&B, rarely a genre where its artists have been shy about carnal desires, reached even more scandalous plateaus in the 1990s when H-Town talked about "rockin', knockin' da boots" and Color Me Badd wanted to "sex you up." And it was mostly men letting folks know exactly what was on their minds.
But women wanted to be heard too, and they wanted control. There was no shortage of sex-positive-a term we use now in 2016 as we reflect back on what we simply called "freaky" back then-lyrics and imagery from female artists. For a hot time in the middle of the decade, no one carried that torch higher than Adina Howard, the Grand Rapids native who delivered the 1995 album Do You Wanna Ride, which spoke brazenly of sex, weed and life in the hood-common today, but not as much in female R&B back then.
Maybe you remember the album cover of Howard with her back-and booty-turned toward the camera, posing over a BMW. Maybe it's the naughty classic "Freak Like Me" that peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Or maybe it was the marriage of raunchy lyrics and even raunchier videos. Who else in the 1990s had a sex swing in their video? In "My Up and Down," she did.
Howard brought a few more underground hits like "T-Shirt & Panties" and "Nasty Grind." And then she seemingly disappeared. In the meantime, R. Kelly kept making sex jams and spawned a generation of imitators, but Howard's influence waned.
Now just more than 20 years since "Freak Like Me," Howard's work is being revisited. "I love the fact that I've been able to create classic music," Howard tells BLAC by phone from L.A., where she's plotting a media storm. "That means I'm still around. I'm still here."
Don't call it a comeback. In the years since, Howard has pursued several other interests outside the music industry, including a new marriage and becoming a chef. (When we spoke, she talked of raising money and awareness of the Flint water crisis. "It wasn't an accident. It's pissing me off," she says.) But there is a plan for a new album of original material, as well as pitching a reality show with her sisters-think Braxton Family Values-and a possible cooking show to display her culinary talents.
"There's just a lot of things going on," Howard says. "God is just opening up so much for me."
Last year, Howard was interviewed in a documentary commemorating the 20th anniversary of Do You Wanna Ride, where Black scholars referred to the album as an unheralded example of feminism. Consider the years since 1995, where Beyonce declared herself a feminist while releasing songs like "Partition," or Rihanna promises that … er … intercourse with her is "amazing."
"It's a lot of the same. The sound has changed, but the lyrics have remained the same. It's (just) more acceptable now than it was back then," Howard says of today's music. But she's reluctant to embrace the title of feminist.
"I look at the dictionary-I'm not a feminist. I don't pay attention to titles, because that's a box. I don't like boxes. I am a free spirit," she says. "I'm one of those individuals where if you want to be something or do something, why are you seeking approval from a man? Just do it."
Before Howard, there was Millie Jackson, who also talked tough in her lyrics a generation before her-and also did it when few women were doing it. Jackson, too, was hesitant about the "feminist" label; the lyrics were what they were. "I just loved how she commanded your attention," Howard says. "And her dominance, she's amazing. She's unconventional, and I always gravitated toward the unconventional."
But there are double standards for how men talk about sex and how women discuss it, something she says hampered her career.
"It could be a power thing, a power struggle between a man and a woman.
"When we decide that we want to do us, that takes away the 'what a woman is perceived to be,'" Howard says. "That's what it's supposed to be. A woman isn't supposed to have her own thoughts. A woman is supposed to have sex at the pleasure of man. That's a problem worldwide; it's a perception of how men were conditioned to view women."
But Howard cautions she's not all about the sex. "I've always had a song or three (on albums) that's not about sex. My new music is going to be a little bit of everything."
One thing that has changed in the last 20 years: The rise of social media, which was nonexistent when Howard first came on the scene. "I'm from the classical era of doing things where we communicate with one each other in real life," she says.
Howard does have a Twitter, an Instagram, a Facebook and a Periscope, all required for today's musicians. But if her approach to using them all is anything like her approach to music, we're in store for something big.
"They hate that I have to go. But when I come back, they'll be ready, willing and able to greet me with open arms," she says.
Aaron Foley is editor of BLAC Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @AaronKFoley.