I’m a ’90s girl.
I grew up when Brandy, Monica and Aaliyah were “it” girls, who first enabled my habit of expressing myself to crushes in “four-page letters” (like when I told Andre he was “one in a million” in 6th grade: “Baby, you don’t know what you do to me; between me and you, I feel a chemistry”). Back when girl power reigned supreme.
It was the greatest era in R&B, and female voices provided the soundtrack to my adolescence—when my hardest decisions were whether to dance to Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” or SWV’s “I’m So Into You” at the school talent show, or which music video to order on “The Box.”
But these days, the legacies of so many beloved 90s R&B stars are tarnished by lawsuits, bankruptcy, substance abuse, jail stints and tragic deaths. Earlier this week, R&B singer Angie Stone, who made her solo debut in the late ’90s, was arrested for allegedly knocking her 30-year-old daughter’s teeth out with a metal jewelry stand. The incident happened a week after Charmayne Maxwell of ’90s R&B group Brownstone was found bleeding profusely from a cut to her neck (from a broken wine glass?!) and died.
At a time when R&B is on life support and American artists hardly make soulful music anymore (acts from across the pond are filling that void), I’m forced to ask the same question 702 sang in ’99, “Where My Girls At?” Because over the past decade-and-a-half, the state of R&B, as I once knew it, hasn’t been looking too good.
For two days, Angie Stone, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and former D’Angelo collaborator (“Brown Sugar” and the critically acclaimed “Voodoo” albums), topped Facebook and Twitter trends, and made headlines on TMZ, CNN, E!, and USA Today over a domestic spat. Her best PR hit in years? Ever? Because how often do R&B singers make headlines? Toni Braxton Files For Bankruptcy (For the Second Time). Lauryn Hill Goes to Jail for Tax Evasion. Best-Selling Girl Group of All-Time Crowd Funds Final Album. And the most tragic in recent years, Whitney Houston Found Dead In Bathtub.
When I think of the legacy of women in R&B, the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes of TLC, echoes from the Last Days of Left Eye documentary: “It was always like, ‘Dang, why everything gotta happen to us?’ ‘Why does it always have to be us?’”
If they’re lucky, they’ll get cast in a reality show, like TV One’s R&B Divas (Angie Stone did). And if they’re really lucky, they’ll be remembered with a Lifetime or VH1 biopic. Talk about a real tragedy.
The biggest ’90s R&B star to come out on top is Mary J. Blige, but not without years of battling substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and relationship woes, chronicled in her 13 albums to date. She has sold over 50 million albums and spawned a sub-genre of hip-hop soul, where the likes of Keyshia Cole, K. Michelle, Elle Varner and Jazmine Sullivan dwell. But they may never be as big as their predecessors once were.
With her latest album, “The London Sessions,” Blige decided to switch up her style by tapping hit makers across the pond, like British duo Disclosure and Grammy darling Sam Smith. The Queen of Hip Soul told NPR Music last December that she felt “Stagnant. Stuck. Stale.”. But even in her evolution, she will always remain grounded in her roots.
“I am my roots. There is no, ‘How do you remain connected?’ I am it. You cannot disconnect from something that you are, unless you’re acting like you’re not it anymore.”