The Nineties were a golden era for R&B, a time when hip-hop and soul music joined forces to bridge gaps and create new sounds. Today, singers like Summer Walker, Partynextdoor, and Bryson Tiller all draw inspiration from the music recorded back then, making a period that ended 20 years ago feel timeless.
D’ Angelo, “Lady”
The Grammy-award-winning singer-songwriter delivered an uptempo, feel-good single for his 1995 debut album, Brown Sugar. Listen to it now, and you can almost hear it blasting as you pass by a BBQ or a wedding reception, with D’Angelo’s honeyed vocals hanging in the air as he sings “Youuuuu’re my ladyyyyyy/You’re my laaaaady.”
Brandy, “I Wanna Be Down”
Brandy’s 1994 debut album helped shape the sound of R&B for years to come. As a teen, her voice of vulnerability paired with tasteful melodies helped create a signature sound that’s gone on to influence everyone from Jhene Aiko to Ari Lennox. On “I Wanna Be Down,” she executes that sound flawlessly.
When it comes to Nineties R&B, it’s impossible to ignore the impact of girl groups. SWV’s 1992 debut album, It’s About Time, featured standout hits like “Weak” and “So Into You” that showcased a new form of harmonizing, and “Downtown” is a shining example of the trio’s vocal style.
Usher, “You Make Me Wanna”
Before Usher reached a new level of stardom in the early 2000s, he was a teen phenom who landed three Number One hits in the Nineties. One of the best was 1997’s “You Make Me Wanna,” the smoldering Jermaine Dupri-produced track that helped ensure the 19-year-old singer’s place in music.
Aaliyah, “I Don’t Wanna”
Aaliyah’s soothing vocals, matched with her poised demeanor and understated style, made her one in a million. Her empathy and honesty made her one of the Nineties’ most relatable stars, and “I Don’t Wanna” — first released toward the end of the decade on the Next Friday soundtrack — is a glimpse into a musical genius gone too soon.
Mary J. Blige, “Share My World”
After emerging in the early Nineties alongside Jodeci and P.Diddy to reshape modern R&B, Mary J. Blige continued to define a sound filled with pain and love. “Share My World,” the title track on her third album, released in 1997, shows her growth as a singer in full mastery of her voice.
Faith Evans, “You Used to Love Me”
Within the first 20 seconds of Faith Evans’ “You Used to Love Me,” you get that nostalgic feeling of heartfelt emotion — the same one you might get listening to a classic song by Etta James or Aretha Franklin. It’s a highlight of the New Jersey artist’s 1995 debut.
Jodeci, “My Heart Belongs to U”
This North Carolina group has served as an inspiration for many of the boy bands and singers of today. Their gospel-tinted runs, matched with their hip-hop style, helped define a new direction for the R&B genre; you can hear echoes of this style in the music of artists such as Jacquees and Ty Dolla $ign. This sincere ballad was featured on Jodeci’s second album, 1993’s Diary of a Mad Band, and has since been sampled by Drake, Ciara, and others.
702, “Get It Together”
With help from Missy Elliot, 702 took a prominent role in helping dance and soul music blend. But on the Donell Jones-produced track “Get It Together,” they step away to make a dreamy slow-jam anthem.
Jon B., “They Don’t Know”
Following in the footsteps of his predecessor Babyface, Jon B. taps back into an emotional ballad sound you might be more accustomed to hearing from the Eighties. “Don’t listen to what people say/They don’t know about you and me,” sings Jon B. “Put it out your mind, ’cause it’s jealousy/They don’t know about this here.” You can almost picture him singing these words in the rain — a missing element in today’s R&B.