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.
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.
"There was that movement that started a revolutionary feeling with Spike Lee's movies and Native Tongues," said Jason King, artistic director and associate professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. It was the spirit of those creative outputs, King said, that energized the neo-soul movement.
Aesthetically, it boasted an emphasis on bohemian, an alternative vogue to the trendy, fashion-formula chart-topping R&B that crooners had always adopted. Neo-soul also offered fans more-complex lyrics. While you could bet that nearly every popular R&B artist sang mostly about sex and matters of the heart (love lost, unrequited, found or otherwise), neo-soul artists didn't do this exclusively, adding other weighty subject matter like politics, social issues and spirituality to their repertoire. Musically, it embraced live instrumentation, shunning the popular practice of using synthesized beats and drum machines.
"[Neo-soul] really is about the total package," King said. "But neo-soul artists are great musicians. The music always came first."
Can Soul Be Neo?
While there are several artists, like Hamilton, who don't mind the neo-soul label, many have gone on record to say that they don't identify with it because the label categorizes them too rigidly. Badu has made it clear on more than one occasion that she's just not that into the tag "neo-soul." "I accept it, but I don't want to be called the queen of it," she said in an MSNBC interview in 2008.
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.