The term neo-soul was first coined in the late 1990s by Motown Records’ Kedar Massenburg after the commercial success of artists like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo and Maxwell, among others. Consisting of strong bass lines, lo-fi recording techniques, conscious lyrics, and heavy influences from its predecessors. It was the latest and most popular iteration of soul music and its entrance into the mainstream meant that a new term in the musical lexicon was needed to identify and market this new genre to the masses. It was only a few years later that the artists known for popularizing the genre began distancing themselves from the term. It became a catch-all for any music by Black creators who didn’t fit the pop or hip-hop mold, and many of these artists didn’t want to be boxed-in to any category at all. Massenburg spoke to Billboard in 2002 explaining this phenomenon:
“(Artists) don’t want this music to be looked at as a genre, because when you classify music, it becomes a fad, which tends to go away. But soul music is soul music.” — Kedar Massenburg
A musical collective known as The Soulquarians are responsible for setting the tone and forming the majority of the canon of neo-soul music. Active during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the group consisted of D’Angelo, Questlove, J Dilla, Erykah Badu, Roy Hargrove, James Poyser, Bilal, Pino Palladino, Q-Tip and Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Common. The group formed because of their shared love of Motown and classic soul, as well as their distaste for the state of Black music at the time. They wanted to create music that addressed the human in each of us, tackling the everyday as well as socio-political issues in their lyrics. They adopted the name Soulquarian because of their shared star sign — Aquarius. Each member had a different specialty: the team consisted of instrumentalists, singers, rappers and producers.
They collaborated and created together at Electric Lady studios in New York, citing the location as energetically important due to its history with Jimi Hendrix. This theme of paying homage to predecessors and keeping history at the forefront of the movement was important to the collective. Questlove was quoted as describing the sound of the collective as “off-beat rhythms, unorthodox chords, and stacks of harmony.” Among the releases of the collective are five gold and three platinum records. Despite the initial commercial success, their sound became more experimental and labels had trouble marketing their futuristic takes in a market that simply wasn’t ready for it. Though the collective dissolved in the early 2000s, many of these artists remain active today.
New Life for Old Records
In the post-Soulquarian era, soul music has fallen in and out of popularity and taken on new meanings for artists of multiple genres. One of these being sampling in hip-hop and electronic music. This new class of artists including Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Daft Punk, J. Cole and Mark Ronson picked up the torch and incorporated the style and samples in their works in the early 2010s. “To Pimp A Butterfly,” “Random Access Memories,” “Forest Hill Drive,” and “Uptown Funk” all being major records that gave soul music a modern meaning. Many of the original soul/neo-soul artists were prolific and held in high regard by audiophiles, yet overlooked by the masses as they did not attempt to cater to radio. However this new generation of creators that grew up on these classic tracks began sampling these melodies and beats, giving the records a second chance. This trend has survived into the 2020s with one major example of late being Surf Mesa’s cover of Lauryn Hill with “ily (I love you baby).”
“You can’t just hijack nostalgia wholesale. It leaves the listener feeling sickly. You have to take an element of those things and bring something fresh and new to it.” — Mark Ronson
Neo-Soul performance on Spotify
The fluidity of genres in 2021 means that neo-soul is much more all-encompassing than ever before. Neo-soul’s origins did not care to make commercial hits, instead focusing on experimental expression and honoring its roots. The sounds of what would be considered today’s neo-soul tracks are much more radio-friendly. However, it’s difficult to discern if general taste has evolved, or if the influence of these early movers and the popularity of sampling claims this win for modern soul. Neo-soul has found top spots on high impacting playlists including Pollen, Lorem, and other big mood-based lists.
Whatever you want to call it: nu-soul, neo-soul, or a genre-less term, it’s clear that the influence of these early innovators still remains prevalent. Artists like Frank Ocean, SZA, Kehlani, Janelle Monaé, Solange and others would have been considered neo-soul artists in the 2000s. The style has evolved and taken on the nuances of other genres as it’s propelled itself into the mainstream. There are numerous sub-genres that have splintered and become embraced by modern soul creators: alternative soul/R&B, electro-soul, trap soul, noir R&B, etc. Though the lifecycle of soul music has been cyclical in nature, somehow the nostalgia and romance of the genre comes back to capture the attention of new audiences, gaining new meaning with each iteration.
Get familiar with Neo-Soul
Our Soul Full playlist is updated regularly with a mix of classics and the latest hits that live in the soul and R&B world.
Editor’s Note: this article was written by Becca Wig