A cursory glance of the many CDs that adorn the walls of M.A.D.’s current headquarters suggests on one hand the musical tastes of a man much older than my years. I’ve always had a particular affinity for the music of the past, the music tied to my earliest memories of life. Until you get to the carefully arranged stacks of hip-hop CDs, there is little to no clue that I even existed in “my” time, that being the 1990s.
This of course, was no accident. During that period, I was very much an unwavering hip-hop “head”. It was certainly a great time to be a fan of the music. The late 1980s brought many advances in the rap/hip-hop genre as the music became decreasingly dependent on one-off singles and more album-oriented material that continues to stand the test of time. If you ask anyone around my age that was in the same scene, you’d hear something similar. However, an opinion that is not so popular, particularly with those who found themselves immersed in the R&B music of yesteryear, like myself, is that the 1990s was a total boon for the R&B genre as well.
Late in the 1990s, my discontent as a listener with the direction both hip-hop and R&B were taking in the mainstream, in particular, the unnecessary funneling of the genres into one radio format, started to send me backwards in search of something that produced the emotional response I had come accustomed to when listening to music. What I failed to notice is that around this time, the R&B genre was finally seeing a payoff in the charts of having wrested commercial supremacy from the “old guard” (henceforth known as the “Bid Whist” brigade) — artists geared/marketed to an older adult crowd. Without having to crossover, even. In 1998, R&B outfit Next lead the Year-End Billboard Hot 100 singles list with their song “Too Close”, and they weren’t alone on that list. A surprising number, if not the vast majority of artists filling the Year-End Hot 100 were out of the R&B or hip-hop genre, a commercial feat that is not much mentioned, and has since (especially since 2002) not been duplicated. Considering how very segregated the charts were in the musical period I call “home”, I’m surprised you don’t hear more about this!
With distance comes fondness, and it won’t be long before the 1990s get their just due among R&B aficionados. Especially after watching the rather disappointing show on this year’s Grammy Awards; Don Cornelius would shake his head at the Guetta-imitating electronic dance music posing as R&B today, I tell you what.
One thing that stood out in the 1990s as a stark swing from the decade prior, which was heavily focused on individual talent, was the number of R&B singing groups, especially female vocal groups. From Xscape to 702, to the pitch-perfect, sometimes throwback stylings of For Real, the 1990s were a veritable goldmine of R&B music of all shapes and sizes. Sitting atop the heap were the ever popular TLC, En Vogue, and another group who recently broke a 15 year silence, namely one SWV with their new release I Missed Us.
Coming back from an extended layoff, into a musical market that becomes increasingly fractured and unforgiving is risky business. Doubly so for R&B artists (who, if you’ve ever caught an episode of Unsung, you’d know), who are more sensitive to changing trends than nearly any other genre not named hip-hop. The flipside of this, is that the current state of the music business can be an environment where artists are not compelled to make uncharacteristic concessions to remain “relevant” and make projects much truer to the reputation they have built for themselves. Thankfully, I Missed Us falls in the latter category.
At first blush, this album is much a nostalgic listen. From the first few measures of “Co-Sign”, the familiar drum break and Lelee’s voice immediately put you in a 1990s state of mind. By the time Coko came in for the hook, I closed my eyes and saw a much less crowded Ashley Phosphate Road from the vantage point of my trusty Volvo 240, if that could even be imagined in 2012. Though this and other tracks (especially “All About You”, the track following it with its use of “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” among other familiar breaks) lure the listener with the sounds of yesterday, there is always a contemporary touch that doesn’t banish this release to the bunker of retro-fetishism that’s often critically derided.
There are a couple of straight up “laugh out loud” moments: first, the looping of Rufus & Chaka’s “Do You Love What You Feel” (a nod to an audience who probably grew up on songs like this such as I) on the similarly titled “Do Ya”, and perhaps one of the most unexpected turns I’ve ever heard on an R&B record — the sampling of the “Fairy Fountain” theme from the Super Nintendo game The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past” for the title track. WTF?!! Now that’s taking it back to the 1990s, I tell you what. To bring their sound up to date, “Better Than I” and “Show Off” marry “trap rap” rhythms with sumptuous R&B keyboard work that adds more depth than other such attempts — in particular, the “Commodores”-style synth bass on the latter really makes the song. Closing out this reintroduction to one of the more crucial female R&B vocal outlets of the 1990s is the heartfelt take on “If Only You Knew”, Patti LaBelle’s timeless song. If you picked this record up at your local Target, you also heard a similarly strong reading of Switch’s “They’ll Never Be”; however, I’ll always prefer the version they cut for New York Undercover:
Though over 15 years have passed since that clip, the voices making up the “V” in SWV have not aged one iota; clearly, those responsible for this album must have followed the blueprint of The Time’s 2011 return to form, Condensate (an album whose review is in the cooker) in how to bring a long-gone group up to date, without offending the ears of those who loved them in the first place. You missed us? We missed you. Welcome back, Sisters.
TL;DR/Colin Powell Version: This album gets the coveted Five Propane Tanks. Propane Accessories, even. If you loved ’em before, you’ll love this album. If you love contemporary R&B, you’ll love this album. Equal parts emotional and all-out fun, it makes a very strong case that the 1990s weren’t as much a throwaway era as old codgers like me once categorized it.