Is It a Wrap for Neo-Soul?

The genre inspired quite the musical renaissance in the late '90s. Let's look at where it is today.

Posted:
 
erykah_badu_jill_scott_062612_400jrw
Karl Walter/Getty Images

(The Root) -- The video for "On & On," the first single from Erykah Badu's 1997 debut album, Baduizm, was a far cry from the R&B videos that MTV and BET had been cranking out in the months prior. Her aesthetic wasn't typical. She was fully clothed, revealing little skin, wearing little makeup and donning a 1-foot-high and 3-feet-long headscarf. Badu saunters through each scene, coyly mouthing the song's metaphorical lyrics: "I was born under water/With three dollars and six dimes."

Rewind a few months to the tail end of 1996, when Toni Braxton's single "Unbreak My Heart" dominated the pop and R&B Billboard charts. In her video, Braxton is a vision of R&B pop beauty -- long, silky tresses; rosy cheeks; and perfectly inked lips -- sporting the kind of lingerie that offered fodder for male fantasy. Its lyrics? Pretty straightforward: "Unbreak my heart/Say you love me again."

And so marks a few of the key differences between popular R&B of the time and the sound produced by Badu and by Maxwell and D'Angelo before her: alternative versus pop, smart versus trivial, deep versus shallow. Music executive Kedar Massenburg, who managed Badu and D'Angelo, recognized that what his artists were offering was far different from what fans could find in the mainstream. He needed a name for it, so in 1997 he came up with "neo-soul."

"People don't like the term because they don't want this music to be looked at as a genre. But in terms of marketing today, there's the need to categorize music for consumers so they know what they're getting. So for lack of a different term, I coined 'neo-soul,' " Massenberg told Billboard magazine in 2002.

Crooner Anthony Hamilton, whose music is often placed in the neo-soul category, told The Root that "it was a clever way to bring music back to the forefront." Acknowledging that the creation of the genre had more to do with marketing and less to do with the artistry, Hamilton said that the packaging nevertheless gave soul music new life. "The beats were different. The attack was different. I think it was a creative way to reintroduce soul music to the hip-hop generation."

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

But neo-soul, both as a term and as a style of music, evoked as much criticism as it did acclaim. The term has long been documented as problematic for musicians -- from Maxwell to Goapale -- who rejected categorization of their art. After all, if you consider the literal translation, the term invalidates itself. Soul can't be new. Yet the marketing machine behind the movement is responsible for what is arguably the most important renaissance for black music in the last 20 years.

The contours of R&B music have changed drastically since 1997, and the lines between soul, hip-hop, pop, jazz and electronica are more blurry than ever before. So is neo-soul over? Should we call it something else?

A Different Sound

What Massenburg, who helped launch the careers of Badu and D'Angelo, captured in the name "neo-soul" was its distinct departure from pop R&B music. With classic Motown and Philly soul at its base, neo-soul also incorporated elements from jazz, funk and hip-hop. Sure, the careers of Badu, D'Angelo and Maxwell in the mid-'90s are markers for neo-soul's commercial success, but the trend of experimenting with soul music this way dates back to the '80s.

Neo-Soul Stars: Where Are They Now?

From D'Angelo's urban cool to Eric Roberson's indie cred, we recall those who defined a genre.

LOADING GALLERY...
 
The Root 100 People's Choice Awards  
Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM