Sad R&B videos from the mid-’90s to early 2000s are so much fun to watch. Apropos of nothing, these are the things you can do in a sad R&B video from the mid-’90s to early 2000s to show just how sad you are:
Sulk around in an empty mansion. These are not listed in any sort of order, but if they were then this one would be the first-place thing you do in a sad R&B video to show just how sad you are. It’s accidentally (or maybe purposely) a great way to show that being rich doesn’t help you avoid heartbreak. (Although, I would argue that, same as everything else, being rich absolutely makes the whole sad situation easier to deal with. One of the very best examples of someone sulking around in an empty mansion is when Sisqo does it in 2000’s “Incomplete.” For just about the entirety of the video, he looks very crushed and very broken, I’ll admit that. But there’s a part in it where, just because he’s bored, he goes outside and bottle-feeds a white tiger. And I just don’t know how that could possibly not make things at least a little bit better.)
Spin in a circle while singing. It helps if your arms are out and you’re looking at the sky. It’s especially effective if your fists are clenched while you’re spinning.
Drop to your knees while singing. Tyrese does this in 2002’s “How You Gonna Act Like That,” which is a Hall of Fame–caliber sad R&B video. The best part in it is when he comes home to find that his girlfriend, who he’d bought a car for and purchased a house with, has moved out. He walks in, sees that everything is gone—like, she literally took all the furniture and also the wall decorations and everything—and then he sings, “Now I’m thinking you and me was a mistake.” That’s incredible. I would definitely agree with that assessment, Tyrese, yes. (Bonus: Aaliyah sang on her knees IN THE RAIN in 1997’s “The One I Gave My Heart To” if you’re looking for someone to contend with Tyrese for this particular championship belt.)
See a premonition of the person you used to date. This is another one that turns up a ton of times. The most interesting version of it is when it happens in reverse; typically, a camera will zoom in on a picture of the twosome when they were a couple and then one of the people will vanish in the picture. It’s like what they do in Back to the Future, except it’s Dru Hill instead of Marty and Doc.
Look at pictures of the person you used to date. The most extreme and incredible time this one happened was when Blackstreet did it in 1996’s “Don’t Leave Me.” The video moves in a normal path through the beginning (they do the thing where someone is sitting alone sad in a recording studio, then they do the mirage thing, then they do the thing where you look at the sky with your arms out), but then at the end it gets super fucking weird because what they do is build a gigantic house of cards using huge Polaroids of ex-love interests. Furthermore, they climb on top of it and then sing some more.
Solemnly stare into a mirror. Or write a message on a mirror. (Staring at your reflection is another good one here, particularly if the reflection ends up turning into the person you used to date.)
Clutch one of your fists near your chest while you sing. You know what’s sadder than clutching one of your fists near your chest while you sing? When you ...
Clutch both of your fists near your chest while you sing. It’s exactly 100 percent sadder. (Semi-related: I hope that one day we find out there are actual aliens and those aliens have three arms and when they sing their alien R&B [which probably sounds a lot like what the Weeknd does] they clutch all three of their alien fists near their alien chests.)
Sit by a piano. Carl Thomas was the best at sitting by a piano when he did so in 2000’s “I Wish” because he actually played. Usher, however, made the most use out of a piano in 2004’s “Confessions, Pt. II” because he not only sat by a piano, but he also sat on a piano and danced on a piano, too.
Serve as a heartbreak proxy. Meaning: It’s the thing where there’s an R&B singer or group who is singing but the heartbreak stuff is happening to somebody else in the video. (A note: Jagged Edge did this in 2001’s “Goodbye.” The song was about saying goodbye to someone. It’s mostly an unremarkable entry in the sad R&B subgenre, but it always has to be included in these kinds of conversations because the video stars actor Barry Pepper playing a soldier going off to war. Mind you, Pepper was already a star by then. He’d been in, among others, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, and Knockaround Guys. It’s weird to think about, like if Sam Rockwell had been in a 112 video, or if K-Ci and JoJo had been in Lethal Weapon.)
Wear a leather jacket with no undershirt. God bless Sisqo.
Sing in the rain. Boyz II Men sang sadly in more places and biomes than any other music act ever. They were sad in the raining city streets in 1994’s “On Bended Knee.” They were sad in the desert in 1995’s “Water Runs Dry.” They were sad in the jungle in 1997’s “Doin’ Just Fine.” They were sad in outer space in 1997’s “4 Seasons of Loneliness.” The only big ones they missed are the arctic tundra and forest. (Allure sang in a forest in 1997’s “All Cried Out.”) (To the best of my knowledge, nobody has sung sad R&B in the tundra yet, which seems strange. I don’t know how we never got a Jagged Edge song in an igloo.) (Ne-Yo’s video for “So Sick” was shot in snowy mountains, but I’m not going to include Ne-Yo because I just never really liked anything he did that wasn’t Stomp the Yard–related.)
Sing in the desert. I always wonder if R&B acts singing sadly in the desert is the secret origin of the term “thirsty,” which is used today to mean “someone trying too hard to gain the attention of someone else.” (Jodeci brought a piano into the desert for 1993’s “Cry for You.” That sort of commitment to the sad R&B tropes is why they are, unquestionably, sad, sad gods.)
Apologize. The best was when Michael from Boyz II Men apologized to his woman for HER CHEATING ON HIM. That’s a level of apologizing that few others have ever reached.
Remember the good times. There aren’t a lot of things better than the happy flashback.
Sit on the floor. No sad R&B video was ever more efficient in the sitting category than 1998’s “We Can’t Be Friends,” which was a Deborah Cox song that featured R.L. Between the two of them, they sat down on a couch in the front room, on a bed in the bedroom, on a bathtub in the bathroom, and then, finally, together on the floor in the kitchen. The closest anyone ever got to beating this was when Monica sadly sat on the stairs, a curb, and a roof in 1995’s “Before You Walk Out of My Life.” (A quick note: The lower you are when you’re sitting down, the sadder you are. That’s why if you see someone looking sad who’s sitting on a couch you should just let them be so they can process their feelings, but if you see someone sitting on the floor looking sad you should ask them how they’re doing.)
Sit on the edge of a bed. Donell Jones probably had the most profound Sit on the Edge of a Bed moment when he did it in 1999’s “Where I Wanna Be.” It rates as profound because in most cases, the person sitting on the edge of the bed is the sad person, but in “Where I Wanna Be” Donell is not. He’s just sitting there feeling guilty about having broken up with his girlfriend (who is at home alone in her bed crying). Uncle Sam, however, had the best traditional example of sadly sitting on the edge of a bed in 1997’s “I Don’t Ever Want to See You Again.” (I can’t believe we all just let Uncle Sam call himself Uncle Sam.)
Sit on a couch. Nobody was ever better at sitting on a couch while being sad than Lauryn Hill in 1998’s “Ex-Factor.” (Prior to Hill, the Sad Couch Queen was Brandy, who innovated the Sad Couch Game in 1994 with “Brokenhearted,” which featured Brandy sadly singing on a couch in a flooded room.)
Be in a shower but not showering. You can either be in there just wearing your clothes and letting the shower spray all on you like Tyrese was in 1998’s “Lately,” or you can be in there in a towel crying to yourself like Toni Braxton was in 1996’s “Un-Break My Heart.” The one thing you cannot be, though, is naked. (A sidebar: If you listen to the lyrics of “Un-Break My Heart,” it sounds a lot like Braxton’s significant other walked out on her. She says things like, “Take back that sad word goodbye / Bring back the joy to my life / Don’t leave me here with these tears / Come and kiss this pain away.” That’s not what happened, though. Or, at least it’s not what happened in the video. Because in the video her boyfriend dies in a motorcycle crash. So when she says for him to come un-break her heart, she’s not asking for a guy to come back to her after he’s walked out on her, she’s asking for a guy to come back from the dead, which seems like a lot to ask of a person.)
Sing by a tree. We never appreciated Deborah Cox enough.
Write a letter. I wish there was a museum somewhere that had all the sad letters that were written in these types of music videos.
Hold your head with both of your hands while sitting in a chair. It has to be both hands.
Stare out of a window, or at the sky, or at the ground. Carl Thomas did all three in 2000’s “Emotional.”
Not cry. Word to Mary J. Blige. (Mary has my second-favorite Most Unreasonable Sad-Based Claim of any R&B singer on this song. She sings, “I would stop breathing if you told me to,” which feels a bit excessive. The only one that tops it is when the Boyz II Men guys sing, “I’ll never walk again until you come back to me,” on “On Bended Knee.”)
Be meta. The only good example of this was when Toni Braxton did it. It happened in a song she called “Another Sad Love Song,” and that’s honestly incredible. Rather than have it where the video is just singing in the rain like so many others before her (and after her) would do, she had it set up so that she was singing in front of a screen that was playing a separate video of her singing in the rain. And here’s the kicker: This happened in 1993, a smooth three or four years before the sad R&B genre would go on to become the best, most crystallized version of itself.