So how come the greatest R&B girl groups of the 1990s are—to crib the line that En Vogue borrowed from Curtis Mayfield—still giving you something you can feel? That’s because girl groups have always been a high-drama proposition, whether in their original heyday in the early ‘60s or in this second golden age, which roughly spans the period between the launch of En Vogue in 1989 and the first solo Beyoncé single in 2002. (The death of TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes the same year may be a more tragic capper.) And that drama has more to do with the nature of these acts’ creation and the contradictions that result than anything in the songs.
Consider the tension that inevitably arises between the typically male Svengalis who often assemble the acts—a lineage that runs from Berry Gordy with the Supremes to Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy with En Vogue to Simon Cowell with Fifth Harmony—and the women who make them what they are. Though an act may start with all the partners united in the quest for chart domination, the best often achieve greatness because of a messy internal clash of competing imperatives and ambitions. As so the usual prefab male fantasies presenting women as sweet, pliant, and/or sexy get complicated by more strident and authentic expressions of power, autonomy, and the general not-taking-of-shit. In other words, there may be a whole lot going on beneath the slinky surface of even the most buttery ballad by Brownstone or the tastiest jam by Jade.
Then there’s the musical ingenuity that so often came into play as the R&B and gospel elements that had been fundamental to Gordy’s formula for Motown’s girl groups were realigned with the “hip-hop soul” that Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs cooked up with Mary J. Blige at the decade’s dawn. Indeed, cameos by MCs became another staple of the genre, whether it was Jay-Z with Changing Faces, Biggie Smalls with Total, or Missy Elliott with 702 on the mighty “Steelo.”
But like every golden age, the one for R&B girl groups sadly had an expiry date. Beyoncé and Rihanna gave the solo diva such preeminence in the 21st century that Fifth Harmony’s superb 2016 single “Work From Home” was the first major hit by a girl group in a decade. Now TLC—whose troubled post-Lopes career has been thoroughly documented on several reality-TV shows—is back with a Kickstarter-funded self-titled album that they say will be their last. In their honor, we have ensured that this playlist of essential ‘90s R&B girl-group tracks is entirely scrubs-free.