Neo soul is a genre of popular music. The term was coined by music industry entrepreneur Kedar Massenburg during the late 1990s to market and describe a style of music that emerged from soul and contemporary R&B. Heavily based in soul music, neo soul is distinguished by a less conventional sound than its contemporary R&B counterpart, with incorporated elements ranging from jazz, funk, and hip hop to pop, fusion, and African music. It has been noted by music writers for its traditional R&B influences, conscious-driven lyrics, and strong female presence.
Neo soul developed during the 1980s and early 1990s, in the United States and United Kingdom, as a soul revival movement. It earned mainstream success during the 1990s, with the commercial and critical breakthroughs of several artists, including D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Maxwell. Their music was marketed as an alternative to the producer-driven, digitally approached R&B of the time.
Since its initial mainstream popularity and impact on the sound of contemporary R&B, neo soul has been expanded and diversified musically through the works of both African-American and international artists. Its mainstream presence declined during the 2000s, although newer artists emerged through more independent means of marketing their music. According to music journalist Mark Anthony Neal, "neo-soul and its various incarnations has helped to redefine the boundaries and contours of black pop."
As a term, neo soul was coined by Kedar Massenburg of Motown Records in the late 1990s as a marketing category following the commercial breakthroughs of artists such as D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Maxwell. The success of D'Angelo's 1995 debut album Brown Sugar has been regarded by several writers and music critics as inspiration behind the term's origin. While some artists have ignored the label, others have received the designation with controversy because it may seem contrived to music audiences and imply that soul music had ended at some point in time. In a 2002 interview for Billboard, Massenburg said that genre classifications are often unpopular because they may be suggestive of a short-lived trend. However, although he said neo soul is still essentially soul music, Massenburg felt there was a need to market artists of the genre for listeners to have an understanding of what they were buying.
In a 2010 article for PopMatters, music writer Tyler Lewis said that neo soul has been received with much controversy: "Given the way black music has been named by (usually) outsiders ever since the blues, the reaction to the name by artists who ostensibly fit into the 'neo-soul' category represents a wonderful example of black self-determination in an industry that is still defiantly wedded to narrow definitions and images of black folks." Jason Anderson of CBC News compares the etymology of neo soul to that of "new wave" and comments: "As imperfect as the term may be, neo-soul is still an effective tag to describe the mix of chic modernity and time-honoured tradition that distinguished the genre's best examples. Neo-soul artists tried to look both backward and forward, acting in the belief that a continuum might exist."
Despite some ambivalence from artists, the term received widespread use by music critics and writers who wrote about artists and albums associated with the musical style. African American studies professor Mark Anthony Neal has described neo soul as "everything from avant-garde R&B to organic soul... a product of trying to develop something outside of the norm in R&B". According to music writers, the genre's works are mostly album-oriented and distinguished by its musicianship and production, incorporating "organic" elements of classic soul music with the use of live instrumentation, in contrast to the more single-oriented, hip hop-based, and producer-driven sampling approach of contemporary R&B. They also infuse jazz, funk, and African musical elements into R&B. In her book Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction, music author Anne Danielsen wrote that neo soul toward the end of the 1990s exhibited a musical development that was part of "a remarkable increase in musicians' experimentation with and manipulation of grooves at the microrhythmic level – that is, the level in played music that is usually understood in terms of phrasing and timing."
"Something to Hold on To"
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Noting that most of the genre's artists are singer-songwriters, writers have viewed their lyrical content as more "conscious-driven" and having a broader range than most other R&B artists. AllMusic calls it "roughly analogous to contemporary R&B". Dimitri Ehrlich of Vibe said that they "emphasize a mix of elegant, jazz-tinged R&B and subdued hip hop, with a highly idiosyncratic, deeply personal approach to love and politics". Music writers have noted that neo soul artists are predominantly female, which contrasts the marginalized presence of women in mainstream hip hop and R&B. Jason Anderson of CBC News called neo soul a "sinuous, sly yet unabashedly earnest" alternative and "kind of haven for listeners turned off by the hedonism of mainstream hip-hop and club jams." Neo soul artists are often associated with alternative lifestyles and fashions, including organic food, incense, and knit caps.
According to music writer Peter Shapiro, the term itself refers to a musical style that obtains its influence from older R&B styles, and bohemian musicians seeking a soul revival, while setting themselves apart from the more contemporary sounds of their mainstream R&B counterparts. In a 1998 article on neo soul, Time journalist Christopher John Farley wrote that singers such as Hill, D'Angelo, and Maxwell "share a willingness to challenge musical orthodoxy". Miles Marshall Lewis commented that 1990s neo soul "owed its raison d'être to '70s soul superstars like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder", adding that "in concert, Erykah Badu and D'Angelo regularly covered Chaka Khan, the Ohio Players, and Al Green, to make the lineage crystal clear." In citing Tony! Toni! Tone! as progenitors of the genre, Tony Green of Vibe viewed that the group pioneered the "digital-analog hybrid sound" of neo soul and "dramatically refreshed the digitalized wasteland that was R&B in the late '80s". Neo soul artists during the 1990s were heavily inspired by the eclectic sound and mellow instrumentation of Gil Scott-Heron's and Brian Jackson's collaborative work in the 1970s. All About Jazz cited Jackson as "one of the early architects" of the sound and his early work with Scott-Heron as "an inspirational and musical Rosetta stone for the neo-soul movement".
Neo soul originated in the 1980s and early 1990s, with the work of musical acts such as Prince, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Terence Trent D'Arby, Joi, and Mint Condition, whose music deviated from the conventions of most contemporary R&B at the time. Tony! Toni! Toné!-member Raphael Saadiq later embarked on a solo career and produced various works of other neo soul artists. Influential to neo soul, UK act Sade achieved success in the 1980s with music that featured a sophisti-pop style, incorporating elements of soul, pop, smooth jazz, and quiet storm. The band was part of a new wave of British R&B-oriented artists during the late-1980s and early 1990s that also included Soul II Soul, Caron Wheeler, The Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai, and Lisa Stansfield. AllMusic's Alex Henderson writes that, "Many of the British artists who emerged during that period had a neo-soul outlook and were able to blend influences from different eras". Other British progenitors of the neo soul movement at the time included Young Disciples and Omar Lye-Fook, the latter of whom has been cited as "the father of British neo-soul" and an influence on many future artists.
According to Christopher John Farley, Prince had been "carrying a torch for neo soul for decades, refusing to make R&B that played by the rules or fit into comfortable formats. In the mid-'90s, he was suddenly joined by a host of other soul artists who also wanted to break boundaries". American artists during the early 1990s included Zhané, Groove Theory, Joi, Tony Rich, and Me'Shell NdegéOcello.
NdegéOcello's 1993 debut album Plantation Lullabies was later credited as the beginning of neo soul; according to Renee Graham of The Boston Globe, it was "arguably the first shot in the so-called 'neo-soul' movement", The success of Tony! Toni! Toné!'s 1993 album Sons of Soul was also viewed as a precursor to the soul music revival in the mid-1990s. Cheo Hodari Coker said in 1997 that the album "largely sparked the soul music revival that has opened the door for a new generation of singers who build on the tradition of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder". Allmusic editor Leo Stanley wrote that by the release of Tony! Toni! Toné!'s follow-up album House of Music in 1996, "their influence was beginning to be apparent, as younger soul singer-songwriters like Tony Rich and Maxwell began reaching the R&B charts. Like Tony! Toni! Toné!, Rich and Maxwell relied on traditional soul and R&B values of songwriting and live performances, discarding the synth-heavy productions of the late '80s and early '90s". Malcolm Venable of Vibe cited the early work of hip hop group The Roots, who used live instrumentation, as a precursor to neo soul's commercial breakthrough in the mid-1990s.
Music journalists have credited the successes of D'Angelo's Brown Sugar (1995), Badu's Baduizm (1997), Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite (1996), and Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) with shaping and raising the neo soul movement to commercial visibility into the late 1990s. According to Farley, D'Angelo's album "gives a nod to the past, [...] mints his own sound, with golden humming keyboards and sensual vocals and unhurried melodies [...] His songs were polished without being slick and smart without being pretentious", while Badu "brought an iconoclastic spirit to soul music, with her towering Afrocentric headwraps, incense candles, and quirky lyrics". Baduizm sold nearly three million copies and won Badu two Grammy Awards. Hill's debut featured her singing and rapping, with deeply personal lyrics, and was one of neo soul's primary successes, achieving massive sales, critical acclaim, and five Grammy Awards. Subsequently, other female artists broke through with their debut albums, including Macy Gray, Angie Stone, and Jill Scott. The 1997 film Love Jones capitalized on neo soul's success at the time with its soundtrack album, which impacted the Billboard charts and featured artists such as Hill, Maxwell, The Brand New Heavies, Me'Shell NdegéOcello, Groove Theory, and Dionne Farris.
According to Greg Kot, the musical collective Soulquarians—consisting of such artists as D'Angelo, The Roots, Erykah Badu, Bilal, Mos Def, Common, James Poyser, and Q-Tip—contributed significantly to the neo soul movement during the late 1990s to the early 2000s with its members' "organic soul, natural R&B, boho-rap". The collective developed through the production work of The Roots' drummer and producer Questlove. Following a minor decline in its hype, neo soul's mainstream popularity increased in the late 1990s with the successes of Hill, Maxwell, Eric Benét, Saadiq, and Les Nubians. It impacted more mainstream-oriented R&B radio, while influencing contemporary R&B acts, such as R. Kelly and Aaliyah, to incorporate some of its textural and lyrical elements. In his song "When a Woman's Fed Up" (1998), Kelly incorporated a more soul-based sound and referenced Erykah Badu's 1997 song "Tyrone" in the lyrics.
With the success of albums by Hill, Badu, and Maxwell, D'Angelo's second album Voodoo served as a further alternative to excesses of late 1990s R&B and hip hop, as neo soul reached its apex in 2000. A production of the Soulquarians, it was an exemplary creative milestone of neo soul. Ben Ratliff of The New York Times called the album "the succes d'estime that proves the force of this new music: it is a largely unslick, stubbornly idiosyncratic and genuinely great album that has already produced two hit singles". By the time of her second album Mama's Gun (2000), Erykah Badu had been dubbed by writers as "the queen of neo-soul". She said of the honorific title, "I hated that because what if I don’t do that anymore? What if I change? Then that puts me in a penitentiary." Subsequently, other artists attained success in the early 2000s, including Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, India.Arie, and Alicia Keys, who broke through to broader popularity with her debut album Songs in A Minor (2001). Hip hop artists such as The Roots and Common, associated with the Soulquarians, released albums that incorporated neo soul, Phrenology (2002) and Electric Circus (2003).
However, the decade later featured a decline in output by neo soul artists, with many of them failing to make a commercial impact after previous successes or not releasing a follow-up album. Badu's commercial viability decreased as each of her releases following her debut Baduizm departed further from that album's music. Hill followed-up her 1998 debut, considered the best-selling neo soul album, with the 2002 live album MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, a combative, confessional work in which she expresses her misgivings about fame. Melena Ryzik of The New York Times wrote in a retrospect of that "era of left-of-center black singer-songwriters", stating "many of them struggled to keep their creative momentum, conflicted about their early mainstream success." Producer and Soulquarians member Questlove elaborated on the artists' regression from the mainstream, saying "I think most of us went through our psychosomatic, quasi-self-saboteur stage. Once we got that first taste of success, I think just the pressure of reacting got to all of us. Some of us released some of the craziest records of our career." Other artists such as D'Angelo and Hill went on indefinite hiatus from the music scene. Tyler Lewis from PopMatters attributed the decline to "the downside of [the] rejection of the term ['neo soul']".
"The industry, which already has a hard time with unapologetic and complicated black artists, had no idea what to do with all these enormously talented individuals who rejected entire marketing campaigns designed to 'break' them to the record-buying public. As such, albums were shelved or delayed or retooled and artists were dropped from major labels and forced to go it alone, making the first decade of the 21st century the least "soulful"—however you define it—decade for the industry itself in… well, decades."
The Boston Globe's Renée Graham wrote of the artists' ambivalence towards the term in a 2003 article on neo soul's standing, "Despite its critical success, if neo-soul had an initial failing, it was the media-created label itself – a term that the artists, whom it was meant to represent, generally rejected". In a 2003 interview, music publicist John Constanza said that "The neo-soul movement is still there, but it's been underground, and it's trying to get the attention of the mainstream again". Mark Edward Nero of About.com stated, "In general, neo-soul has remained almost exclusive to R&B outlets such as urban radio and Black Entertainment Television [...] the majority of neo-soul artists have yet to crossover to mainstream American music listeners, partially because the music's sound generally focuses on artist expression, rather than popular appeal".
During the mid-2000s, emerging artists such as Heather Headley, Anthony David, J Davey, Eric Roberson, and Ledisi signed to independent soul labels and received exposure through independent retailers, neo soul-oriented web sites, college and public radio stations, city club venues, cable networks such as Music Choice and BET J, and publishing deals as writers and producers for major label-recording artists. Erykah Badu and Maxwell returned from their respective hiatuses and released well-received albums, her New Amerykah albums and his 2009 album BLACKsummers'night, and they subsequently toured together. VH1 Soul's series Soulstage, which began in 2007, showcased new music by artists such as Badu, Jill Scott, India.Arie, Q-Tip, and Saadiq.
Since its original popularity, neo soul has been expanded and diversified musically through the works of both African-American and international artists. The more popular neo soul artists in recent years are John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, Jill Scott, Maxwell, Amy Winehouse, Chrisette Michele, Leela James, and Raheem DeVaughn. DeVaughn has described himself as an "R&B Hippy Neo-Soul Rock Star", viewing it as a reference to his eclectic musical style. In its 2010 issue on critical moments in popular music, Spin cited D'Angelo's Voodoo and its success as a turning point for neo soul: "D'Angelo's pastiche of funk, carnal ache, and high-minded, Afrocentric rhetoric stands as neo-soul's crowning achievement. So unsurpassable that it'd be eight years before we'd hear from Erykah Badu and Maxwell again, while Hill and D'Angelo remain missing. But Alicia Keys, John Legend, and Cee-Lo picked up D's mantle and ran with it". Evan Rytlewski of The A.V. Club discerns "a line of revelatory, late-period neo-soul albums" with the releases of Maxwell's BLACKsummers'night (2009), Badu's New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) (2010), Bilal's Airtight's Revenge (2010), and Frank Ocean's Channel Orange (2012).
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