Today an unknown artist can post a snippet of a song on TikTok on a Friday and be famous 48 hours later. But in the 1990s, building that type of name recognition often took years. After a 60-date arena tour as a backup vocalist for Ginuwine and Aaliyah in 1997, Durrell Babbs, the singer now known to R&B fans as Tank, was ready to venture out as a solo act. He spent months and months writing songs; he lined up a single called “Freaky,” which he released in 2000. Next came the visual: “We spent like $500,000 shooting an elaborate video, blowing shit up, setting shit on fire, 10 dancers, crane shots, racing old vintage vehicles,” the singer recalls.
It was a start, just not the one he hoped for. “‘Freaky’ was almost the beginning of the end,” he says. “That’s the record I want people to forget and act like it never existed. The song just wasn’t that good, and I didn’t know it.” To make matters worse, radio execs kept seeing Tank’s posters — “the word ‘freaky,’ me with my shirt off, looking mean” — and deciding he was a rapper, putting him in an awkward position when he showed up at the stations’ shows ready to croon.
But a hit has a way of erasing all that came before it. Tank returned the next year with “Maybe I Deserve,” a single as durable as it is minimal — just a few scattered, gospel-leaning piano notes and a dusting of drums. This track is a triumph of self-torture: “Maybe I deserve/For you to go out and find some other guy,” Tank sings. “Maybe I deserve/For you to stay out with him all night.” In R&B, it’s customary for the singer’s conviction to grow as the song progresses, so Tank’s imagery becomes increasingly vivid, but here, all his firepower is directed inward — by the end of the track, he’s practically begging his partner to lie to him, cheat on him, put him through hell, just to even the score and alleviate his guilt.
Listeners could apparently relate: The song became a breakout hit. “That took me from shows with 150 people showing up to nearly 3,000 people showing up in six months,” Tank says. The track cracked the Top 20 on the Hot 100 and remains the singer’s highest-charting hit. But it’s never been available on streaming services.
That changes Friday, when Tank’s first album, 2001’s Force of Nature, and its two follow-ups, 2002’s One Man and 2007’s Sex, Love & Pain, finally become accessible to the streaming masses. Like the rest of the catalog owned by the label Blackground Records — including albums by Aaliyah, Toni Braxton, and Jojo, among others — this music was withheld from streaming services until recently, demonstrating how little control even famous musicians often have over the fate of their creations. In August, Blackground announced that it would re-release 17 albums to streaming services, CD, and vinyl across a two-month period.
Tank is ambivalent about the change. “It’s bittersweet,” he says. “It’s bitter because I’ve missed out on 10 years’ worth of revenue, 10 years’ worth of discovery.” When he scored one of the biggest hits of his career, the platinum-certified “When We,” a few years ago, this could’ve driven new fans back to his older work — except that the material effectively didn’t exist in an easily accessible form. “All the people who talk like, ‘Y’all should’ve heard this song, this album,’ they mostly couldn’t reference it, couldn’t find the complete experience,” Tank adds.
And the sweet? “Now people will know I was an artist that existed before 2010,” Tank says. “I go back — and there’s music to prove it.”
“Maybe I Deserve” set the template for those earlier years. But the song’s success was never assured — Tank says his label didn’t trust the initial version of the track, so he almost sold it to Dave Hollister from the group Blackstreet. Then the label decided to bring in outsiders to redo the track. “They say to me, ‘Tank, you’re not a proven producer, right? We’re gonna take this song, give it to proven producers, have them beef it up, make it a hit record.’ ” But none of those reworks were as stirring as the original, so the single was released as-is — written, produced, and sung solely by Tank.
The label’s initial resistance to “Maybe I Deserve” naturally melted once it became a hit, and Tank’s sophomore album was led by “One Man,” another piano-driven ballad with shades of mid-Nineties Brian McKnight (especially the irresistible hit “Anytime”). “I thought it was a cool record; they thought it was a great record: ‘Let’s make sure we have another thing in this space,’ ” Tank says.
He tucked other treats into the second half of One Man, including “No Why?” a slippery, bluesy record which almost functions as a sequel to “Maybe I Deserve,” as if the protagonist of that track finished tearing his hair out, pulled himself together, and tried to apologize to the partner he’d wronged — only to find out that she’s long past the point of caring. “Sometimes apologies are just not enough,” Tank says. “I don’t care how you dress it up, bring flowers, ride in on two camels, it doesn’t matter.”
Five years elapsed between between One Man and Sex, Love and Pain due to a financial dispute between Tank and Blackground. (Some of his labelmates were also in disputes with Blackground, which eventually led to lawsuits.) Tank’s final release for the label was his shortest and sweetest, from the three-songs-in-one “Coldest,” which moves from a crushing, gospel-inspired hook to an icy crawl and back, to “Wedding Song,” which sneaks an interpolation of Wagner into a commercial R&B track that traces a marriage’s descent into stagnation and despair.
Sex, Love and Pain also contained “Please Don’t Go,” another piano-driven ballad fully of frothy, I-might-die-if-you-leave-me drama; Tank recorded this one as an afterthought on his last day in a rented studio, but it became another enduring hit for him. “I’ve always pushed to expand the brand sonically,” he says. “But ultimately, fans want a thing from you. They’re like, ‘OK, listen, you can dance around, go to a strip club, but at some point, I’m gonna need you to help me save my relationship.’ That’s their request.”
To that end, Tank’s upcoming single will sample “Maybe I Deserve,” reaching back to a golden oldie at a time when R&B radio is packed with throwback tributes, explicit and implicit (see H.E.R.’s “Damage,” Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open,” and Tank’s previous single “Can’t Let It Show”). It’s a chance to “bring 2000 all the way to 2021,” Tank says. And for the first time, fans will also be able to travel through his catalog in reverse, rewinding from 2021 to 2000.