Monthly Archives: August 2013


In 1991, at the age of 12, a girl named Aaliyah signed a record deal with Jive Records.  When I was 12 I was drooling over all my Harry Potter volumes and complaining about food getting stuck in my orthodontia, but I digress.  The point is that this girl was clearly unusually talented with her gentle, ethereal vocals – this was made all the more clear when, in 1994, her debut album ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number’ was released.

There was some weird controversy about what exactly was going down with Aaliyah and the producer for the album, R Kelly, who she purportedly illegally married…Potential weirdness of her personal affairs aside, the album was a clear indicator that a star was born.  While it is, in my opinion, far from Aaliyah’s best work, it very much marks the beginning of that new sound which would typify ’90s R&B.; those swinging beats and smooth, gentle-as-a-caress keyboards, all topped off with those beautiful, harmonious vocals.  There’s whispering and romance and it’s all a little bit cheesy and coolly theatrical with just the right amount of fierce attitude – such was the R&B of the ’90s, and it was great.

And I think if there’s an artist whose oeuvre really encapsulates what R&B in the ’90s and early ’00s was as a whole, it has to be Aaliyah.  We go from that gentle but not necessarily that innovative-sounding soulful pop at the beginning of her career to her moving record labels and getting a new producer who would essentially define what good, interesting R&B was.  I’m talking, of course, of the wonderful Timbaland with his Midas touch.  Aaliyah’s second album, ‘One in a Million’ was produced by the incredible combination of him and Missy Elliott and suddenly the music got a bit strange; weird, sparse, staccato instrumentation; jaunty, otherworldly vocals.  And man, it was amazing.

Timbaland’s fantastic production went one further on Aaliyah’s eponymous third album – the final one released in her sadly short lifetime.  ‘Aaliyah’ is a genuinely incredible album.  Middle-eastern flavours, rich and weird instrumentation and Aaliyah’s ridiculously pretty vocals floating above it all.  This was new, it was exciting and experimental; it was a direction that I think is only really being rekindled now in the genre, over ten years later.  It is not an exaggeration to say that it is among my favourite albums and this remains one of my all-time favourite songs:

That strange eastern vibe, those sublime vocals; this song never stops striking me afresh with how excellent Aaliyah was.  The lyrics got more interesting as she got older too – more clandestine, more sensual.

I could go on for a good while singing the girl’s praises but, in short: if you want to know about solo female R&B artists of the ’90s and early ’00s, Aaliyah had the whole package.


“This is part of your carefully crafted music blog writing alternative persona. So alternative you swing far left enough to traverse the spectrum picking up terribly trashy pop music in the process but making it at the same time an acceptable part of your image.”

I laughed when a friend described my musical tastes as such, because I didn’t think it was a view that anyone would sincerely hold about what I listen to.  But then I recently read an excellent article over on Stereogum about The O.C. and the gentrification of indie rock .  It proposes that, in an age where there seems to be something akin to a landfill of indie guitar bands, to be interested in guitar rock is just not, well, that interesting.  At one point the article notes, “if you want to pop wheelies on the zeitgeist, you dabble in EDM or R&B or hip-hop or black metal — anything but indie rock”.  I don’t think whether it’s “cool” or not will ever affect just how much I love, say, The Strokes – nor should it; it’s a horrendous notion.  You love the music you love, regardless of how it’s perceived by others.  Similarly, then, I would hate for anyone to think that my love of R&B and pop is feigned for the purposes of looking alternative or something similarly ridiculous.

While there were certainly Bollywood songs I knew when I was little and while my dad loves telling the story of how I used to sit in the bathroom singing 2 Become 1 to myself when I was four, the R&B of the ’90s and early ’00s is, I think, the first music I ever properly fell in love with of my own accord.  A significant number of my CDs are from the genre – off the top of my head, there are singles and albums by the likes of Brandy, Destiny’s Child and Mary J. Blige amongst the stacks in my room.  When I was nine I was considering getting a Kelly Rowland hair cut.  Sister Sister wasn’t just a TV show, it was a lifestyle choice (and can be heavily credited for my love of Blackstreet and all things Motown).  At the age of ten a friend and I once did a very questionable dance routine to Christina Milian in a school assembly.  This music is always going to mean a lot to me – though perhaps less so the music of Ms Milan.

So yes, I thought it was about time I expressed my adoration for the genre and address it with the proper affection it deserves by writing a series of posts primarily about ’90s and ’00s R&B.  I’ll be taking a chronological look at the ladies, the fellas, the groups – and, well, realistically that’s about it, but we’ll see – over the coming week or so.

First off, though, I thought an introduction of sorts was necessary.  What exactly is R&B?  An older generation might rightly associate it with African-American funk and soul and jazz – that’s certainly the original Rhythm and Blues, and where the name comes from.  But from the ’80s onwards, the name began to cover something a little different – contemporary R&B was and is a much more electronic-based genre with a lush and polished (if occasionally a bit urban and gritty) sound that, generally speaking, has a lot of crossover with what’s going on in hip-hop at the same time.  It’s such exciting, varied music, with artists taking hold of the original Rhythm and Blues sounds and using them in completely new ways.

So yes.  I hope the next few posts do justice to this excellent period of this excellent genre.

Here’s a little gem to whet your appetites:


Also, click here for the link to a top quality mid-90s R&B mixtape by Onra and Lexis, which will similarly help you get down in preparation for the coming posts.