COVER STORY | In the era of 90’s R&B, we were blessed with countless male and female duos, trios, and quartets. Inevitably, there was always a member that shined brighter than the entire group. We’ve seen this happen time after time with historical breakouts by Michael Jackson from The Jackson 5, Diana Ross from the Supremes, Bobby Brown from New Edition, and Flash from The Five Heartbeats (sidenote: “It’s Lonely at the Top” still bops). There’s nothing like reaching success with your friends, but there comes a time when you have to fly alone. Let’s take a look at the Best 90’s R&B Solo Debut Albums.
Ralph Tresvant – Ralph Tresvant (1990)
Ever watch all your friends make it when you knew you were more talented? Welcome to the plight of Ralph Tresvant. The definitive voice of the legendary R&B Boy Band, New Edition, music fans have witnessed Tresvant’s vocal maturation from “Candy Girl” to “Cool It Now” to “Can You Stand The Rain”. After seeing the success of N.E. bandmates Bobby Brown and Bell Biv DeVoe (Ricky Bell, Mike Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe) in the late 1980s, Ralph traded his shy guy disposition to become a “Stone Cold Gentleman” on his self-titled debut, released November 20, 1990. Produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, L.A. Reid, Babyface, Kyle West, and Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey, the opportunity to contribute to Tresvant’s debut was highly-anticipated. Driven by the first single and U.S. R&B Singles chart-topper, “Sensitivity”, and the follow-up heartfelt, “Do What I Gotta Do” the New Jack Swing-flavored album reached double-platinum status proving that nice guys do finish last. Throughout the release of subsequent solo albums, Ralph always returned home again to reunite with his New Edition brothers.
Terry Ellis – Southern Gal (1995)
One-fourth of one of 90s R&B’s most iconic female groups, the “Who’s Loving You” vocals of Terry Ellis were our introduction to the ladies of En Vogue on “Hold On” from the debut album Born To Sing. While fellow Funky Divas; Dawn Robinson, Cindy Herron, and Maxine Jones went on a hiatus, Ellis took advantage of the free time to spread her wings on a solo project. The result was Southern Gal, a smooth, nostalgic yet contemporary 12-track set. The first single “Wherever You Are” premiered on the “Money Train” Soundtrack (don’t sleep on this Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, and Jennifer Lopez flick) and peaked at No.10 in the US R&B Top 40. The second single “What Did I Do To You?” reached No. 41 on the US R&B Chart. Continuing to work with the team of Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, who were responsible for En Vogue’s greatest hits, Ellis paid homage to her Houston, Texas roots while delivering the sound we love from her origin. When En Vogue returned in 1996 with Don’t Let Go (Love) from the “Set It Off” Soundtrack, Ellis and the ladies never sounded better, becoming their most successful single to date. Although Dawn departed in 1997 and Maxine departed the group in 2001, Terry and Maxine have continued to carry the legacy with member Rhona Bennett (yes, LaQuaysha from Homeboyz in Outer Space) since 2003. This southern gal has certified that there is no place like home.
Tony Thompson – Sexsational (1995)
The golden child of R&B boy band Hi-Five, Tony Thompson melted our tween-age hearts as lead vocalist on hits including “She’s Playing Hard To Get”, “I Can’t Wait Another Minute” and the No. 1 Billboard 100 hit “I Like The Way (Kissing Game). Following the quintets disband, Thompson released his solo declaration, Sexsational, in 1995. With songs penned and produced by Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, Babyface, Missy Elliott, Joe, The Characters, Al B. Sure!, Teddy Riley, Dave Hollister, Darryl Pearson, Chucky Thompson, DeVante Swing, and Sean “Puffy” Combs, it seemed like everyone jumped at the chance to wrap their talents around the 11-track project. The final product was a solid R&B debut driven by the bouncy, new jack swing single “I Wanna Love Like That”. Other standout songs include follow-up single “Handle Our Business”, “Goodbye Eyes”, and a funky cover of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amor”. Sexsational is Thompson’s only album. In 2007, Thompson unexpectedly passed away, but his music will stay forever young.
K-Ci & JoJo – Love Always (1997)
I know I said “SOLO” artists, but let’s be honest – you can’t say K-Ci without JoJo, and vice versa (K-Ci & JoJo is one word). It’s hard to believe that Jodeci only has 3 albums in the 90s because the presence of the quartet is a vital component of the genre. In 1997; however, the brother known as Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey and Joel “JoJo” Hailey ventured on their own to release Love Always. Determined to depart from the bad boy image established in Jodeci, the debut LP featured production by DeVante Swing as well as Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Jeff Redd, Craig Brockman, and James Mtume with 75% of the songs written by K-Ci and JoJo. Personally, I remember the first time that Hot97 in New York City played the energized first single “You Bring Me Up”; radio personality Ed Lover stopped the song to replay it not once more, but twice. The voices we’d been so familiar with from “Come and Talk To Me” “Cry For You” “Stay” and “Forever My Lady”, sounded more hungry than ever, ready to claim their independence, together. The duo found their crossover success from R&B/Hip-Hop radio to mainstream in “All My Life”. Written and produced by the brothers, the single reached platinum status and is the longest-running number-one single of their career, topping charts across the world.
Angie Stone – Black Diamond (1999)
Some might say don’t call it a comeback, she’s been here for years. Way before she released her debut album, Angie Stone was Angie B, rising to fame in the late 1970s as a member of the hip-hop trio The Sequence, the first female rap group signed to Sugar Hill Records and released the hit “Funk You Up”. As lead vocalist of the trio Vertical Hold, Angie B. Stone released the hit single “Seems You’re Much Too Busy” as well as two albums from 1993-1995. After working with Gerry DeVeaux, Lenny Kravitz, and D’Angelo (aka her baby daddy), Stone’s reputation caught the ear of Clive Davis, who signed her to Arista Records and prepared her debut LP. Black Diamond, named after Stone’s daughter Diamond Ti’ara, was released on September 28, 1999, and featured the nostalgic Gladys Knight & The Pips chart-topper “No More Rain (In This Cloud). Follow up singles included “Life Story” and the jazz-fueled, “Everyday”. Patience proved to be prosperous as Angie continues to pour mahogany soul over Adult R&B as a solo artist who has never looked back.
Dave Hollister – Ghetto Hymns (1999)
One listen to Blackstreet’s 1994 hit, “Before I Let Go”, and you can’t help but predict that the lead singer isn’t going to be comfortable in a group for long. The Teddy Riley-produced urban serenade was laced with street corner quartet sincerity, gospel-styled call and response, and an ad-libbed “Lord, have mercy,” that was too authentic to have been planned. God truly had something greater planned for Dave Hollister. After his departure from the group in 1995, the Chicago native was driven by faith to establish himself as a solo force with staying power. Ghetto Hymns, the product of self-discovery, was released on May 25, 1999. Opening with an invocation by Redman, we are taken on a spiritual journey of a man seeking a rise above his circumstances. From the first track, “Came in The Door Pimpin” featuring Too $hort, “Favorite Girl”, and the debut single “Baby Mama Drama”, Hollister is at war between lives of pimpin’ and passion. Even in the album’s execution as first-half is produced by hip-hop hitmakers (Jazze Pha, Stevie J, Eric Sermon), there is a desire to be made whole. What follows is a set of gritty songs that eventually arrive at a signature soulful sound with production by Johnta Austin, Blackstreet member Eric Williams, Teddy Bishop, Will Jennings, and Tim & Bob. Following a “Cheaterlude” intermission, Dave belts his soul-stirring magnum opus, “Can’t Stay”. He sings it as he wrote it because he did, flexing every nuance of his vocal ability. The second act of Ghetto Hymns finds Dave in his bag with “The Program” and a cover of Michael McDonald’s “Keep Forgettin’”. Hollister learns from his mistakes in love and lust, realizing that in the end, you can’t serve two masters. Like the rest of his successful career as a solo artist, whether singing R&B or Gospel, Dave Hollister chooses to let love rule.
Sisqó – Unleash The Dragon (1999)
Since the day we met Mark “Sisqó” Andrews, his blonde caesar crown immediately made us focus on him. Whether hopping harder than anyone else on “Tell Me” or lamenting that someone was sleeping “In My Bed”, there was denying that Mark Andrews had equal parts of Michael Jackson and K-Ci Hailey in him. After successful albums with his Maryland bandmates (Dru Hill, Enter The Dru) we all knew a solo album was sure to come. Released in November 1999, Unleash The Dragon remained true to the Dru sound of R&B infused with traditional Chinese instrumentation and hip-hop soul while giving Sisqó room to be as sexually unbridled as he wanted to be. Production contributions from DeVante Swing, Babyface, Montell Jordan, Case, and Nokio allowed Sisqó to shine on ballads like “Incomplete” and “Is Love Enough”. Never forgetting his roots, he took his bandmates for the ride on the Elton John-penned “Enchantment Passing Through” and the bangin’ “You Are Everything Remix” featuring Ja Rule. The main event, of course, was the classic “Thong Song”. Written by Sisqó with production duo Tim & Bob, the worldwide hit scored four Grammy nominations and still makes us go duh dun-duh dun.
After the commercial disappointment of his sophomore effort “Return of the Dragon” in 2001; however, Sisqó returned to his group groundings. Dru Hill continues with founding member Nokio and the addition of Smoke and Black, surviving members of the 90’s group Playa. Cheers 2 Dru!