Actually, 1997 was a year of all genres and kinds of music. This year was not just about awesomely-annoying-and-catchy tune like Aqua‘s infamous phrase ‘I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world’; or internationally massive tear-jerking ballad hits like Celine Dion‘s signature hit ‘My Heart Will Go On’ thanks to the worldwide smashing Titanic, and Elton John‘s ‘Candle in the Wind 1997’ as a heartfelt tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales after her unbelievably shocking death. But in this year, Radiohead became a game-changer on the alternative/rock battlefield with OK Computer, which moved BritRock away from the mainstream scene and ruled the atmosphere of alternative and indie rock afterwards. Shania Twain earned her title ‘Queen of Country Pop’ after introducing country music in a broader, worldwide sense with her second diamond album Come On Over. 1997 was also the beginning of now-legendary artists. The French electronic duo Daft Punk, who brought us back to disco tunes in 2013 with ‘Get Lucky’, debuted their outstanding album Homework. Eryka Badu became one of the neo-soul pioneers and a legend only after releasing her eponymous album Baduizm. Missy Elliott proved herself as ‘Queen of Rap’ by her critically acclaimed first solo album Supa Dupa Fly. Billboard argues that 1997 was the Best Musical Year of the ’90s. This column, however, deals with the perfect marriage between R&B and hip-hop music in particular and points out why the R&B/Hip-hop collaborations dominated the year of fascinating music.
Known as ‘Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’ and credited for inventing what is now called the ‘Thug-Loved’ duet together with Method Man in his 1995 Grammy-winning hit ‘I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By’, which is the first rap song ever featuring a vocalist, Mary J. Blige released her most commercially successful album Share My World in 1997. Beside the inclusion of her female anthem ‘Not Gon’ Cry’ from Waiting to Exhale film, the album features several hip hop stars as producers and guest appearances such as Lil’ Kim, The LOX, and especially Nas who she collaborates with on the debut track of this album called ‘Love Is All We Need’. In a happy and joyful tune this single frames the whole mood and theme of the album, as Blige made an effort to get her act together after battling with addictions and failures of previous relationship. This is the reason why she sings ‘Love is all we need / Said it’s all we need / To make everything complete / All we need is L-O-V-E‘. Nas, convinced by her, then tries to convince us by stating ‘Real love make a ill thug feel bugged / Nas analyze are you trustworthy by the looks on your eyes‘ in his rap verse.
It would be such a huge mistake if we excluded Mariah Carey out of R&B/hip hop’s legacy not only in 1997, but in general. Apart from her pop legacy, she is the one who introduced R&B and hip hop into the mainstream culture and popularised rap features in pop/R&B songs. In 1995, she dived into hip-hop music market by having Ol’ Dirty Bastard featuring in a Bad Boy Remix of her massive hit ‘Fantasy’, which contributes to over half of the sales of the whole song including original and remixed version. The ‘good girl – bad boy’ hybrid shocked the public and critics at that time, as Carey was considered a pure pop vocalist with her power ballads. And in 1997, after her divorce with then-CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, Tommy Mottola, she was finally in control over her musical creativity. Her coming-of-age album Butterfly pushes her further to the R&B and hip hop market and proves that she is a truly versatile musician. Containing more hip hop and urban contemporary sounds, the album was firstly introduced by the single ‘Honey’ which sampled World’s Famous Supreme Team‘s ‘Hey DJ’ and was produced by very successful hip hop stars during that time Puff Daddy, Stevie J and Q-Tip. The single, which was contributed by the Bad Boy Remix with Ma$e and The LOX, became a chart-topper, as it was the second time that Carey’s song debuted at #1 in the Billboard Hot 100. Co-producer Steve J told Billboard how he felt working about with Carey on this track: ‘If she [Mariah Carey] gets on some hip-hop tracks and write it the right way, it’s gonna be a win-win. So I had no doubt in my mind she was gonna fly on the hip-hop side. She’s like one of the greatest of all time, and I’m just blessed to have work with her‘. It is just sad that despite of her influential contributions to hip-hop, the audience and critics still view her as a ballad killer with ‘Hero’ or ‘Without You’. Despite of being a megastar with 18 #1 Billboard hits and multi-platinum albums, Carey is still underrated after all for not having enough credits to her enormous creativity as a singer-songwriter, a producer, and a trendsetter. Without her, we would probably not be familiar with something like a ‘Beyonce & Jay-Z’ thing today.
Similar to Blige’s process of her emotional breakdown through music and to Carey’s self- and sexual embodiment and liberation, the concept of Janet Jackson‘s The Velvet Rope is yet more obscure and introspective. The album was recorded while and after Jackson was suffering from a long-term depression caused by several side effects and consequences of childhood humiliation, self-hatred, anorexia, and body dysmorphia. The trauma may have led to her sexual curiosity. Therefore, the lyrics from the album addresses to various subject matters such as depression, self-worth, domestic violence, homophobia, and social injustice; and contains lots of sexual explicit content. Musically, the album fuses different kinds of musical genres including pop, R&B, hip hop, trip hop, folk, jazz, rock, electronic music; and moves pop music beyond the mainstream scene and pushes it further to a more experimental and ambivalent sphere. Not only has the album received critical applause for its artistry and mature, rebellious contents, which makes it a pioneer of ‘coming-of-age manoeuvre’ among contemporary pop artists; the album’s composition through multiple genres also becomes largely influential to indie musicians today. The lead single ‘Got ‘Til It’s Gone’ represents every edginess of this album, by sampling the folk single Joni Mitchell‘s sample and featuring her as one of two guest appearances, beside Q-Tip with his smart and righteous rap. And this masterpiece of art is even more completely visualised by its prominent music video below.
Though female singers gained more attention, male singers still made considerable contributions to the R&B/Hip-hop chemistry in 1997. Kenneth ‘Babyface‘ Edmonds, known for his new jack swing hits in the 1980s and R&B love songs in the 1990s, diverged once again in his remake of Shalamar’s ‘This Is for the Lover in You’, by having the legendary LL Cool J alongside appearances of Howard Hewett, Jody Watley, and Jeffrey Daniel featuring on this track. His crossover was eventually successful, as the remake turned out to be a top ten hit in both the pop and R&B charts. Similarly, Brian McKnight‘s ‘You Should Be Mine (Don’t Waste Your Time)’ featuring Ma$e was also a top-twenty hit. The collaboration between male vocalist and female rapper also took place during that time, i.e. Usher‘s non-single track ‘Just Like Me’ (featuring Lil’ Kim) from his breakthrough album My Way, though the inverse was unusual and failed to create impact.
Part II – to be continued
Ken was listening to ‘Look into My Eyes’ by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, which was also released in 1997, while writing this article.