This year marked the 15th annual BET Awards to celebrate the accomplishments of minorities within the entertainment industry. There were many highs and lows of the night, but overall, this was most likely one of the most memorable BET Award ceremonies of all time!
In case you missed it, here are our top ten highlights of the night (in no particular order).
Sessions @ AOL may have launched in 2002, but its presence was felt more in 2003 as the way we hear and see our favorite artists online started changing at a rapid speed. From the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) going to legal war with individual music file-sharers ( Napster, Wake.Princeton.edu ) to the launch of Apple’s iTunes Music Store, the options for consumers to follow their beloved artists started to become more difficult. But Sessions @ AOL made this easier.
Brought to us by AOL Music, the mini-concert experience became an outlet for artists to perform their past and presents hits in a more up-close and intimate way. Similar to MTV-Unplugged, many artists have sung acoustic and stripped down versions of their popular songs and album gems. Artists even sat down to dish on their latest albums ahead or after its release.
After 10 years of special performances, exclusive interviews and some name changes (AOL Sessions, AOL Music Sessions), the intimate concert series ended abruptly in 2013.
While others (Walmart Soundcheck and Yahoo! Pepsi Smash) have attempted to capture their own exclusive studio performance moments, nothing beats holding the house phone hostage so no uses it so you could use dial-up to watch your faves spill the tea on their album and sing your favorite cut track.
In the spirit of nostalgia, we compiled a list of 20 memorable performances from the online music concert series. (Sidenote: Can you guess how we ranked the list? The answer is at the end)
Mario – “How Could You” (2005)
Mario brought his underrated vocals to Sessions @ AOL to perform his top-20 hit “How Could You” from his Turning Point album.
Keri Hilson – “Let Me Down / Beautiful Mistake” (2011)
Following the release of 2010’s No Boys Allowed, the singer-songwriter stormed Sessions to sing cuts off the new album including “Beautiful Mistake.”
Chrisette Michele – “Be Ok” (2009)
Fresh off the release of her album Epiphany, Michele revisited her I Am era with a sensational performance of “Be Ok.” The uptempo number won a Grammy in 2009 for Best Urban/Alternative Performance.
Keyshia Cole – “Love” (2005)
Sporting her signature orange hair and a casual outfit, The Way it Is singer belted her powerful ballad “Love” for online viewers.
Monica – “It All Belongs to Me” (2012)
While this Rico Love-written track is a duet with Brandy, the New Life vocalist stripped down the record and took it on alone with some help from three backup singers.
Jennifer Hudson – “I Remember Me” (2011)
There are not many artists who can sit on a stool, sing their hearts out and still be on key. Jennifer Hudson is one of them. She delivered a stellar performance of “I Remember Me,” the title track of her 2011 album.
Tyrese – “Stay” (2012)
Tyrese accepted an Open Invitation to AOL Sessions in 2012 where he performed his soulful tune “Stay.” The song spent 11 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult R&B Songs chart.
Ashanti – “Rock wit U (Awww Baby)” (2003)
The then-Murder Inc front-women was on point with all aww babies for her first time at Sessions. And catch how Ashanti barely opened her eyes during this performance of “Rock wit U (Awww Baby).” We love a dizzy queen.
Faith Evans – “I Love You” (2005)
The First Lady had viewers in their feelings with “I Love You” from her 2001 album Faithfully. Did you peep Meelah, lead singer of 702, singing backup?
Toni Braxton – “He Wasn’t Man Enough” (2005)
The sultry tone diva came to Sessions to promote material from her Libra album. She also revisited The Heat era and sung “He Wasn’t Man Enough” alongside her sisters Trina and Tamar Braxton.
Fantasia – “Bittersweet” (2010)
Donning a black dress with silver shoulder embroidery, the Back to Me singer left it all on stage with her mind-blowing performance of “Bittersweet.” She reprised the emotionally charged ballad with more personal lyrics.
The-Dream – “I Luv Your Girl” (2013)
The Radio Killa paid a visit to AOL Sessions in 2013 to promote IV Play. While there, the versatile musician dropped the auto-tune and bared his natural singing voice for his wavy performance of “I Luv Your Girl” off his debut album, Love Hate.
Ne-Yo – “So Sick” (2006)
The singer-songwriter had us “So Sick” with his first-ever AOL Music Sessions visit. The heartbreak song topped several Billboard charts including the Hot 100 for two consecutive weeks.
Chris Brown – “Winner” (2006)
The young Breezy had girls all over the world screaming at their computer screens with his performance of “Winner” off his self-titled album.
Brian McKnight — “Back to One” (2003)
Brian McKnight was one of the first R&B artists to grace the AOL studio. He performed his classic song “Back at One” from his 1999 album under the same name.
Earth Wind & Fire – “The Way You Move” (2005)
Supported by a full band, the legendary group got us out our seats to dance along to “The Way You Move” from their 2005 Illumination album.
Kelly Rowland – “Like This” featuring Eve (2007)
Ms. Kelly invited rapper Eve to perform their fierce collaboration “Like This.” Hopefully, no one hurt themselves trying to reenact this dance number.
John Legend – “So High” (2004)
Seated behind his instrument of choice, Legend had us levitating as he wonderfully sung “So High” from his debut album, Get Lifted.
Alicia Keys – “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” – (2010)
Alicia Keys rarely steps from behind her piano to perform music. But she did for the majority of her 2010 Sessions to perform past and present tunes including “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” from The Element of Freedom.
Mary J. Blige – “Take Me As I Am” (2005)
It was all or nothing at all with the Queen of the Hip Hop Soul’s moving performance of “Take Me As I Am” from The Breakthrough.
Rihanna – “Unfaithful” (2007)
The Unapologetic artist starred on the Sessions for three album eras: A Girl Like Me, Good Girl Gone Bad and Rated R. Her amazing performance of “Unfaithful” in 2007 is a standout though.
Beyoncé – “Me, Myself and I” (2008)
Although she was there to promote B’Day and its singles (“Irreplaceable”), it was Yoncé’s breathing performance of “Me, Myself and I” alongside her incredible background singers The Mamas that stole the show.
Give up yet? The list of performances was ranked by the artists’ number of Grammy nominations. Beyoncé has the most (63) nods out of all the artists featured on this list while Mario and Keri Hilson have the least (2).
On July 14, 1998 — just three days shy of the third anniversary of her debut album Miss Thang — Monica released her sophomore effort The Boy is Mine. The album was named after her uber-successful duet with fellow R&B teen Brandy who had released her second album a month prior.
While the title track was issued as the lead single for both vocalists project, they both followed up quickly with their own respective solo singles. “The First Night,” Monica’s second (first) single, was sent to radio a day before LP’s release date.
For The Boy is Mine, the 17-year-old singer defined the new batch of songs a “natural progression” from her debut. “I was 13; the themes weren’t as mature,” she told Billboard in a 1998 interview. “I’m trying to portray a more assertive young female. It’s fine to be a teen female, but there are certain decisions they must with assurance. I’m 17 now; my lyrics aren’t sexually explicit but are about love and being in love. I speak on those subjects for what I know them to be.”
Monica’s newfound maturity, enhanced confidence and tender outlook on relationships resonated with those in and out of love. The Boy is Mine entered the Billboard 200 at No. 8, selling 91,000 copies in its first week sales. The 13-track LP garnered multi-platinum success and a grand total of three number one singles (“The Boy is Mine,” “Angel of Mine” and “The First Night”) on the Billboard Hot 100.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Monica’s album The Boy is Mine, Rated R&B has ranked the songs from minimal rotation (worse) to heavy (best) rotation.
13. “Take Him Back”
Every album has its fillers and I guess this dull recording slipped through the track list cracks.
12. “‘Cross the Room”
Out of the LP’s 13-tracks, this party-starter anthem is definitely one that finds the crowd telling the DJ to turn it all the way down.
11. “Gone Be Fine” featuring Outkast
Even with tight production and a brief appearance from Outkast, something is still missing from what was supposed to be a bomb collaboration.
10. “I Keep It To Myself”
It’s a good song but the melody and chilled production of this dreamy slow jam sounds too similar to records from Xscape’s catalog.
9. “Right Here Waiting” featuring 112
Evidently, Monica’s then-label Artista had a point to prove to listeners and critics with a second cover of another classic. To be honest, it wasn’t necessary. It was an enjoyable remake, though.
8. “Misty Blue”
Monica deserves an applause for her stirring rendition of Dorothy Moore’s signature selection.
7. “Ring Da Bell”
Before Beyonce rang the alarm, Monica made noise with this Dallas Austin-produced track. On the verses, she used a slow and deliberate vocal approach to get her point across to her disrespectful lover.
On this emotionally-triggering ballad, Monica does a fantastic job flaunting her vocal range as she discusses the matters of the heart.
5. “Angel of Mine”
After listening to Monica’s two other covers on this album, this remake is in a league of its own. Her vocal poise almost shares similar singing moments of big-name vocalists.
4. “Street Symphony”
Like first impressions, the opening track on an album can set the tone for the rest of the project. As expected, Monica kept fans interested in hearing more of the album but not without getting us to press repeat on this underrated gem.
3. “The First Night”
Jermaine Dupri was in his bag with this one and Monica knew it. That’s why she rode the So So Def beat with a level of sophistication and street edge.
2. “The Boy is Mine” duet with Brandy
Yes, collecting numerous accolades and going number one is great but the question has always remained: who won the vocal catfight on this record? Let’s just say, “The song might be yours, but the album title is mine.”
1. “For You, I Will”
Ahead of Monica’s duet success with her teen counterpart, Monica had already bagged her own crossover hit. The Diane Warren-penned ballad, from the Space Jam soundtrack, solidified her place in pop culture.
Did we get the order right? Let us know.Follow An’Twane on Twitter at @9thwonderofPR.
The anticipation for a second album had already set in by the time Maxwell released his 1996 debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite. Recognized today as a landmark contribution to the neo-soul genre, Maxwell’s longtime label Columbia Records was well aware of the LP’s positive reception upon release and wanted to replicate a slow-burning success with Embrya, the soul crooner’s 1998 follow-up.
“We are anticipating having really good sales in our first week but we want to do it correctly but deliberately slow it down. There’s a lot to be said about the way we ultimately ‘undress’ the project,” shared Michael Mauldin, former vice president of Columbia Records and former President of Columbia’s Urban Division. “There’s a lot to be said about the way we ultimately ‘undress’ the project,” he cautioned to Billboard.
For many, the sluggish reveal of Maxwell’s highly-requested sophomore release seemed unusual and somewhat unnecessary. His debut effort shattered all expectations, achieving platinum status within less than a year of its release and landing him the first Grammy nomination of his career. The LP’s lead single “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” was certified gold and became a mega-hit on the Billboard Adult R&B Songs chart, peaking at No. 2.
Despite all the positive affirmations for a great album turnout, there were some legitimate reasons why Maxwell’s team would seek to tread ever so lightly on their second go round. Upon release, it was evident that Maxwell’s prized jazz-funk sound had been totally upended with his new project and no longer blended as smoothly with the acoustic trends popular with neo-soul audiences at the time. Instead of playing it safe, Maxwell sonically flanked in the opposite direction with Embrya, but for what would prove to be good reasons.
A self-coined phrase, Embrya symbolized a “rebirthing” for the singer. He wasn’t interested in making a sequel to his debut. Instead, he wanted to create music that would stand out and whether the test of time, like the soul legends he looked up to for inspiration.
“I have so much respect for what [Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite] was and the experience that inspired it than trying to duplicate that it is more insulting,” he shared with Tavis Smiley in November 1998. “If I would’ve done a 10 times better [job] on the second album and it was a duplicate of Urban Hang Suite, I would have been more depressed and more unsure of who I was as an artist. I feel like for me it’s all about doing different things. It’s all about creating a broader scope of something that will one day be looked at upon as a body of work.”
Finding it “odd” that artists are pressured by fans and critics to release follow-up albums similar to their predecessors, Stuart Matthewman, famed English musician and longtime Maxwell collaborator, tells Rated R&B, “If [artists] didn’t evolve musically, we would never have artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Sade because they were constantly changing their sound and what they were writing about. And I think that’s really important for an artist.”
Despite the contrasts between Maxwell’s first and second albums, Matthewman stands firm on “everything that Maxwell does sounds like Maxwell.”
Matthewman continues, “It’s because of his voice, his lyrics and the way he sings. He could sing a big band song or he could sing with a string quartet and it would sound like Maxwell. He did the cover of ‘This Woman’s Work’ and that was very different from Urban Hang Suite, but it sounded like Maxwell.”
Maxwell’s decision to go against the grain, experiment with a new recipe of sounds and textures, found him at the mercy of consumers and critics. Embrya arrived on June 30, 1998, and debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 with a commendable 149,000 copies sold in its first week. A swarm of mixed reviews came in. Some applauded Maxwell for his evolved lush sound but few offered the praise conferred upon his debut. One observer called his writing “listless and unfocused” while another commented that he “broke grounds” and grew “more confident” on each record.
The harsh comments foisted at Embrya left a permanent imprint on Maxwell for years to come. From declining to promote the album with a headlining tour and rarely performing the album cuts on subsequent tours, this experience left Maxwell struggling thereafter with the “tendency to be a perfectionist.” Maxwell let the scathing words of the critics get the best of him.
To help repair this R&B crooner’s crushed spirits and to give Maxwell’s underappreciated sophomore album a fair reevaluation on its own terms, Rated R&B has dug deep into the record bin to reveal the overlooked pros and over-exaggerated cons of the Embrya LP and its era.
We also spoke more with Matthewman on his personal contributions to Embrya, early criticisms of the work, and the significance of the album in retrospect.
A lot has been said about Maxwell’s Embrya, mostly negative and hardly constructive. Yet, the question is: did early reviewers genuinely tap into the mood opened up by this album? Were they overly-haste in their dissatisfaction, secretly hoping-out for an Urban Hang Suite 2?
The first single “Luxury: Cococure” from Embrya is a “good-bye to the ailment of a love affair” and “hello to internal luxury.” Ultimately, the pulsing tune describes a lover searching out more meaningful relationships after finding a way to preserve their heart in the face of heartbreak.
Maxwell debuted “Luxury” at the 1998 Essence Awards. Dressed in an all-white ensemble and rocking cool braids, the romantic singer brought out some funky dance moves as he sung an alternate version (not featured on the album) of the lead single for the audience and viewers at home. Two days ahead of Maxwell’s performance, the sensual ode was sent to radio as a promotional single. Although “Luxury: Cococure” missed the marked on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Maxwell did earn himself a top 20 single on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay (No. 16) chart. He also secured the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s Adult R&B Songs chart.
The fifth track “Drowndeep: Hula,” which is one of three songs co-written with Matthewman, took on the sound of mellow soul and blended it with Hawaiian styles. The latter sound wasn’t intentional, according to the British creator.
“It was just an accident that happened,” Matthewman says. “I was flickering through the presets on a new effects panel and it had a little guitar part. It had that funny wobbly sound. And I did the riff and everyone’s like, “Oh, wow that sounds great.” I think that influenced him to sing ‘Hula, hula baby.’ It made us smile.”
For “Matrimony: Maybe You,” parallel in theme but vocally and sonically different to “Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)” on Hang Suite, gave Maxwell’s listeners the closest recollection of his debut work. It describes the real story of Maxwell developing strong feelings for a lady he initially accepted as only a casual hookup.
In the “Matrimony” video, Maxwell personifies Black excellence with an endearing imagery of Miss Harlem, a local black beauty pageant of the ‘70s. Sure, Maxwell could’ve issued a more commercial visual; but instead, he gave us arguably one of the Blackest videos of the ‘90s and captured an important memory from his youthhood.
“Matrimony: Maybe You,” served as a follow-up to “Luxury,” and scored Maxwell top 20 success on the Adult R&B Songs, peaking at No. 14, and became a top 40 hit on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, earning a cool No. 38. The song also earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 1999.
On Maxwell’s unbelievably deep cut “Know These Things: Shouldn’t You,” Matthewman remembers, “us layering up the sounds with the guitar. Everything on that record had this slightly watery sound to it. I think that [the song] sounded not out of tune but moving. Everything was slowly moving around like water.”
Like most of the songs on Embrya, Matthewman says, “[‘Know These Things: Shouldn’t You’] wasn’t incredibly thought out. We didn’t sit down and say, “Oh, we’re going to write this ballad and it’s going to be deep lyrically. It just happened.”
Maxwell even touched on his Latin roots on track three “I’m You: You Are Me And We Are You.” He sang the entire first verse in Spanish before repeating the verse in English on the second run.
In hindsight, Embrya gave listeners everything (and then some) needed in a follow-up from Maxwell but this fact went remiss at the time. “It didn’t seem that weird what we were doing,” says Matthewman. “There wasn’t really no deep thought out plan about trying to change music or trying to change people’s views of music. We were just doing whatever we felt like at the time. But I guess at the time, maybe it was a little different for the American, R&B audience.”
The Not So Good
Music in pop culture isn’t just about the sheer sound, there’s also an element of politics to it. Often an artist’s second album isn’t a replica, or a more improved-upon version of the debut sound audiences gravitated to in the first place, the album could be diagnosed with the sophomore jinx.
In that sense, it wouldn’t be that left-field to admit that Maxwell’s Embrya did suffer a significant dose of this. While it doesn’t mean the collection of songs on the album weren’t good, it does mean that the recordings didn’t live up to the high expectations set by his core fans and critics.
After reevaluating the album, scourging the reviews of the critics, and getting past the quirky system used to title the songs, the primary complaint Maxwell did not bring what we’ve come to know as his go-to musical self. In other words, the Brooklyn native wasn’t singing the familiar romantic croons from his previous albums, often describing vignettes of monogamous love in a well-packaged way. With soulful grooves at its foundation, Maxwell did build upon Urban Hang Suite however with funky, heavy basslines, hints of jazz and passionately picturesque content.
Contrary to his debut LP, where the theme was easy to comprehend and more translatable to one’s love life, the message on Embrya was oftentimes hard to decode. According to Maxwell, this decision was intentional. Maxwell described Embrya as “a story that unfolds,” to Billboard in May 1998. “I like people to apply themselves to my music. I don’t want it to be about who I’m dating or when I want to have kids. I don’t want the music to be about my life,” he added.
If we dialed back two years before the release of Embrya however, Maxwell shared with VIBE. “People identify with honesty and risk.” What happened in between his first and second album exactly that caused him to be so guarded?
It wouldn’t be until 2016 that Maxwell revealed the painful answer. “I think I struggled to get that second album out. It wasn’t the most comfortable time with everyone focused on me and asking, ‘What was this?,’” he told The Sydney Morning Herald. “[So] what I did with that record, on purpose, was that it was the anti-Afro ’70s funk-soul record. It was much more esoteric and not formulaic in any way because I prepared myself for being able to do what I want creatively instead of a brand.”
Maxwell’s unexpected flank isolated his core his fans. “It might sound funny but we write and do music to please ourselves and just hope that [we] have good taste and other people will like it,” says Matthewman. “To us, what we were doing sounded great. Everyone one was enthusiastic about playing on each of those tracks. There was no ego. We were in a good mood and it made us feel good at the time. If you think about radio or management or agents or fans, it will stifle the creative process.”
20 Years Later
Two-decades ago, Maxwell released Embrya to the world, an album many critics and listeners wrote off as an improper follow-up to his double-platinum debut Urban Hang Suite. While his breakout debut is indeed considered to be an R&B classic, Embrya still remains a little more innovative.
Simply put, if Maxwell had released this album today or even as early as 2007, it would have probably received the exact same praise that urban/alternative releases receive today. In a way then, Embyra foreshadowed the rise of artists like Kenna, Miguel, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. Matthewman nods in agreement: “I think [Embrya] would be fine right now. There are so many different styles, particularly in R&B, out at the moment. It’s the regular pop stuff and then it’s Leon Bridges,” he says.
Of course, Maxwell has an unmistakably different singing style than his offsprings; but the spellbinding production and queer themes of their projects and his LP Embrya are similar in many ways. Influenced by electronic synths, lush and relaxed vocal arrangements, erotism, spirituality and other unconventional vibes, their vibrant collection of songs all run in the same circle.
For Matthewman, Maxwell stands out amongst his equals and successors for one unique reason. “Often the very first thing Maxwell sings ends up what’s on the record. It just comes to him. He’s very gifted that way.”
Just imagine, Maxwell’s Embrya going up against albums from Frank Ocean (Channel Orange), Chris Brown (Fortune), and Miguel (Kaleidoscope Dream) for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2013 Grammy Awards. I have a good idea who would have won, and the color isn’t orange.
Although respectively Miguel, The Weeknd and Frank Ocean evolved and slightly improved on what Maxwell introduced with Embrya, the lashings their forefather took from harsh music spectators and fans haven’t (and won’t) go in vain.
A pioneer has to be born somewhere, and I guess 1998 was Maxwell’s dawning.