbes lists.
Above all, hip-hop and R&B proved themselves as cultural forces in 1998. In Rolling Stone’syear-end roundup, the “cultural and artistic momentum” was attributed to rappers, and “not the rockers.” So, it’s been no overnight success for hip-hop/R&B to now become fully ingrained in American pop culture, from fast food chains’ marketing campaigns to fashion runways—notably, that of Louis Vuitton’s first collection by a Black artistic director, Virgil Abloh, protégé of Kanye West. Such an accomplishment is the highlight of 1998’s history repeating itself; back then, as they are now, Black artists are at the head of the pack. And with the most powerful couple in music— Beyoncé and Jay-Z — recently taking African-American culture to the Louvre for an unprecedented music video, they’ll likely be leading the charge for years to come.