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Legacy usually sells well. The soul musicians of the ’70s and ’80s long ago turned past successes into eternal marketability, touring well into old age. But comparable urban acts of the ’90s, now about two decades behind us, still haven’t found that foothold. Perhaps it’s the ascendancy of hip-hop, and the subsequent fragmentation of soul and R&B, that account for this disinterest. Or maybe it’s the fact that so many of the decade’s epochal artists met untimely deaths (Tupac, Biggie, Aaliyah), permanently disbanded (A Tribe Called Quest), or withdrew from music altogether (Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo). So it’s no exaggeration to say that the legacy of black music in the 1990s feels somewhat unfinished. But several hip-hop and soul acts from that era and lineage are re-emerging this summer with dollar signs in their eyes.
In their time, the funky divas of En Vogue were among pop’s biggest quartets, churning out major hits like “My Lovin’” and the Salt-N-Pepa collab “Whattaman.” This didn’t last, mostly thanks to infighting. Its original lineup, complete with on-again-off-again member Dawn Robinson, lands at the Birchmere on June 25 and 26. A reunited Bel Biv Devoe, the post-New Edition trio that introduced the world to New Jack Swing 20 years ago, performs at the same venue on July 15. Hits like “Poison” ushered in a decade in which the line between hip-hop and R&B blurred and then nearly disappeared.
When Erykah Badu first dropped her debut, 1997’s Baduizm, her earthy sound was seen as an antidote to that hip-hop influence. But in the time since she’s loosened her sound to reflect hip-hop’s more organic side. Her most recent album, Nu Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, is something of a return to her neo-soul roots. She plays DAR Consititution Hall May 28 and 29. Until recently Maxwell, another child of neo-soul, seemed destined for the same reclusive fate as D’Angelo and Hill. But last year he broke an eight-year silence with the stripped-down and personal BLACKsummers’night, which became a critical favorite and netted a Grammy for best R&B album. He returns to the Verizon Center on May 28 and 29.
Little Brother didn’t form until the early aughts, but the group built a rep off of a sound steeped in ’90s boom-bap revivalism. And like many great ’90s groups, Little Brother is now breaking up—amicably, of course. Detractors often describe Little Brother’s recorded material as boring, but live it offers one of the more animated shows in hip-hop. The group hits Black Cat in support of its final album Leftback on May 14.
Murs, performing May 21 at Rock & Roll Hotel, is another high-energy, ’90s-informed rapper. The L.A. native spent the turn-of-the-century in the tour-van trenches with the backpack-rap supergroup the Living Legends, only to emerge as the group’s most visible member. He’s ideologically linked to an older era of hip-hop but more playful and jokey on stage than many of his peers.
We can also thank ’90s hip-hop for raunch. The next night, May 22, Devin the Dude hits the same stage. The Houston underground legend got his start with the Odd Squad and later broke off on the solo tip. In the time since, the stoner-moralist has arguably evolved into rap’s best storyteller since Slick Rick. He also shares Rick’s penchant for dirty-minded rhymes—he’s likely the only rap artist to endorse serving his man parts with a plate of broccoli. But on stage he’s a subtle performer, translating casual raps into a riotous crowd response. He can also croon a somber note when he needs to.