You can not discuss the best 90s R&B songs without mentioning Dru Hill. In 1992, high school friends Mark “Sisqo” Andrews, Larry “Jazz” Anthony Jr., Tamir “Nokio” Ruffin, and James “Woody” Green formed a group eventually called Dru Hill, after Druid Hill Park in their native Baltimore. The quartet got their start at local and regional talent shows. (Not to mention their local fudge shop.)
They created a massive buzz after a few years, and landed a record deal with Island. Their debut album, Dru Hill, dropped in 1996 and went platinum on the strength of singles like “Never Make a Promise,” “In My Bed,” “Tell Me,” and “5 Steps.” The group often drew comparisons to Jodeci and Boyz II Men – influences they were happy to claim – and like many of the greats before them, their rich complex harmonies, rooted in soul music, met at the intersection of gospel, blues, hip-hop, and R&B. They were in their late teens and early 20s when they entered the world stage, but they crooned grownup tales of love and sex. Dru Hill also provided unforgettable visuals to match their tunes. That’s where many first saw their signature dance moves, like the Dru Hill bounce.
Dru Hill’s road through stardom wasn’t always smooth, especially after their sophomore album in 1998. There were label and group member changes throughout the years. The quartet became a trio at times, or a quintet, and then eventually back to a quartet. Despite the shifts in line up, though, they’re still making music. The focus in this introduction, however, is Dru Hill’s best songs from 1996 until 2002.
Dru Hill’s quintessential R&B songs
(“Tell Me,” “In My Bed,” “Never Make A Promise,” “5 Steps,” “I Should Be…”)
Dru Hill’s breakthrough was fueled by tantalizing love songs and signature dance moves. They came in hot with their debut single “Tell Me,” a melodious promise to deliver hot steamy love at all times. “Tell Me,” which first appeared on the soundtrack of the 1996 film, Eddie, peaked at number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number five on the R&B chart. The video was also a treat, as they introduced their most famous dance move, the Dru Hill bounce, an energetic hop on both feet, one at a time, to the mid-tempo rhythm.
Even heartthrobs get their hearts broken, and “In My Bed,” the second single from their eponymous debut, was a scandalous tale of the sort. It spent three weeks at number one on the US R&B chart and peaked at number four on the US pop chart. Sisqo’s vocals lead this standard tale about suspicion of infidelity, but the steamy video ended with a twist that was unexpected for that time – Sisqo walking in on his girlfriend cheating with another woman.
“Never Make A Promise” was Jazz’s time to shine. His mellifluous tenor carries the song and his falsetto riffs at the end are the cherry on top. In the song, Jazz is promising to always protect the love of his life. In the song’s accompanying video, which tackles incest, he saves his lover from her abusive father. The mellow syrupy tune went straight to number one and stayed at the top of the charts for weeks.
If it wasn’t clear before that this group was rooted in gospel music, then “5 Steps” drives that point home via the powerful choral arrangements in the hook. This melancholy song finds the group singing about the short time we have on Earth and cherishing moments with loved ones while we still can. Meanwhile, “I Should Be…” is one of the best songs from 2002’s Dru World Order, which peaked at #25 on the Hot 100 and #6 on the R&B chart. It saw the group singing about what they knew best – how to be in love – with melodies as strong as ever.
(“You Are Everything,” “Beauty,” “These Are The Times”)
There was a lot of pressure on Dru Hill’s second album, but “You Are Everything” quickly dispelled any concern. The song sees them trying to reconcile with the lover they spurned, and while the Jodeci influence can be heard throughout their music, it’s especially rich here. The single propelled the album, Enter the Dru to double-platinum status.
“Beauty,” penned in part by Nokio, is a soft and sensual ode to a beautiful but elusive crush. The ethereal song sounds like a dream sequence and is a nod to Nokio’s stellar pen and keen ear for melodies. (They didn’t call the then-burgeoning producer “Nasty On Key In Octave” for nothing.)
Dru Hill can get raunchy at times, but “These Are the Times” is the opposite. Penned by Babyface and Damon Thomas, this song about taking it slowly finds them tempted by carnal flesh but willing to wait for true love. Here, they cherish the moments of getting to know a lover first, but Sisqo makes it quite clear when he sings about his desire to swallow her like Reeses Pieces, that the wait is going to be hard. Once again, the group delivered on visuals with a Man in the Iron Mask-themed video, complete with a sword fight.
The Best Remix Ever?
(“In My Bed (So So Def Remix)”)
It’s rare that remixes are as good as (or even better) than the original hit song, but Jermaine Dupri outdid himself as a producer on this one. He turned the slow jam into an up-tempo groove that makes it really hard to choose one version over the other. It’s all helped, of course, by Dupri and Da Brat lacing the track with braggadocio rhymes throughout.
(“Bad Bad Mama,” “This Is What We Do”)
Dru Hill lent their vocal chops to the hook of Foxy Brown’s “Big Bad Mama.” The single, from the How to be a Player movie soundtrack, contained an interpolation of Carl Carlton’s “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” and went on to peak at #53 on Billboard Hot 100. It was one of Foxy Brown’s most successful singles and showcased Dru Hill’s ability to seamlessly blend R&B with hip-hop. “This Is What We Do” from Enter The Dru, meanwhile, never made it to the radio, but Method Man blessed this raunchy groove with a few bars, once again showing the group’s versatility in this unlikely pairing. The flirty song is all about the fun of the chase.
Dru Hill Deep Cuts
(“All Alone,” “April Showers,” “Angel,” “Love’s Train”)
Dru Hill sang about self-care before it was cool. “All Alone” is another song about heartbreak, but they’re singing about overcoming that grief by taking some time to be alone and reflect on their feelings. It’s a rare cut where every member sings a verse. It’s great to hear Nokio, who often preferred to play the background and focus on writing and arranging. The song reveals his voice is breathy and chill compared to some of his more boisterous groupmates.
Woody didn’t sing lead as much as Sisqo or Jazz, but he was often allotted a verse or two on various group efforts. However, he really got to shine on “April Showers,” a love song he wrote for a high school girlfriend. It wasn’t a single, but its passion and beauty make it impossible to skip. His groupmates assisted his declaration of love by providing lovely background harmonies.
“Angel” is another Woody deep cut. At the beginning of the song, he mentions that people weren’t always aware when he sang lead and often told him that he should sing more. This was his way of recreating the magic he made with “April Showers,” now a cult classic, and reminding people that he had a strong voice, he was really good at love songs, and that he had a beloved place in the group. Mission accomplished.
Most of Dru Hill’s songs don’t have samples or contain interpolations, but they didn’t shy away from incorporating some remakes in their repertoire, paying homage to soulful groups who paved the way for them. Their first recorded foray into the world of remakes was their take on Con Funk Shun’s 1982 smash “Love’s Train.” The song appeared on their debut album and is another alluring call for a lover to join them in bliss. It sounds a lot like the original (a good thing), but its updated production, Sisqo’s signature riffs, and Dru Hill’s robust harmonies give it a boost.