Every year albums celebrate anniversaries and this year we are spotlighting the R&B classics turning 20. That’s right, two full decades of musical memories were given to us by some of R&B’s biggest, brightest and most influential talents. Whatever you like most about R&B these albums have it, from sexy, slow jams and head-nodding club-bangers to gut-wrenching tunes about heartbreak and self-reflection. So, sit back, relax and rewind to the year 1997, when R&B was still dominating and we simply couldn’t get enough.
- The Velvet Rope – Janet Jackson: Released in the October of 1997, The Velvet Rope was Janet Jackson’s sixth solo album, coming four years after the release of her massive 1993 LP. It was clear from the album’s first single and video, “Got ‘til It’s Gone,” that Janet was creating a different vibe this time around. The album dealt with domestic violence, homophobia, depression and LGBTQ issues, which was a huge departure from the sexually liberating and fun dance music from the Janet. album. Nonetheless, the album was a groundbreaking hit and contained some of the best songs from her discography and from the 90’s. In addition to “Got ‘til It’s Gone” featuring Q-Tip, other hit singles included, signature Janet slow jam “I Get Lonely,” the recording-breaking number one single and AIDS anthem “Together Again,” club-banger “Go Deep” and the soft ballad “Every Time.” The Velvet Rope went on to sell 10 million copies worldwide, was nominated for numerous awards and won a Grammy in 1998.
- My Way – Usher: A long three years passed between Usher’s debut album, 1994’s Usher and his star-making second album My Way. Dropping in September of 1997, My Way was the album that let everyone know that Usher was not only here to stay, but that he was a superstar. In a decade where the biggest male R&B solo act was R. Kelly, it was hard to set yourself apart, especially when you were as young as he was, but Usher did just that. Enlisting the production help of Jermaine Dupri and Babyface proved to be the perfect formula for Usher to close out the 90’s on top. The lead single “You Make Me Wanna” is Usher at his cocky, sexy best, while “Nice & Slow” is considered one of the best slow jams of the decade. The album’s self-titled third single “My Way” is full of energy and bravado, accompanied by a highly-creative video. My Way sold 7 million copies worldwide and earned Usher multiple Grammy nominations.
- Share My World – Mary J. Blige: This was the album fans of Mary J. Blige were waiting for because it was the follow-up to her iconic second album My Life, released in 1994. It was three years later and the R&B world was anxious to hear how MJB would top herself…and she did that and then some. Debuting in April 1997, Share My World was everything you loved about My Life without the sadness. This was her first album without Sean “Puffy” Combs, who was instead replaced with production and writing from R. Kelly, Babyface, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Rodney Jerkins. The album featured some of hip-hop’s best like Lil Kim, Nas and The LOX, and showed Mary at her sassy, soulful best. Share My World’s hit singles included lead track “Love is All We Need,” the uplifting anthem with Nas, instant classic “I Can Love You” featuring Lil Kim, breezy ballad “Everything” and the haunting heartbreak of “Seven Days.” Share My World sold over 4 million copies worldwide and was nominated for both Grammy and American Music Awards.
- Baduizm – Erykah Badu: Erykah Badu didn’t just arrive on the R&B/Soul music scene in 1997, she kicked opened the front door and started an entire movement. During that time, R&B was ready for something fresh and new, and Badu was the perfect answer. Released in February 1997, Baduizm, along with albums Brown Sugar by D’Angelo in 1995 and Urban Hang Suite by Maxwell in 1996, is considered instrumental in starting the “neo-soul” music movement. Badizm was full of R&B gems that were simultaneously retro and modern, but more importantly it was celebratory of the black experience, right down to Erykah Badu’s imagery in videos and her personal style. The album is widely considered an instant classic, courtesy of timeless hits like “On & On,” “Next Lifetime,” “Otherside of the Game” and “Appletree.” Critics and fans couldn’t get enough, as Baduizm sold three million copies worldwide and was nominated for four Grammy awards, winning two in 1998.
- Evolution – Boyz II Men: By 1997, Boyz II Men had already made history and solidified their status as the biggest-selling R&B group of all-time and this was their third album that followed the chart-breaking, award-winning success of 1994’s II. Arriving in September 1997, Evolution featured all of the classic smooth ballads, flawless harmonies and memorable lyrics that Boyz II Men is known for. While it wasn’t the commercial success their first two albums were, it still had some R&B gems, most notably the lead single “4 Seasons of Loneliness” and the heartfelt mother’s anthem “A Song for Mama.” Evolution closed out the Boyz II Men era of the 90’s and sold four million copies worldwide.
- Butterfly – Mariah Carey: The first half of the 90’s Mariah Carey was a pop diva with tinges of R&B, but on her sixth solo album she fully embraced not only a modern R&B sound, but hip-hop as well. Butterfly was released in September 1997 and was a massive hit right out of the gate. Mariah was newly liberated after ending her marriage to Tommy Mottola and the fresh outlook showed in her music. She hooked up with some of the best producers/writers in R&B and hip-hop, such as Sean “Puffy” Combs, Trackmasters, Missy Elliott and Q-Tip. Her image was sexier, more playful and the perfect way to introduce the new album, led by the smash first single “Honey.” The hits kept coming from the Butterfly album, including “Breakdown” (featuring Bone Thugs N Harmony), the hip-hop influenced “The Roof” and signature, soul-stirring ballad “My All.” Butterfly sold over five million copies worldwide and received multiple award nominations, including Grammy Awards, American Music Awards, Billboard Awards, Soul Train Music Awards and World Music Awards.
- Release Some Tension – SWV: The 1990’s gave us some of the best and most iconic girl groups of all-time, especially in the world of R&B…and SWV was one of them. Their first two albums, 1992’s It’s About Time and 1996’s New Beginnings, were two of the most successful R&B albums of the decade and their third offering was just as good. Dropping in August 1997, Release Some Tension featured some of the biggest producers of the day, like Timbaland, Sean “Puffy Combs and Brian Alexander Morgan. Although there was a lot of inner turmoil within the group pertaining to management, money and musical direction, the album still managed to give us a duo of hits in “Can We,” the Missy Elliott and Timbaland-assisted smash, and one of the best R&B slow jams ever in “Rain.” Release Some Tension sold over 500,000 copies and was certified Gold in 1998.
- Cool Relax – Jon B.: Blue-eyed soul is just as essential to the legacy of R&B as anything else, and one of the best white artists to absolutely kill it in the R&B genre is Jon B., especially during his 90’s heyday. Released in September 1997, Cool Relax was Jon B.’s second album and his most successful, both critically and commercially. He lined up a stellar line-up of talent to contribute to the project, like Tim & Bob, Babyface, 2Pac and David Foster. The first single off Cool Relax was the mid-tempo jam “Don’t Say,” which was a nice way to warm fans up for the killer one-two punch of the jaw-droppingly beautiful ballad “They Don’t Know” and the iconic single “Are U Still Down,” including a memorable guest appearance by the late Tupac Shakur. Cool Relax is a collection sexy, soulful jams that sold over two million copies worldwide and closed out the decade on a great note for Jon B.
- All That I Am – Joe: Joe is often considered one of the unsung heroes of R&B, he’s consistently put out great music, but never truly achieves the accolades that he deserves. There was a four-year gap between his 1993 debut Everything and his successful, star-making second album All That I Am, released in September 1997. It was Joe’s first multi-platinum album that churned out a bevy of R&B classics that still hold their weight today, including “All the Things (Your Man Won’t Do),” “Don’t Wanna Be a Player,” “The Love Scene” and “Good Girls,” which were a collection of hits that put Joe in the big leagues of 90’s R&B. With production by Rodney Jerkins, Gerald Levert and Joe himself, All That I Am sold over a million copies worldwide.
- Rated Next – Next: The 90’s was filled with a plethora of male R&B groups, such as Boyz II Men, Jodeci, 112 and Dru Hill, but R&B group Next arrived on the scene at the end of the decade and made quite an impression. Dropping in September 1997, Rated Next was the debut album by the group that set them apart from their competition. Headlined by the smash slow jam “Butta Love” that you simply couldn’t escape, Next had an even bigger hit up their sleeve that they saved as a follow-up. “Too Close” was the massive single from Rated Next that changed everything for the group and served as their first platinum single. Producing credits from Lance Alexander, Kay-Gee and Clive Davis helped Rated Next sell over two million copies worldwide.
- A Jagged Era – Jagged Edge: Another male R&B group that debuted just as the 90’s was coming to a close was Jagged Edge and they definitely made their presence known with their first album. Released in October 1997, A Jagged Era announced that a new group was on the scene, even if it wasn’t as big of a success as its competition. There were three singles released from A Jagged Era, however it was the beautiful ballad “I Gotta Be” that let R&B fans know that Jagged Edge were full of talent and promise. Jermaine Dupri handled the bulk of the album’s production, letting the soulful voices of the group shine underneath sleek, 90’s R&B production. A Jagged Era sold over 500,000 copies worldwide and was certified Gold in 1998.
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