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Along with the likes of Dru Hill and Jagged Edge, Next were part of a late-'90s contemporary R&B class that combined a gospel background, suggestive lyrics, multi-part harmonies, and slick productions with stylistic cues taken from Jodeci and R. Kelly. From 1997 through 2000, the trio placed four singles within the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100, including the chart-topping "Too Close" and number seven hit "Wifey." After two albums for major-label Arista, including the multi-platinum 1997 debut Rated Next, the group moved to Clive Davis' post-Arista venture J Records, where they released a third album prior to a rift in 2003. The original members released new material 15 years later, following an acrimonious split and some false restarts.
Robert "RL" Huggar and Marlon "Shilo" Benjamin met fellow vocalists and brothers Terry "T-Low" Brown and Raphel "Tweety" Brown through musician Reverend James Grear. Formed in 1992 as Strate4ward, the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based vocal quartet was mentored by Grear and Sounds of Blackness' Ann Nesby. Following some local performances, Benjamin was ousted from the group, renamed Next by RL. RL, T-Low, and Tweet then made a demo produced by Tony "Prof-T" Tolbert and Lo-Key?'s Lance Alexander. The recording reached Naughty by Nature's Keir "KayGee" Gist, who promptly arranged a showcase for Clive Davis. This resulted in a deal with Davis' Arista label. Next made their debut with "Butta Love," co-produced by Tolbert, Alexander, Gist, Darren Lighty, and the Beatminerz' Walt "Mr. Walt" Dewgarde. The ballad entered the Billboard R&B/hip-hop chart in September 1997 -- eventually reaching number four -- and was followed later that month by the full-length Rated Next. The album's success was boosted and sustained with a couple additional singles co-produced by Gist and Lighty. "Too Close," memorable for its dance groove as much as its bawdy hook, reached the top of the Hot 100. The album's third single, "I Still Love You," went Top Five R&B/hip-hop.
In June 2000, a month after Rated Next received a double-platinum certification from the RIAA, Next issued their follow-up album, Welcome II Nextasy. With Gist and Lighty still in their corner, the group hit the pop Top Ten again with "Wifey." The parent album didn't have the longevity of the debut but was certified gold within a month of release. During subsequent downtime, Next were featured on Jaheim's Top Ten R&B/hip-hop hit "Anything," and RL recorded a solo album, RL:Ements, for Clive Davis' then new J label. RL's set was only eight months old when, in December 2002, Next followed suit on J with The Next Episode. The album was barely promoted, with "Imagine That," produced by Gist, Lighty, and Eddie F, the lone single to chart. Shortly thereafter, financial and creative misgivings came to a head. The group requested and received release from Davis' label, and Tweet departed. Tweet returned several years later, though he hadn't missed much. RL was out of the picture by the time T-Low, Tweet, and new vocalist Aaron Deponce recorded the single "Leaving with Me." By the time that song was available in 2014, Deponce was no longer in the group. RL eventually returned, and in 2018 the original three members of Next independently released the characteristically salacious "Want It." ~ Andy Kellman
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