If you’re like me, 90s R&B holds a special place in your heart. There’s a good chance you had your first memorable dance getting it in to some New Jack Swing. The first time you felt like you were really grown might have been when you connected with the heartbreak and longing that Toni Braxton made so real. Even if you barely remember the era, you recognize the ingenuity largely absent from the current landscape of mainstream R&B. However, as the music ages, we must acknowledge a simple truth: 90s R&B jacked up our concepts of romantic relationships. Looking back, it’s been a hard thing to accept. Watching MTV Jams with Bill Bellamy is what broke me out of a spell in a religiously fundamental household. But now that I have had some actual adult romantic experience and look back at the lyrics, some of what we were singing along with is stuff you wouldn’t put up with at all. 90’s (and early 00’s) R&B is largely a live soundtrack for Viacom reality shows
Look at the recurring Twitter meme of $200 dates. While extravagant, most of the pushback is from dudes who think going out is an expensive way to get some. When you have songs like Guy ‘Let’s Chill‘ and Xscape ‘Just Kickin’ It,’ why make the effort? As soon as Faith Evans gets home from work (and supporting your broke ass), she’s gonna make it up to you anyway. Good ole Next did a double hit to conventional courtship with ‘Too Close‘ and ‘Wifey.’ In the first, they make inappropriate contact an acceptable come on. Then they turn and make a non-committal term an actual aspiration. That mindset gets some reinforcement with Jagged Edge ‘Let’s Get Married.’ “Hey girl, we’ve been doing this thing for a while so we might as well get our papers. I’ll see you at the church.” C’mon son.
I can understand why JE could get to that point. Another common thread with the music of this period is the prevalence of cheating. Certainly, Whitney Houston had already dropped the Sidechick National Anthem with ‘Saving All My Love For You‘ and Shirley Murdock took us through the nuances of stepping out with ‘As We Lay.’ But that led to some epic amounts of LOSS (Looking Over Shoulder Syndrome). TLC laid it bare with ‘Creep‘ announcing that if one was going to step out, expect it right back. The Missy Elliott–Timbaland camp had a pretty good run built on infidelity (Ginuwine ‘What’s So Different‘, Aaliyah ‘If Your Girl Only Knew‘, Nicole Wray ‘Make It Hot‘). And you had Joe telling your lady about all the things he would do that you weren’t taking care of. Or even Usher on ‘My Way.’
Matter of fact, Usher’s entire career is predicated on emotional insecurity, His first single ‘Think Of You‘ has him longing for his old love. His breakthrough hit ‘You Make Me Wanna‘ is based on leaving the girl he is with again. On the next first single ‘U Remind Me‘, he can’t even move forward cause he’s still hung up on the last girl. Go through his list of singles and name the ones that are actually about being happy in a relationship that aren’t about having sex. Yeah I know. Short list. And this was the most successful male artist of the period.
There’s a host of reasons for the change. For one, we do grow up and a lot of these songs are just honest representations of what’s been going on in our communities for years. And that honesty was heavily driven by the melding of hip-hop with R&B. During the 90s, these became almost inseparable. And hip-hop is about telling pretty colorful stories with a host of drama. R&B just adapted this mindset. Part of the reason the neo-soul genre was even created was to separate from what was taking over the mainstream. Before the 90s, neo-soul was called Adult Contemporary. Look at a song like ‘Bug A Boo’ from Destiny’s Child. The amount of detail in that song is pretty staggering when you compare it to previous incarnations of the music. In the past, heartbreak was referenced with a general “You did me wrong.” Songs like ‘Bug A Boo‘ and ‘No Scrubs‘ run laundry lists of specific offensive behavior. We basically made ‘drama’ our vernacular. True love is an anomaly in this landscape.
And we have been reaping this jaded attitude in the next generation. Drama or partying is an almost necessary component to get a single out. Mario had the 8th biggest single of the millennium’s first decade basically telling a girl to leave her man. Chris Brown came on the scene cowardly asking a girl on the dance floor if her man was around. And then promptly sweeps her off the floor with his dizzying array of dance moves. Omarion openly tells the object of his affection that she’s not the only one that he’s dating and even has the hubris to say “Hey you might end up as my only girl eventually. It really looks promising.” All the while Ne-Yo is so sick of love songs and also drafted Rihanna to hate the notion of loving someone. Because being happy and able to be vulnerable in a relationship are detestable states.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I still love the music. If you play these songs for me, I will be singing and/or dancing along. They still represent an innovative time in the advancement of Black music. But we can’t deny what it did to our generation’s perspectives of love as we’ve grown up. And also what the next generation prioritizes when it comes to the same thing. Hope springs eternal that we breed more artists who can handle all of the nuances of love like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Anita Baker. Admission is the first step to recovery.
I want to hear your thoughts though. What songs do you look back from this period and think, “What the hell was I singing?”