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September 17, 2018 | by  | in Music |
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A (Selective and By No-Means all-Encompassing) Look at Neo-Soul

Given the theme in Salient this week, I thought it would be prudent to look back at some of the seminal releases from a genre that encapsulates physicality, romance, sensuality, swagger, and charisma. Neo-soul is a genre I gravitate towards when listening to music, or discovering artists from years ago, and I think it dominates much of the music industry today.
It’s difficult to put a starting point on neo-soul, as it really evolved out of the end of the classic soul music tradition in the 1980s. To me, “neo-soul” seems like an umbrella term to describe a musical movement in which hip-hop characteristics (the boom-bap beat, sparse production) and more alternative R&B traits that are explored more thoroughly than in the soul era preceding it. I think subject matter plays a role in the classification of this genre too, as artists often consider more conscious lyrical approaches, including (but not limited to) gender, sex, and racial politics. I think neo-soul is often associated with sex — the artists I talk about below attest to that in one way or another — but I think there’s much more to the style of music than that. I’d suggest that sensuality is a platform for these artists to delve into other facets of life. While, from a musical perspective, it’s impossible to separate this music from sensuality and physicality, that’s only one string to this genre’s bow.
Perhaps, and rather fittingly, one could consider Prince to be the in between point regarding the transition from soul to neo-soul, as groove-laden songs began to dominate his discography — the sonic experimentation and back-beat grooves are present as early as Purple Rain, but this is particularly evident on a record like Sign O’ The Times from a sonic perspective. The 90s are really where the genre took off, and the canon formed as such.
D’Angelo has contributed three perfect albums to the neo-soul world — Brown Sugar (1995), Voodoo (2000) and Black Messiah (2014). Voodoo, in particular, propelled a new style of funk and soul into mainstream and critical audiences, as well as an evident embrace of sensuality, and the relation between that and groove-laden beats and backings.
As far as critical acclaim goes, this is one of the rare occasions I agree with Pitchfork, who gave Voodoo a 10/10 rating, while similarly lofty ratings came from All About Jazz, USA Today, and more. Largely, the praise rewarded the compositional style and the vocal performances. As far as selecting a particular track, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” is particularly legendary as far as sensuality and body positivity goes. Lyrically, “Untitled” is about as forward as a lyricist can be in terms of their pursuit for a sensual experience. The laid-back grooves, driven home by Questlove’s (The Roots) pocket drumming lay a platform for D’Angelo’s godly vocal performance. Couple this with the music video, and you’ve got a pretty classic, and particularly, er, physical, example of some early 2000s neo-soul. The rest of Voodoo is unbelievable as well, so I’d recommend giving that a jam if you haven’t already. Black Messiah attests to my earlier comments regarding the expansion of lyrical material to include political matters, and draws from a similarly groove-heavy sonic palette to act as a platform for D’Angelo’s political expression. “Really Love” and “The Charade” are magic.
In today’s musical world, acts like Anderson .Paak, fka Twigs, and The Internet all carry the torch as far as making music that is brave, features prominent grooves, oozes sensuality, and acts as a platform for lyrical pursuits of political or personal topics. That’s the bread-and-butter of neo-soul; a multi-faceted, all-purpose genre for any kind of mood.

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