By the early ‘90s, the musical terrain was fracturing. As hip hop and grunge ascended, country music also saw their star rising in the popular culture. But what about pop music? Well, that was starting to fall by the wayside in terms of market share. Radio was scrambling to find the hits to play, but most of what the music industry was dishing out was a steady stream of acts whose style was too rough around the edges for mainstream programmers. Nevertheless, amid the sea of flannel, do rags, and cowboy hats, some pop gems rose to the surface that both had rough edges and softer, more hook-heavy, sounds that our pop conditioned ears are used to.
“Cantaloop,” Us3 (Download)
This is one of those songs that tried to soften the hard shell of hip hop by building the tune around jazz samples – mostly through the use of Herbie Hancock and of course trumpeter, Gerard Presencer — with a 4/4 beat. It was funky, urbane, pop, and ripe for airplay.
“U.N.I.T.Y.,” Queen Latifah (Download)
“Who you callin’ a bitch?” That was Latifah’s clarion call to female empowerment. The Queen clearly had enough of men who felt it was just a-okay to be sexually hostile to the ladies, and it certainly resonated with the music buying public. The song rocketed up the charts and Queen Latifah won a Grammy in ‘95 for this song.
“Keep Ya Head Up,” 2Pac (Download)
They say every rocker has a soft side, well that goes for rappers, too. 1994 must have been the year when respecting women was the rap du jour. I’m not sure you would hear rhymes like this in 2010 — or if you have, it’s probably not part of the top 40 — but it was certainly refreshing to hear someone of 2Pac’s stature bust out a song like this.
“Where Are You Now,” Janet Jackson (Download)
The “transition” album for Janet Jackson. This was the first album on her new label (Virgin) and the millions they paid Ms. Jackson wasn’t a waste. Janet went to #1 in 1993 and had a number of hit singles that didn’t disappoint. Sure it wasn’t Rhythm Nation or Control, but who really thought she was going to ride the stylistic waves of those albums as she progressed in her music career?
“Choose,” Color Me Badd (Download)
It was tough for Color Me Badd to compete against grunge, and so it goes with the second single off their third album. “Choose” is no “I Wanna Sex You Up,” but it’s a fairly solid mid-tempo number that sidesteps the kind of songs that made the group such a hit in the first place. Perhaps breaking from a hit making formula was to their detriment, but the song still reached #23 on the charts.
“On Bended Knee,” Boyz II Men (Download)
One “grunge proof” success story of the ‘90s was Boyz II Men — probably the most successful R&B group of that decade. Sure, much of their output was ballad heavy, but their songs make for awesome slow dances!