Maybe it says more about how terrible R&B has gotten than about how great it used to be, but lately, I’ve actually found myself sort of nostalgic for ’00s soul.
Not so much the R&B stars of the aughts who are still putting out the hits (or trying to), but the ones who aren’t, the supernovas who flickered brightly but relatively briefly: Ashanti, Christina Milian (whom I just saw a couple of nights ago doing God knows what on The Voice) and Destiny’s Child. Though solo Beyonce has her moments, there was nothing quite like the new Supremes, starring Beyonce as Diana Ross, Kelly Rowland as Mary Wilson and Michelle Williams as Cindy Birdsong.
I know some soldiers in here (Where they at? Where they at?)
Sing it, sisters (with voices)!
But when it comes to high-quality R&B from back in the day, the last golden era of soul would be the ’90s. Even as some MIA ’90s stars rejoin us in 2012, I’m still stuck back there, somewhere between Toni Braxton’s debut album and Whitney Houston’s My Love Is Your Love, Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411? and Mary. SWV has returned, but I Missed Us, the trio’s recent comeback album, only makes me miss grand old ’90s hits like “Anything” and Can We” even more. (Though not nearly as much as TLC’s 2005 UPN reality show R U the Girl made me miss the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, of whom I was never all that fond.)
Brandy has a great new single called “Put It Down,” but unfortunately, she had to get Chris Brown involved. (If she needed a guest rapper, why not call a real one, like Lil Wayne? Everybody else does.) Give me Brandy vs. Monica every day — not “It All Belongs to Me,” their recent reunion single that went nowhere, “The Boy Is Mine,” the mini-diva summit that spent 13 weeks at No. 1 in 1998.
Meanwhile, Drake, the Canadian rapper with a creepy Aaliyah fixation, is playing a solo game of the girl is mine. Although he never once met Aaliyah before her death 11 years ago, he’s inserted himself into her legacy as executive producer of her upcoming resurrection album. In this case, heaven can’t wait. I think I’d prefer for Aaliyah to continue singing with the angels than for her memory to be used to prop up Drake’s already plus-size ego.
Thanks to my iPod and YouTube, I’ll always have my ’90s memories of Aaliyah and other artists from the decade who live on, though, sadly, not in post-turn-of-the-millennium hits. Here are the ones who continue to move me — mind, body and, of course, soul.
Johnny Gill Every act spawned by New Edition produced at least one big hit that I loved as much as everyone else did: “Roni” by Bobby Brown, “Sensitivity” by Ralph Tresvant, “Do Me!” by Bell Biv DeVoe. But Johnny Gill, a latecomer to New Edition who joined in 1987 after Brown’s departure, gave us the best one.
Changing Faces No group whose first two (and only) Top 10 hits are called “Stroke You Up” and “G.H.E.T.T.O.U.T” is meant to last — even if they are produced by R. Kelly, who was to the ’90s what Timbaland was to the ’00s. But every time I hear “Ladies Man,” a non-hit from 2000, a part of me, the masochistic part who always wants what he can’t and shouldn’t have, shouts, to no one in particular, “Girl, I heard that!”
Zhane Sort of like Changing Faces, only more downtown, in sensible shoes (or barefoot, as on the cover of the duo’s 1997 second and final studio album, Saturday Night), and mentored by Queen Latifah instead of R. Kelly.
R&B Boy Bands: Jodeci, Portrait, Riff, Shai Color Me Badd’s brief early ’90s heyday aside, I’ve never been much into white boy bands — even when they’re trying to act and sound black. And why should I, when the real deal is always so much better?
Lisa Stansfield I’ve listened to her music, seen her perform live several times (once in a blues semi-dive in London), interviewed her, and gotten drunk with her, and I’m still not totally convinced she’s not black.
Tracie Spencer I recently revisited her 1990 album Make The Difference, which was one of the first albums I ever bought on CD. I’m surprised at how well some of the songs hold up, especially considering that Spencer was only 14 at the time.
The Missy Elliott/Timbaland Posse, starring Aaliyah, Ginuine, Nicole Wray and Playa Remember when it was perfectly acceptable to say “posse” (as in My Posse Don’t Do Homework, the original title of the 1995 Michelle Pfieffer film Dangerous Minds, the one that spawned Coolio’s greatest hit, “Gangsta’s Paradise”)? Damn! I miss those days, the days when Missy Elliott still went by “Misdemeanor,” and she and her posse practically ruled the pop and R&B world.
Digable Planets My favorite rap act of the ’90s. Blowout Comb, the 1994 follow-up to Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), the one that contained the jazz-hop trio’s only hit, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” might be my favorite rap album of the ’90s, though I haven’t listened to Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months & Two Days in the Life Of… since 1992.
En Vogue Speaking of 1992, if any hit-making act back then seemed most likely to still be making hits this millennium, I would have put my money on En Vogue, Boyz II Men and, well, Arrested Development. Goes to show how little I knew.
R&B Girl Groups: Brownstone, Jade, Total, Xscape Not quite in a class of their own the way En Vogue was, but so many sisters with voices didn’t sound so harmonious singing in unison since the ’60s, when Crystals, Ronettes, Shangri-La’s, Marvelettes, Vandellas and, of course, Supremes, all roamed the earth.