It all started with the Holy Grail of office background noise—the “ ’90s R&B” Pandora station. What’s typically a faint buzz of New Jack Swing synthesizers glossed over by email chimes and keyboard taps became an instant let’s just jam for a second session with just one note.
Kicked off by the rugged, soulful, Southern drawl of K-Ci from the 1990s bad-boy band Jodeci beautifully begging a nameless woman to let him holla, I was instantly transported to the days of box tops, hats to the back, and the unmatched bliss of watching my favorite artists lip-synch and perform choreographed eight-counts under manufactured rain.
Just one line in and I thought, “Man, I miss this.” A few seconds later, the beat dropped as the blended vocals of K-Ci, JoJo, DeVante and Dalvin laced the track and I thought, “Man, I really miss this.” There’s something about vibing out to a trio or quartet of same-sexed individuals rocking slightly altered versions of the same outfit while belting out catchy love songs in four-part harmony that makes life a little better.
The ’60s had the Supremes and the Temptations; the ’80s stole the 1970s’ Jackson 5 and regurgitated them via New Edition into the ’80s. The ’90s had just about any group of guys who could dance to a New Jack Swing beat. And the ’90s-2000s also gave us the reign of Destiny’s Child, who the world will always be indebted to for its spawning of the creature that is Beyoncé.
But this generation? Well, I doubt Mindless Behavior and the OMG Girlz are poised to bear the cross of R&B do-wop-pop-pop just yet, so by default I guess Gen Y calls dibs on the next One Direction R&B remix or… Danity Kane?
Whether it’s the Temptations or Total, Boyz II Men or B2K, it really doesn’t get any better than seeing a group jamming on the one in perfect harmony. Nostalgic, yes. But also reassuring to know that some degree of talent and work was applied in the studio versus Auto-Tuned vocals and artists forced to harmonize with themselves. It’s also equally reassuring to know you’ll seldom have to battle with a friend over which member of the group you’ll marry because there’s someone for everyone. (Sigh… I digress.) Like DeVonte’s ponytail circa last week’s Soul Train Awards, these days seem long gone.
Of course, there will always be the next best YouTube sensation turned 106 & Park 15-minute celebrity. But the true titans of the game have apparently come and gone.
Even the Grammys, supposedly music’s number one badge of true artisanship, no longer recognizes R&B groups as a legitimate musical category. In 2012, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences eliminated Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, lumping it and other miscellaneous rhythm and blues singers and collaborations into the Best R&B Performance category. Shade? Arguable.
But in the NARAS’s defense, it’s tough to justify a category whose strongest and virtually only competitors are Diddy – Dirty Money and TGT. Even the BET Awards stretched its wings beyond its bandwidth this year to pay homage to the dying genre, nominating acts like A$AP Mob and Young Money for Best Group.
So what brought about the death of music’s beloved soulful bunch of guys and girls? I personally blame the slew of ’90s R&B groups. While there were some notable groups in the 2000s, the ’90s were really the genre’s last decent hoorah. Maybe the oversized baseball jerseys, tinted glasses and begging every girl or guy to stay was just too much for one decade to handle.
Besides, the love of music can only prevail for so long. Presumably, when you factor in multiple personalities branded as one, double the entourage and a fraction of the royalties, the so-called good life just isn’t so good. As my favorite record industry insider course Behind the Music (taught by professor Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez) once showed us, it’s hard to pocket a decent dollar after profits are divvied up by lawyers, recording costs, rights fees and more by three.
And at the end of the day, all an entertainer really wants is good music, a closet full of red bottoms, and a house on the hill for mama. And unless you’re selling albums at double the rate of a solo artist, spending idle time touring the world and keeping a major side hustle in your pocket at all times, chances are you can’t afford to live the group life your entire career.
I get it: mo’ money, mo’ problems. But music gods, give us something. A Drifters digitized greatest hits, a K.P. & Envyi concert reunion, a Jagged Edge neighborhood tour, anything. The magic that happens when brothers and sisters with voices blend their talents and share them with the world is just too good to pass up. Besides, the En Vogue Christmas special will only hold us for so long.