(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."
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.
Steven McKeever, CEO of Hidden Beach Records, the label that brought Jill Scott to soul music lovers, agrees. When he first signed Scott, she wanted to record four separate albums: jazz, R&B, hip-hop and poetry. McKeever's solution was to do it all in one.
"I wanted to shy away from the labels," McKeever told The Root. "The only definition we adhered to was that [our artists should be] real musicians who could put real emotion on tape. The whole concept was honesty, honesty, honesty. From every note to every word."
Does Neo-Soul Need a New Name?
Artists aren't married to the term. Pop musicians outside the neo-soul umbrella — Alicia Keys, John Legend and even Michael Jackson, with his cover of Floetry's "Butterflies" — have incorporated its elements into their music. The digital age gives fans access to young R&B artists — Jesse Boykins III, Luke James, Emily King, Lianne La Havas and Deborah Bond, to name a few — who were undoubtedly influenced by the movement. Artists such as Frank Ocean and the Weeknd produce neo-soul-electronic hybrid music that is almost too trippy to name. As genre bending and borrowing becomes a growing feature of R&B music, neo-soul might go the way of booty bass.
Call it what you want, says rapper Common, who has collaborated with many neo-soul artists, including Badu and Floetry. "I just like good music," he told The Root. "The thing I can say about [musicians] who are tagged as neo-soul artists is that they are talented, gifted, incredible artists. The work speaks for itself."
According to Hines, fans of soul music have already adopted alternative names for the genre — "underground soul" or "independent soul." But she makes an important observation.
"What all of these different names have in common is the word 'soul,' which will always be at the root."
Akoto Ofori-Atta is The Root's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter.