R&B was never better, and may never be better than it was in the 90s. The collective soul sound from the 70s and 80s meshed well with the new jack style and meteoric rise of hip-hop during the decade and produced phenomenal hits. Many hits came from the female super groups of the 90s. This is a relatively thorough attempt at ranking these groups through the means of the elimination game. Not just ranking them, but finding the second-best female R&B group of the 90s.
Why the 2nd Best?
TLC is the best female R&B group of the 90s. You could attempt to debate this fact, but you'd be wrong. No female group of any genre outsold TLC in the U.S., and only one female group worldwide did (the Spice Girls were a legit power). CrazySexyCool is one of Rolling Stone's top 500 Albums of All-Time. The weight that album pulled in its mixture of sensual ballads and hip-hop stylings was unmatched at the time (plus it had a song with Andre 3000 which was sooooo great). It has sold well over 14 million copies worldwide, featuring classics that have stood the test of time ("Creep" and "Waterfalls"). And that album might not even have TLC's biggest hit, which many consider to be "No Scrubs." If Left-Eye never gets killed, there's no telling how big TLC could have been. They're without question the best female group of the 90s.
Who qualifies for this Elimination Game?
Female R&B groups from the 90s. This eliminates individual artists (trying to decide the best among Whitney, Mariah, Mary J, Aaliyah, and Monica is a chore I don't want to be tasked with). This eliminates pop groups such as the Spice Girls, though I will note in a recent interview, T-Boz from TLC accurately stated that she felt R&B and pop music lines are drawn based on color, and that "No Scrubs" is really a pop song, not an R&B one. Fair point. Also, we will keep this list to groups whose music was mostly R&B. This eliminates the Fugees who are hip-hop through and through (though Lauryn Hill could slay the mic with whatever method of music she likes).
These are the 14 groups participating:
- Changing Faces
- Destiny's Child
- En Vogue
- Groove Theory
- Kut Klose
How does this Elimination Game work?
We will take all the female R&B groups from the 90s and eliminate some each round. This will get us to the second-best of the decade since T-Boz and Chili are already on the throne promoting their new album.
Our list of 14, as you can see, has several groups that were more or less on-hit wonders. What sets these groups apart is the other musical acts at the time they collaborated with. Allure never did much in the way of external collabs, despite being signed to Mariah Carey's label. They did cover one of the greatest break-up songs of all time with "All Cried Out", but if your only real claim to fame is the cover of a Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam song, you're not making it too far in this game.
I'm pretty sure every teenage boy in America growing up in the 90s wanted to have a deep voice like Keith Sweat. We've all sung "Twisted" and "Nobody" in our best baritone at some point when no one was around. The trio Kut Klose helped make those hits happen. Athena Cage was on "Nobody" which was good because if Keith Sweat was singing that entire song with no female vocals it would feel awkward. That said, Kut Klose had a minimal effect in the R&B world with their own music, producing only one album. They weren't even the best group to have two K words in their name from the 90s (shout out to Kriss Kross).
ELIMINATED: Allure and Kut Klose
No group in this list fits more in the one-hit wonder category like Groove Theory. "Tell Me" was a force of neo-soul infused sound in the mid-90s. Amel Larrieux's vocals were ahead of their time, a sound so similar to Alicia Keys that if you played "Tell Me" for a current 20 year old they'll swear it's her. We can debate Groove Theory's placement on the list at all since they’re a duo with one man and one woman. But Larrieux is such a musical genius that it felt sad to leave her out, and if this was a listed dictated on which group had the best name, Groove Theory would win.
If you're an all-female group in the 90's and want to present yourself as fun and edgy, the best way to do that is to make an appearance in a Lil' Kim video. That's what Blaque did in 1997 in the video for the “Not Tonight” remix, which was basically a collection of female R&B/hip-hop greats dancing and partying at some exotic location. Blaque initially signed with the label owned by Left-Eye from TLC in the late 90s. This fits well with their bubble gum pop style of R&B. The self-titled debut was solid with “808” and “Bring It All To Me”, but the fact that I can’t find the “808” remix on any streaming service (yes, including Tidal), I have to bump Blaque from the list.
ELIMINATED: Groove Theory and Blaque
We will cut three groups this round, not because they’re bad, more so because they aren’t compelling. Brownstone had a few hits, their best being “If You Love Me” from their debut album. If you’d like to win a nice bar bet sometime, name the country other than the U.S. where that song hit the R&B top 5? If you guessed New Zealand, consider yourself a walking musical almanac my friend. The best thing Brownstone had going for them is that they were signed to Michael Jackson’s label because Michael Jackson himself came and heard them audition and Michael Jackson himself thought they were pretty good and since he is the king of pop having Michael Jackson say you’re pretty good is a pretty good thing.
Even cooler than being signed by Michael Jackson is collaborating with Jay-Z on a song. And cooler than that (or at least equal to) is having that same song used on a soundtrack. Even cooler than that is that soundtrack being the Space Jam soundtrack. This would be the group Changing Faces and the song was “All of My Days”. They also had a great song with a great title called “G.H.E.T.T.O.U.T.” which is an odd mash-up of the words ghetto and out. The duo worked with R. Kelly which I’m afraid could now be considered an unfortunate thing, and one of the hit singles he wrote for them was called “Stroke You Up” which is a very R. Kelly-like title for a song. Still, it hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1994.
The most interesting fact about 702 is that their song “Where My Girls At?” was originally intended for TLC to use, but TLC didn’t want it. I don’t know if using another group’s leftovers makes you look good or bad, but 702 turned it into a massive song. It was written by Missy Elliott which is a cool thing. 702 also appeared in an episode of Moesha which was a terribly underrated sitcom. Still, that’s not enough to save them past round three.
ELIMINATED: Brownstone, Changing Faces, 702
As stated in the beginning, some groups stand on the power of their collaborations alone. Such is the case for the group Total. Look at just some of the songs the group or at least one of its members were featured on:
“Hypnotize” (Notorious B.I.G.) Biggie Biggie Biggie, can’t you see?
“Juicy” (Notorious B.I.G.) Also, the best rap song to come out in 1994.
“What You Want” (Mase) Tell me what you want from me, take a look at what you see…
“Loungin” (LL Cool J) Who do you love? Are you for sure?
This list doesn’t include work they did with Foxy Brown, Puff Daddy, or Missy Elliott. Signing with Bad Boy Records, Total had a few of their own hits that made some noise, but their signature songs were ones where they were basically giving a chorus for a banger.
So we are now down to six groups to determine the 2nd best Female R&B group of the 90s: Destiny’s Child, En Vogue, Jade, SWV, Xscape, and Zhane. Let’s knock out one right now…
There are three things you should know about Zhane, the duo who had the hit song “Hey Mr. DJ”:
- -“Hey Mr. DJ” was written because it reminded Renee Neufville of block parties she attended in Brooklyn growing up.
- -Ashley Banks sang “Hey Mr. DJ” in a record story in an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, essentially launching her music career on the show.
- -While they had some other hits, perhaps the best thing about Zhane is their appearance on a great song from Naughty by Nature called “Jamboree.”
Zhane was a group that was short-lived and uber-talented. They also leave our game in this round.
We’re at the point in the game where I start getting emotionally invested. Everyone left had some appeal to me beyond a random radio single or hot collaboration. These remaining groups introduced me to R&B in many ways.
Let’s pick off one-by-one the next three because I have a definitive top two in mind already.
The first female R&B song I can remember hearing was “Don’t Walk Away” from Jade. It had a classic sound and even pop radio managed to squeeze it in between Madonna and Right Said Fred songs. Their other big song off their debut album was “Every Day of the Week.” The group knew they hit peak 90s status when they performed it on Beverly Hills 90210.
Shortly after I began college in 1999, I went to hang out with some friends at the women’s dorm lounge. In this lounge was an old piano that occasionally someone would be playing. One night as we sat around talking, a girl went to the piano and started playing the opening notes to Destiny Child’s “Bills Bills Bills.” At that moment, I knew college would be awesome.
Destiny’s Child had massive hits, but two big factors keep them from getting closer to the top spot in our game:
First, DC’s radio hits are split between two decades. It’s difficult to give them a higher ranking when it’s unfair to include such hits as “Boootylicious” and “Lose My Breath” in the conversation. Their production of albums and hits in the 90s is impressive enough to get them here.
Secondly, no band or group that gets overshadowed musically by one of its own members can exist at the pinnacle of any decade or genre. Beyoncé is larger than life right now and has unquestionably surpassed the success she experienced with DC.
For the purpose of our current debate, when it comes to Destiny’s Child moving on, we have to say “no, no, no, no, no.”
ELIMINATED: Destiny’s Child
Some of you are upset right now that SWV has survived this far. You don’t think SWV was that good. That’s fine. But I’m here to tell you that “Weak” was possibly the best R&B song of the 90s, and is in the top 10 all-time. Much of this has to do with the video being held in a boxing ring as the Sisters With Voices sing into an announcer mic. SWV was so good.
They had a string of hits in the mid-90s and were arguably robbed of the Best New Artist Grammy in 1994 (not to hate on Toni Braxton).
Here are some things to know about their debut album It’s About Time:
- -It had six singles and was certified multi-platinum.
- -2 of those singles reached #1 on the Billboard R&B charts (“Weak” and “Right Here/Human Nature Radio Mix”)
- -The album had a fantastic acapella version of Weak, making SWV much like the group Shai.
- -One deep cut from the album is titled “Blak Pudd’n” which is one of the greatest song titles ever.
SWV, I love you. You made me weak in the knees at age 11 and at age 36.
If TLC is the greatest R&B group of the 90s (they are), then either En Vogue or Xscape is the runner-up.
Both groups were hit makers. The three albums Xscape released in the 90s all went platinum. Same goes for En Vogue for their three 90s albums, but Funky Divas actually went triple platinum and hit #1 on the R&B charts in 1992.
As for their radio singles, En Vogue had 18 in the 90s, six of which were #1 hits. Xscape, meanwhile, had 12 singles (not counting their re-release of “Just Kickin’ It in 1994), with three of those hits hitting #1.
Sales data for the albums and rankings of the hits for the groups are similar, so we’ll need to go beyond cold stats to determine who is better.
Xscape put out really good R&B music. Songs like “Just Kickin’ It” and “Understanding” were solid, and their collab with MC Lyte “Keep On Keepin’ On” deserved more airplay. Ballads “Who Can I Run To?” and “The Arms Of The One Who Loves You” will be mainstays in R&B rotations for years. But Xscape’s most impressive work came from the individuals of the group rather than the collective.
Kandi Burruss along with Tiny Cottle co-wrote and scored TLC’s “No Scrubs.” Burruss wrote “Bills Bills Bills” and was responsible for discovering Jagged Edge. Tamika Scott wrote and produced songs for a few Tyler Perry movies. LaTocha Scott worked on Trick Daddy’s song “Thug Holiday” which may be the most impressive accomplishment of all four members.
Still, Xscape as a group didn’t do anything extraordinary. They just made good music.
En Vogue made good music too. The album sales alone tell you that. But three songs, in particular, show the musical range but also the artistry behind En Vogue’s music.
Perhaps their best-known hit is “Don’t Let Go”, a hit single from the Set It Off soundtrack. It remains one of those songs that you find yourself singing out of the blue randomly. The best music sticks with you like that.
The song “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” is a sensual ballad with a perfect video to go with it. Only En Vogue could capture on-stage seduction in a 50s style night club with such class.
Then there’s the power rock anthem “Free Your Mind” that showed off incredible range and crossed the genres of music. And it wasn’t just a fun song, but a poignant call to swim away from the shallow-mindedness of racism and stereotypes of black people:
I wear tight clothing, high heeled shoes
It doesn't mean that I'm a prostitute, no no
I like rap music, wear hip hop clothes
That doesn't mean that I'm out sellin' dope no no
Oh my forgive me for having straight hair, no
It doesn't mean there's another blood in my heir yeah yeah
I might date another race or color
It doesn't mean I don't like my strong black brothers.
En Vogue and Xscape both made good music. But En Vogue also made music that is timeless. They’re no TLC, but they’re close. En Vogue is the 2nd best Female R&B Group of the 90s.
- En Vogue
- Destiny's Child
- Changing Faces
- Groove Theory
- Kut Klose