Music from the 1990s is largely regarded with rose-colored nostalgia. Hip-hop made the leap, R&B was blessed with several noteworthy groups that provided classic albums, and neo-soul showed up and made superstars out of folks like Erykah Badu and D’Angelo.
New jack swing took a step out of the arena but gave way to artists with hip-hop and R&B sensibilities, creating party anthems with boom bap and harmony from groups like SWV, Mary J. Blige and BBD. Black movie soundtracks and hoods across America could be heard knocking to Blige’s “Real Love” in their Jeeps alongside Redman’s “Time 4 Sum Aksion” and Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.”
Well, 1995 brought us one of the seminal offerings in hip-hop/R&B perfection: Groove Theory’s “Tell Me,” from their self-titled (and only) album. For my money, “Tell Me” is one of the most ’90s songs that ever did ’90. Groove Theory was a duo featuring Mantronix’s Bryce Wilson and the woman whose voice could save the world and who instantly became #Bae for thousands, Amel Larrieux. With Bryce’s production and Amel’s vocals and writing, “Tell Me” showed up and had everybody hitting the same ol’ two-step for the culture.
Why is the song perfect? Glad you asked. Let’s start with the production. Wilson used a simple drum pattern, threw in some “Christmas bells” and added the bass line from the Mary Jane Girls’ “All Night Long” (hence the Rick James writing credit), which he chopped up a bit. The beat itself is super early to mid-’90s in its simplicity. Wilson adds some keyboard flourishes, but there isn’t much to the beat at all.
That’s fine, because the real power of the song lies in the simple songwriting and Amel’s powerhouse vocals, which are embellished with Trey Lorenz’s additional vocals throughout to provide some tension. She demonstrates quite a bit of vocal range and even does a run to start the song, but largely, her voice is so buttery and beautiful and perfect over the boom-bap drumming that she has all the room she needs to let the singing breathe. While the lyrics aren’t exactly changing the world—it’s a song about a crush—they’re very effective, especially the über-repeatable hook. I mean, who hasn’t been there? I’ve been there.
Amel sells the song with tremendous aplomb; “Tell Me” IMMEDIATELY takes you back to the ’90s. Nobody who was into the black-music scene during that time can hear that song without immediately remembering how the ’90s felt. You might not remember where you were or what you were doing when you first heard it, but you remember the feel. Any song with that kind of power is nothing short of a perfect moment in black-music history. It gives you life. It takes you back to your youth and your crushes, the ’90s style and the possibilities of it all.
The video was helmed by ’90s staple director Hype Williams, which means that the label felt that they had a hit on their hands. The song ended up reaching No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and as high as No. 2 on various other Billboard charts. It’s a performance video with lots of shots of Amel and Bryce, though we all focused on Amel. Oddly, even the album cover faded Bryce into the background. I think we can safely call that shade and possibly foreshadowing.
If ever I feel any bit of nostalgia or desire to relive the ’90s, I almost always start with “Tell Me.” It never lets me down. If you can think of another song as perfect as this one, I have only one request: