Retro R&B: Why pop is getting jiggy with the 1990s

Nostalgia for the 1980s is so last decade. Pop stars like Bruno Mars, Cardi B and SZA are drawing from old-school artists like Craig David, TLC, D’Angelo and Destiny’s Child

Nostalgia is a powerful force. That’s why pop’s harnessing of nostalgia is a habit some of its stars love to indulge in. A surefire sign you’ve crossed the threshold into full-on adulthood is when the music you spun in your youth becomes retro. It’s happening right now to kids who came up in the 1990s and even early 2000s. Those slim-case CD singles picked up in antiquated Virgin Megastores are now buttered in sentimentality, with the songs themselves offering creative octane to a whole new generation of artists.

The passage of time is a filter that makes everything look glorious. That’s why that expression “the good old days” is an evergreen one, particularly in an increasingly digital world where pictures of throwback sweet packaging, primitive mobile phones and once-popular Christmas toys are all over our timelines.

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were,” once said Marcel Proust. But even he probably would have grinned like a devil at a renaissance of bucket hats, hoop earrings and polyester plaid.

Post-2000 music was ruled by 1980s nostalgic – all throbbing synthesisers, new-wave balladry and post-punk revival. But pop trends have now lurched forward a few years, to the 1990s, the decade of rave culture, grunge rock and “heroin chic”. And, among the remembrance of the era’s thousand pop culture mutations, contemporary R&B is currently proving a particularly tempting tree for artists to pluck fruit from.


Like a lot of catchall expressions used to describe different musical genres, “contemporary R&B” can mean a lot of different things. Broadly speaking, it distinguishes the pre-disco, band-led rhythm and blues numbers from the smooth drum machines, danceable synths and modern production techniques of the post-disco era. Contemporary R&B of the 1990s had it’s own distinct grooves, including subgenres such as new jack swing, neo-soul and quiet storm, while frequently incorporating elements of hip-hop too. It was flavoursome, it was vivid and it led to some of the best pop music of the day.

Outrageous flows

Bruno Mars and Cardi B's Finesse (Remix) is a 2018 single-of-the-year candidate. The walloping drums, syncopated rhythms and outrageous flows recall the new jack swing of Bell Biv DeVoe and Dangerous-era Michael Jackson. The glorious retro video – presented in 4:3, of course – takes its stylistic cues from In Living Color, an early '90s sketch comedy show that encapsulates the American pop culture of the era about as well as anything.

The clip sees Mars, Cardi and their back-up dancers kitted out in backward caps, huge gold chains and garishly colourful threads ostensibly influenced by the socially conscious brand Cross Colours (they sported the logo during a Grammys performance of the song). It’s a piece unashamedly dealing in old money.

Closer to home, Wyvern Lingo are open about the influence of artists like Alicia Keys and Destiny's Child on their popping brand of rhythm and blues

Craig David's recent resurgence in popularity was partially fuelled by tracks such as Cold (White Nerd Remix) and When The Bassline Drops – dead-on recreations of old-school UK garage, a genre that grew out of house in the 1990s and early 2000s to incorporate pop hooks and R&B vocals. Unlike Mars and Cardi B, David was around to create the kind of music he's helping bring back. His recent catalogue might have intercut the throwback flavours with Justin Bieber-jacking numbers, but a lot of the crowd that flooded to his stadium tour last year were those with long-term connections to David. They're not old, but old enough to feel nostalgic.

UK garage actually died an ugly death when it was co-opted by pop acts like Liberty X and Daniel Bedingfield. The music lost its cool factor, forcing its creators back into the underground to experiment with daring new sounds. Yet garage is gradually being restored as the effects of those perceived sins disappear further and further into our cultural rearview mirror.

Retro revivalism

Though these are examples of straight retro revivalism – that is, they're attempting to mimic previous sounds down to the finest detail – other artists are instead building new cities on the foundations left by their stylistic ancestors by blazing a more forward-thinking style. Take SZA's Ctrl. Working in elements of trap rap and indie into her poised, percolating methodology, the singer created a record that helped define the sound of new-age R&B while carrying the DNA of her '90s ancestors.

Rising singer Charlotte Day Wilson first caught the ear by providing vocals to Badbadnotgood's smouldering '70s-style soul number In Your Eyes. Yet her two excellent solo EPs have so far shot forward a couple decades, drawing on the sleek quiet storm of Sade and dapper contemporary R&B of Mariah Carey's early records. Artists such as English singer Jessie Ware and Brooklyn indie pop band Wet draw from the same sources. Meanwhile, S4U and Jorja Smith have kept the garage revival lit. Closer to home, Wyvern Lingo are open about the influence of artists like Alicia Keys and Destiny's Child on their popping brand of rhythm and blues. I could go on.

It's entirely natural to pull influence from the sounds that gave you a musical education when writing and producing your own work. Wyvern Lingo draw on Mary J Blige, who herself was building on the sounds of Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle, who themselves were building on the sounds of Ruth Brown and Aretha Franklin. It's a stylistic continuum that helps keep music moving.

1980s nostalgia lasted basically the entire 2000s. Everything from chart pop to the New York indie scene drew from it. Better get those baggy jeans out of storage so. As the 1990s becomes the new currency of cool, expect a lot more artists to come decked out in vintage threads.

Out of the Past: Four new-age retro R&B classics

Jessie Ware – Midnight

The highpoint of the soulful English singer's most recent album Glasshouse is a sleek, stylish pop number that recalls the era of an emerging Mariah Carey and sophisticated hits like Vision of Love.

S4U – Twice

On tracks like Twice, rising East London duo S4U (or Something For You) sound like the spiritual successors of TLC. Here, the smooth horns sample, jackknifing hip-hop drums and Rosita Bonita's crazy, sexy, cool vocals sound like they were cut with the spirit T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli on their shoulders.

Charlotte Day Wilson – Nothing New

Responding to a review I'd written, Charlotte Day Wilson once claimed on Twitter to have "only listened to Sade a couple times". Regardless, liquid gold soul numbers like Nothing New swirl with similar quiet-storm magic.

Wyvern Lingo – Tell Him

Taken from their recently released self-titled debut album, the soulful guitar licks and sensual vocals of Tell Him see Wyvern Lingo draw from their neo-soul influences such as D’Angelo.