Retrospective: Neo-Soul Music

By @TrueGodImmortal 

For many, the genre of Neo-Soul music hit the peak when legendary names like D'Angelo, Maxwell, Erykah Badu, and more all arrived around the same time with a similar brand of music. Music that was produced with a bevy of live instrumentation, soulful sensibility, and a more true to life realism in the lyrics, Neo-Soul became something that we loved during the mid to late 90s and that hasn't really changed much. Over the years, we've seen new faces and new names arrive in the genre, taking the sound and making it their own, putting a spin on the worldwide feel of what Neo-Soul is. However, was the arrival of those artists REALLY the start of the genre? Yes and no.

When Prince took a more soulful style into some of his songs post Purple Rain era, he was creating a sound that would be the inspiration and have some origin DNA of Neo-Soul in it. While Prince isn't seen as the true originator, his music was the influence for it, along with other artists, some of whom were lauded and loved such as Sade, who infused jazz and funk into her music, much like Neo-Soul has done in later years. There were also artists from the UK who had the Neo-Soul thought process and attempted to merge that sound with their own brand of R&B, and though it wasn't EXACTLY Neo-Soul, you could still hear remnants of the sound that was coming within it. You could have an argument on your hands when you talked about who really brought the genre into existence, but I have a theory.

The group that was seen as the true originators of the sound however? Tony! Toni! Tone! of course. The music from the group was really where we got introduced into a style that was rooted in soul and sounded like R&B, but it wasn't R&B in the same vein of Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Silk, Shai, and any of the other groups at the time that were popular. Led by the future Raphael Saadiq, the group would employ elements of soul, funk, and jazz to create three amazing albums and usher in a new era and a predominately new sound for the genre.

After the rise of Tony! Toni! Tone!, we got treated to the introduction of the underrated group Mint Condition, who seemed to be much into live instrumentation and R&B music that defied the standard. This would lead to Mint Condition becoming a force in music, and though they're not traditionally seen as a Neo-Soul band, they fit right into the genre, as do artists like Groove Theory, Tony Rich, and the often overlooked but talented pioneer Me'Shell NdegeOcello, who remains one of the original Neo-Soul artists, with jazz sensibilities in her music to help accentuate her emotional complexities in her music. The 1993 release Plantation Lullabies is seen as a landmark Neo-Soul album and the true kickoff to the genre, though I'd lean more towards Tony! Toni! Tone! as the real origin of the movement, it takes nothing away from her and her place as one of the originators. Me'Shell still plays a vital role in the genre and her album was once again monumental in the crowning of the Neo-Soul movement and sound.

It would be after this time period where Me'Shell and Tony! Toni! Tone! set the genre on fire that things would change and switch the course, giving more commercial visibility to the sound and the changing dynamic within it. Neo-Soul soon became looked at as a means to buck the trend in R&B, allowing artists to creatively develop something organic that sounds very soulful or reminiscent of soul. What really changed the dynamic of the genre versus standard R&B is that all of the singers were also songwriters so we saw the unbridled passion of said artist shine through in the music and the actual lyrics. There was no need for someone else to write what these musicians experienced or saw, they had to eloquently do this themselves.

A turning point for Neo-Soul came with the album releases between 1995-1997, most notably D'Angelo's Voodoo, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, and Erykah Badu's Baduizm. These albums are seminal releases in the genre, all three of which standing high up on the list for the greatest Neo-Soul releases. The kicker about all of these albums? They were debut projects. The first albums from those three artists would turn out to be classics and some of the greatest albums of all time. This would have the spotlight firmly on the genre, and with all three of those albums becoming very successful, it only highlighted a growing movement that was soon christened officially as Neo-Soul during this period. The artists who fit under the description of Neo-Soul seemed to reject the label, wanting to be known more as just artists rather than locked in to a label or a title for their brand of music. That was totally understandable, and I respect that, but for the majority of us as fans and listeners, we marveled at the artists that would shape and build the genre up. Still, when talking the renaissance of Neo-Soul, it rests well within the kings and queens of the genre and that's Badu, Maxwell, and D'Angelo. Let's look at their impact with those three debuts and what this did for the genre.

*D'Angelo- Brown Sugar
(Released July 4, 1995)

-Over 21 years ago, D'Angelo officially arrived on the scene, and this album was one of the very few of its kind to provide such a smooth rhythm backed by the falsetto that he sung with. This would be an influential release, as D'Angelo would soon inspire a new generation of artists, including two of my more recent Neo-Soul favorites who I'll get to later. This album was certainly vital to the genre.

*Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite
(Released April 2, 1996)

-The album that really made Neo-Soul stick out in my mind, this was Maxwell at his best. The songs ranged from seductive to upbeat and it showed a different dimension of the sound. Maxwell had live instrumentation in the music like most Neo-Soul artists, but what made it different was that the music was so intricate. Where the production on D'Angelo's music was a bit minimal, Maxwell infused a richer sound and provided an alternative.

*Erykah Badu- Baduizm 
(Released February 11, 1997)

-Approaching the 20th anniversary of the album, this album features some of the seminal Neo-Soul songs, including "On & On", which showcases Badu giving out a bit of wisdom and knowledge within her smoothly sung vocals. This is a bit more jazzy than both D'Angelo and Maxwell, with an underlying poetry jazz club vibe within. It was after Baduizm that we saw an influx of many artists of the same style and similar regard.

If there was ever a movie that really capitalized on the Neo-Soul vibe, it was Love Jones. The soundtrack featured the usual Neo-Soul respected artist, and remains a popular releases in the Neo-Soul genre. One could also say the sounds of Angie Stone and Macy Gray were rooted in Neo-Soul and that would be a mostly accurate statement.  Both women have very distinct voices, and as a result, their music would also be grouped within traditional R&B, but I'd put them both within the Neo-Soul genre. Other artists on a lower level (commercially) that embodied the sound and feel of Neo-Soul would include the underrated Les Nubians, who perfected the Afro-French style of soul music, as well as Res, Goapele, Eric Benet, Rashaan Patterson, Cody Chestnutt, Eric Roberson, and others who all managed to make solid projects over the years, a few of which are still around and popular. Both Roberson and Benet are more known today and consistently still keep the sound alive in their music, but their arrivals occurred all throughout the late 90s, before taking off in the 2000s more so. One could even consider the amazing Lauryn Hill as a Neo-Soul artist, as her classic solo The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill seemed to incorporate elements of that sound, though she also had a bit of traditional R&B, a small hint of reggae, funk, and of course hip hop. If one was to say Lauryn was Neo-Soul, I wouldn't be mad or really disagree, I'd just say she was more of an influence for Neo-Soul artists who came about in the 2000s than an artist who actually was a queen of the genre.

Speaking of the 2000s, we were treated to the next wave of Neo-Soul artists while Maxwell, D'Angelo, Badu, and one of the originators Raphael Saadiq kept themselves pushing the genre forward and pushing music forward in general. With Now, Voodoo, and Mama's Gun, the most commercially successful triad of the genre managed to keep their posts as the kings and queen. However, as the new decade began, we were introduced to the sounds and styles of names like Musiq Soulchild from Philadelphia, who seemed to have a bit of Saadiq and D'Angelo inspiration in his own right, as well as two more Philly representatives in Jill Scott and Bilal, showing that the newest wave of Neo-Soul would come from the City of Brotherly Love. You could also include names like India Arie and to a lesser extent, Alicia Keys in this category, but regardless, her music early on was very well within the realm of Neo-Soul. While Musiq, Jill, Bilal, and India seemed to make the new quartet of Neo-Soul greatness, lesser promoted artists like Heather Hedley, Vivian Green, Anthony David, Leela James, Chrisette Michele (who would end up becoming bigger as time went by), and the criminally underrated Raheem Devaughn would all set themselves apart from the usual R&B pack, further carrying the Neo-Soul torch.

Personally, I don't consider John Legend or Anthony Hamilton to be Neo-Soul, but they definitely have elements in their music, and as the 2010s began, we had Badu back making music, Maxwell had returned after a 8 year hiatus, Bilal was around, Jill was still working, Musiq was still making and releasing solid projects, Eric Benet is still making classics, Raphael Saadiq had returned with a fresh spin and sound for Neo-Soul, and then there were the newer artists of this decade. Some might put Miguel in that category, which I could see, and even Frank Ocean to an extent, but for me, in the most recent era, the artists that stick out the most are Anderson Paak and BJ The Chicago Kid, two of the best Neo-Soul artists today, and probably the last two on the mainstream level waving the flag for the genre. Both men seem to have a bit of influence from the Neo-Soul legends and would both sound good with the architects of the 2000s Neo-Soul wave, the Soulquarians.

While I don't necessarily think the genre has died out, because it hasn't, I think Neo-Soul has slowly gave way to this new sound for the new generation. We saw the change in the legends even, as Badu took a slightly different approach on her last mixtape, and Maxwell drifted away from what we loved about him, while Musiq and his recent album seemed to be a bit farther from his comfort zone, which is fine. It seems that the newer artists are managing this just fine. In 2016 alone, the D'Angelo inspired BJ The Chicago Kid released his superb "In My Mind", Paak put out his critically acclaimed "Malibu", and a surprise Neo-Soul centric and black empowering release from Solange (who flirted heavily with Neo-Soul on her 2008 release Sol-Angel and The Hadley St. Dreams) titled "A Seat At the Table". These albums are three of the best this year and they all embody what we loved about Neo-Soul and then some. It represents the change and evolution in the genre while still maintaining what captivated us about. If anything, that should please fans of the genre, because while Badu and Maxwell and Musiq aren't sticking to the script (which is fine), the new artists are writing their own while still paying homage to the legends, and that's exactly what you want in music.

So, from Raphael Saadiq to Me'Shell NdegeOcello to D'Angelo to Maxwell to Erykah Badu to Bilal to Jill Scott to Musiq Soulchild to Eric Benet to BJ The Chicago Kid and many, many others, the history and legacy of Neo-Soul music is always strong and shall live on forever.



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