1990’s was the decade of Black-centric music label imprints ,supported by record label giants, producing the finest urban music stars into icons of today and songs and albums that defined an era of a diverse lifestyle where classy meshed with street and Gen X and younger Baby Boomers grooved to the same sounds.
Iconic record label names such as Def Jam, Death Row, Uptown, No Limit and Bad Boy are the most discussed urban imprint labels by R&B/hip-hop music aficionados as legends 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige and Jodeci were the biggest personalities of the era that was once labeled as “ghetto fabulous.”
When matching talents, hit singles, superstars, classic albums and cultural impact, no imprint label matched the winning streaks of LaFace Records. The Atlanta-based record label introduced the world to OutKast, TLC, Usher, Pink, Ciara, Donell Jones, Goodie Mob and Toni Braxton and molded them into music superstars whose legacies impacted the evolution of R&B, rap and hip-hop music and influenced a generation of talents who has followed their formulas of successes. LaFace’s success stories boast what most 90’s urban imprint labels cannot claim – an Album of the Year Grammy win (OutKast), three diamond-certified albums for selling more than 10 million units in America (Usher, OutKast & TLC), singles that dominated R&B and pop radio music charts for more than 10 weeks (Donell Jones & Toni Braxton) and artists being labeled as the earliest influences of R&B and rap subgenres (The Tony Rich Project, Ciara, OutKast and Goodie Mob).
LaFace was formed in 1989 as a joint venture between the producing duo Antonio “L.A.” Reid & Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, former members of the 1980’s R&B band The Deele. The combined nicknames of the duo’s successful production company inspired the name of the label. Arista Records, already home to Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Taylor Dayne, served as the distribution giant for the label. LaFace went on to become a successful label throughout the 1990s, selling more 100 million album and singles during its 17-year run.
In celebration of African-American Music History Month, I pay tribute my favorite urban music imprint label by listing the 18 greatest albums that came from the house that Babyface and L.A. Reid built, ranked by musicality and impact on urban music.
18. Against Da Grain (YoungBloodZ, 1999)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “U-Way (How We Do It)” “85”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Shakem’ Off”
At the beginning of the Dirty South hip-hop explosion, this duo’s debut album produced stellar collection of storytelling of what went down in the streets of Atlanta.
17. Boomerang soundtrack (various artists, 1992)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “Give U My Heart” (Babyface & Toni Braxton) “End of the Road” (Boyz II Men) “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” (Toni Braxton) “I’d Die Without You” (P.M. Dawn)
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Hot Sex” (A Tribe Called Quest)
This is the album that introduced world to chart-topping R&B diva Toni Braxton and garnered R&B group Boyz II Men’s first of three record-breaking hit singles.
16. Shanice (Shanice, 1999)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “When I Close My Eyes” “Yesterday”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Ain’t Got No Remedy”
Shanice made a triumphant comeback in the R&B scene after a five-year hiatus with solidly sophisticated, emotional jams about love and heartbreak.
15. Soul Food soundtrack (various artists, 1997)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “We’re Not Making Love No More” (Dru Hill) “A Song for Mama” (Boyz II Men) “I Care ’bout You” (Milestone) “What About Us?” (Total featuring Missy Elliott and Timbaland)
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Slow Jam” (Usher & Monica)
This soundtrack provided a diverse roster of R&B and hip-hop talents blending east and west coast talents alongside the label’s roster of southern acts.
14. My Way (Usher, 1997)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “You Make Me Wanna…” “Nice & Slow” “My Way”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “I Will”
After an image misstep with his debut album, Usher paired with hitmaking producer Jermaine Dupri creating timeless young love hits that made him an instant R&B heartthrob and pop teen idol.
13. The Heat (Toni Braxton, 2000)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “He Wasn’t Man Enough” “Spanish Guitar” “Just Be A Man About It”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Speaking In Tongues”
Braxton’s third album produced a confident, assured, sexy effort that reaffirmed her status as one of the finest contemporary mainstream soul singers.
12. Aquemini (OutKast, 1998)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “Rosa Parks” “Skew It on the Bar-B”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Liberation”
OutKast’s third album proved itself to be a virtuosic masterpiece, and a landmark hip-hop album of the late ’90s that evolved G-funk with denser instrumental crosstalk.
11. Where I Wanna Be (Donell Jones, 1999)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “U Know What’s Up” “Shorty (Got Her Eyes on Me)” “Where I Wanna Be”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Have You Seen Her”
Jones’ sophomore effort proved to be that great R&B slowburner with quiet storm music that is hip enough for the street-edged music listeners.
10. Words (The Tony Rich Project, 1996)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “Nobody Knows” “Like A Woman”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Hey Blue”
Tony Rich’s debut is filled with the high-octane fuel of serious, soulful songcraft, of which music critics later labeled it as one of the pioneering efforts of the neosoul era, blending the sounds of soul, blues, pop, and rock that wowed the MTV generation.
9. Confessions (Usher, 2004)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “Yeah!” “Burn” “Confessions Part II” “My Boo” “Caught Up”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “That’s What It’s Made For”
Boasting many a hit single, Usher’s magnum opus revealed the crooner’s new-found maturity exploring sounds and lyrics that drove him away from the boy-next-door swag of his previous efforts into a bonafide sex symbol and superstar.
8. Soul Food (Goodie Mob, 1995)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “Cell Therapy” “Soul Food”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Dirty South”
Goodie Mob’s stellar debut has been widely celebrated as the album that brought southern hip hop to the mainstream and heralded as an instant classic.
7. ATLiens (OutKast, 1996)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “Elevators (Me & You)” “Jazzy Belle”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Wheelz of Steel”
OutKast’s Big Boi and Andre 3000 have gone out of this world into a new dimension of sight, sound and mind in a large creative step forward from their preceding debut album.
6. Secrets (Toni Braxton, 1996)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “You’re Makin’ Me High” “Let It Flow” “Un-Break My Heart” “I Don’t Want To”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Find Me a Man”
Braxton’s emotionally-drenched sophomore effort cemented her notoriety as a R&B and pop superstar with one single dominating R&B radio throughout 1996 and one ballad dominating pop radio throughout 1997.
5. Toni Braxton (Toni Braxton, 1993)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “Another Sad Love Song” “Breathe Again” “Seven Whole Days” “You Mean the World to Me” “How Many Ways”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Spending My Time with You”
Toni Braxton’s eponymous debut is that perfect blend of the Mary J. Blige-styled street soul and Whitney Houston’s sophisti-pop sound that resonated with music listeners of different generations and lifestyles.
4. FanMail (TLC, 1999)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “No Scrubs” “Unpretty”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Dear Lie”
After a four-year hiatus since the final promotion of their best-selling sophomore album and troubling headlines that followed, a refreshed TLC released an album that kicked off the female empowerment era in R&B and pop with anthem-style tunes that dealt with self-awareness and triumphing bad relationships.
3. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (OutKast, 2003)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “Hey Ya!” “The Way You Move” “Roses”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Prototype”
The Atlanta hip-hop duo created a split-personality double-album that showcased the best of their individual talents on two separate sides of the same album.
2. CrazySexyCool (TLC, 1994)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “Creep” “Waterfalls” “Red Light Special” “Diggin’ On You”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Kick Your Game”
The R&B hip/hop trio shed their baggy clothes and playful New Jill Swing sound for a sultry swagger and sophisticated urban sound that touched on adult-oriented subjects including HIV, infidelity and intimacy.
1. Stankonia (OutKast, 2000)
THE HOTTEST HITS: “Ms. Jackson” “So Fresh, So Clean”
THAT GREAT ALBUM CUT: “Humble Mumble”
OutKast created a hip-hop album that hit that rare balance of creative eccentricity and mass appeal with eternal qualities that unraveled in time on an emotional, intellectual and spiritual level, effortlessly becoming their first crossover effort.