The Soul Train stage shined brightly in November 1996 as new acts like Aaliyah, Soul For Real and Ginuwine performed their pre-recorded jams for zealots of rhythm and blues. Their singles helped curate the silky smooth blueprint of R&B that would later be fawned over for years to come. There’s plenty of other mainstays that helped defined the genre at the time (thank you kindly Teddy Riley, Babyface, Jodeci and Mary J. Blige), but four young men from Baltimore, MD., demanded our attention. Lead by a teen in an orange shirtless get-up and blonde tresses, their performance of “Tell Me” raised curiosities on what they were all about.
The quartet known as Dru Hill might have had a similar come up as New Edition (gospel singers tempted by the chords of secular sounds) founder Tamir “Nokio” Ruffin with Mark “Sisqó” Andrews, Larry “Jazz” Anthony, and James “Woody Rock” Green knew they had voices, but unlike their peers, they were true creatives. Before leaping into the spotlight, the teens used their gigs as fudge sales boys to flip lyrics about the delicious treats into serenading ballads. “Dude, selling fudge is not the coolest thing in the world,” Sisqo told Rolling Stone in 2014. “If you could make that cool, and we did, it was the first lesson in show business. If you could actually sing to a girl while selling fudge in an all-white uniform, that was a challenge.” Nokio’s urge for the group to take control of their sound would be heard on their self-titled album, Dru Hill. Unlike the rest of the millions of black teens growing up in America, the guys were forming their stance on love, sex and relationships on wax. Unbeknownst to them, their ideas would frame fantasies of love we’ve never knew existed.
“Even though we didn’t understand totally when we first started, people made sure we became marquee artists and they gave us lifetime records,” Nokio told The Source in April. “Nowadays, you kind of just go in the studio, make a record and it’s whatever, spend a bunch of money to make people think it’s good when don’t nobody know what the f**k you talking about. But, we’re the last part of the generation where it’s about the artist that made careers for everybody else; artist development, the right records, putting us with the right producers who would teach us a lesson, we’re the last of it.” Whether it was hindsight or only ungratified creative goals, the group went on to produce the highly successful sophomore LP Enter The Dru, but internal conflicts and label switches crashed the innocent waves created on Dru Hill.
“Do You Believe in Love?” questions the rules of the feels with a reminder that “there ain’t no guarantees in love,” making the quest that much rewarding. There were also the top-selling singles like “Tell Me,” “Five Steps” and “In My Bed,” that flooded Quiet Storm segments and your high school dances. “Whatever You Want” taught us about the importance of consent, while “Never Make A Promise” gave us hope that prince charming was real.
In celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary, we’ve ranked the tracks, keeping in love, soul and flow in mind. Check it out below.
14. “Nothing to Prove”
The group keeps it real on the second track of the album, defining their outlook on love. Jazz and Woody trade lines about their devotion to their ladies, giving them anything and everything they desire. “Girl I ain’t got nothing to prove I ain’t got nothing to lose I’m just a man that’s sooo in love with you,” the boys sing. It’s later presented that their love is for an older woman they believe is ashamed of her feelings towards a younger cat. “I say they must be crazy, Can’t you make up your mind, and if I’m too young lady, Then I won’t waste your time.” Jazz sings. The pledge is admirable and the resistance mirrors Millie Jackson’s “Young Man, Older Woman” and would go on fuel future R&B/hip-hop jams like Chris Brown’s debut single “Run It.”
R&B intros varied in the 90’s, but still kept hip-hop’s influence prevalent. It did a solid to the genre as the two would go hand and hand to create “the remix,” an art form that deserves more praise. Dru Hill’s “Anthem” doesn’t bring much to the album, but it’s clear they didn’t want to take the clichè acapella route.
12. “Do You Believe?”
“Do you believe… like I believe in love?” is a question that arises many different answers the fellas answer on the lighthearted track. Noting that there are no guarantees in love, the guys make the best of the moment by realizing their mistakes could lead to a love they’ll regret losing. Produced by Tim Dawg and Terence Dudley, the track gives feels like filler, as the singers dive deeper into love, loss and happiness on the rest of the project.
11. “In My Bed”
Sisqo hoped his instincts were wrong on “In My Bed,” but on the follow-up single to “Tell Me,” the singer discovers his lady has made plans with another man. His expressive vocals and gentle climatic approach to the track almost makes you think the same thing is happening to you–even if you didn’t have a significant other. “Now if you truly love me (alright), Then this would not be happening,” he belts at the song’s end. It’s an overlooked gem on the platinum selling single, but posed truth in the inner workings of heartbreak.
10. “So Special”
“So Special” is one of the most romantic songs on the album, with lyrics emulating the sights and sounds that equate to a powerful love. It also holds elements of Jodeci, an apparent source of influence. It’s a thought that’s difficult to ignore between crooning adlibs and trade off of lyrics between Woody and Sisqo.
9. “Love’s Train”
The boys may have had a strong gospel background, but the group’s remake of Con Fun Shun/Project Soul’s “Love’s Train” places their ability to bring back the funk in a high regard. Produced by Keith Sweat and Allen Smith, the track focuses on the burning coal of love that keeps the love train going. “Sometimes heart strings can be broken, But you’ve just got to keep on going, That’s the way it goes on love’s train.” Noted fellas.
8. “Whatever U Want”
Another upbeat track among the ballads, “Whatever U Need” focuses on lust, rather than the group’s deep fixation for love. The playful track showcases their harmonies and provides a look into their future sounds as Saeida Hall provides a quick 16 on her demands for a man who doesn’t play games. The group would go on to work with other hip-hop acts like Da Brat, DMX and Method Man.
7. “Share My World”
Professing his undying love for a certain someone, “Share My World” is a testimony to the lovers out there who are ready to jump the broom. Co-produced by Nokio, it’s clear the group wanted to cater to those who appreciate the ups and downs of love and what many hope for in the end–marriage. Ironically, the song was sampled over a decade later by PartyNextDoor for his track “SLS,” a track about Party’s spiritual bond with a stripper.
Turning up the heat, “Satisfied” brings forth the slow grind, candles and the group’s underlying sex appeal. Leaving a sensual voicemail for “Indi,” pleas for gentle touches and kisses are heard loud and clear. With high notes and a clear calling to please each other, the track leaves it all–including your clothes–on the floor.
5. “Tell Me”
Serving as an introduction to the world, “Tell Me” was the anthem for those who are just as skilled in linguistics as they are in the bedroom. Like “Satisfied,” it’s also one of the few tracks that were a clear testament to the act of sex. Between the lines, it also reminds us all that communication is essential in every part of a relationship. Visuals for the single also gave us the group’s signature choreography. From the high jumps to the lip biting, Jazz, Sisqo, Woody and Nokio were NOT playing around with your heart.
4. “All Alone”
The fellas sing of hope and refuse to rely on faith for the somber “All Alone.” After a relationship goes awry, it’s hard for the men to ignore their feelings. Belting out a promise to cry it out lets the listener know that men shouldn’t be afraid of the tears or feel a heartbreak just as much as their partner.
3. “April Showers”
Penned by Woody for a girlfriend as a gift, “April Showers” helps embody the group’s outlook on love. Promising to give his all, the singer dedicates his time and love to someone other than himself. It’s an act of bravery that was barely analyzed in popular hip-hop back then, but that didn’t stop the group from pushing it to the frontlines.
2. “Never Make A Promise”
A love letter of loyalty and support, “Never Make A Promise” is an ode to those who have moved on from puppy love. “You told me what you wanted, I gave you what you need, I told you that I love you, Make it good for you and me,” the guys testify on the chorus. These aren’t empty promises and dreams as powerful vocals by the group shine through both verses. The visuals for the video takes things to a different level, making them heroes of love and devotion.
1. “5 Steps”
“Five Steps” serves as the best track on the album due to its ability to bridge Dru Hill’s gospel, soul and R&B influences. With effortless harmonizing from all members, the track is something special as its interpretations resonate as heartbreak, loss and grief to listeners. It’s lyrics, tearful and promising, provide the guys with a perfect ballad R&B dreams are made of. The group would go on to create tracks like “Beauty,” and “I Love You,” but nothing could compare to “5 Steps” in their entire discography. If Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads” is the gospel for rap lovers, “5 Steps” not only brings us closer to the core of R&B but closer to love.
Editor’s Note: The So So Def remix of “In My Bed” featuring Jermaine Dupri and Da Brat was purposely left off this ranking.