5 Unsung R&B Greats From The 90s
November 02, 2015 at 7:00 am
With so many artists worth remembering, some names are bound to be left out in conversations today. However, fans can go back and discover even more great music from the decade once artists that they forgot about or never gave a listen are brought up. With this in mind, here’s five R&B acts from the ‘90s that should be celebrated more often:
Zhané was a duo of female vocalists — Renée Neufville and Jean Norris — that delivered two classic albums in the ‘90s. Their debut, which was called Pronounced Jah-Nay, received attention off of the strength of the singles “Groove Thang” and “Hey, Mr. DJ.” Both songs were up-tempo tracks made for dancing and one was even featured on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air via Ashley Banks. Yet their album as a whole demonstrated that the group had even more to offer artistically. With “Sending My Love” and “La, La, La,” the duo offered ballads that were thoughtful in content and moving in sound. They even merged their singing with a jazz background on tracks like “Sweet Taste of Love” and “Off My Mind.”
The pair maintained variety in their music on their second album titled Saturday Night. With tracks like “This Song is for You,” the album brought Zhané’s trademark style of ballads – a style that combined soothing harmonies with hip-hop-influenced beats. Calm, stripped down songs such as “My Word is Bond” coexisted with party anthems like the album’s title track featuring the LOX. Zhané also delivered as guest artists when they partnered with Busta Rhymes to make one of the best fusions of hip-hop and R&B to come out in the ‘90s: “It’s a Party.” There’s even a remix of the song done by the Ummah (Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and J Dilla) that’s more relaxed but just as impressive.
In an era of R&B dominated by singing groups, Mint Condition was a break from the norm, a band of musicians with a lead singer in Stokley Williams. The musicianship of the band’s members allowed them to both join in on the trends of R&B at the time and create songs that were distinct from other acts. The band debuted in 1991 with the album Meant to be Mint. Songs from the project, such as “Are You Free,” featured the high energy production of the New Jack Swing style. Yet, some of the most striking songs are the ballads “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)” and “Single to Mingle.” On these songs, the strength of Stokley’s runs is matched by the strength of the band, from the booming sax play of Jeff Allen to the pace-setting drum play of Chris Dave.
Their follow-up effort, From the Mint Factory, lived up to the standard the band set for itself. “Nobody Does it Betta” and other tracks provided an up-tempo, feel-good energy to balance out slow jams like “U Send me Swingin.” A standout from the album is “So Fine,” a song where the sentiment of the lyrics comes through in the band’s passionate performance.
Total was one of many good R&B acts in the Bad Boy camp during the ‘90s. The trio of women was the needed addition of melody on several great rap songs, including Biggie’s“One More Chance (Remix),” Mase’s “What You Want,” and LL Cool J’s “Loungin (Remix).” However, the group delivered on their own songs as well. On “Tell Me,” Total’s harmonies flow smoothly over a sample of The O’Jays. The group also gave a prime example of hip-hop soul on the R&B remix of “No One Else,” one of their biggest hits.
Donell Jones put out two albums in the second half of the decade that were filled with gems. On his debut titled My Heart, Donell included a song called “All About You” that’s funky enough to get listeners dancing, but is still introspective in its lyrics. The album also features a cover of “Knocks Me off My Feet,” a nod from Donell to the legendary Stevie Wonder. On his sophomore effort, Donell delivered a couple of classic songs. The title track, “U Know What’s Up,” is a smooth party cut that called for a remix and got one with the late, great Left-Eye of TLC. In addition, Donell delivered his defining moment as an artist with “Where I Wanna Be,” a ballad with an honest and mature take on the conflict between commitment and temptation in a relationship. The richness of his vocals on the song merges beautifully with an acoustic backdrop.
To some readers, Montell will seem out of place on this list due to the success of “This Is How We Do It,” a song that’s loved by many to this day. However, he belongs here because he usually doesn’t get credit for the rest of his catalog in the ‘90s. Montell’s big hit prompted some people to see him as “just a Rap singer.” He dispelled this notion with many songs from his albums. On “Close the Door,” he covers a song by one of the greats of R&B and soul music – Teddy Pendergrass – and does the song justice. Songs like “Falling” and “Let’s Cuddle Up” can hold their own against any slow jams of the time. Yet, “Bounce 2 This” showed that Montell wasn’t affected enough by criticism to abandon the influence of hip-hop on some of his songs; the song reflects Jordan's California roots and makes for a great party record.
**Honorary Mention** – Carl Thomas
Technically, Carl Thomas misses the cut for the era spoken of in this list since his debut was released in 2000. However, his debut album fits very well with the work of artists remembered from the ‘90s. Emotional features an undeniable classic in “I Wish (I’d Never Met Her).” The premise of the song can be comical, but the lyrics are honest and Carl’s vocals come together really well with the piano-led production. Other standout songs are “Supastar,” an ode to a special woman that shows off Carl’s falsetto and his strong runs, and “Summer Rain,” a serene song that’ll make you look forward to time away on an island.
Those are just to get your mojo going. What are other acts from the 90s you think need more recognition?
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