Sisters With Voices. Total. Destiny's Child. You didn't need a lyric sheet to get the point with the legion of R&B girl groups who dominated urban pop music in the 1990s. It was plain to hear, from the coquettishly sexual lyrics to their sassy, irreverent tones and lovely multipart harmonies. Sadly, music critics tended to give them cursory attention, instead devoting their time to untangling rap music that often required a degree in regional slang to understand. And following the breakup of Destiny's Child and the quick dissolution of Danity Kane, the R&B girl-group phenomenon seems like it's over. Perhaps there can only be one diva in today's gladiatorial Fame Matrix, leaving little room for sisterhood.
It's too bad, because the '90s R&B girl groups arrived and left before their time (though a few of the genre's best-known acts, like SWV and En Vogue, still perform together). Now that our critical energies have turned to analyzing all things pop (for better or worse), we would better appreciate the uncomplicated joys of Jade's "Don't Walk Away" and Xscape's "Just Kickin' It." Instead of wondering whether Changing Faces' From the Bottom Up was a solid debut album, we would simply delight in its lead single, "Stroke You Up," featuring R. Kelly's pillow-soft grooves.
The R&B girl-group era arguably kicked off with En Vogue's classic 1990 debut, Born to Sing, before hitting a mid-decade peak with TLC's CrazySexyCool and a final epiphany with Destiny's Child, which brought the world Beyoncé Knowles. As inheritors of a tradition that stretches back to the Brill Building and doo-wop's glory days, these women evoked romance from a female perspective, and their stories served as a counter-narrative to hip-hop's vaunted Golden Age. You can't separate the two, actually, since R&B groups and rappers frequently worked together check Wu-Tang Clan's appearance on SWV's 1994 hit "Anything (Remix)." Nor was it uncommon for dudes to give it up for Zhane's "Hey Mr. DJ" (featuring a beat by Naughty by Nature's Kay Gee) and Total's "Can't You See" (featuring a guest verse from the Notorious B.I.G.). But while the heroes of old-school rap are noticeably present among us, whether through Rock the Bells tours or VH1 Hip-Hop Honors showcases, we can only pine for the '90s girls and their lovelorn dreams.