’90s No. 1s Revisited: “How Do U Want It” / “California Love”
The ninety-ninth No. 1 song of the 1990s was, well, two songs: 2Pac’s Double A -sided “How Do U Want It” f/ K-Ci & JoJo and “California Love” f/ Dr. Dre. Double A-sided singles have existed since the 1960s, but Billboard’s policy about them has changed over time. 2Pac’s was the first of three Double A-sided releases to reach No. 1 in the ’90s; the others were by Toni Braxton, immediately following 2Pac in 1996, and Elton John in 1997. We’ll consider each of these three to be “one song” as we proceed. Incidentally, no Double A-sided release has hit No. 1 since John’s; the concept is now moot in the digital era.
“How Do U Want It” / “California Love” was 2Pac’s first and only No. 1 hit. He’d first charted in 1993 with back-to-back crossover releases, “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” which peaked at Nos. 11 and 12 respectively. Both featured samples from familiar recordings released in the ’70s and ’80s, a common technique in ’90s Hip-Hop . After those two hits, he’d reach the Hot 100 five more times before “How Do U Want It” / “California Love,” the biggest of these hits being the No. 9-peaking “Dear Mama” / “Old School” in 1995. “How Do U Want It” / “California Love” reached No. 1 on the July 13, 1996, issue of Billboard, exactly two months before 2Pac died in a Las Vegas hospital from wounds he’d sustained in a drive-by shooting a week earlier. He was 25. His unsolved assassination remains a topic of interest and speculation today; a widely panned biopic called All Eyez On Me, about the rapper and his death, was released as recently as June 2017. Following his death, 13 more tracks with 2Pac as a lead or featured artist would enter the Hot 100, the latest, as of this writing, being 2008’s “Playa Cards Right” by Keyshia Cole f/ 2Pac, which reached No. 63.
“How Do U Want It” features K-Ci & JoJo, two of the four members of Jodeci, an R&B quartet from North Carolina. Jodeci was very popular in the first half of the ’90s and had 12 hits during this time, the biggest being their MTV Unplugged cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” (peak: 4) in 1993, but our favorite being “Cry For You” (peak: 15) in 1994. In 1995, member K-Ci Hailey had a solo hit with a remake of Bobby Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” which reached No. 17 in 1995. Then, as a duo, K-Ci and JoJo found great mainstream success throughout the latter half of the ’90s, charting nine times. In addition to scoring a No. 1 with 2Pac, they returned to the summit as leads on the 1998 chart-topper “All My Life,” and then ascended to No. 2 in 1999 with “Tell Me It’s Real,” both of which are beautiful ballads that showcase the pair’s vocal prowess. K-Ci & JoJo last charted in 2001 with “Crazy” (peak: 11).
“California Love,” arguably the more enduring of the Double A-sided tracks, features Dr. Dre, who by this point was an established A-list producer and rapper best known for his work with Snoop Doggy Dogg. For all of Dr. Dre’s accomplishments before and after 1996, he has never had a No. 1 single as a lead artist, nor a No. 1 album. He’s peaked as high as No. 2 on both those tallies, and has been a featured artist on three No. 1 hits: “California Love,” Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” (1996) and Eminem’s “Crack A Bottle” (2009). “California Love” also features vocals in the chorus by Roger Troutman, whose biggest credited hit was 1987’s “I Want To Be Your Man.” Troutman was shot dead in in Dayton, Ohio, in 1999 at age 47.
Fun fact: “How Do U Want It” and “California Love” competed against each other for the 1997 Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group; they lost to “Tha Crossroads” by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, the song that had preceded it at No. 1.
Let’s listen to both “How Do U Want It” and “California Love.”
If some kid walked up to us and asked us to provide some music that would give them a good sense of ’90s Hip-Hop and R&B, we’d hand them this Double A-sided single and let it speak for itself. “How Do U Want It” is funky and bouncy, dripping with innuendo, while “California Love” is a frat house party anthem. They’re quite different but somehow both quintessentially 2Pac. A fresh listen of “How Do U Want It” proves to be a bit of a boring exercise; it’s repetitive and pretty dull, honestly. “California Love” beams with more excitement and energy, although similarly suffers from repetition. And it’s use of city shout-outs in the denouement seems laughable in retrospect.
Was it dope? Absolutely; 2Pac and everyone featured here were credible A-list stars with critical and commercial appeal.
Does it hold up? Not particularly, except to the extent that “California Love” is regarded as classic ’90s Hip-Hop. But it’s worth mentioning that 2Pac’s legacy is intact, and it’s always a pleasure to revisit his work. He was generally a clever writer and gifted rapper. Dr. Dre was a very important producer but, in our opinion, wasn’t a good emcee, and his delivery doesn’t hold up well, on this track or any other. The faux gangsta toughness, the forced way he emphasizes words to seem intimidating, the over-use of slang, the pandering. It all reeks of ’90s. K-Ci and JoJo exemplify over-the-top R&B vocalizations that seem dated by now.
Dopeness: 3 out of 5 Birkenstocks
2Pac f/ K-Ci & JoJo and Dr. Dre
“How Do U Want It” / “California Love”
2 weeks at No. 1, starting July 13, 1996
Preceded by: “Tha Crossroads,” Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
Followed by: “You’re Makin’ Me High” / “Let It Flow,” Toni Braxton
’90s No. 1s Revisited is a regular feature on “Was It Dope?” where we walk through every No. 1 song of the 1990s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in order, give it another listen, and answer two critical questions: Was it dope? And does it hold up?