12 Female R&B Groups of the 90s We Still Love Today
The 1990s were a special time for R&B singers, but let’s not forget that when talented singers got together to form a group, the magic soared to a different level. From TLC to Total to SWV, here are our picks for the female R&B groups of the 90s we just can’t stop listening to all of these decades later.
Top Female R&B Groups of the 90s
Let’s begin with a group you might be a bit surprised to see here: Ex-Girlfriend.
1. Ex-Girlfriend (“Why Can’t You Come Home”)
Kimberly Davis, Julia Robertson, Monica Boyd, and Tisha Hunter began their recording career in the mid-80s as a group called Petite. The group released two singles before being spotted by R&B production powerhouse Full Force, and in 1989 re-emerged as Ex-Girlfriend. The debut album X Marks the Spot was released in 1991, and the group achieved minor chart success with “Why Can’t You Come Home”. Ex-Girlfriend officially disbanded in 1995.
- My Favorite Ex-Girlfriend Song: “Cold Blooded” from X Marks the Spot (1991). Monica X’s Patti Labelle-like vocals on the “he was gonna go and tie the knot” line in the second half of first verse put me in Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale mode every time.
2. Trina & Tamara
Sisters Katrina and Tamara Powell’s smooth R&B vocal stylings first appeared in 1997 on Somethin’ for the People’s “My Love Is the Shhh!”. Two years later, the sisters released a self-titled album that showcased their SWV-lite sound, and produced the single “What’d You Come Here For?” Trina & Tamara would be the duo’s only full-length release but itis a wonderful sampling of the talent that runs in their family.
- My Favorite Trina & Tamara Song: “Blue” from Trina & Tamara (1999). The harmonies are delicious, the production exquisite, the chord changes refreshing and that intro is just cold!
3. Pure Soul
Howard University’s Pure Soul released its sole full-length album in 1993. Pure Soul infused old school R&B with gospel, featured production by Teddy Riley and Rafaal Saadiq, and included the single “We Must Be In Love”. Its cover of The O’Jays’ classic “Stairway to Heaven” was in heavy video rotation. Despite the group’s overwhelming talent, the star-studded track “Freedom” from the Panther soundtrack in 1995 was the last anyone’s seen or heard of Pure Soul.
- My Favorite Pure Soul Song: “Baby I’m Leaving” from Pure Soul (1995). This amazing gospel R&B track contains all of the energy of The Clark Sisters bringing down the tent at a revival meeting!
Brownstone was founded in Los Angeles in the mid-90s, and subsequently signed with Michael Jackson’s MJJ Music label. The group’s debut album From the Bottom Up (1995) showcased masterful gospel-influenced harmonies, and offered the hit singles “If You Love Me,” and a cover of The Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why”.
Brownstone’s second album, 1997’s Still Climbing featured the same amazing vocal work as its predecessor but suffered from stale production, unoriginal beats, and a general lack of songwriting direction. The group has yet to revive its mid-90s success.
- My Favorite Brownstone Song: “Grapevyne” from From the Bottom Up (1995). The “never do something that’ll catch up to you” vocal hook (which was featured in Busta Rhyme’s “Live to Regret” on the Set It Off soundtrack) is a delight in syncopation.
After providing vocals on DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Ring My Bell” in 1991, Renée Neufville and Jean Norris stepped out into the world as Zhané. 1994’s Pronounced Jah-Nay produced the breakout singles “Hey Mr. D.J.,” “Groove Thang” and “Sending My Love”. True to formula, Zhané appeared on the Higher Learning and A Low Down Dirty Shame soundtracks before releasing a second album in 1997.
Saturday Night was a solid album but in no way matched the success of the first, leaving Zhané yet another fatality destined for the 90s R&B graveyard. Luckily for the duo, the certified gold “Hey Mr. D.J.” has stood the test of time and will ensure Zhané’s tomb is never wanting for fresh flowers.
- My Favorite Zhané Song: “Request Line” from Saturday Night (1997). With its steady, mellow beat and juicy harmonies, this nod to Ashford & Simpson’s “It Seems to Hang On” and Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three’s “Request Line” is the perfect Getting-Ready-to-Go-Out music for us middle-aged folks.
Atlanta’s Xscape burst onto the scene in 1993 with its debut album
Hummin’ Comin’ at ‘Cha. The singles “Just Kickin’ It” and “Understanding” made radio waves but it was the hip-hop version of The Clark Sisters’ gospel classic, “Is My Living in Vain”, that really gave a glimpse of the group’s raw, soulful talent.
Xscape would refine that sound by the time Off the Hook was released in 1995. The group’s second album featured the singles “Feels So Good” and “Who Can I Run To,” and was later certified platinum.
- My Favorite Xscape Song: “Who Can I Run To” from Off the Hook (1995). No mid-90s party was complete without a group of friends belting along to this faithfultake on The Jones Girls ballad. The Mr. Dupri mashup with Teddy Pendergrass’s “Love T.K.O.” takes it to another level entirely.
Virginia-based Sista released its sole album 4 All the Sistas Around da World in 1994. The album spawned the single “Brand New,” and the track “Feel Your Lips” featured vocals by Mary J. Blige. Though the album barely made a ripple in the ocean of R&B releases, it boasted two historic introductions to the music industry.
4 All the Sistas Around da World marked the arrival of fledging producer Timbaland, who had been enlisted by one of the members of Sista: a young songwriter, singer and rapper by the name of Missy Elliott. While the project flopped and Sista was subsequently scrapped, Elliott and Timbaland had developed the backbone of R&B sound for decades to come.
- My Favorite Sista Song: “Good Thang” from 4 All the Sistas Around da World (1994). Another nod to The Jones Girls’s “Who Can I Run To,” “Good Thang” presents the prototypical Missy style that would be used in songs for acts like 702, Aaliyah and Total.
Total had legend-level entry into the music game, recording vocals for The Notorious B.I.G.’s debut single, “Juicy”. The laid-back, TLC-inspired group was one of the first signed to Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs’s Bad Boy Records, and its debut album Total (1996) was certified platinum with singles “Can’t You See” and the Raphael Saadiq-produced “Kissin’ You” topping the charts. The infectious “What About Us?” with Missy Elliott was featured on the Soul Food soundtrack. Unfortunately, Total‘s follow-up album, 1998’s Kima, Keisha, and Pam left much to be desired, and the group soon dissolved.
- My Favorite Total Song: “No One Else” from Total (1996). Those James Brown via Boogie Down Productions samples are on point and Da Brat’s rhymes inject just the right amount of attitude.
9. Destiny’s Child
Through sheer determination, discipline and devotion to its superb artistic vision, Destiny’s Child manoeuvred the pitfalls of the music industry in the 90s to rise from Texas teen sensations to the new gold standard for female R&B groups. The group’s 1998 self-titled debut album introduced the world to its jaw dropping vocal talent, and produced the hit single “No, No, No” but the real breakthrough came with 1999’s The Writing’s on the Wall.
The album – a frenzy of influences, styles, producers that was recorded in three weeks – spawned the hits “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Jumpin, Jumpin,” and “Say My Name”, and became one of the greatest R&B albums of all time.
- My Favorite Destiny’s Child Song: “T-Shirt” from Destiny Fulfilled (2004). This song has the satisfying feel of an old school R&B slow jam and its sparse production allow each vocalist to shine.
TLC’s debut album Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip (1992) ushered in a modern era of new jack swing, and helped create the template for female R&B groups. With their signature blend of raps and vocal hooks, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas excited audiences with hit singles like “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” and “What About Your Friends”.
Success continued with 1994’s CrazySexyCool, which as of 2019 had been certified platinum 12 times. The album produced the mega-hits “Creep” and “Waterfalls,” the life-saving song that was too deep for Clive Davis. TLC showed no signs of slowing down by the end of the decade, with 1999’s FanMail producing the hits “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty”.
- My Favorite TLC Song: “I’m Good at Being Bad” from FanMail (1999). Whenever this song came on the radio on the campus shuttle ride from my dorm to the Howard University quad, I knew it was going to be a good day. The dynamic shift from melodic lo-key intro to old school hard funk almost feels like a nice homage to Janet Jackson’s “What About”—and will always get me up out of my seat.
11. En Vogue
En Vogue, the California girls who harmonized like The Andrews Sisters on cocoa butter and collard greens, flew straight to the top of the charts in 1990 with “Hold On,” the first single from its debut album Born to Sing. The follow-up singles “Lies” and “You Don’t Have to Worry” convinced audiences that En Vogue was no flash in the pan.
The group spent the rest of the decade collecting awards for more chart-topping hits like “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It),” “Free Your Mind,” “Don’t Let Go (Love)” and its sensual, pristine cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel”. The group’s collective vocal range, versatility and expert performance skills guaranteed En Vogue a spot in the Hall of R&B Legends.
- My Favorite En Vogue Song: “Don’t Let Go (Love)” from the Set It Off soundtrack (1996). En Vogue’s first three albums carried me through high school and college, providing age-appropriate soundtracks along the way to my budding sexuality. I didn’t know I was ready for a Blair Underwood/Jada Pinkett sex scene in my life until I heard this song. Well played, En Vogue!
SWV burst onto the R&B scene with 1992’s It’s About Time (later certified triple platinum), and went on to become one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. The former gospel trio from New York dominated the 90s R&B charts with singles like “I’m So into You,” “Right Here” and “You’re the One”.
SWV collaborated with heavy hitters like songwriter Brian Alexander Morgan and producers The Neptunes but the real magic lies in Coko’s, Taj’s and Lelee’s heavenly blend of voices. In October 2022, singer-songwriter Matthew Santos aka MA/SA released a cover of “Weak,” proving that people are still moved by that special Sisters with Voices sound.
- My Favorite SWV Song: “Lose My Cool” from Release Some Tension (1997). The vocal control and dynamics on this track as the singers eschew their resting face voices in favor of passion-filled pleas are top-notch, and Redman really delivers.
A Few Quick Honorable Mentions
Before we get out of here, I want to give a quick Honorable Mention to four more of the best female R&B groups of the 90s – Jade, 702, Allure and Changing Faces. Even though these groups no longer grace the covers of Essence or Jet magazines, their members should be proud that they managed, if only for one moment in time, to achieve a feat many people can only dream about.
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