DaShan SmithDa’Shan Smith is a pop culture writer based out of…
Rhythm and blues from the ‘90s is the past, present, and future.
Through the genre’s evolution, ‘90s R&B transformed from New Jack Swing, which emerged in the ‘80s — from the likes of Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Teddy Riley — to soulful intonations over hip-hop beats inspired by the hustler spirit of Puff Daddy.
Along the way ‘90s R&B featured massive vocal talents and superstars who not only soundtracked and represented Black lives, but pop culture at large — setting a widely followed blueprint for the icons and living legends of the 2000s and beyond.
Okayplayer is here to directly answer Twitter’s open-ended viral question: “Sco pa tu manaa… 90s R&B” with our list of the 19 most influential R&B albums of ’90s. With each selection, we will describe the way in which the respective album blazed the trail for R&B.
Now, in chronological order, the 19 most influential R&B albums of the ’90s.
Bell Biv DeVoe – Poison (1990)
With fly uptempo rhythms and drum machine-driven beats that fueled house parties, The Arsenio Hall Show, and In Living Color, New Jack Swing seamlessly soundtracked the beginning of the 1990s. At the forefront of the subgenre— alongside Keith Sweat, Al B. Sure, and Karyn White— were New Edition. Towards the end of the ‘80s, the boy band shifted its line up before splintering into separate acts. While Bobby Brown emerged as the notorious leader of the pack (with a surprising solo turn from Ralph Tresvant), Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie Devoe kicked off the decade with Bell Biv Devoe’s tone-setting album.
Titled after its lead single (which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100), Poison included the slang driven track “She’s Dope!;” a funky celebration of their moniker,“B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me)?;” and the New Edition reunion track “Word To The Mutha!” Poison lived up to what its album cover promised: “Our music is mentally hip-hop smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop feel appeal to it,” the perfect descriptor for New Jack Swing at its commercial peak.
Related Influential New Jack Swing Albums: Ralph Tresvant’s Ralph Tresvant (1990); Michael Jackson’s Dangerous (1991); En Vogue’s Funky Divas (1992); Bobby Brown’s Bobby (1992)
Boyz II Men – Cooleyhighharmoney (1991)
At the height of New Jack Swing and soul music being revamped in the early ’90s, artists also configured regional nuances to their production and lyricism. For instance, in 1990, Tony! Toni! Toné! represented the west coast with “It Never Rains (In Southern California)” and “It Feels Good” on Revival.
Shawn Stockman and Michael McCary, alongside Nathan and Wayna Morris of Boyz II Men, would provide Philadelphia’s answer. The quartet not only followed the lead of Bell Biv Devoe, but merged the old school showmanship of their label, Motown, with the instrumental stylistics of Philly’s lush funk sound from the ’70s. This resulted in Boyz’ influential R&B single, “Motownphilly,” followed by “Uhh Ahh” and “Please Don’t Go.”
Their acapella cover of G.C. Cameron’s “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” (from the 1975 film, Cooley High) placed a spotlight on the harmonies and differentiating tones existing from one of the decade’s most recognizable, influential R&B acts. The group would reissue an extended release of Cooleyhighharmony in 1993, which included their first Hot 100 No. 1 and breakout international classic, “End of the Road.”
Related Influential [Motown] Philly Soul Albums: Phyllis Hyman’s Prime of My Life (1991); Boyz II Men’s II (1994)
Sade – Love Deluxe (1992)
When Sade Adu and her eponymous band debuted in 1984 with Diamond Life, she introduced the emerging UK subgenre sophisti-pop. Known for balancing smooth jazz, soul, and softer pop with the enhancement of oasis-synths, sophisti-pop became the sought after sound for adult contemporary and quiet storm radio formats.
While Sade has many exemplary moments on wax, her crowning jewel is Love Deluxe — her only studio album released in the ’90s. From the downtempo vibes of “No Ordinary Love” and “Cherish The Day” to the majestic gondola sway of “Like A Tattoo,” Sade deceivingly makes love offset by betrayal sound enchanting. The influential R&B single “Kiss Of Life” best embodies the angelic nature of Sade’s voice and loungey instrumentals, which influenced many of today’s R&B acts, including Drake.
Related Influential Sophisti-Pop Albums: Sade’s The Best of Sade (1994); Simply Red’s Life (1995)
Anita Baker – Rhythm of Love (1994)
Whenever a genre goes through rapid transformations that involve new age experimentation for its time, there are always critics. Before New Jack Swing first emerged on the scene, R&B was referred to as “circular” and predictable— quickly being cast away as an outdated genre, with the forefathers and mothers fighting to protect its honor once hip hop started to blend.
While R&B was going through this transition, people wondered where Anita Baker— who dominated the scene in the ’80s — went off to. She returned with a classic sound of old school R&B and vocal technique — which combined jazz and elements of gospel — on Rhythm of Love. With a soft sway on “The Look of Love” and a return to her Rapture form on standouts “Body and Soul,” Baker was in the process of preserving the traditional. During the release of this project, Baker admits that this album full of ballads “wasn’t going for anything different,” but rather focused on the emotions: as evident on “I Apologize.”
Related Influential Classic Soul Albums: Luther Vandross’s Power of Love (1991); Patti LaBelle’s Burnin’ (1991); Aretha Franklin’s A Rose Is Still A Rose (1998)
TLC – CrazySexyCool (1994)
As a genre, R&B has always celebrated Black women, providing its listeners with some of the most memorable cuts from exemplary female talent. Undoubtedly, the ’90s in particular provided the purest outlet for the Black feminine experience through R&B, as well as hip-hop. If there was an album to sum up the adjectives associated with this movement, TLC would successfully describe it as CrazySexyCool.
Since their arrival in 1992 with their New Jack Swing manifesto, Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas became the most influential R&B girl group of the ’90s. As their sophomore effort, CrazySexyCool was blunt in its nature, affording crossover success and redefining divine confidence. Hit No. 1 singles like “Creep” provided the perspective of a woman who also cheats in a relationship; “Red Light Special” and “Let’s Do It Again” gave sexual instructions for the lovers of bedroom pop; and “Diggin’ On You” lusted after country.
In its nature, CrazySexyCool was steamy and sultry, as exemplified by “Kick Your Game” which blended new jack swing and hip-hop soul. They even prank call co-executive producer Puff Daddy on the “Sexy-Interlude”. However, the standout single would be “Waterfalls” which advocated for safety during sex and provided a PSA about drugs. With this album, TLC became the first girl group to be certified Diamond — selling 10 million pure copies in the US.
Related Influential Feminist R&B Albums: SWV’s It’s About Time (1992); Janet Jackson’s Janet. (1993); Xscape’s Traces of My Lipstick (1998)
Mary J. Blige – My Life (1994)
What had been clear with the New Jack Swing movement was that it wasn’t going to last forever. In fact, the genre started to become more of a fad as R&B approached the mid-90s. Instead, sonics were starting to settle, and emphasis was placed on reverting back to vocal techniques overpowering the production. This ideology meant direct singing over a hip-hop influenced sound taking over the mainstream: Thus introducing audiences to hip-hop soul.
At the forefront of this new wave stood Mary J. Blige, who would be dubbed “The Queen of Hip Hop Soul” by Puffy during her 1992 debut What’s The 411? The album established a new superstar force in R&B, but Blige’s follow up, My Life,became her autobiographical thesis statement. She’d end up injecting more soulful vocals in songs such as the titular track, which heavily sampled Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves Sunshine” while professing, “if you look in my life and see what I see.”
As a therapeutic project for her ongoing drama of alcoholism, drug abuse, and relationship woos, My Life reaches the core depths of soul music — sampling Marvin Gaye on “Be Happy,” the Mary Jane Girls and Teddy Pendergrass on “Mary Jane (All Night Long),” and her hip-hop soul peers, Guy, on the deep cut classic “Don’t Go.” The standout, “I’m Goin’ Down,” projected that pain the most, with a raw cover of Rose Royce’s 1976 classic. This hallmark album would further set the narrative for Blige, eventually evolving into a stellar and legendary legacy today.
Related Influential Hip-Hop Soul Albums: Jodeci’s Forever My Lady (1991); Mary J. Blige’s Share My World (1997); Dru Hill’s Enter The Dru (1998)
Various Artists – Waiting To Exhale: Original Soundtrack Album (1995)
Continuing on the tides of “feminist R&B” is a soundtrack featuring Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, TLC, Patti Labelle, and more vocal powerhouses. Black cinema and television in the ’90s benefited from soundtracks that not only fit the mood of their respective visual mediums but also sparked eras of their own. Produced and penned by Babyface, Waiting To Exhale: The Original Soundtrack Album went on to sell seven million copies and earned a Grammy nod for Album of the Year.
Its success relied on its ability as a compilation featuring all Black women to mirror the ensemble nature of the film. Houston — who starred in this comedy-drama about love and war vignettes from four close girlfriends — provided the soundtrack’s key hit “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” which reached No. 1 on the Hot 100. Full of jazzy, quiet storm moments that embraced the thrill of love, as well as the powers of healing, this cohesive soundtrack provided Brandy’s earworm “Sittin’ Up In My Room,” Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gon’ Cry,” and deep cut gem, “Wey U” from Chanté Moore.
Related Influential R&B Soundtracks: Babyface & Various Artists’ Boomerang: Original Soundtrack (1992); Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album (1992); Various Artists’ Soul Food Soundtrack (1997); Various Artists’ Love Jones Soundtrack (1997)
Maxwell – Urban Hang Suite (1996)
The conversations revolving around neo-soul in the ’90s centered on a trifecta of debut albums: D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar (1995), Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, and Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997). Although the genre found its way in the ’80s by blending traditional R&B with quiet storm, electronica, jazz, and funk, it didn’t take off in the mainstream until the release of the aforementioned albums.
D’Angelo may have gotten the gears running for neo-soul, but many critics regard Maxwell’s effort as what stabilized the subgenre’s position in contemporary R&B. At the time, the album and bohemian character of Maxwell was nothing like what Black audiences experienced before — as it differentiated from the hip-hop influenced sounds of R&B.
Urban Hang Suite is a concept album that focuses entirely on one passionate romance from start to finish. On “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” he enlists the grooves of the ’70s, asking “If it’s cool, I wanna rock with you.” “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” made late-night radio listeners familiar with Maxwell’s falsetto, while “Whenever Wherever Whatever” provided a lullaby ballad that encapsulated the height of his romantic feelings.
Related Influential Neo-Soul Albums: D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar (1995); Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997); Maxwell’s Embrya (1998); Mary J. Blige’s Mary (1999); Donell Jones’s Where I Wanna Be (1999)
Toni Braxton – Secrets (1996)
In 1993, Toni Braxton dominated R&B radio with her self-titled debut which featured lulling midtempos and ballads that showcased her domineering contralto vocal prowess. By 1995, she had joined the ranks of other soulful divas on the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack, with “Let It Flow.” That song would eventually lead the way for her sophomore opus, Secrets.
The quiet storm format of R&B had taken over mainstream pop music in the early to mid ’90s, providing the Black alternative and perspective to adult contemporary pop. Secrets would offer an array of variation on the slower tempoed subgenre — from the groovy Hot 100 No. 1 “You’re Makin’ Me High” (assisted by its B-side “Flow”) to the spoken, sing-song monologue “Talking in His Sleep” to the neo-soul abiding “I Love Me Some Him”.
Related Influential Quiet Storm Albums: Toni Braxton’s Toni Braxton (1993); Silk’s Silk (1995); Brian McKnight’s Anytime (1997)
112 – 112 (1996)
If there was one record label that had a distinct presence and sound in ’90s R&B it would be Diddy’s Bad Boy Records. Diddy’s “Puffy influence” not only existed amongst his label’s roster, but also trickled into the production of acts such as Mary J. Blige and TLC. In the mid-90s, he’d audition and signed the Atlanta quartet of Quinnes “Q” Parker, Daron Jones, Marvin “Slim” Scandrick, and Michael “Mike” Keith. By the end of summer 1996, Bad Boy delivered 112’s eponymous debut LP.
With production from Stevie J, one of the label’s first “Hitmen,” as well as New Jack Swing pioneer Al B. Sure and Boyz II Men’s Wanya Morris, 112 offered a younger, fresher take on contemporary R&B. The boy group would twist quiet storm on cuts such as “I Will Be There,” flip duets upside down with the Faith Evans assisted “I Can’t Believe,” flex their music insight on the “Keep It Real (Interlude),” and reenergize hip-hop soul on “Come See Me”.
Their hit single “Only You” would receive the Bad Boy remix treatment, while the airy sound effects on “Cupid” propelled it as the album’s platinum-selling staple. 112’s success would continue in 1998 with their sophomore effort, Room 112.
Related Influential Bad Boy [Records] Albums: Faith Evans’s Faith (1995); Total’s Total (1996); Faith Evans’s Keep The Faith (1998)
Aaliyah – One In A Million (1996)
While evaluating Aaliyah’s legacy, it’s important to note that the late entertainer was lightyears ahead in the midst of what was popular. Her 1994 debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, may have come at the tail-end of New Jack Swing’s peak, but it provided a template for emerging teen talent of ’90s R&B such as Brandy and Monica. Listening to One In A Million, it’s evident the album takes the lead of hip-hop soul, but it also manages to voyage into the future through its production.
Needing to separate from the messy tabloids of R. Kelly, who executive produced Age, Aaliyah partnered with emerging producers and songwriters Timbaland and Missy Elliott. Electronic elements always played a part in contemporary R&B — however Aaliyah’s approach offered a hopping alternative. The titular track sounded as if it was orbiting in outer space, simultaneously giving radio an infectious sound airwaves never experienced before.
The thumping drum and bass line on tracks such as “Beats 4 Da Streets,” “If Your Girl Only Knew,” and the remix of “Hot Like Fire” experimented with UK electronic genres jungle and downtempo. Aaliyah also redefined what ’90s cool was with her effortlessly lyric soprano vocals on quiet storm gems “4 Page Letter,” the Isley Brothers’ cover “Choosey Lover,”,and the Diane Warren-penned “The One I Gave My Heart To.” Age might have arguably closed out new jack swing, but One In A Million certainly sparked an electronic revolution for the remainder of the decade.
Related Influential Electro-R&B Albums: Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly (1997); Total’s Kima, Keisha, and Pam (1998)
Kirk Franklin – God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation (1997)
Today, modern R&B debates are interesting because they always bring up the notion of “church singing” aka gospel playing a major part in real R&B. There’s some truth in this revelation, as most legendary, influential R&B acts have found their basis from singing in a Christian church during their upbringing. Throughout R&B’s history — particularly soul singing — religion has played a part, most likely becoming a necessity for what is identified as “real R&B.”
However, in the late ’90s into the 2000s, R&B was being blamed for ruining church music, aka the genre of Gospel. Referred to as “secular,” the blending of R&B with gospel was heavily frowned upon, as Urban Contemporary Gospel started to grow in the mainstream.
Leading the way in the ’90s was Kirk Franklin, who found success with “Stomp!” and managed to propel his fourth studio album, God’s Property, to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Other cuts like “My Life Is In Your Hands” and “So Good” delivered raw emotion that paralleled what ’90s R&B acts had been doing from the start. This collective album would lead the way for Yolanda Albums who’d deliver “Open My Heart” in 1999 and Mary Mary who’d autotune “Shackles” in 2000.
Related Influential Gospel R&B Albums: Bebe and Cece Winans’s Different Lifestyles (1991); Yolanda Adam’s Mountain High… Valley Low (1999)
Mariah Carey – Butterfly (1997)
Introducing the “Fantasy” remix with an assist from Wu-Tang’s Ol Dirty Bastard, Mariah Carey sought out to change pop music by announcing her own independence. Known to borderline between pop and R&B, Carey’s crossover appeal would enter a new legion with her next No. 1 Hot 100 smash, “Honey” which was remixed by Puffy and his Bad Boy crew. With this love for hip-hop, the Songbird Supreme was responsible for birthing the genre of hip-pop according to Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes.
Carey often regards Butterfly as her magnum opus and it’s clear to see why. Not only did she tackle hip-hop soul head first, but she made it acceptable for pop acts to embrace rappers many years before it became commercially second nature. Cuts like “The Roof” would sample Mobb Deep, while “Babydoll” abided Missy Elliott’s penmanship. “Breakdown” celebrated the rise of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, while No. 1 Hot 100 hit “My All” also received the remix treatment.
With Butterfly, R&B not only solidified its position in pop but now became the de-facto trendsetter on unapologetic remixing terms acknowledged by a global audience and the industry at large.
Related Influential Hip-Pop&B Crossover Albums: Adina Howard’s Do You Wanna Ride? (1995); Montell Jordan’s Let’s Ride (1998); Mariah Carey’s Rainbow (1999)
Usher – My Way (1997)
In between Levert singing about being a “Casanova” that wasn’t friends with Romeo back in 1988 to Trey Songz declaring he was “Mr. Steal Your Girl” in 2014, the male acts of R&B had been known for being macks and playboys on wax. To be honest, this was the history of R&B since it starts. But ’90s R&B had a way with male singers being smooth about their intentions, honoring the theatrics of a Casanova archetype.
In 1997, Usher would break out the crowded pack — ultimately leading the way for his pop and influential R&B takeover in the 2000s. My Way gave the plea “You Make Me Wanna…” where the singer was anxious to leave his current relationship and start another. Through his choreography, he wanted to take things “Nice & Slow” to the satisfaction of quiet storm listeners who admired his Monica-debut “Slow Jam,” as he commanded things go “My Way.”
While ’90s R&B had many breakout Casanova moments, Usher commanded the attention the best, staking his claim in pop music along the way. He’d make acts like Keith Sweat and Bobby Brown proud, as the contemporary godson of their antics. Usher would also follow the footsteps of Ginuwine who had saddled up his own sexual “Pony,” and counter Tyrese who was on a mission to woo the “Sweet Lady” of his life.
Related Influential Casanova Albums: Keith Sweat’s Keith Sweat (1996); Ginuwine’s Ginuwine… The Bachelor (1996); Joe’s All That I Am (1997); Tyrese’s Tyrese (1998)
Janet Jackson – The Velvet Rope (1997)
One thing about the Jackson siblings is how they were always present with the social issues of their time. The Velvet Rope not only embraced the energies of ’90s R&B but also allowed Janet to get personal with her artistic evolution — more so than the ground she broke on 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and Janet.
She would sexually moan on “My Need” after calling her friend about her desires on the “Interlude- Speaker Phone,” which would be manifested on the funky “Go Deep” and the smooth “I Get Lonely.” “You” experimented with trip-hop as did the album’s lead single “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” which featured Q-Tip and Joni Mitchell.
Velvet Rope also celebrated the LGBTQ community with songs such as “Free Xone” which included the lyrics “Until he found out he was gay/That’s so not mellow/Let’s get free.” Rumors about Janet’s sexuality also surfaced when she covered Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s The Night.” Janet also set forth commentary about social media on “Interlude – Online,” which featured a dial-up connection and typing on a keyboard. Janet not only got conscious with the taboo, but also prophetically redirected the course of internet conversation in the process with Velvet Rope.
Related Influential Conscious R&B Album: Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I (1995)
Lenny Kravitz – 5 (1998)
Kicking off the ’90s, Lenny Kravitz earned a Top 10 hit on the R&B charts with Mama Said’s “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.” That song noticeably blended the psychedelic sounds of rock from the ’60s (a la Jimi Hendrix) and funk R&B from the ’70s (a la George Clinton and the Parliament).
Kravitz would continue that, being acknowledged as a bonafide rock star during the decade. 5 featured songs such as “Supersoulfighter,” and the hypnotic “I Belong To You.” It’s as if Prince’s Purple Rain went on a psychedelic trip through Kravitz. The breakout hit from 5 would be “Fly Away,” which went on to be acknowledged as Kravitz’s staple song.
Related Influential Psychedelic R&B Albums: Prince’s The Gold Experience (1995); Meshell Ndegeocello’s Bitter (1999)
Brandy – Never Say Never (1998)
Known as America’s sweetheart, Brandy was looking for something to not only enhance her sound, but also lead the pack for other pop stars observing her every move. Towards the tail end of the ’90s, it had become clear that pop music was leaning towards more of a street edge to compete with and embrace hip-hop and R&B’s dominance — birthing “urban pop.” Partnering with Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, the teen mogul would release Never Say Never, the blueprint for her signature sound.
At the time of the album’s release, pop music was destined to head in a new direction, and Black teens such as Brandy, Monica, Usher, and Mýa were leading the way. Brandy would have the hottest song of the summer alongside Monica with “The Boy Is Mine” which played off a rumored rivalry between the two. She’d garner another No.1 with Diane Warren’s ballad “Have You Ever?”.
With all these genre influences that ranged throughout black music across continents — expanding the trans-Atlantic range — Lauryn Hill provided an all-encompassing diaspora album. So much so that it would end up claiming Album of the Year at the 1999 Grammys.
Related Influential Diaspora R&B Albums: Mint Condition’s From The Mint Factory (1993); Kelis’s Kaleidoscope (1999)
Destiny’s Child – The Writing’s On The Wall (1999)
By the end of the decade it had become clear that R&B was fully accepting electro-pop and birthing the next generation of superstars. Destiny’s Child was no exception, providing club-ready anthems such as “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Say My Name,” and “Jumpin’, Jumpin’.” While the group literally transitioned in front of our eyes, they continued to provide No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100.
With Writings on the Wall, Destiny’s Child set the tone for the upcoming millennium of R&B. They commented on technology with “Bug A Boo,” signaled how slow jams would be more midtempo with “Temptation” and celebrated girl power with “Hey Ladies.” As a result, this album would lay the groundwork for the solo run of Kelly Rowland, and the dominance of Beyoncé — who both would go on to redefine pop and R&B music by the early-2000s.
Related Influential Y2K Pop&B Albums: TLC’s FanMail (1999); Jennifer Lopez’s On The 6 (1999)
Da’Shan Smith is a pop culture writer based out of New York City. You can follow him @nightshawn101