The 1990s introduced artists and sounds that helped define the times and made an impact felt even today.
From the introduction of Gangsta Rap to the worldwide success of Whitney Houston, albums from black artists crossed genres, broke barriers, and made waves.
Whether you’re already a fan of music from this era or want to learn about it, here are the 13 best 90s black albums for you to check out.
Poison (1990) by Bell Biv Devoe
Although Poison is the debut album for Bell Biv Devoe, it wasn’t the first time audiences had heard the trio in action. Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie Devoe were all members of New Edition, a popular 80s boy band that also included Keith Sweat and Bobby Brown.
Poison introduced the world to the New Jack Swing, an uptempo sound that added a distinctly poppy feel on top of a smooth hip-hop beat. The sound quickly caught on and became a staple of the 90s, popular at clubs, house parties, and even on TV shows such as “In Living Color.”
The titular single, “Poison,” is arguably the best-known song from the album, but other hits such as “She’s Dope!” and “B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me)?” were also quite popular.
Faith (1995) by Faith Evans
As the former wife of The Notorious B.I.G., it’s easy to focus on Faith’s place in hip-hop history while overlooking her own abilities as an artist. Fortunately, Faith, her debut album, showcases her true star quality.
The songs combine her smoky, sensual singing voice with hardcore hip-hop beats by executive producer Sean “Puffy” Combs. The three most popular singles from the album were “You Used to Love Me,” “Soon as I Get Home,” and “Ain’t Nobody.”
Faith released new music regularly until the mid-2000s when divorce and a series of arrests temporarily derailed her career. However, she has made a bit of a comeback in recent years, releasing an album in 2017 featuring duets with her late husband.
The Bodyguard (1992) by Whitney Houston
Nothing against Kevin Costner, but Houston’s soundtrack has the rare distinction of being far more popular than the film it’s based on. The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album is the top-selling soundtrack of all time, with over 45 million copies sold. “I Will Always Love You” is also the best-selling single by a female artist in history.
Interestingly, “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” was intended as the first single, but a version by Paul Young was used in a different film. Kevin Costner suggested Whitney Houston cover Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” instead, and the rest is history.
“I Will Always Love You” isn’t the only major hit on the album, which also includes “I’m Every Woman” and “I Have Nothing,” the latter of which was nominated for an Academy Award.
CrazySexyCool (1994) by TLC
The 90s were a breakthrough decade for many black female musicians, including TLC, a hip-hop trio consisting of:
- Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins
- Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes
- Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas.
CrazySexyCool is actually the group’s second album. Their first, Ooooooohh… On the TLC Tip, was released in 1992 and achieved moderate success. Notably, the group originally had only two members, Watkins and Lopes.
Their second album was a commercial smash and remains a classic even today. Producers Jermaine Dupris, Babyface, and Dallas Austin worked with the women to craft an album packed with hits. Popular singles include “Creep,” “Red Light Special,” Waterfalls,” and “Diggin’ on You.”
Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number (1994) – Aaliyah
Aaliyah’s star shined brightly throughout the 90s before a plane crash in 2001 cut her life short in a tragedy that shocked the world.
A New York native who grew up in Detroit, Aaliyah found fame at a young age. Blackground Records signed her as a backup singer when she was only 12, and she recorded her first album at 14. Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number debuted at number 24 on the Billboard chart, eventually peaking at 18 and selling over three million copies.
The debut single, Back and Forth, was the most popular release from the album, followed by “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number” and the Isley Brother’s cover “At Your Best (You Are Love)”.
Aaliyah released another hit album in 1996, One in a Million. It was produced by Timbaland and Missy Elliott, who later recalled how nervous they were to meet the young singer, as she was far more famous than the two of them at the time.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) by The Wu-Tang Clan
It’s the Wu comin’ through! The early 90s introduced the world to Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan, and rap, hip hop, and pop culture have never been the same.
36 Chambers is widely considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made, with a huge array of popular singles including
- “Protect Ya Neck”
- “Method Man.”
Another interesting aspect of the album involves the deal the group struck with their record company. RCA released 36 Chambers, but the contract allowed the individual members of the Wu-Tang to sign with other labels for solo projects. It was a first-of-its-kind arrangement that group leader RZA has described as a financial movement.
The Chronic (1992) by Dr. Dre
After leaving NWA over a bitter financial dispute, Dr. Dre set out as a solo artist, releasing his debut effort, The Chronic, in 1992. It quickly became a critical and commercial smash, establishing Dre as both a rapper and producer.
The Chronic introduced the world to G-Funk, a gangsta rap subgenre featuring slow beats, heavy use of both synthesizers and live instruments, and relatively minimal sampling. The songs detailed gang life on the West Coast, featuring violent and profane lyrics.
While practically every song on the album became popular, some of the biggest singles included “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” “Dre Day,” and “Let Me Ride.” The album also launched the careers of several other iconic rappers and singers, including:
- Snoop Dogg
- Nate Dogg
- Warren G.
Throughout the 90s, Dre continued to work with Snoop and 2Pac as part of Death Row Records, before eventually leaving the company to form his own label, Aftermath Entertainment.
What’s the 411 (1992) by Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige is often called the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, known for songs that fuse hip-hop and soul. Her debut album dropped in 1992 to positive reviews and solid sales, with critics impressed by Blige’s voice and authenticity.
Mary’s career has soared steadily upward, finding success not just in music but also in TV and film. Despite struggles with drugs and alcohol in the past, she has remained sober for many years.
What’s the 411 features hits “You Remind Me,” “Real Love,” and “Reminisce.” It’s also known for “Sweet Thing,” a Chaka Khan cover. Although What’s the 411 wasn’t as successful as her sophomore effort, My Life, it’s still rightfully considered one of the best 90s black albums.
Time’s Up (1990) – Living Color
You’re likely familiar with Living Color’s biggest hit, “Cult of Personality,” a classic headbanger that was released in 1988. But how well do you know their later work? The band proved they were far more than a one-hit-wonder with the release of their second album, Time’s Up.
While it remained true to their hard rock and metal roots, the group also broadened their sound to include funk, jazz, soul, and punk elements. The result is an energetic and eclectic album with guest appearances from Queen Latifah, Doug E. Fresh, Little Richard, and more.
The album was more commercially and critically successful than many people realize. It reached #13 on the Billboard 200 chart and won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. The band released a third album, Stain, in 1993 to a mixed reception. They eventually broke up in 1995, before reuniting in 2000.
The band holds a special place in hard rock and metal history as one of the few in the genre with all black members. Rather than shy away from that fact, they incorporated it into their music, writing many songs about racism in the US.
The Score (1996) by The Fugees
Although it’s now considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, The Score had to overcome some pretty impossible odds even to get made. The trio’s first album, Blunted on Reality, failed to make much of an impact. Their record company gave them a $135,000 advance and told them this was their last shot.
Wyclef Jean, Pras, and breakout star Lauryn Hill created a confident, cohesive album focused on urban and ghetto life. Their signature blend of rapping, singing, and reggae shined bright in hits such as “Fu-Gee-La,” “Killing Me Softly,” and “Ready or Not.”
While the album received rave reviews and sold over 22 million copies worldwide, The Fugees never released another album as a group. By 1997, they’d broken up, primarily due to relationship troubles between Hill and Jean.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) – Lauryn Hill
After The Fugees disbanded, Hill almost immediately began work on her solo album. Released in 1998, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill further developed the rap, reggae, and soul sound from the Fugees, only with much more personal lyrics drawn from her life.
Many songs on the album dealt with Hill’s failed relationship with Wyclef, most notably “I Used to Love Him.” Other singles included “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and “Everything is Everything.”
The album sold a million copies in less than a month and became the longest-charting debut album by a female rapper for over 21 years (eventually eclipsed by Cardi B.) Its popularity is incredibly enduring, too. Spotify recently declared it one of the top ten most-streamed albums from 1998.
Funky Divas (1992) – En Vogue
Destiny’s Child who? In the late 80s and throughout the 90s, there was no female vocal group greater than En Vogue. While their first album, Born to Sing, brought them fairly substantial fame in 1990, their sophomore effort catapulted them to super-stardom.
Funky Divas featured hits that are still popular among audiences even today, such as “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)” and “Free Your Mind.” The album debuted at number one on the Billboard R&B chart, quickly reaching triple platinum status.
While the lineup of En Vogue changed frequently, the group who performed on Funky Divas consisted of the following members:
- Dawn Robinson
- Cindy Herron
- Maxine Jones
- Terry Ellis
Although En Vogue released albums fairly regularly through 2008, none ever found the same success level as Funky Divas. Plus, fans fell off as the group lost (and sometimes regained) members over the years. But even if the magic of their second album was never quite recaptured, Funky Divas endures as a beloved classic.
Toni Braxton (1993) – Toni Braxton
Younger audiences might know Braxton from the reality show she starred in with her sisters, or her recent appearance on “The Masked Singer,” but in the 90s, she was a musical tour-de-force who dominated the Billboard charts.
Toni started her career as part of The Braxtons, a vocal group featuring her and her four sisters. However, after getting discovered by producers LA Reid and Babyface, she embarked on a solo career, dropping her self-titled debut in 1993.
Four singles from the album were released, most in 1994: “Another Sad Love Song,” “You Mean the World to Me,” “Seven Whole Days,” and “I Belong to You/How Many Ways.”
Braxton’s career has experienced many ups and downs, including financial issues and health problems. While none of her other releases ever quite topped the power of her debut, it belongs among the very best R&B albums of the 1990s.
Top 90s Black Albums, Final Thoughts
The best 90s black albums cover various genres and styles, from hardcore rap to soulful R&B and more. In some cases, artists and producers created entirely new sounds such as G-Funk and New Jack Swing. The influence of music from this era continues to make an impression, leaving no doubt that the power and magic of black 90s albums are here to stay.