Every so often, music industry executives, artists and fans will say, “R&B is dead” and then questions start to emerge, comparing today’s R&B to its counterpart in the past. Where are the love ballads? Why don’t men plead for their love while singing in the rain anymore? Who are the powerhouse singers of today? However, it’s not so much that R&B has completely disappeared into a musical abyss but rather that the genre has changed over time. One of the best eras of R&B music is arguably the ’90s.
During that decade, music fans were gifted with a surplus of groups with distinct styles, the emergence of subgenres such as New Jack Swing and neo soul and classic songs being crafted by producers and songwriters such as Babyface, Timbaland, Jermaine Dupri and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to name a few. Although the R&B sound has changed over the last 30 years, the ’90s sound is still sampled and appreciated by today’s rising stars. In honor of one of music’s most timeless eras, here’s a list of the greatest R&B songs of the ’90s.
“Fantasy” – Mariah Carey ft. Ol’ Dirty Bastard (1995)
There is no doubt that Mariah Carey was a ruler of the ’90s as one of top-selling artists of all time. By the time Carey released her fifth album, “Daydream,” in 1995, the singer wanted to incorporate more hip-hop into her sound. She did just that on the album’s lead single, “Fantasy,” and recruited rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard to bring the finesse. It was a sound that not only changed her career with the mesh of R&B and hip-hop but also influenced other artists.
“You Make Me Wanna…” – Usher (1997)
R&B king Usher’s breakout single was the 1997 hit “You Make Me Wanna…” from his second album, “My Way.” The song was produced by Usher’s longtime collaborator Jermaine Dupri and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2019 rising star Summer Walker sampled the classic hit and featured Usher on her song “Come Thru.”
“Are You That Somebody?” – Aaliyah (1998)
In the mid-’90s, Aaliyah experimented with new sounds, thanks to the likes of Static Major, Missy Elliott and Timbaland. On her 1998 single “Are You That Somebody?” Timbaland gave her a unique production that included a baby cooing. Timbaland is known for making sounds out of anything, and this single from the “Dr. Doolittle” soundtrack showcased a young Timbo in his prime — not to mention, the “Are You That Somebody?” video was one of Aaliyah’s signature dance sequences.
“Remember The Time” – Michael Jackson (1992)
Throughout Michael Jackson’s career, each of his albums had a distinct sound. During the King of Pop’s “Dangerous” era, he decided to experiment with a little bit of New Jack Swing. The Teddy Riley-produced track “Remember The Time” reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts. In addition to showcasing a new sound, the song’s visual will always be remembered as one of MJ’s best dance videos, directed by John Singleton and acting cameos from Iman, Magic Johnson and Eddie Murphy.
“Return of the Mack” – Mark Morrison (1996)
Mark Morrison came onto the scene in the early ‘90s. However, his career began rising with his 1996 hit song, “Return of the Mack. The song stayed on the Billboard charts for 41 weeks and became a multiplatinum hit.
“Weak” – SWV (1993)
R&B girl group SWV, which stands for “Sisters With Voices,” hit the music scene with the 1992 debut album, “It’s About Time.” One of its standout tracks is the hit song “Weak,” which was originally given to Charlie Wilson. The multiplatinum hit reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“The Boy Is Mine” – Brandy and Monica (1998)
R&B singers Brandy and Monica came on the scene in the early ‘90s, and in 1998 they were both working on their sophomore albums. Their biggest hit to date is the duet “The Boy Is Mine” in which the singers are going back and forth over a guy. Produced by Darkchild and Dallas Austin, the song won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a duo or group. Brandy and Monica didn’t reunite on another track until 14 years later.