1997 was the best year in black music. Let me rephrase: 1997 was probably the best year in black music. I know. You think I’m crazy. Hear me out—but first, a caveat.
I admit that, as a child of the ’90s, my musical tastes are deeply influenced by my proclivity for hip-hop and ’90s R&B. However, for the sake of credibility, it needs to be said that I am a jazz and blues snob with an affinity for bebop’s challenge to the white normativity.
Oh, and another thing. This is probably going to come up in the comments, so let me be honest about this up front: I’m not a fan of Anita Baker.
If you want to invalidate what I have to say because I don’t enjoy listening to music that makes me feel as if I should be wearing a leather baseball hat while rocking a velour sweatsuit and Stacy Adams shoes, fine. I validate her as a national treasure; I just don’t want to listen to her music.
OK. If you’re still willing to hear what I have to say, then in no particular order, I will give you a total of 20 reasons that 1997 was an incredible year for black music.
1. The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death
Biggie’s second and final studio album was released in March 1997. It gave us both “Mo Money Mo Problems” and, perhaps his most radio-friendly single, “Hypnotize.” A self-conscious continuation of the themes explored in Ready to Die, this album delves into the psychological complexity of a life trapped in what Frantz Fanon calls the “fact of blackness.”
2. Puff Daddy and the Family’s No Way Out
This album is, admittedly, uneven—but it still bangs … hard. It’s Puff at his peak “Uh-huh, yeah”-ness, but songs like “All About the Benjamins” and “Been Around the World” can get still get the party going, while “I’ll Be Missing You” will cause you to lament the untimely death of one of our most brilliant wordsmiths.
3. Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly
In July 1997, Miss Misdemeanor took the world by storm with her playful, inventive melding of hip-hop and R&B. It is inexcusable that she still does not really get more acclaim for her singing, songwriting, lyricism and visual creativity. Supa Dupa Fly was a masterpiece of absurdity. It gave us “The Rain,” “Hit Em Wit da Hee,” “Sock It 2 Me” and the underappreciated “Pass da Blunt.”
4. Erykah Badu’s Baduizm and Live
In 1997 we were introduced to Baduizm and the album Live, wherein we were informed that we needed to call Tyrone and tell him to come on, but were disallowed from using Ms. Badu’s phone.
Badu represents a shift toward and a popularization of feministic Afrofuturism in music. She is not the first to embody this, but her embrace of sexuality and an Afrocentric political aesthetic was, for many people, revelatory.
5. Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart”
While released in late 1996, this song owned the first two months of 1997. Toni Braxton shaving a young Tyson Beckford was on virtually every screen for the first 60 days of that year. The song is a velvety-smooth, dark-chocolate ballad with infinite replayability. (BTW, what the hell was with Beckford lazily doing kung fu in silk pajamas in front of the house? That scene, to this day, makes no damn sense, but I miss the overly dramatic videos of the ’90s. Aaron Hall’s “I Miss You” is a masterpiece of the genre.)
6. “Stomp,” by Kirk Franklin and God’s Property
One cannot overstate how huge this song—released in late 1996 off an album that dropped in May 1997—became. This is what turned the 5-feet-5 urban gospel star into a national sensation. Having the audacity to sample Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, Kirk Franklin wrote a song that literally changed the course of gospel music. I remember going to a club and being amazed to see thugs sporting cornrows and the fake-platinum chains one would buy from a mall pop-up two-stepping to his take on hip-hop-inspired gospel.
7. Boyz II Men’s “A Song for Mama”
The official song for funerals of black grandmothers, big mamas and Madeas was released in 1997. (The official song for the funerals of black fathers and grandfathers was released six years later when Luther released “Dance With My Father.”) To this day, I cannot hear this song without shedding thug tears.
8. R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”
OK. Let me say this from jump: I hate R. Kelly—but this song was a monster of a hit. Released in late 1996, this thing was omnipresent in 1997. It was probably also the song that began the trend of black secular songs being sung in sacred spaces. This was the song that paved the way for something like Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” to be sung in churches with the small addition of “Jesus” at the end of the chorus.
9. Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope
This, to me, is Ms. Jackson’s best album. (She told me to call her that because I’m nasty.)
But I’ll let Janetologist Son of Baldwin tell you why:
Aside from it being Janet’s most vulnerable, introspective work, it was also her most experimental. She did a lot of interesting things with her vocals (the croak on “You,” the whimper on “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” the honey harmonies on “I Get Lonely”). She tackled queer antagonism (“Free Xone”) and domestic abuse (“What About”). And, along with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she predicted the sexual/human-interaction pathologies that would rise with the digital age, in what is probably one of the greatest (and most underrated) songs ever written (“Empty”). The album was a masterpiece, ahead of its time, so black that it was blue, and horrifically overlooked.
Yeah … what he said.
10. The Love Jones soundtrack
I cannot believe it’s been 20 years since Darius Lovehall did “A Blues for Nina.” The film holds a special place in my heart, but the soundtrack was just as magisterial. “Hopeless” by Dionne Farris, “The Sweetest Thing” and “I Got a Love Jones for You” by the Refugee Camp All Stars are the standouts, but I defy anyone to find a bad song on the soundtrack.
That’s 10 reasons why 1997 is, if not the best year for black music, certainly my favorite. Let me give you a few honorable mentions.
11. “Kissing You,” by Des’ree
This underappreciated ballad dropped in July 1997. Although only a piano and string instruments accompany Des’ree’s voice, the song never loses emotional momentum. Her vocalizations are at once heart-wrenching and transformative. Beyoncé covered the song in 2007, but the original is the only version I acknowledge.
12. In My Life and Times, Vol. 1, by Jay Z
This album showed us that Hov could be both a rapper with street cred and a rapper with bankability. This marks the beginning of his ascendance into greatness.
13. “Love Always,” by K-Ci & JoJo
They were the only reason Jodeci was worth a damn, and upon striking out on their own, they gave us a peek into their softer side. If you attended a wedding of a black couple between the years 1998 and 1999, you probably heard this song at some point during the reception.
14. LSG, by LSG
This is probably the album that began the grown-and-sexy movement. Not soon thereafter, “white parties” populated by black bodies began to happen on boats and in places serving brown liquor all across the nation.
15. When Disaster Strikes, by Busta Rhymes
“Dangerous,” “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” and the underappreciated “The Body Rock.” Enough said.
16. My Way, by Usher
This album goes hard. Remember “Nice & Slow,” “Slow Jam,” “My Way” and “You Make Me Wanna … ”?
17. Next’s “Too Close”
I had no idea what this song was about until I was good and grown, but the campy lyrics are infectious. Plus, it gave us the brilliant meme, “Why You Always Lyin’?”
18. “Luchini aka This Is It,” by Camp Lo
If I walk up to you and say, “This is it; what?!” and you don’t respond with, “Luchini pouring from the sky; let’s get rich, what?!!” then I will assume you’re the feds.
19. “Honey,” by Mariah Carey
Remember that song? Yeah.
20. “G.H.E.T.T.O.U.T.,” by Changing Faces
It’s not exactly an R&B masterpiece, but it is a solid “I cannot believe I bought that nigga a new pair of Timbs” song.
There you have it. Twenty reasons why 1997 was almost certainly, without question, probably the best year for black music—maybe.