Part 1 of 3
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.
But it took D’Angelo, the Virginia-born son of a Pentecostal minister, to perfectly define the sound of Neo Soul. D’Angelo created a mass yearning for more of this dark, sexy, moody stuff with his seminal 1995 hit “Brown Sugar” (and CD of the same title). He crooned sultry love songs with heavy down beats in a manner that harkened Prince and Marvin Gaye at once. D’Angelo is considered the artist who opened the flood gates and put Neo Soul on the map, solidifying a well-deserved place in music history.
All the while, the Neo Soul movement was joined by other immensely talented and impassioned Neo Soul vocalists such as Joi, Carleen Anderson of the Young Disciples, and Laurnea — all taking wonderfully different tangents. Some leaned heavily toward rock, others incorporated a spoken word poetry style and political rants.
But it wasn’t until 1997 when Erykah Badu rocked the industry with a haunting voice reminiscent of Billie Holliday’s that Neo Soul seemed to blossom into the full bouquet it is today. Executive produced at Motown by Kedar Massenburg, the same visionary who produced D’Angelo, Badu was so fresh in her throw-back styling that she garnered a succession of chart-topping hits and gained a die-hard cult following. With beats by The Roots and masterful jazz bass contributions by Ron Carter, Baduizm is an essential CD for any serious music collector.
Amidst the onslaught of new jack R&B, these Neo Soul pioneers proved the seasoned sound of Soul was not only still viable, but a life’s spice in great cross-generational demand. Today, the Neo Soul scene is robust with a full menu of innovators paying homage to black music roots — yet keeping it progressive and next-level.
Part 2 of this three-part series will explore London’s indelible imprint on the Neo Soul movement, asking the question, “Why did it take the Brits to get us diggin’ America’s old Soul grits again?”
For more articles on Neo Soul, CD reviews and the artists behind the music, visit Viqi French Fever – The Hot Nu Music Blog.