WHEN OLD THINGS BECOME NEW: NEO SOUL
We all know by now (I hope) that #MusicSermon is a B2K (before 2000)-centered ministry. However, I promised that at some point I would heavily relax those restrictions for a specific sermon topic, and I believe the time has come.
The word says that old things are passed away and all things become new, but in music that’s a lie. Musical influence goes in cycles, but the 90s took it in a completely new direction with the growth of hip hop and then its marriage to R&B, creating new genres, including hip hop soul. Live instrumentation was being replaced with samples and interpolations. It was a younger, fresher, and more rhythmic leaning sound.
Then at the turn of the decade (and century), in what I believe was a direct sonic response to the hip hop soul era, there was movement reverting back to live instruments plus old soul, jazz and funk influence — but in a new way.
The 90s were largely about the rise of New Jack Swing moving into Hip Hop Soul, and the increased collaboration between R&B and Hip Hop. But during this time there were artists trading in specific kind of soul sound that can be considered a precursor to Neo Soul. Let’s start with a young Lalah Hathaway. (1990)
I’ve said before that Zhane was absolutely a few years too early musically, and I wish the music world had been ready for them. They would have killed had they come out three or four years later and hit the first real Neo Soul wave. (1994)
Rene and Jean were everything the neo soul movement was about: vibey, natural, jazzy. All of that.
In Brownstone’s bio for the 90s R&B Bracket, I metioned that we heard some hints of what was to come in their vocals (or, you could say we heard elements of what had been. Same thing in this case).
Mista usually gets classified as just straight 90s R&B, but if you listen to their album, it could have fit in with music that came later. They don’t have the neo soul look, but they had the sound and the subject matter.
We’ll come back to Amel, but Groove Theory was also giving us early retro soul vibes.
Raise your hand if you were low-key (high key) in love with Bryce.
D’Angelo led what we can consider the First Wave of true neo soul artists to hit the scene, with Brown Sugar debuting in ‘95. We were still in an era of jazz and deep soul-inspired hip hop, so he just felt like an r&b extension of that, at first.
We knew he was something special, but I don’t remember us having a word for it yet. We probably called his style a throwback (in a good way).
By the time Vodoo came, neo soul had a name and was a force. D’Angelo’s smokey, sexy, retro, musical ass sh*t fit solidly in the middle of it.
There was no social media, no youtube, no video websites, still the very early blog days when this dropped. Forget the internet, it broke real life.
Then in 96, this beautiful man here dropped one of the sexiest albums we’d seen in ages, and we realized something was happening.
Maxwell, and his hair, and his voice, and his moves…
Just everything. A vibe. A mood. A kickback. A session. A cypher. All of it.
And just beautiful songs. Max had transcendent songs. Hitting you all in your soul songs.
Then in the Spring of ‘97, two things happened:
Kedar Massenberg, the Motown exec who managed D’Angelo during Brown Sugar and signed Erykah, coined the phase “neo soul” specifically to market her, because there was no other descriptive that properly described her sound. Clearly, the moniker caught on.
Erykah dropped Baduizm in Feb and the live album in the fall, between that and the next musical event, it marked ‘97 as the official introduction of neo soul.
Then, before the phrase neo soul had the chance to become a thing, the first (and honestly maybe only, on this level) neo soul soundtrack dropped, for the neo-soul-esque movie that for some reason, many of ya’ll love to hate 🙄
In my top four (five if you count The Bodyguard) ‘90s soundtracks, Love Jones had jam after jam after mood after jam, and an early taste of what Lauryn was about to come with for her solo album.
Speaking of L Boogie, we never could have expected in ‘98 that we’d have to ride off of this joint for TWENTY DAMN YEARS. Sigh…artists.
Shout out to a time when Lauryn and D’Angelo on a song together didn’t feel like a musical unicorn. We had no idea.
Also, this song is fcking perfect (and I’ve told ya’ll I have a thing for snap tracks).
D’Angelo, Max, Erykah and Lauryn are the Four Horsemen (Horsepersons?) of neo soul, but there were a few other artists in the vanguard who often get left out of the convo. DeBarge was possibly the best R&B group of all time, but young Chico also had a moment in this space.
Chico did a whole album about being your ex who got locked up, came home, disrupted your whole life, and then sang sweetly in your ear about how romantic it was that he ain’t have no money, but ya’ll were gonna make it. And it was a bop. And I played it non-stop.
This next artist, Davin,a was signed to Loud. Very much not an r&b label. She was talented as hell though; wrote and produced the whole album herself (I need to check on whether she kept writing).
I’m going to focus a lot on ballads tonight, because that was my pocket for neo soul. Them way down deep in your feelings songs. This genre is perfect for them.
People didn’t really start paying attention to Eric Benèt until his second album, which was ’99'ish. But his first joint was earthy and conscious and incensey…you get the idea. I think this might be his only album I own.
Because we recently discussed Blue-eyed soul and Toto’s original “Georgie Porgie” (with Cheryl Lynn on backing vocals), let’s take a look at Eric & Faith’s take.
In 2000, Philly came back to grab the soul music crown. If people weren’t clear already that neo soul was a more than just a passing sound, now they knew. Leading the charge (that you’re getting in the way of): Jilly from Philly. This is how Shirley shoulda came at Barbara.
Mary mixed street with soul in a way we hadn’t before seen yet at the time, but this was something different. Different even than what Lauryn was giving us. Jill and this 132 octave operatic range; her actual, physical presence; her lyrics. Whew.
Even now, nobody can quite write/sing about love — current or past, physical or emotional (or sh*t, spiritual) — like Jill.
This song will have you calling people you legit have no business calling. Ya’ll know who comes after Jill.
Bum da bum ba ba naa…bum dum dummmm…
By now Def Jam had a soul imprint (clearly necessary to stay competitive). Musiq, Case, Montell and later Patti Labelle (which is still 🤔 to me, but whatever) where signed to Def Soul.
Musiq had hardcore street dudes out here singing their hearts out about LOVE. Loudly.
Moving away from Philly for a hot second (we’ll be back), another label staking a heavy claim in Neo Soul was then still-new J Records.
Angie Stone (whom we had no idea was connected to D’Angelo until later), came with serious retro vibes, vocals and feel.
Angie gave us grown up two step bops with these red cup & BBQ samples.
I should also mention here that Neo Soul started to become a catch-all phrase for almost any R&B that 1. was going back to live instrumentation (or the feel of it), and 2. Had strong vocals plus 3. Had a throwback but street feel to it. Clive’s marquee artist encompassed all that.
Alicia proved Clive still had the touch to discover and develop massive female talent. Again, an artist being able to also play was a big thing, even six years after D’Angelo sat down at a hammond organ blowing blunt smoke.
One time for the stalker anthem (and John Legend on background vocals). RIP Pan Pan.
Then there’s my favorite AK song, featuring son of soul/founding father of Neo Soul, Dwayne Wiggins. (Although one of her backing vocalists is on this live version)
Staying with J Records for a minute, thank you, #BlackTwitter, for helping me realize this song was a call for help.
Before I get too much further ahead chronologically, I have to stop by Bad Boy. Like I said, neo soul was kind of becoming a catch-all phrase, so it might be debatable whether Carl really belongs here, but for the sake of tonight, he does. LOOK AT ME, I CAN’T STOP CRYIN…
Here’s a fun fact: They were revising and making changes to the Emotional album for like a year before it was released. Anybody remotely affiliated with Bad Boy had been rocking it since Summer ‘99 (it came out in Spring of 2000). I have at least two versions. At least.
We both in the club high, singing off key…
I mentioned Tony Toni Tonè being sons of soul (ha…they actually named an album that) but also fathers of neo soul. Ray Ray kept himself in the game for this genre. First with Lucy Pearl... (By the way, the headscarf movement ain’t new, young kings.)
…and then solo, making his clear intent with the album title Instant Vintage (and again, isn’t it so good to remember the days when D’Angelo features didn’t possibly drive you to tears with thankfulness to the music gods that he reared his head?)
Ok, let’s head back to Philly, and Bilal’s odd little kinda-Prince, kinda-crazy self.
Then there are the floecists. The thought of a spoken work/singing combo isn’t appealing to me in theory (and wasn’t back then, eiher), but they worked.
We learned Marsha’s pen game was official early.
(Wait - everybody knows she wrote “Butterflies” for Michael, right? Ya’ll all know that.)
Husband/wife duo Kindred and the Family Soul aren’t from Philly, but they’re Philly-adjacent because they were signed to Hidden Beach with Jill. They were up for a Grammy even this year.
Also Philly-adjacent, as it’s where he came of age and his second home, John Legend. It’s easy to forget now that John and AK came into the came with the “Neo Soul” class.
I’m adding this gem from John’s sophomore album because it’s almost every black woman over a certain age I know’s favorite JL song.
If you have this song on a playlist still, right now, you were going to Afropunk before it became a “thing”.
Let’s talk for a little more about the neo soul that was more just, young soul/vibey R&B. Like the extremely underrated Amerie.
Amerie’s All That I Have is a banger. You can still put it on and just let it ride. Perfect spring/summer weekend music. I played it in the ground.
Shout out to the Manolo Timbs moment (or Steve Madden, depending on your bracket 🤷🏾♀️).
I really, really love this song, still. But this video is one of the most unfulfilling videos of all time. They really couldn’t meet up at the end? Also, ya’ll really thought we don’t know the difference between downtown and 145th street?
Moving into more of the Vintage Soul area,that damn Jaheim.
Jaheim’s voice is amazing. Truly. He came with the a young Teddy P feel.
But #BlackTwitter stayed on his neck for that blue suit for three solid days, and he ain’t been the same since.
Since we’re over in Kay Gee & RL land, let’s throw Jaheim’s musical cousins up in here. STILL. A. WHOLE. ENTIRE. BOP.
Another example of neo soul really meaning vintage soul. (Somebody put some greens on.)
Anthony’s voice got red clay in it; I swear fo’ god.
I want to point out that we haven’t even gotten past 2003 yet. Comparitively, we probably couldn’t have a conversational about all the R&B artists since 2010 that would be this long.
With that, I realize I almost skipped India. Confession: I can’t really listen to India’s anthemic songs (“Video” “I am Not My Hair”) anymore. But she does have a gorgeous voice and tone.
Like I told ya’ll earlier, I love the ballads from this era.
Former Jill Scott background vocalist Vivian Green is firmly in urban adult radio two-step land now (and has some bops), but she was helping give voice to our unnecessarily complicated early 2000s romantic lives.
I totally jumped ahead and skipped her on the timeline (so.much.music.to.cover) but I said I’d come back to Amel Larrieux as a solo artist. There are many fans out there upset that she didn’t have a larger solo catalog.
Neo soul is also sometimes interchangeable with smooth jazz for us urbans. You know your mama and ‘nem done seem Kem fifty’lemen times at the Jazz Fest. (any jazz fest.) His songs really are undeniably catchy.
I’m going to use Dwele as a soft set-up to move into our closing segment: hip hop that also falls under the neo soul (or neo soul-adjacent) category.
But we have a couple of more songs to cover before we jump all the way into that.
Around 2004, Neo Soul started moving out of the mainstream into solely Urban Adult formats and jazz festivals (as I mentioned above). And the sonic style is still around, though no one identifies neo soul as a genre anymore.
I put “You” in the Adoration moment because it’s amazing, and because whenever I listen to it I have to run it back at least three times. This is how you should feel about “them”, whoever your them is. Also, the “Moments in Love” sample doesn’t hurt.
After I listen to this song 82 times, I have to listen to this next one about 40 times. Or vice versa.
Hip hop has a place in the neo soul conversation, too, with the progression of sound from straight boom bap, plus the jazz influences that Native Tongues, Digable, etc were using. In the case of The Legendary Roots Crew, they are also one of the only black bands still standing.
When you think of all the artists we just went through, and consider hip hop collaborations, I can almost guarantee there’s a very specific handful that come to mind. The Roots are probably first.
(Can we talk about Tariq’s grown man glow up over the years, though? Man…)
Double whammy’s even: hook written by Jill but performed by Erykah.
The second hip hop act you’re likely going to think of in relation to Neo Soul is Common.
After Like Water for Chocolate & Electric Circus especially, soulful vibes fell right into Common’s wheelhouse (and yes, I know this is Mary and not someone we talked about tonight). I really love this video.
Oh hey, here’s an Erykah collab. (It’s a requirement, seriously).
Next on your list is probably gonna be Dilla.
And if we’re talking about hip hop and neo soul, I gotta park in front of Phontè’s house for a second.
Phonte’s given us vibes with Little Brother, AND with The Foreign Exchange… (which came together as a group — I believe — thanks to Okayplayer, so it still comes back to The Roots).
QTip, Talib, Mos, Will.i.Am. when BEP was still backpack hip hop (did you know he co-wrote “Ordinary People”), they can all apply here, too. But I’ma just use Mos. Because “Umi Says” is my sh*t.
This is our benediction hymn tonight.