In my opinion, I believe the best black soul singers of the 90s were talents like Babyface, Brian McKnight, Tevin Campbell, Usher, and Luther Vandross. But to quite honest, that’s just scratching the surface of what the 1990s had to offer. So without further ado, here are some of our favorite soul singers from the great decade of the 1990s.
Black Soul Singers of the 90s We Love
Let’s begin with Brian McKnight.
1) Brian McKnight
McKnight was a mainstay on the 90s R&B charts. This hitmaker continuously released some of the most memorable songs of the decade. He is well known for his strong vocals, buttery tone, and innate ability to alter extended notes all under one breath.
He released his self-titled debut album in 1992 to a Platinum reception followed by three other successful albums, two of which also went Platinum in the decade. His popularity saw him continue his success as a record producer, actor, songwriter, and even a radio popular personality.
My favorite Brian McKnight song: “Anytime” – Anytime, 1992. This song takes a slightly different tone than McKnight’s other popular singles. Brian wonders if his lover feels the same on this vulnerable track.
2) K-Ci & Jo-Jo
It’s hard to separate the sibling duo that is K-Ci & JoJo. Brothers Cedric and Joel Hailey were half of the group Jodeci which was in a heated rivalry with group New Edition for supremacy in the early half of the decade. After several successful albums and singles as a group, the duo began exploring a career of their own, eventually releasing their work in 1997.
The brother’s signature harmonies carry their sweet and often emotional ballads. Between their career as a duo or as a member of New Edition, the Haily brothers deserve their flowers.
My favorite K-Ci & JoJo song: “All My Life” – Love Always, 1997. This is a stunning ballad. The brothers go toe to toe with vocal runs and harmonies that are not to be outdone by one another.
Kenneth Brian Edmonds, most notably known as Babyface, is one of the most accomplished singers, songwriters, and producers of the modern generation. With his youthful looks and smooth kind voice, Face (one of his other monikers) captured the attention of both audiences and other artists.
While an established vocalist himself, his work as a songwriter and producer, has built a legacy that will long be remembered. After confounding LaFace Records with LA Reid, Face would go on to introduce the world to the likes of TLC, Usher, Toni Braxton, and others. His work as a producer spans artists from Aretha Franklin to Lil Wayne making him one of the greatest producers of all time.
My Favorite Baby Face: “Everytime I Close My Eyes (with Kenny G)” – The Day, 1996. A smooth, feel-good track. Bonus points for Kenny G.
This timeless artist reminded everyone of his appeal during his viral Tiny Desk performance earlier this year. Before the memes and Vegas residencies, Usher Raymond, was leading a 90s R&B revolution. At just 18 years old he burst onto the scene near the end of the decade with his single “My Way” which was accompanied by an equally unique video.
The truly talented triple threat sang, danced, and acted his way into the hearts of fans worldwide. His sophomore album, cemented Usher as the artist to watch heading into the new millennia. At just 44 years old, and given the longevity of other legendary soul singers, we may not have heard the best from Mr. Raymond just yet.
My favorite Usher song: “You Make Me Wanna” – My Way, 1997. The opening track to his popular sophomore album sets the groovy tone for the rest of this work. It is an early example of a common theme in Usher’s music. The troubles of a man with too many options.
5) Boyz II Men
It’s difficult to separate the men who together become Boyz II Men. The original quartet debuted in the mid-90s with perfect harmonies, emotional ballads, and stunning a cappella. Named after a New Edition song, the group took inspiration and influence from the new jack swing style that was popular at the time.
What set B2M apart was their commitment to soul-style vocals rather than adapting to the rapping and do-wop styles becoming increasingly prevalent in R&B. Another key to the group’s success and longevity is the fact that all four artists are lead vocalists. Rather than having lead and background singers, each member had ample time to shine in their lane and vocal prowess. B2M has recorded some of the most beautiful love songs of all time.
My Favorite Boyz II Men Song: “One Sweet Day” – Mariah Carey’s Daydream, 1995. A vocal collaboration of epic proportions. The Boys add their tenor, baritone, and bass to Carey’s multi-octave range for one of the best ballads of the decade.
6) Raphael Saadiq
Saadiq is well known as the preeminent R&B artist of the 90s. This timeless musician has been a part of two separate multi-platinum groups along with achieving his success as a solo artist, instrumentalist, and producer. As a member of the group Tony! Toni! Tone!, he rose to fame for his smooth tenor voice carried by heavy jazz influences and a sharp falsetto.
Not quite new jack swing, and too early for Neo-soul, Saadiq’s unique artistry has stood the test of time. He is truly a one-of-a-kind artist still impacting the scene today.
My favorite Raphael Saadiq song: “It Never Rains (In Southern California)” – The Revival, 1990. Saadiq leads this Tony! Toni! Tone! track about his sunny lady in sunny California.
The Black Messiah himself, De’Angelo, is an artist cut from the same cloth as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and other classic R&B crooners. De’Angelo is commonly credited as one of the pioneers of the Neo-Soul movement that emerged out of the late 90s. His music had a more laid-back feel compared to other R&B songs of the times which further blurred the lines between soul and hip-hop music.
De’Angelo stuck to his roots in gospel, blues, and old-school soul, helping pave the way for a new generation of artists that would follow his Neo-Soul path.
My favorite De’Angelo Song: “Brown Sugar” – Brown Sugar, 1995. This song is a perfect example of a smooth Neo Soul groove.
Smooth as silk, with an insane octave range, Maxwell is still wooing over crowds of his fans with his current tour. Maxwell took the soul world by storm in the mid-90s with multiple successful albums featuring heartfelt ballads, both equally emotional and uplifting.
My favorite Maxwell song is: “Fortunate”, 1975. In typical fashion, Maxwell pours his heart out into this song about how appreciative he is to have found a woman like the one described in this track.
9) Johnny Gill
A late addition, and the final member of the supergroup, New Edition, Johnny Gill. After Bobby Brown was ousted from the group, Gill was brought in to replace former lead singer, Ralph Tresvant as he pursued solo endeavors. Gill was a workhorse of an artist, simultaneously recording music for New Edition, his solo projects, and as part of the supergroup LSG (Levert/Sweat/Gill) which featured Keith Sweat and Gerald Levert.
Gill’s core as a romantic balladeer added a level of maturity to New Edition’s music, helping them shed the image of Brown and the previous decade of younger pop hits.
My favorite Johnny Gill song: “My, My, My” – Johnny Gill, 1984. Gill’s most popular song as a soloist. This is a loving ballad to a special lady.
Before he was infatuated with a certain undergarment, this artist was best known for his lead vocals on soulful love ballads. Of all the artists on this list, Sisqo most closely resembles some of the more eclectic stars of previous generations like Prince and Rick James. The lead singer of Dru Hill’s large personality equaled his powerful voice that could be heard belting ad-libs throughout most of the group’s songs.
My favorite Sisqo song: “Beauty” – Enter The Dru, 1998. One of Dru Hill’s more traditional ballads, “Beauty” is as the name suggests. Sisqo sings his verse followed by his signature and often improvised vocal runs throughout the rest of the song.
Raised in England by Nigerian and Brazilian parents, Seal got his beginnings in the British house music scene before becoming one of the most popular British soul vocalists. His breakthrough on the US charts came after his 1995 single Kiss from a Rose was released as part of the soundtrack for the new Batman film.
Riding the success of the song (the movie flopped) Seal would see the single reach number one on the Billboard charts, the self-titled album reach platinum status, and three Grammy awards as a result.
My favorite Jagged Edge song: “Kiss from a Rose” – Seal,1994. Seal’s most famous song to date still resonates with its unique cadence and Seal’s powerfully raspy voice.
12) Keith Sweat
Keith Sweat closed out the 80s as one of the most popular artists of the new jack swing style that was taking over. A combination of hip-hop, dance, pop, and soul, new jack swing was a fun and upbeat version of R&B music that deviated far from the traditional soul source material.
In the 90s Sweat continued to put out several projects as a soloist and as a member of the supergroup LSG. He joins others on this list that held dual roles as both artists and mega producers. He helped discover groups like Silk and other popular acts in the years to come.
My favorite Keith Sweat song: “My Body.” Sweat recorded this song for his own album and a new rendition with the help of LSG members Gerald Levert and Johnny Gill.
Ginuwine was one of the biggest sex symbols of the 90s decade. His seductive, sultry, voice and lyrics were riddled with a sexual energy that captivated the female audience. With the help of futuristic beats and production by Timbaland, Ginuwine created some of the most original soul music of the decade.
My favorite Ginuwine song: is “So Anxious” – 100% Ginuwine, 1999. In this seductive track, Ginuwine describes his anxious feelings for his lover.
14) Luther Vandross
There is a running debate over which decade of Luther Vandross’ music is better: the 80s or the 90s? Regardless of which version of Luther you prefer, there is no denying his staying power and status as a legendary soul star. While the previous decade technically saw a better overall chart appeal, the 90s saw him release another six commercially successful albums.
My favorite Luther Vandross song: “Always and Forever” – Songs, 1994. Luther’s cover of the classic song by Heatwave.
15) Tevin Campbell
Tevin Campbell looked to be the heir apparent to the soul music throne after two strong initial albums, T.E.V.I.N. And I’m Ready. He reigned supreme over the first half of the decade with hits like his single “Can We Talk”. Unfortunately, Campbell could not maintain his momentum through the decade and is now often thought of as a one-hit wonder.
My favorite Tevin Campbell song: “Can We Talk” – I’m Ready, 1993. Campbell’s breakthrough single showed his talent but unfortunately set the bar too high for follow-up work to truly stick.
Clap for ‘Em
The 90s was a truly transformative period for soul music. The core genre of R&B splintered into various sects like new jack swing and neo-soul and was continually pushed forward by the hip-hop movement. Artists doubling as producers also became prominent players during the decade following the path of those like Quincy Jones before them.
While there are many popular black soul singers of the 90s, few managed to maintain the consistent decades of success of their soul predecessors, many of which were still recording during the time.
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