To people of a certain age, the 90s represent a peak in contemporary R&B. There were 80s-holdover superstars like Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson doing great stuff, the emergence of male vocal groups like Boyz II Men and 112; female groups like TLC and SWV, grown folks’ music from the likes of Gerald Levert and Regina Belle; as well as hip-hop-drenched anthems being released by everybody from Bell Biv Devoe to Mary J. Blige.
But what about the great stuff that you don’t hear mentioned as much anymore?
For every Jodeci or Aaliyah, there was a Today or a Jazzyfatnastees; talented acts who just somehow didn’t quite make the kind of impact one would’ve expected at the time. And beyond underrated artists, there was a plethora of great albums that have somehow fallen through the cracks. There were great albums released by established hitmakers that somehow still flew below the radar (like Life’s Aquarium by Mint Condition) and up-and-coming singer-songwriters that seemed to get lost in the shuffle (remember ???); and it says a lot for how much albums matter nowadays that so many have been nearly forgotten in the years since.
So to celebrate the awesomeness of the decade that gave us everything from Clear Pepsi to finger waves, here are 10 of the most underrated, underappreciated, underacknowledged R&B albums of the 1990s.
“Long Time No See” (1997)
The youngest of the acclaimed (and troubled) Debarge siblings, Chico famously short-circuited his fledgling music career in the late 80s when he was sentenced to prison for drug trafficking. Re-emerging near the end of the 1990s and landing with neo-soul maverick Kedar Massenberg, Debarge delivered one of the period’s best R&B albums; a hybrid that has one foot in D’Angelo’s soulful grooves and the other in Usher’s kinetic hip-hop production.
The quintet broke big in 1992 with their Lose Control album and it’s inescapable hit single “Freak Me.” But their second album failed to match the fire of the first–and that’s a shame. The group delivered an album that built on their debut’s template, but also showed that they were growing musically. This would be more evident on 1999s Tonight, but it’s clear that “grown ‘n sexy” Silk starts here.
“Niice ‘n Wiild” (1992)
The multi-instrumentalist had a No. 1 R&B hit in “Turned Away” from his 1989 debut album Chuckii, but it took three years for him to deliver a follow-up. The result was this 1992 collection; a mix of thumping New Jack Swing and Prince-esque jam-driven funk. One of R&B’s most under-recognized talents, Booker even scored another No. 1 hit from this project with “Games,” co-written by Gerald Levert.
“Ladies Edition, Woman’s World” (1997)
A long way from the horndog come-ons of their early career, the trio of Shazam, G.I. and the late Dino finally grew into themselves on their third album and final release in their original configuration. Building on a concept of respect for women after making their name with hits like “Knockin’ Da Boots,” H-Town made an album that sounded like where Jodeci might’ve gone had they not taken their extended hiatus around the same time.
“Adriana Evans” (1997)
An amazing singer-songwriter that had long been linked with rapper Dred Scott, Evans’ debut should’ve been one of the early “neo soul” breakout stories. It’s a cool mix of mature jazz inflections and classic soul touches, a nuanced take on a genre that was still in it’s early stages in 1997. After the album stalled commercially, Evans took an extended break, returning in 2004 with the Afrobeat-influenced Nomadic.
Organized Noize had produced some of the most acclaimed hip-hop of the mid-90s, but the guys behind OutKast and Goodie Mob stepped out front–and into different territory–with this crew of musicians and their soulfully lush, imaginative debut album. The album didn’t get much attention in 1995, but it’s another project that set the stage for what would soon be branded “neo soul.”
“Saturday Night” (1997)
This duo of Philadelphia-raised songbirds had seen major success with their 1994 debut album Pronounced Jah-Nay and hit soundtrack appearances (their cover of “Shame” from the forgettable action-comedy Low Down Dirty Shame was a standout) and a memorable Busta Rhymes collabo (“It’s A Party”) on their resume. But for whatever reason, this follow-up album failed to repeat that success. Odd–considering it builds on the promise of their debut–and showcases Renee and Jean as two truly remarkable talents.
“Plantation Lullabies” (1993)
The singer-songwriter was a breath of fresh air in 1993. An artist unconcerned with the conventional boundaries that the industry placed on black music, Ndegeocello hit big with “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” and her album was as fully-realized a creative statement as any debut ever released. Funky and accessible without ever feeling even a little bit compromised, she forged a template for left-leaning artists to break out of the box.
“Groove Theory” (1995)
Another album that should be mentioned as a harbinger of the neo soul wave that was about to burst, this mid-90s classic was a smoothly urbane mix of Amel Lerriuex’s wistful vocals and the programmed grooves of producer Bryce Wilson. Pushing past where hip-hop soul had been up to that point towards something that felt a little more classic, the debut album from Groove Theory may not have sparked a movement, but it was an important moment in that movement’s development.
A seminal trio led by the late Kenny Greene, Intro was at the forefront of New Jack Swing’s evolution into hip-hop soul. More celebrated albums like What’s the 411? mainstreamed that sound and cemented the transition out of NJS, but Intro was another release that was right there breaking ground to lesser acclaim. Greene’s gifts as a songwriter and producer are evident on virtually every track here and, in hit singles like “Let Me Be the One” and “Love Thang,” you can hear where R&B was about to go over the next few years. It’s a must-have for anyone who loves the sound and attitude of quintessentially 90s R&B music.