Episode 1: Neo-Soul

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Debut of Undertones, a podcast that explores what's going on beneath the surface of a variety of musical topics.


Imagine the year is 1997. You start up your car to go for a ride, flicking through the FM radio channels. You skip past Sheryl Crow, U2, Ginuwine, and the Spice Girls, looking for something to catch your ear. Then, you stumble across something you haven’t heard yet: something intimate, as if you’re in the same room as the performers. The song is driven by warm bass textures playing deep in the pocket with the boom, clack of the humble kick and snare. On top of this are the buttery smooth croonings of a woman, perhaps better described as a cosmic entity, singing about the teachings of Eastern mysticism, Five percenter philosophy and even the Bible.

For WKNC 88.1, my name is Kyle Vosberg and you are listening to Undertones.


The song in question is On & On by Erykah Badu, and its presence on mainstream airwaves is something of a watershed moment for popular music. Not only did the song win Best Female R&B Vocal performance at the 1998 Grammy awards, but it also peaked at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became the first neo-soul track to reach number 1 on the R&B charts. Badu’s debut album, “Baduizm”, peaked at number 2 on the Billboard 200 chart and earned her the title “Queen of Neo-Soul”.

But what is neo-soul, exactly?

Well, the term “neo-soul” is attributed to Kedar Massenberg, who was president of Motown Records in the late 90s. As an up and coming talent manager, he had already worked with D’Angelo, another soon-to-be neo-soul heavyweight. As the story goes, Badu and Massenberg crossed paths when she opened for D’Angelo in 1994. She signed to his label and three years later in 1997 “Baduizm” was released to the world. With its acoustic instrumentation and intimate approach to songwriting, it was a departure from the programmed, shiny sound of contemporary R&B and popular Black music.

D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar”, released in 1995, was met with similar acclaim. Praised for its fusion of hip-hop, funk, and 70s soul, it drew comparisons to Prince, Sly & the Family Stone, and Al Green, and established D’Angelo as a member of the fledgling neo-soul genre.

In 1998, Lauryn Hill made a bold statement with her debut “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”. By fusing elements of hip-hop, R&B, and Reggae, she created a work that defied convenient categorization and became one of the best-selling albums of all time.

So in the span of just three years, three different artists released chart-topping albums that challenged the narrow confines of what it means to be a Black artist in the music industry. This wasn’t an anomaly, it was a movement - one that became known as neo-soul.

But isn’t there an irony in giving a label to a group of artists who, by their very nature, defy labels? Many have pondered this question since the term’s emergence. Massenberg himself acknowledges that “A lot of people don’t like the term because they 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 as we’ll see, neo-soul entered a productive second wave after its initial hype died down, and has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years.


The song that just greeted your ears is “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” by D’Angelo, a lead single from his sophomore record “Voodoo”, released in 2000. Its intimate groove and lyrics, accompanied by a sensual music video, cemented D’Angelo as a star at the turn of the new millennium - bringing neo-soul along for the ride. At this point, the genre had grown from a grassroots movement on the fringe of pop music to a fully developed style, complete with several classics already in its canon.

Of course, I can’t talk about neo-soul’s golden age without mentioning the Soulquarians. In a way I already have, as its members included D’Angelo and Badu, but there were many more key players here, like Common, Q-Tip, Mos Def, J Dilla, and ?uestlove. As an unofficial collective of musicians, singers and rappers, the group held jam sessions at Electric Lady Studios in the late 90s and early 2000s. Having that much talent in the same room resulted in some of the most influential works in not only the neo-soul genre, but hip-hop, as well. These works include The Roots’ “Things Fall Apart” (1999), Mos Def’s “Black on Both Sides” (1999), Common’s “Like Water for Chocolate” (2000), Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun” (2000), D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” (2000) and Bilal’s “First Born Second” (2001) - all in the short period 1999 to 2001 .

After setting the bar so high with their breakout projects, many artists in this period struggled to maintain their creative output. D’Angelo would not release another project until 2015’s Black Messiah. Lauryn Hill has yet to release a studio follow-up to her 1998 debut, and perhaps never will. Bilal’s sophomore effort “Love for Sale” was famously leaked online and subsequently shelved. But were these artists simply caving under pressure, or was something else going on? Writer Tyler Lewis may have an answer. To him, neo-soul’s rejection of categorization damaged its commercial viability. He notes that “the industry, which already has a hard time with unapologetic and complicated Black artists, had no idea what to do with all these enormously talented individuals who rejected entire marketing campaigns designed to ‘break’ them to the record-buying public. As such, albums were shelved or delayed or retooled and artists were dropped from major labels and forced to go it alone.”

This stagnation ushered in the dark age of neo-soul. That is not to say there weren’t any notable contributions made at this time - newcomers like india.arie, Musiq Soulchild, and Jill Scott stepped up to the plate, for example. But in terms of mainstream popularity, neo-soul’s grip on the charts began to wane, and was superseded by other products of the post-Y2K era: post-punk revivalists like the Killers, bling rappers like 50 Cent and auto-crooners like T-Pain.

Remember when I described neo-soul as a movement? Well, just like any other movement, you can silence its leaders but you can’t kill its ideas. The unyielding music industry may have clipped the wings of the neo-soul movement, but the seeds had already been sown.


The song you just heard is “Thinkin Bout You” by Frank Ocean, off his 2012 debut studio album “Channel Orange”. As a starry-eyed twenty-something, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that that record was released almost 10 years ago, especially when Frank’s tongue-in-cheek storytelling and progressive production choices still feel so fresh. But then I remember Alicia Keys’ “Songs in A Minor” turned 20 years old this year and that puts things into perspective. If neo-soul wasn’t new during its golden age, it certainly isn’t new now.

And while it may not be new, it is certainly alive and well. For proof, look no further than artists like Ari Lennox, Solange and Anderson. Paak, whose sounds are clearly indebted to the mothers and fathers of neo-soul. Other groups like Hiatus Kaiyote are pushing the bounds of this already loosely-defined genre by incorporating elements of electronic music and free jazz in their own brand of “future soul”.

This renewed interest in neo-soul music raises the question: where do we go from here? Well, I can’t answer that question, but I do believe it’s important to consider where we’ve been. I think Jerome Hipps put it best when he said, “What’s new about soul music? This is just a new generation of artists who are carrying on the soul-music tradition.” He made this observation in 2002 regarding the founders of movement, but I think it is still relevant to today’s torch bearers, who are combining time-tested formulas with groundbreaking experimentation to create music that is both classic and cutting-edge, familiar and far-out.

Thank you for listening to Undertones.


Episode 1: Neo-Soul
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