There’s no arguing that the 90s is the golden age of R&B. The best 90s R&B songs still sound fresh, and their influence can be felt in the crop of modern R&B stars who are pushing the genre forward.
From floor-filling anthems to outpourings of emotion – and all soulful points in between – each of the 20 tracks in our list of the best 90s R&B songs represents a defining moment in the genre, and in the careers of the artists who sang them.
20: Montell Jordan: Get It On Tonite
After blowing up the charts with his party anthem “This Is How We Do It,” Montell Jordan proved he could also take things slow, with the R&B-pop gem “Get It On Tonite.” With an irrepressible beat and slinky bassline borrowed from Claudia Barry’s disco hit “Love For The Sake Of Love,” Jordan created the catchiest song about two-timing and scored a hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
19: SWV And Missy Elliott: Can We?
Missy Elliott and Timbaland unequivocally ruled control rooms in the 90s, and this track with R&B darlings SWV is a perfect example of why. Timbaland’s haunting production style is layered and nuanced here. Has he touched anything that didn’t turn to gold? Missy’s slick, rapid-fire rhyming stays firmly grounded in the beat, while SWV’s lyrics soar above it. The collaboration elevated what could have otherwise been a throwaway track to classic status.
18: Zhané: Hey Mr. DJ
More than 20 years after its initial release, “It’s Friday night and the weekend’s here, I need to unwind” remain some of the most resonant words in R&B history. With a swinging beat and soft, lush production, Zhané’s “Hey Mr. DJ,” from the duo’s debut album, Pronounced Jah-Nay, is the perfect representation of R&B’s prime objective: to be the sonic expression of the soul of the everyman and everywoman.
17: Toni Braxton: You’re Makin’ Me High
A hot song with an equally hot video, Toni Braxton’s runaway No.1 from her sophomore album was the hit of the summer of ’96, and more than earns its place among the best 90s R&B songs. Co-produced by the Midas of 90s R&B songs, Babyface, the track was Braxton’s first No.1 hit. Rumored to be about everything from weed to masturbation, the suggestive lyrics were cleverly buried under a poppy, danceable, uptempo beat that borrowed from the burgeoning electronica movement. Both sexy and danceable, “You’re Makin’ Me High” stands the test of time.
16: Erykah Badu: On & On’
The breakout hit and first single of her debut album, Baduizm, “On & On” track confounded critics even as it delighted them. Is she hip-hop? Is she R&B? Is she soul? Badu answered by being all that and more. The jazz-inflected beat on “On & On” lopes along, peppered with sly, self-aware lyrics that are as humorous as they are timely. This track was the very first taste of what was to come from an artist who has smashed through every musical boundary she’s ever encountered.
15: D’Angelo: Brown Sugar
Before the bared abs of Voodoo was Brown Sugar. The most popular track off D’Angelo’s album of the same name feels as timeless today as it did when it was released in 1995, sizzling with lo-fi sexiness, deep funk, and the freshness that D’Angelo would come to be known for.
14: Boyz II Men: On Bended Knee
During the 90s, it felt like Boyz II Men released a new hit every week. Even at that prolific rate, “On Bended Knee” stands out as a deliciously melodramatic cut above the rest. It’s the perfect cocktail of the four Philly balladeers’ vocal styles: drama, wistfulness, longing, and a chorus that’s still belted out of karaoke rooms from coast to coast.
13: Usher: You Make Me Wanna
It may have been co-written by Jermaine Dupri, but this track is classic Usher. The R&B crooner agonizes over the object of his affection over a smooth, slinky beat accompanied by hi-hat instrumentals that feature so prominently in his catalogue. Usher’s honeyed vocalizing lament over the crush he has on his former best friend was – and remains – the perfect cap to a dance party that’s lasted till the wee hours.
12: Mary J Blige: Real Love
Taken from her debut album, What’s The 411?, Mary J Blige’s very first Top 10 hit is an example of using a sample to create something original. Plucking sonic inspiration from Audio Two’s “Top Billin’,” the opening bars of “Real Love” have become synonymous with Blige and are among the most identifiable in the history of R&B. With this track alone, the soon-to-be queen of hip-hop soul and 90s R&B had already earned her crown.
11: En Vogue: My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)
As with most arts, sampling is inexpertly done more often than not. But the sample on En Vogue’s most iconic track is an example of how to do it right. Poppy, funky and soulful, En Vogue belt the song out over a few bars from James Brown’s “The Payback.” The sample’s source neither overpowers the track nor gets buried under too many instrumentals. Factor in the unforgettable dancefloor-filling breakdown and it’s no wonder that “My Lovin’” stayed in the US Top 10 for 13 weeks.
10: Blackstreet: No Diggity
1996 was a good year for R&B – especially for Blackstreet. Teddy Riley had initially offered “No Diggity” to the group Guy, but they rejected it. Blackstreet balked at first (they apparently thought the title was corny) but Riley convinced them of its brilliance and the group ultimately embraced the song. Wise choice: they had one of the best 90s R&B songs on their hands. The single which famously samples the piano chords from Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands,” features a verse by Dr. Dre, who ultimately produced the track, turning out a No.1 hit that became the group’s defining anthem.
9: Tony! Toni! Toné!: Feels Good
A fusion of R&B, pop, and a classic New Jack Swing beat, Raphael Saadiq and his bandmates, brother D’Wayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian Riley, hit pay dirt with this party-starting anthem that landed them in the Top 10 for the first time. The song embodied all the elements that defined that era and remains one of the best 90s R&B songs that should be played “as frequently as possible”.
8: Ginuwine: Pony
Not to be outdone, Ginuwine’s sonic love letter to lady-on-top has what is quite possibly the most unmistakable beat in R&B history, along with the least subtle metaphor ever written. The syncopated rhythm (courtesy of Timbaland) and that unforgettable rattle helped Ginuwine’s debut rocket right to the No.1 spot.
7: Keith Sweat: Twisted
One of the most unforgettable videos of the decade, Keith Sweat’s “Twisted” was a three-minute murder-mystery-romance that helped to launch the second wave of the R&B impresario’s career. A runaway hit, “Twisted” is infectious and danceable, and Sweat’s distinctive vocal style makes it a song only he could have pulled off.
6: Jodeci: Freek’n You
With opening lyrics no less frank than “Every time I close my eyes/I wake up feelin’ so horny,” Jodeci cemented their legacy as one of the 90s’ most influential R&B groups. With a seductive beat, “Freek’n You” was a chart-topper that contains possibly the only extant example of a vocoder sounding erotic.
5: Janet Jackson: That’s The Way Love Goes
There is a Janet Jackson for all seasons: there’s nasty Janet, drill sergeant Janet and then there’s come-hither Janet. The lead single off her 1993 album, Janet, “That’s The Way Love Goes” finds Jackson letting her hair down. A lyrical and musical pivot, it showed the world that Miss Jackson was all grown up. Built around a sample from James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” the single locks into a smooth downtempo groove and burns all night. It became one of the longest-reigning hits of 1993 and won a Grammy for Best R&B Song.
4: New Edition: I’m Still In Love
Having perfected the blueprint for early 90s R&B songs, New Edition proved they were no longer just a fresh-faced boy band and were all grown up with “I’m Still In Love.” The second single from the fittingly titled Home Again album saw the group reunite with frontman Bobby Brown along with their veteran production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to create a sensual jam that stormed the charts.
3: Faith Evans: Soon As I Get Home
The widow of Notorious BIG, Faith Evans’s musical talent is often overshadowed by her personal life. But the church-choir-bred vocalist had a talent that was leaps and bounds beyond many of her peers. Honeyed and at once yearning and comforting, Evans’ velvet voice skims over this wistful romantic ballad with depth and precision.
2: Brandy: I Wanna Be Down
With its opening lyrics, “I would like to get to know if I could be… the kind of girl that you could be down for,” Brandy’s teenaged tentativeness ushered in a new era of R&B woman. A singer with sophistication, playfulness, and style, Brandy’s clever and adorably vulnerable lyrics were backed by a punchy, danceable beat to give us the decade’s anthem for modern adolescent romance.
1: Aaliyah: One In A Million
“One In A Million’ was the fruit of Aaliyah’s first collaboration with Missy Elliott and Timbaland. A club ballad that fused elements of funk, electronica and trip-hop, and put Aaliyah’s ethereal vocals on full display, it was the perfect distillation of all the pervasive sounds of the era. Topping our list of the best 90s R&B songs, it would turn Aaliyah into the decade’s patron saint of R&B.