By the 1990s, hip-hop was clearly here to stay and was more than just a flash of youthful rebellion from the inner city. Part of this was due to the geographical and commercial growth of the genre’s popularity, but the newly attained level of respect that hip-hop found was also a result of people recognizing the true diversity of its subject matter.
Let’s make this clear, hip-hop always consisted of more than just party records; some of the earliest songs we know of were social commentaries hidden under hypnotic beats and bouncy rhyme schemes. Like many other art forms, hip-hop is and was a reflection of the many aspects of life, such as conflict, pain, aspiration and reward. But, perhaps, the most universal subject that hip-hop ever touched on was love.
Some of hip-hop’s attempts to understand and explain love hit the nail on the head and became classic records that we often refer to as romantic source material. But, because we often need reminders on what love is and what it feels like, here’s a list of hip-hop songs from the 1990s that you can listen to to get a refresher course.
“Passin Me By”/”Otha Fish” – The Pharcyde
Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is a classic project that apparently missed the cut for “’90s albums hipsters drool over,” so it doesn’t get much love today. The Pharcyde’s debut album was a joyous experience that told the stories you might expect from a group of early 20-somethings: having a good time, pushing back against authority figures, and the kind of mind-bending, drug-induced tales that make OFWGKTA look like the toddlers they were when this album dropped in 1992. But songs like “Passin Me By” and “Otha Fish” put love on the forefront and gave us detailed accounts on how the members found love, lost it, and learned that it’s sometimes best to keep moving on.
“I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need” – Method Man feat. Mary J. Blige
Rap and R&B have been proven time and time again to be a potent combination. The juxtaposition of Method Man’s rugged delivery and Mary J.’s sweet voice in the background made “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need” a classic love story of undeniable affection. It should be considered a crime to write a list of hip-hop love songs and not include this. Seriously, if I didn’t, I’d expect the Internet police to be at my door in the morning.
“Bonita Applebum” – A Tribe Called Quest
Unless they’re going out of their way to prove a point, most people will say A Tribe Called Quest is their favorite hip-hop group from the ’90s. At the very least, they’ll think it before they say someone else. “Bonita Applebum” was the second single from Tribe’s debut album back in 1990 and let Q-Tip speak at length about the initial attraction he felt for a woman. Oh, and it’s also about how she has a big butt, hence “applebum.”
“You Got Me” – The Roots feat. Erykah Badu and Eve
The Roots have been around for a long, long time. Before becoming the nightly house band for Jimmy Fallon, they had already paid their dues in the industry with their ability to perfectly mesh hip-hop with neo-soul in displays like “You Got Me” featuring the queen of neo-soul and fellow Soulquarian, herself, Erykah Badu. Eve is also featured to provide further balance from both sides to accompany Black Thought.
“Around the Way Girl” – LL Cool J / “Hey Lover” – LL Cool J feat. Boyz II Men
LL Cool J’s name stands for “Ladies Love Cool James,” so he gets two songs on this list. Coming out in 1990, “Around the Way Girl” was LL’s first top 10 single. In case anyone is out there wondering how to talk to a woman, study these lyrics, update anything you need to for 2015, and go for it.
Now, “Hey Lover” is a completely different story. Sometimes you catch feelings for someone that’s already spoken for. What you do after that point is completely on you. If you’re LL Cool J, you watch them around town and imagine telling them you want to do things with your tongue. For the record, you’re not LL Cool J, so don’t do that.
“Searching” – Pete Rock & CL Smooth
After the hypnotic mysticism of “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)” from Mecca and the Soul Brother took the country by storm, Pete Rock & CL Smooth had a follow-up album in 1994 called The Main Ingredient. While their sophomore album didn’t have a hit like the first – which is hard to do considering that “T.R.O.Y” is one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever – it still had some good cuts like “Searching,” which was Smooth’s explanation of what it’s like to finally find the girl of your dreams.
“Renee” – Lost Boyz
Not every love song has a happy ending. Books and movies constantly remind you of that sobering reality, so it’s only fair that music should do the same. When you live a dangerous lifestyle that gives you legitimate doubts that you’ll be around in another year, falling in love is a hard thing to do. In “Renee,” the Lost Boyz tell the story of a girl that was down with the life, but got caught up in the dark side of it as well and cut what was a seemingly perfect relationship short.
Note: “Renee” made the soundtrack for Don’t Be a Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.
“Brown Skin Lady” – Black Star
Before they went their separate ways, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Talib Kweli comprised a rap duo called Black Star that only released one album, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star. While it didn’t sell through the roof, it produced a lot of quality music with a positive message, such as the appreciation of black women, no matter their complexion, in “Brown Skin Lady.” Both artists came out with their respective solo debuts within the next two years, but occasionally appeared on songs together.
“What You Want” – Mase
Mase’s super-lazy delivery was perfect for rap/R&B collaborations, so it’s no surprise that “What You Want” was a hit. It also featured Total, an R&B group whose name may have escaped your memory banks by now, but their voices probably haven’t. Working heavily with Bad Boy Records, their hook on this track may be one of the best parts of the song outside of the “Hey Mama, won’t you come here to Papa?” line.
“Ms. Fat Booty” – Mos Def
Barely making the cut with a mid-1999 release is Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty.” When artists try and fit an entire relationship into a song, it usually doesn’t do it justice and all you walk away with is a blur of memories. But Mos takes us through the funny story of how he first met a woman and caught the curve, saw her again, hit it off, fell madly in love, and was then left without her. Sometimes things just go that way.