MTV turns 35 years old today since it first launched on August 1, 1981. Although the network was dedicated to rock and pop music videos, R&B has also an important place on the network. Here are some of the hallmark videos from the genre that graced the network’s airwaves, changing the attitude and style of Pop Culture.
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson (1983)
It’s hard to believe, but the first music video by an African American artist to air on MTV was Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on 1983. Prior to the Steven Barron directed clip airing on the station, the network received two years of criticism for not letting black artists such as Rick James grace their rock-n-roll only airwaves. With his soaring solo popularity and cinematic flare, Michael Jackson helped usher in a new era and audience members for the station, with “Billie Jean” being hailed as “the video that broke the color barrier”.
“Thriller” by Michael Jackson (1983)
Keeping in the same vein, “Thriller” would be the most iconic music video to be premiered on MTV. When the 13-minute full length version debuted on December 2, 1983, it not only served as a hallmark pop culture event, but also solidified Michael Jackson’s place as the “Jackie Robinson of MTV”. The singer not only became the first to enter a “whites only game”, but he kept releasing MVP quality work that helped him compete against the others. Reinventing the music video, Jackson would release a plethora of other noteworthy videos throughout his career before his untimely death in 2009. (Side note: It’s also hard to believe that “Thriller” lost the first ever VMA for “Video of the Year” to The Cars’ “You Might Think” in 1984. Not exactly a “Thriller”, but whatever floated MTV’s boat back then…)
“Little Red Corvette” by Prince (1983)
While Michael Jackson receives the credit for having the first black music video on MTV, Prince is lauded for helping the efforts of black artists remaining on MTV. The late singer had a knack for infusing rock with R&B, helping to push his videos further on a network highly devoted to rock music. The single from his fifth studio album, 1999, would become one of the singer’s most recognizable hits. Unfortunately, Prince’s estate has a strong hold on his catalogue and the video is not on YouTube due to copyright laws. If up for the task, silently watch the video below while the official audio from Tidal (if subscribed) plays (good luck: nothing will be in sync, *frowny face emoji*.)
“Rhythm Nation” by Janet Jackson (1989)
Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna are often referred to as the trifecta of 80s music, but Janet, the younger sister of Michael, is often neglected in the conversation. While the black music video circuit finally had some representation, Janet Jackson’s iconic video brought black women into the discussion. Wearing an iconic key earring and an all-black, futuristic military ensemble, Janet Jackson dazzled viewers with her legendary dance routine that would inspire the likes of Beyoncé, Ciara, and Rihanna.
“Waterfalls” by TLC (1995)
T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli always had a message in their music videos, and “Waterfalls” was no different. In fact, it was the standout. The noteworthy video advocated for safe sex, warning viewers about the strong presence of HIV/AIDS in the 90s. The trio danced in front of a waterfall, making the video more on brand and helping them to win the 1995 VMA for “Video of the Year”.
“Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai (1997)
This is the case of the video helping to further push the greatness of a song. This 90s classic from the British jazz-funk-R&B band has an “insane” (pun intended) music video that featured the lead singer, Jay Kay, dancing in a white room that spun around and shifted its furniture (something that Destiny’s Child would slightly take after a few years later). The video broke conventions in terms of filming and editing, and won “Video of the Year” in 1997.
“The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica (1998)
Brandy and Monica were starting to reach the height of their careers when they released this karaoke favorite in 1998. The song would help them both win their first Grammy, and was popular in MTV’s rotation. Utilizing a split screen and lavish set décor, the story of a two-timer torn between two of 90s R&B’s best young vocalist makes for an entertaining plot and classic music video.
Are You That Somebody by Aaliyah & Timbaland (1998)
This list would be nothing without the late, great “Baby Girl” Aaliyah. Before Beyoncé would be hailed as the Queen of Music Videos, Aaliyah had a few solo gems of her own. Used to promote the Eddie Murphy film Dr. Doolittle, “Are You That Somebody” would go on to be a career staple for the singer’s discography. While Aaliyah dances in her ice castle, pay attention to the projected scenes from the film.
Lady Marmalade by Christina Aguilera, Mýa, Pink, & Lil’ Kim (2001)
Another noteworthy soundtrack music video to grace the airwaves of MTV is “Lady Marmalade”. The Billboard Hot 100 #1 single was used to promote the Nicole Kidman-Ethan Hawke romcom-musical Moulin Rouge. The video stayed true to the movie’s Parisian brothel theme, as Christina Aguilera, Pink, and Mýa belt the lyrics from the 70s Labelle (the group R&B songstress Patti Labelle fronted before going solo) classic before Lil’ Kim sizzled the screen with her tantalizing bars that modernized female sexual power in music. It also won “Video of the Year” in 2001.
“Ignition (Remix)” by R Kelly (2002)
Probably regarded as one of the best party starting songs of the 2000s, the remix of “Ignition” and its respective music video would be the trendsetter for all “party at a nightclub” flicks. Although the video contains the classic elements of expensive liquor bottles, sexy video models, and flashy jewelry, the premise is something that continues to be modeled in R&B music videos of today. “Ignition” just happens to be one of the best songs to soundtrack that dated scenery.
“Yeah!” by Usher, Ludacris, & Lil Jon (2004)
Another party in the club anthem, “Yeah!”’s music video is memorable for its laser lights and that “A” fitted cap that a dancing Usher wore to represent his home of Atlanta. The video would lose the 2004 “Video of the Year” to another MTV classic, Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”.
“Umbrella” by Rihanna & Jay Z (2007)
This video made the Bajan superstar the youngest solo act to win “Video of the Year”. It’s the first clip where Rihanna embraces adulthood, as she slithers around the screen in silver paint and a bold pixie cut. It introduced the world to the darker “BadGalRiRi” that we know today, as well as a fashion icon (no one could ignore that matching umbrella/stocking ensemble). The singer would go on to win “Video of the Year” five years later for her best video to date, “We Found Love”.
“Single Ladies” by Beyoncé (2008)
Two words: Kanye West. You’re welcome MTV.
“Two Weeks” by fka Twigs (2014)
Off her debut album LP1, British alt-R&B singer fka Twigs released a gem that was applauded by many critics for its special effects and cinematography. Taking a page from Aaliyah’s role in Queen of the Damned, fka Twigs controls her universe as the camera slowly pushes back to reveal her surroundings. As a track from an independent artist, “Two Weeks” would make its rounds on MTV2 and MTVU more so then the barely-existing morning rotation that aired on MTV.
“Hotline Bling” by Drake (2016)
MTV hardly airs music videos, which means fewer R&B videos are being showcased. Sometimes Drake tends to go in a singing only, R&B lane, so his video for “Hotline Bling” deserves a mention. Drake showed why he’s considered one of hip hop’s greatest marketers as the OVO brand was inescapable in the video. It’s also nominated for this year’s “Video of the Year” but faces some steep competition from Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Kanye West’s “Famous”.