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The best-known Neo Soul music acts include Maxwell, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Musiq, Floetry, D'Angelo, Angie Stone, Bilal, India.Arie — even Lauryn Hill and Joss Stone. But what exactly is Neo Soul?
Neo Soul is a raw, non-conformist musical cocoon of yesteryear — the 1970s and earlier — brilliantly interpreted by contemporary talent. The resulting sound has the power to sooth, heal and excite in butterfly kisses. Like the boldest, hippest poetry, Neo Soul expresses pure, unabashed emotion and informs the listener long after the song's final notes dissipate.
Neo Soul represents a spiritual revival of decades-old underground funk, sometimes with jazz, rock or folk elements. Like funk music, Neo Soul pledges deep allegiance to a bluesy, gospelized essence popularized by greats like Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield... So much so that, sometimes, if played between "real" oldies, a "neo" track sounds like a tune from long ago — but blissfully without the hisses and scratches associated with vinyl records!
More simply, Neo Soul is a continuum of legends such as Donny Hathaway, Prince, Minnie Ripperton, Ann Peebles, Al Green, Donald Byrd & The Blackbyrds, Marvin Gaye, Parliament-Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Betty Wright, and Sly & The Family Stone given a fresh, new millenium edge.
Perhaps the first American vocal act to redux this powerful sound was Zhane (pronounced Jah-NAY). This Philadelphia duo's seminal CD of 1994 included the radio hit "Hey Mr. D.J.", which sampled synth chords from "Haven't You Heard" — an R&B tune by jazz crossover composer Patrice Rushen. Zhane used Rushen's springy melody to create a mega party anthem, one embraced by young and old alike. However, most of Zhane's album cuts took the neo sound steps further, skillfully stepping into light jazz territory, making the CD a diverse, enduring classic.
The next significant Neo Soul entree was perhaps the 1995 CD Words by The Tony Rich Project. Produced by L.A. Reid, Tony Rich broke the sound barrier with a laid back blues and folk-rock sound embedded in a Nu-drum rhythm. A multi-instrumentalist with a smooth voice a la Baby Face's, Tony Rich indeed helped rebirth a missing sound in soul music, with a few tunes (surprisingly) still in rotation today on Easy Listening radio.