Revisiting Neo-Soul

The following is another in an ongoing series of blog posts from the remarkable students in my Public Intellectuals class. We would welcome any comments or suggestions you might have.

Revisiting Neo-Soul

by Marcus Shepard

Popular music blog Singersroom recently asked an interesting question “Will Alternative R&B fade away…like Neo-Soul & Hip-Hop Soul?” What’s interesting about this question for me is that neo-soul and some would argue hip-hop soul, never truly found a definition or a sonic boundary to differentiate them from other genres of music during their rise in the 1990s. Different posts could and should be written on hip-hop-soul and even the validity of the term alternative R&B as it appears to be a term used to describe white R&B artists who make music similar to the likes of the Black R&B artists such as the late Aaliyah, Brandy and Monica. I want to focus though on exploring the genre neo-soul for a moment. It’s important to engage with neo-soul because a lot of people believe that this musical discourse has either faded away or was a flash pan marketing nomer that lost steam as we rolled into the new millennium, which is not the case.

While fans of the music labeled neo-soul can often identify those songs, albums and/or artists that falls under the genre label, due to the lack of a potential concrete definition, the once burgeoning genre has become harder to define. As different sonic discourses continue to mix and create unique sounds, defining and creating boundaries for what is “neo-soul” and what is not might become increasingly more difficult. Though the label neo-soul has come under scrutiny from artists, musicians, fans, critics, and academics about its validity as a term/genre, others have gravitated towards the usage of the term. The confusion of what neo-soul is adds to the debate surrounding this genre. Defining neo-soul is not to exclude artists who are on the periphery or crossover into the genre, but to give space to those singers and musicians who are entrenched within the discourse of the music.

With the introductory track “Let It Be,” Jill Scott also expresses her frustrations with being labeled and defined as a neo-soul artist. Though Scott does not openly state her anguish with her categorization in the genre, she states an all too familiar cry of artists who simply want to make music devoid of classification.

What do I do
If its Hip Hop if its bebop reggaeton of the metronome
In your car in your dorm nice and warm whatever form
If Classical Country Mood Rhythm & Blues Gospel
Whatever it is, Let It Be Let It Be Whatever it is Whatever it is Let It
If it’s deeper soul If It’s Rock & Roll Spiritual
Factual Beautiful Political Somethin to Roll To
Let It Be, Whatever it is, Whatever it is Let It Be
Let It Be Whatever it is Let It Be Let It Be, Let It
Why do do do I,I,I,I
Feel trapped inside a box when just don’t fit into it

Through her sorrow of being defined and “trapped inside a box,” Scott has also excavated what neo-soul is. Though she and other artists often have fraught relationships with the term, understanding it as a convergence of sonic discourses within the soul and rap musical traditions opens up a variety of sonic avenues that Scott, her peers, and predecessors have pursued. Scott, who often transcends the boundaries of different genres, is able to rise above these very boundaries due to the essence of neo-soul. This genre allows her to waft into the vocal atmosphere with operatic vibrato during the closing number (“He Loves Me (Lyzel In E Flat)”) of her concert, just as it allows for her and Doug E. Fresh to beatbox during their collaborative “All Cried Out Redux”.

Being situated on the periphery of two musical legacies, soul and hip-hop, allows for artists within this convergence to coif a variety of sonic discourses that draw on the technical, sonic, and lyrical innovations of both genres. The jazz, gospel, and blues influences of soul, which in their own right offer rich musical and lyrical histories, further add to the wide-range of sonic possibilities that artists within neo-soul can tap. Include the plentiful sonic and lyrical options that hip-hop has to offer and the neo-soul genre seems to have boundless opportunity to grow and coalesce.

So what does neo-soul sound like? Neo-soul is a genre that is an amalgamation of rap and soul music, which relies on the technological advances made during the genesis of rap, but at the same time readily uses live instrumentation of the soul era. Neo-soul builds upon sampling through its own reinterpretations of soul records such as D’Angelo’s take on Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’,” or Lauryn Hill’s Frankie Valli cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”. Though these two are traditional covers, Hill and D’Angelo infect a hip-hop backbeat that is heavily pronounced throughout most neo-soul records. Hill’s cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in particular opens up with beatboxing, which then leads into the sonic composition of the song and melds into a traditional rap backbeat. Though covers are not unique to this genre, when they occur within the confines of neo-soul, the musical composition of the song is often tweaked/reworked to reflect the sonic collaborations that define the genre.

Though possibilities seem endless for neo-soul, there is a distinct sonic quality that exists within the genre. Neo-soul is deeply rooted in live instrumentation and referencing the liner notes of the majority of neo-soul releases showcases the inclusion of studio musicians. Though synthesizing and sampling is present within neo-soul, it is building a legacy that is rooted in both the live instrumentation of soul music and the technological manufactured sounds of hip-hop.

Striking this sonic balance is one of the challenges the genre faces and artists who opt for a more live sound or a more synthesized sound find themselves closer to the periphery of the genres that represent this sound. As Erykah Badu famously proclaims, she “is an analog girl in a digital world” and striking the balance between these two worlds is what artists who are steeped in the musical traditions of neo-soul are all about.

In addition to the sonic quality and components of neo-soul, the genre is also one that is carried by the lyrical compositions of its artists. While hip-hop soul is a famous fusion of music that is sometimes conflated with neo-soul, artists within the confines of this music often set themselves apart from neo-soul artists due to the paucity of songwriting credits on their résumé as well as the abundance of synthesized beats. This is not to say that one genre is “better” than the other, but that they each exist in different spheres and planes of similar musical discourse.

Neo-soul artists, as Jill Scott so eloquently pointed out, speak to the realities of life within their self- or co-written compositions including, but not limited to, issues that touch upon the very essence of human experience. While rap music still speaks to lived experiences, the overarching narrative seems to have shifted to a paradigm that speaks largely to male street credibility and the highly commercialized and commoditized male hustler protagonist.

Neo-soul can be seen, lyrically, as a remix of hip-hop – still speaking to the lived experiences of its listeners as hip-hop and soul did and still do – with a slanted female perspective, as the majority of releases within the confines of neo-soul reflect the female voice.

While men and women release music within the confines of the neo-soul and rap genres respectively, it appears that each genre has the disproportionate voice of one sex. Whereas rap music has always been rooted in the male perspective, with relatively few female centered perspectives, neo-soul operates as the contrasting version with the female perspective taking center stage, while the male perspective is given voice with relatively few releases.

Responding to the obvious exclusion of female voices within hip-hop, neo-soul artists find themselves oftentimes engaging with messages perpetuated within hip-hop and mass media in an attempt to recreate and reclaim those representations of Black womanhood.

Another interesting observation of the discography released within neo-soul finds that Black artists have released the majority, if not all, of the releases considered neo-soul. Though white British soul artists such as Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Adele, and Duffy have all released albums and/or songs that would aptly be described as neo-soul, due to their sonic and lyrical arrangements, these women are placed under the banner of pop or British soul instead of neo-soul. Jaguar Wright for one has pointed out in her observation of the musical genre the racialized space that has been built around this marketing genre.

Through the racialization of neo-soul, these artists are able to engage in visual and musical critiques of issues impacting Black communities, such as Jill Scott’s powerful analysis of the state of Black communities in her song “My Petition,” which is lifted from her 2004 album Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2.

Ultimately, neo-soul is a genre that is still alive and well though the glare of mainstream press and platinum selling singles and album sales has wavered. Before one engages with the theorizing of “alternative R&B,” it is important to revisit and reengage with the visual and musical discourse that is the genre neo-soul.

Marcus C. Shepard is a Ph.D. student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. His work explores Black musical performance and its intersections and transformative capabilities of race, class, gender and sexuality. Specifically, he focuses on the musical genre neo-soul and its sonic, visual and political implications in the United States within communities of color. Shepard has also worked at the world famous Apollo Theater in Harlem as an archivist and maintains his ties to this artistic community.