COVER STORY | Every great song begins with great lyrics. While the performer receives the praise and producers can be name-dropped on the track, it is the songwriter who is often overlooked as an intrinsic part of the hit-making formula. The lingering legacy of 90’s R&B is greatly attributed to these wordsmiths and their mastery of metaphor, imagery, and storytelling. Let’s review the songwriters who had the Midas touch when it came to singing our lives with their words and killing us softly with their songs. PARENTAL ADVISORY: This article contains R. Kelly which may not be suitable for young readers.
On God, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds is easily one of the greatest storytellers of our time. Whether defining his own discography or composing for other artists, the tender lover is the responsible for some of the 90’s greatest hits from Whitney Houston (“I’m Your Baby Tonight”), Tevin Campbell (“Can We Talk”), Karyn White (“Superwoman”), Johnny Gill (“My, My, My”), TLC (“Red Light Special”), Mary J. Blige (“Not Gon’ Cry”) and Toni Braxton (“Love Shoulda Brought You Home”), Edmonds’ songs always brought out the best in their performers. Along with longtime onetime production partner Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Edmonds dominated some of the genre’s most memorable film soundtracks from Boomerang to Soul Food to the iconic Waiting To Exhale, Babyface embodies the passion and personality of each vocal vessel. Whether you were a lover and a secretary or had come to the end of the road, Babyface created classics perfect for only two occasions: day and night.
Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis
After the Minneapolis duo of was fired by Prince in the 80s as members of The Time, James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis forged ahead to cultivate a sound that has made them one of the top teams in R&B. Finding muse in Janet Jackson (Miss Jackson, if you’re Nasty), they took control of their style with timeless melodies and lyricism to teach us exactly the way love goes. Making a smooth transition into the 90s, the trenchcoated pair crafted hits for a variety of artists including; New Edition (“Can You Stand the Rain”), Ralph Tresvant (“Sensitivity”), Boyz II Men (“On Bended Knee”), Chanté Moore (“Chanté’s Got A Man”), to best showcase each singer’s talents. Jam and Lewis continued to design the decade with Jackson co-writing the groundbreaking albums “Rhythm Nation”, “Janet”, and “The Velvet Rope”.
In the case of Robert Kelly vs. America, it remains a constant inner conflict to separate the music from the man. We (myself, included) are not always clear on the rules of R. Kelly’s “cancellation”; however, the musical footprint of sex music, dramatic ballads, and inspirational anthems that he’s left upon the culture cannot be denied. With 11 #1 R&B singles as an artist, making history with “I Believe I Can Fly,” the first R&B artist in 25 years to sweep three Grammy Awards categories, Kelly also penned memorable chart-toppers for Aaliyah (“Back and Forth”), Changing Faces (“Stroke You Up”, “G.H.E.T.T.O.U.T.”) Maxwell (“Fortunate”), and Michael Jackson (“You Are Not Alone”)! Who could forget the drama-fo’-yo’-mama recordings of “Be Careful” by Sparkle, and “Friend of Mine Remix” with Kelly Price featuring Ron Isley? Love him or hate him, The Pied Piper is permanently woven into the quilt of 90’s R&B with music that will, too, survive the man.
If you needed a ballad in the 90’s, you needed Diane Warren. Credited as “the most important songwriter in the world”, Warren was and is the go-to queen for heartfelt hits that spanned across the lines of race, culture, charts, and genre. Big songs for big voices, Warren’s integral contributions in the 90’s Rhythm & Blues sector were no exception, capturing the highs and lows of the human emotion. The longing of Brandy’s “Have You Ever?”, the chagrin of Aaliyah’s “The One I Gave My Heart To”, the devotion of Monica’s “For You I Will”, the lessons of Whitney Houston’s “I Learned From The Best”, and the Brandy and Diana Ross tv-movie duet “Love Is All That Matters”. Toni Braxton’s signature “Un-break My Heart” still has us curled up in our showers belting off-key. Warren’s gifts made matters of the heart a universal experience and gave love an unchained melody.
Brian Alexander Morgan
His portfolio may not be as diverse as others, but you can thank Brian Alexander Morgan for all of the SWV songs you know and love. With writing and production credits for a roster that includes Martha Wash, Usher, Eric Benet, Morgan earned musical tenure as a professor of the female trio’s signature sound. He has penned six Top 10 R&B hits for the group including “Right Here”, “I’m So Into You”, “Rain” and the 90’s R&B Karaoke favorite, “Weak”. Morgan was also a guest vocalist on the group’s slow jam collabo, “Always on My Mind”. Many have written for the ladies but none compete with Morgan’s mastermind and sensibility to make our Sisters With Voices shine brightest.
Andrea Martin doesn’t receive enough flowers. The Brooklyn-native began her career by teaming with the production duo of Soulshock & Karlin, writing the Silk bop “Hooked On You“ off their 1995 self-titled sophomore LP. She swept through the 90’s with smooth tracks for the era’s leading ladies including Monica’s “Before You Walk Out of My Life”, SWV’s “You’re the One”, Toni Braxton’s “I Love Me Some Him”, and En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love)”. In 1998, Martin was signed by Clive Davis to release her own album, The Best of Me, on Arista Records featuring the Darkchild-produced single “Let Me Return The Favor”. Receiving moderate success as an artist, she returned her focus to authoring chart-toppers with longtime collaborator, Ivan Matias, as one of the 90’s most vital contributors.
If you didn’t know, Gordon Chambers is the consummate R&B lyricist, crafting songs for over 75 of the artists you adore. From Faith Evans (“Fallin’ In Love”) to Beyoncé (“After All Is Said and Done”) to Aretha Franklin, Chambers’ journey that took flight in the 90s as a music editor for Essence Magazine. His big break arrived in 1994 when he composed a song for JADE called “If You Love Me”; after the trio’s label turned the song submission down it landed upon the voices of the breakout group, Brownstone, shooting to #1 on the charts and scoring a Grammy nod. The hits kept coming when Chambers’ last-minute addition to Anita Baker’s Rhythm of Love album earned the songstress a Grammy Award for “I Apologize” in the 1995 category of Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. In 1996, Chambers received another Grammy nomination for the Set It Off theme song “Missing You” performed by Brandy, Gladys Knight, Tamia, and Chaka Khan. In 1999, he wrote Angie Stone’s nostalgic debut single, “No More Rain (In This Cloud)”. Following advice from Whitney Houston to sing his own songs exactly how he wanted them to sound, Chambers has flourished with a music career of his own. He has released three independent albums, received eight ASCAP awards, and continues to sharpen his pen for other artists.
Super-producer Rodney Jerkins typically receives the first glory whenever an artist begins their song by saying “Darkchild”. Avid listeners who explore 90’s album credits always noticed the name “LaShawn Daniels” listed next to Jerkins’. The right-hand man lent his pen to some of the producer’s biggest hits as well as vocal arrangements. Without Daniels, there would be no “Angel in Disguise” (Brandy), “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” (Whitney Houston), “Say My Name” (Destiny’s Child), or Brandy & Monica’s verzuz de force, “The Boy Is Mine”. Sadly, LaShawn Daniels’ career ended too soon following a sudden car crash in September 2019, but his catalog of hits retain their confident, fresh, and innovative sound.
1999 was an incredible turning point for Kandi Burrus. The former Xscape vocalist and multifaceted business maven built her own lane as the driving pen behind the clever wordplay of Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Bugaboo”, P!nk’s tough debut “There U Go”, and TLC’s Grammy Award-winning “No Scrubs”. Coupled with the futuristic production of then-boyfriend Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, the duo crafted strong contemporary anthems that pushed the genre forward while empowering the woman of the new millennium.Leave a comment