Cross-pollinating influences from generations past of rock n’ roll, jazz, country and rhythm and blues (R&B), the artists of the '90s redefined what American popular music sounds like today.
Filled with legendary artists and timeless albums across genres, the '90s was an iconic time in music history. Grunge, alternative rock and pop-punk music came to life, birthing legends like Nirvana, Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers and blink-182, while the rise of feminism gifted us iconic female pop singer-songwriters like Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman and Sarah McLachlan.
But perhaps one of the most iconic and influential genres of '90s music is soul-infused R&B. There's truly something special about '90s R&B: The collision of rap with new jack swing, gospel and soul reshaped what those genres once sounded like, allowing for what is truly one of the best times in music.
And the women of '90s R&B? Unreal. Here are some of the most legendary female R&B artists of the '90s:
Lauryn Hill’s 1998 debut album, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," earned 10 Grammy nominations and five wins, including Album of the Year, and Best R&B Album and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for “Doo Wop (That Thing).” She is also credited as the first woman to win five or more Grammys in a single night, as well as the first hip-hop album to win Album of the Year.
This album is so iconic that just this past Tuesday, more than 20 years since its release, it officially reached diamond status, selling 10 million copies, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Three of her singles also were certified platinum on the same day.
Her songs are constantly returning to new-age music, with artists like Drake, who sampled “Ex-Factor” in his 2018 track “Nice For What,” and J. Cole, who sampled “To Zion” in his 2013 track “Can I Holla At Ya.”
Although Hill never released a follow-up album, the influence that "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" had on the music industry is enough to certify her legacy. Not only did she bridge the gap between rap, hip-hop and R&B, but she also helped bring these genres to the mainstream and forced the Recording Academy to pay attention to and recognize these artists, especially women, at the Grammy Awards.
Mary J. Blige
Blige is a trailblazer in the industry. Known for her vulnerable lyrics about heartbreak and batting difficult circumstances, Blige's fusion of her soulful sound over hip-hop beats created a blend of genres that was never before seen.
Throughout her career, Blige has been nominated for 31 Grammys, and has won 9 of them, including Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group in 1995 collaboration with Method Man, “I’ll Be There For You / You’re All I Need To Get By.” Additionally, she made her Grammy stage debut in 1997 with Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and CeCe Winans as part of a “Waiting To Exhale” medley.
Blige’s cultural impact is undisputed, as she created space in the industry for female artists such as Beyoncé, Aaliyah and SZA to follow. Her signature sound and New York City "fly girl" look created a very specific cultural shift in the '90s, leading to her recent “Fly Girls” collection in her "Sister Love" jewelry line that embodies her '90s aesthetic in 2021.
Blige is still active in the music industry, releasing albums every few years, including her 2019 album "HERstory Vol. 1," which Pitchfork rated an 8.3/10, and her 2020 deluxe release of "My Life" with added commentary.
TLC spent a decade ruling the Billboard charts with pop-R&B masterpieces like “No Scrubs,” “Waterfalls,” “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” and “Creep.” TLC's music had a sexy and empowering spirit to them, allowing them to resonate strongly with '90s teenagers and rise up the charts.
The group was also awarded four Grammys awards in the '90s, including Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal both in 1995 and 1999 for “No Scrubs” and “Creep,” respectively, as well as Best R&B Album again in 1995 for "Crazysexycool" and in 1999 for "Fanmail."
The trio is considered to be the best-selling American girl-group and the best-selling American R&B girl-group of all time, according to Complex. But more importantly, TLC provided much needed representation of Black women in popular music, and their impact on the industry began honest conversation of the humanity and complexity of the life of Black women in America.
TLC effectively blurred the lines between art and activism, and began the much-need movement for representation of Black women in American pop music.
In 2002, months after Lopes’ untimely death in a car accident, TLC released their long play, "3D," which seemed to be their final work as a group. This was the case for almost 15 years, when the remaining duo released their self-titled fifth and final studio album, "TLC."
“It’s not the last of TLC, just the last TLC album,” Thomas said, according to Rolling Stone.
Aaliyah is one of the most iconic R&B artists of the '90s. At the age of 16, she collaborated with super-producer Timbaland and the legend Missy Elliott to produce her album, "One In A Million," which has become a timeless staple for sampling in the music industry.
Aside from her ability to effortlessly slide R&B vocals over hip-hop beats, along with her noteworthy choreography in her music videos, Aaliyah influenced the world of fashion in the '90s. She made the side-part hairstyle cool, was known for crop tops and baggy jeans and was a cultural icon for teenagers and stars like Rihanna, who regularly visited Aaliyah’s style.
Although Aaliyah died at the age of 22 in a plane crash after filming her music video for “Rock the Boat,” her legacy continues to live on. The makeup brand, MAC Cosmetics released a collaboration to honor Aaliyah’s groundbreaking career and her iconic style. Many current artists and celebrities have proclaimed their love for the late musician, such as Drake, who has a portrait of her tattooed on his back.
While most of Aaliyah’s music is unavailable on streaming platforms due to legal restrictions surrounding the ownership of her music, her estate released a statement last month sympathizing with fans wishes to stream her full catalog, and encouraging their patience while they work to make it happen.
Music is constantly evolving over time, reaching into previous genres and dipping into new ones. '90s music is particularly remarkable in how it was able to take influence from its predecessors and created a broad range of brand new genres and subgenres that made the decade the most iconic time for music.
The '90s changed the game forever and paved the way for a new generation of powerful women like Rihanna, SZA and Beyoncé. '90s R&B allowed for vulnerable lyrics over hip-hop beats, which became a staple for artists like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar.
And, honestly, modern music would be nothing without production sampling from '90s artists, which can be seen in the obscene amount of artists who have sampled "One In A Million," like A$AP Rocky, Gucci Mane and Jeremih.
Whether your taste leans more towards blink-182 or Lauryn Hill, it's undeniable that the '90s changed the music space for everyone, forever.