Is 2013 The Return of the 90s Slow Jam?

The 1990s were a musical mess, but emerging from the cacophony was a thing of beauty, a thing of rapture: the slow jam. Could this year bring the rebirth of this great genre?
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The 1990s were a musical mess, but emerging from the cacophony was a thing of beauty, a thing of rapture: the slow jam. Could this year bring the rebirth of this great genre?


The 60s heralded the birth of rock & roll, its formative years shaped by The Beatles and Rolling Stones. The 70s was the decade of drugs, decadence and debauchery, with the Thin White Duke (and his penchant for thin white lines) at the helm of the glam rock movement, paving the way for the New Romantics of the 80s, an era heavy on the synth and hairspray. And so to the 90s, an ungainly hotchpotch of everything from EDM and grunge to dreadful (amazing) pop, gangsta rap and RnB.

Yes, the 1990s were a musical mess but emerging from the cacophony was a thing of beauty, a thing of rapture: the slow jam. If an album is reviewed with any of the following:  smooth grooves, quiet storm, neo soul, I’ll take a second look. If said album then includes a spoken interlude, unnecessary use of parenthesis in song titles … and a saxophone, I’m sold.

And so I have good news. RnB’s tall drink of water, Ne-Yo, has predicted that 2013 is the year he will be resurrecting the slow jam. The genius behind many baby-making ballads, including Mario’s Let Me Love You, if anyone has the goods to make this claim, it’s him. From Rihanna sampling Ginuwine’s twisted swagger track Pony on her latest album Unapologetic to Jessie Ware’s silky smooth take on Brownstone’s If You Love Me, it’s official: the slow jam is coming back.


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And what does that actually herald, you may ask? To those around the first time, the 90s slow jam offered a combination of genuine sensuality, overt sexuality and absurd metaphor, oft straying into the latter to sublimely ridiculous results. Honorary mention goes to East 17’s 1993 offering, Deep, with metaphors hailing straight from the Joey Tribianni school of subtlety, promising the listener that they’ll ‘butter the toast if you lick the knife’ (Um. No thanks). They do mention that we’ll ‘have a good laugh’ which is nice, I do enjoy a good laugh, before pledging that they’ll ‘maybe bubble the bath,’ and be the sponge that ‘wets you down.’ Christ.

Janet Jackson, the Grande Dame of baby-making music, is also guilty of taking it too far. Would You Mind? from 2001’s All For You has Miss Jackson whispering and moaning for nearly six minutes, cooing to her man that she’ll ‘bathe him and play with him.’ Bathe? I know she is going for the well-trodden path of rose petals and bubbles a la Pretty Woman and yet it somehow evokes the images of a geriatric getting a sponge bath from his carer.

But for the true power players, responsible for much of the 90s magic, look to R.Kelly and Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins - two names forever synonymous with the slow jam. The self-proclaimed Pied Piper of RnB, Robert Kelly monopolised the genre throughout the 90s and 00s, as adept in RnB power ballads as he was in preposterous sexual numbers, like The Zoo. One choice cut states: ’Like Jurassic Park except I'm your sex-a-saurus babe,’ which I believe is the first dinosaur sexual reference on record.

As for Darkchild, his name was uttered in the intros to some of the best songs of the 90s. The producer was the RnB mastermind behind many of yesteryear’s classics, from Whitney’s woman wronged anthem, It’s Not Right (But It’s Okay), to Toni Braxton’s smooth and sultry He Wasn’t Man Enough. His popularity waned during the 00s, with his style of production a little too slick, too old fashioned, compared to the brash pop scene that was emerging.  However, recent photos of Britney Spears reveal a certain Mr Jerkins lurking in the background, a stronger sign than any that smooth grooves are coming back with a vengeance. ‘It’s Darkchild, bitch.’

Brandy, Darkchild’s longtime collaborator, has also stayed resolute in her dedication to the slow jam.  With an impressive back catalogue of silken RnB, Brandy’s name was a chart fixture throughout the 90s. A few setbacks in her personal life led to a brief career hiatus until her 1994 debut single I Wanna Be Down saw a resurgence in popularity last year, receiving the remix treatment from Brooklyn duo Follow Me, and elusive producer Stumbleine.

More recently, the beginning of 2013 has marked the return of 90s favourites Destiny’s Child and Justin Timberlake. More welcome backs than comebacks, Destiny’s Child’s Nuclear is a light, understated affair produced by Pharrell Williams, while Timberlake’s Suit and Tie can only be described as a laidback groove. With Drake currently working on a post-humous Aaliyah album due for release  later this year and Cyril Hahn’s reworkings of Destiny’s Child and Mariah Carey making waves online, it’s clear what Ne-Yo was talking about.

And what’s more, there are new players too. Today, Frank Ocean and Miguel are two names ushering in a fresh wave of RnB, adding new layers of introspection and scope to mid-tempo beats and ballads of heartbreak and self-persecution.  Frank Ocean has been quietly making a name for himself; part of LA’s Odd Future hip hop collective, Frank released the sleeper hit of 2012 with his debut studio album Channel Orange demonstrating a more artistic delivery and candour rarely touched upon in RnB. On several of his songs Ocean references ‘him’ rather than ‘her,’ a brave move in a genre where heteronormativity dominates.  All killer and no filler, Ocean’s subtle, haunting music is a modern twist on the traditional slow jam, winning fans and accolades alike. (There’s always one though - and it’s always Chris Brown who allegedly ‘tried to beat the living shit’ out of Ocean, while calling him a faggot.)

Described as indie RnB (they’re still working on that), Miguel’s Adorn meanwhile made Rolling Stone’s best of 2012 list and has all the makings of a solid slow jam:  a Prince-esque falsetto, overblown vocal runs and the immortal opening line, ‘these lips can’t wait to taste your skin.’ Miguel also hails from the R. Kelly school of RnB hubris stating that the idea for the song came to him in a dream.

We Brits are getting in on the act too - Northern soul singer Daley has record execs very excited,  although no amount of label image tweaking can disguise the fact he is a dead ringer for Mick Hucknall, barnet et al.  Daley’s debut single Remember Me is a lesson in the 90s jam , managing to shoehorn both Blue Boy’s dance anthem (yay!) and Mica Paris’ Should’ve Known Better into its three minutes.  It also features Jessie J (boo!).

So, welcoming the return of my guilty pleasure with arms wide open, I leave you with the news that Prince unleashed his new single Breakfast Can Wait, an ode to morning sex, this weekend.

If that’s not enough to convince you the slow jam is back, I don’t know what will.