Not 'The End of the Road' for '90s R&B

Watch Boyz II Men perform live on "Good Morning America" this morning!

ByIMAEYEN IBANGA via via logo
June 19, 2008, 12:05 PM

June 19, 2008 — -- The decade that brought grunge to the masses, put a stake in hair metal's heart and pushed hip-hop to the forefront of music culture also proved an especially fruitful decade for rhythm and blues.

During the 1990s, R&B dominated radio playlists, experienced record-breaking sales and provided consumers with a taste reminiscent of Motown's early years, while mixing in contemporary flavor.

"There are some times in musical history when there's like a perfect storm of music," Vibe magazine editor-in-chief Danyel Smith said. "There's just moments sometimes where everything coalesces."

For African-American R&B artists, that time seemed to be the '90s. In fact, in its January issue, Vibe, a music and lifestyle magazine, named 1993 R&B's best year ever.

By year's end, Whitney Houston claimed Billboard's No. 1 spot on the Hot 100 chart with "I Will Always Love You," with Janet Jackson's "That's The Way Love Goes" coming in at No. 4.

"It was just giving us a chance," comedian and actor Godfrey said. "Once we got a chance it was over; that was it."

Artists like Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Mariah Carey, En Vogue and R. Kelly alerted the world that R&B would not get lost or slowly give way to upcoming genres.

"I think it's an unheralded golden age of songwriting and production and performance," Smith said.

Of all of the artists associated with the period, one of the most popular was Boyz II Men. The quartet used its barbershop-inspired sounds to sweetly woo music lover's ears, allowing their vocal blends to take center stage.

"They're the balladeers of the 90s," Smith said. "Every slow song, every graduation, frankly, any song you would play at a wedding or a funeral — they were the soundtrack you would play to a lot people's lives," Smith said.

The group seemed to bank hit after hit, including "End of the Road," "I'll Make Love to You" and "In the Still of the Night." Their predisposition for chart-topping singles was so prolific that the group racked up five No.1 R&B singles between 1992 and 1997.

"They were great balladeers, they all had great voices," Godfrey said. "They were almost like doo-wop."

In 1995 the group's duet with Mariah Carey, "One Sweet Day," gave it the No. 1 record for 16 consecutive weeks.

Nathan Morris, Michael McCary, Shawn Stockman and Wanya Morris (who has no relation to Nathan) had voices that covered the gamut. From McCary's deeply distinct voice, to Stockman's falsettos and Wanya Morris' bravado, the "Boys" proved boy bands could do more than just sing a bubble gum pop tune.

"The brought doo-wop, hip-hop R&B together," Godfrey said.

With more than 60 million albums sold to date, the Grammy-winning singers have etched a spot permanently in R&B history.

Boyz II Men may have never experienced such rapid and astounding success without its predecessor Bell Biv DeVoe. The trio, which was comprised of former New Edition members Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe, brought an edge to the scene.

"They just had more of a hip-hop mentality," Smith said.

Whereas the clean-cut New Edition was about singing sugary sweet romance songs like "Telephone Man" and "Candy Girl," the then grown up BBD was not afraid to take a more explicit stance on matters of the heart and the group had no qualms about showing off its street credentials.

"They put the swagger in the 90s," Godfrey said. "They said, 'Let's just get down and dirtier on an R&B tip.'"

The crooners belted out hits like "Do Me" and "Poison," where they dished out relationship advice to a hipper audience. Even today, there are people who could "never trust a big butt and smile" because "the situation is serious."

"They taught you how to do it right," Godfrey said.

BBD taught men how to talk to and woo women when "we didn't even want girlfriends," he added.

"[BBD] had you watching out for chicks. The chicks were no good," the comedian joked. "[You've] got to be careful; the girl is poison."

The band's club-thumping anthems were part of Bivins producer instincts, which allowed him to recognize a younger demographic that wanted more swagger with its soul music, Smith said.

It also was Bivins business insight that lead him to discover the decade's biggest group — Boyz II Men.

"They just had more of a hip-hop mentally," Smith said. "It's those three just having their fun."

Some critics have called their brand of R&B misogynistic, but to some fans the group always will be the boys from Boston out to have some fun.

Before he became infamous for his acquittal on 14 child pornography counts, R. Kelly primarily was known as the pied piper of R&B, and the '90s is where he got his start.

He wasn't a solo singer originally. He began the decade as part of R. Kelly and Public Announcement, which netted Kelly the hits "Honey Love" and "Dedicated."

But it was the Chicago singer's solo efforts that would catapult him to superstardom.

"I think that anybody who had any sense could tell he was a musical genius," Smith said. "He had a lot of charisma."

Kelly's '90s singles varied from the suggestive, like "Bump N Grind" and "Down Low," to the inspirational, like "I Believe I Can Fly."

That variety is party what fueled his success.

He gets nasty and then gets romantic, Godfrey said.

"R. Kelly — look at what he's done. All his music is so great," he added. "You can tell he always evolves. He always keeps his stuff so soulful."

Godfrey called the singer a modern-day Teddy Pendergrass or Charlie Wilson.

Often sexual themes saturated Kelly's music and lyrics.

"We're about like grown-man stuff. R. Kelly sings about grown man stuff," Godfrey said. "I don't care who you are, you got to have a little nasty in you."

And many have joked Kelly's tendency to sing the hits may have been what saved him from serving jail time.

"I would have said not guilty too, listening to that music," Godfrey said.

While African-American men did have an abundance of success on the popular music scene during the '90s, it was a woman who ruled the decade.

Whitney Houston was America's princess and THE superstar of the time. The Newark, N.J., singer comes from R&B royalty — the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston and cousin to Dionne Warwick.

"Whitney is a unicorn," Smith said. "She's like a fairy princess. She's from another planet. That voice is a gift from God. You almost have to take her out of the group and compare everyone else."

Music industry executive Clive Davis crafted Houston's spotless image and served as an architect for her career, which resulted in massive success.

"Clive Davis groomed her to be one of the top-selling artists in musical history," Godfrey said. "She could do no wrong. She had a great voice. She was good looking."

While the '80s gave the world a glimpse of Whitney's greatness with songs like "Greatest Love of All" and "Saving All My Love for You," her tunes had poppier roots during that time.

While never hidden, her soulfulness took center stage in the '90s. Houston wracked up a bevy of crossover hits.

And the songbird had a knack for making songs her own. She made listeners forget "I Will Always Love You" originally was a Dolly Patron country song. The single, which was the biggest sensation on the already hit-filled "Bodyguard" soundtrack, cemented her place atop the industry with a single note.

And even when Houston faced her toughest times publicly in the 2000s (which included stints in rehab, her father's death and a divorce), fans stood by her.

"Nobody wants anything but good things for Whitney Houston because she's given too much of herself," said Smith, who is eager to here a new album from the star. "I don't believe Whitney has had her biggest hit yet."

Godfrey agreed.

"People still cheer for Whitney Houston," he said. "I know people want her to do well."

But if there's one endearing image from the height of Houston's career, it's her 1991 performance at Super Bowl XXV when she sang the national anthem in a sweat suit and white headband. She began the only artist to turn "The Star Spangled Banner" into a hit.

Houston wasn't the only big-voiced diva dominating the decade.

Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston are two sides of the same coin, Godfrey said.

"She's like a modern-day Minnie Ripperton," he added.

Carey, who outperformed the King of rock and roll himself when she clocked her 18th No.1 single in April, was a more reserved performer in the early 90s, belting out ballads like "Vision of Love" and "Love Takes Time."

"Everybody was infatuated with her eight million octave voice," Smith joked.

But as the young siren matured, so did her style and melodies. The songstress embraced rap and hip-hop in her songs and videos, according to Smith.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in her video for the song "Honey," which caught some fans off guard as a sexier, sultry Carey debuted in 1997.

And, according to Godfrey, Carey's art didn't suffer when her persona changed.

"She still has her voice," he said. "When you are talented, your talent keeps you in the game."

"You have a lot of microwave artists who have the look, but not the talent," he added.

What many people forget is that Carey is a singer and songwriter, Smith said.

"She is not a joke," she added.

Like her contemporary Carey, Janet Jackson used the 1990s to display a more adult and edgier image.

"We know Janet as Penny from 'Good Times,' 'Fame' and she was Todd Bridges' girlfriend on 'Diff'rent Strokes,'" Godfrey said. "But she was trying to let people know, 'I'm sexy. I want you to look at me and get excited.'"

Also like Carey, Jackson used a music video to show off her new femme fatale image — complete with a sizzling new physique. The black and white "Love Will Never Do Without You" video in 1991 altered how the singer was viewed by nearly everyone.

"That's when we all knew she wasn't Michael Jackson's sister anymore," Smith said. "She didn't seem nervous at all. The first time she didn't seem self-conscious."

The youngest Jackson also provided a visable image for African-American girls as one of the only minority artists featured on MTV.

"She did her thing in the 90s. There's no question about that," Smith said.

Today young Jackson wannabes often cite her as an influence.

"Any time you see Rhianna, Aaliyah, Ciara — all these young women always say, 'When I was growing up, I was watching Janet Jackson videos and I wanted to be her.'"

While today's tweens and teens have Ciara and Rhianna, in the 1990s another African-American singer who used only one moniker served as the young sensation.

Brandy wanted to "be down with you" and certainly fans were down with her.

"She had a lot of hits," Smith said. "Brandy has an amazing voice. She had a lot of charisma."

"Sitting Up In My Room" and "Have You Ever" were radio-friendly tunes that endeared Brandy to a wide audience.

"You didn't see a lot of black girls singing like that, really," Godfrey said.

Unlike pop starlets of today, Brandy Norwood avoided controversy including drugs, showing off her private parts or passing out in public — thanks in part to her momager Sonja Bates-Norwood.

Yet unlike some of the aformentioned stars, Brandy doesn't get as much credit for success, according to Smith.

"I always feel like R&B artist don't make a lot of noise and sometimes people forget," she said. "But you got to respect the architect."

The ladies of TLC burst on the scene "Oooooohh… on the TLC tip" in 1992 and went on to become the biggest selling female group of the decade. At first the trio embodied a playful vibe that included brightly colored, oversized clothing and a tomboy attitude.

"They were kind of like the little bad girls that get off the playground," Godfrey said. "They were basically punking dudes."

Never afraid to tackle serious issues, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez donned a condom as an eye patch in their early videos to promote safe sex, all while maintaining playfulness.

"[They were] young African-American women so cocky and self-confident and tomboy a little bit and very comfortable in their hip-hop while still being R&B," Smith said.

The combination of T-Boz, Left Eye and Chili allowed fans to have a favorite. T-Boz' deep raspy voice, Left Eye's raps or Chili's pop sensibilities combined on songs like "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" and "What About Your Friends."

While group tensions threatened to break the group apart, TLC managed to stay together — even when one of its members burned down a boyfriend's Atlanta mansion. Their career was as hot as their fire within.

"You really heard their life in their music," Godfrey said.

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