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.
(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."
19 Neo-Soul Stars: Then and Now
From D'Angelo's urban cool to Eric Roberson's indie cred, we recall those who defined a genre.