Musical genres, like city streets, need names to make things navigable. Artists rage against categorization, but it's a useful tool to define the boundaries of a given phenomenon. Neo-soul is the best name to call the latest emerging genre. Simply defined, neo-soul describes artists--like song-stylist Erykah Badu--who combine a palpable respect for and understanding of the classic soul of the '60s and '70s with a healthy appetite for '90s sonic experimentation and boundary crossing. Neo-soul artists tend to create music that's a good deal more real, a good deal more edgy than the packaged pop of, say, teen-oriented groups like the Spice Girls and Cleopatra. And they tend to write lyrics that are more oblique and yet more socially and emotionally relevant than those of gangsta rappers.
Neo-Soul is not an entirely new musical category. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, for example, has been creating experimental R. and B. for two decades. And remember Terence Trent D'Arby? No? Well, he was that guy...never mind. The point is, in the '90s, the face of cool in R. and B. has been the face of a gangsta. Puff Daddy, Dr. Dre, Master P and the like dominate the aesthetic space in black music. Boyz II Men may sell more albums, but when you think of what's hot, what's hip, what's real, what's representative, gangsta rap has symbolized the cutting edge of R. and B.
Now there's another way to be cool. Last year Badu, with her Afrocentric head wraps, sensuous grooves and searingly beautiful voice, captured the attention and imagination of record buyers, selling more than 3 million copies of her debut album Baduizm; this summer she's a headliner on the Lilith Fair tour. Other new neo-soul artists such as Maxwell, with his enlightened ladies'-man charm, and laid-back auteur D'Angelo have also managed to garner critical and commercial success.
In the next few months there will be a flood of neo-soul releases. Maxwell's quietly mesmerizing second CD, Embrya, is out this week; D'Angelo's second release, Voodoo, is due out this fall; and neo-soulman Rachid's assured debut, Prototype, recently arrived in stores. Tony Rich and Des'ree also have CDs due out soon, and Seal--a veteran who could be considered the godfather of neo-soul--is coming out with an album this September. Lastly, Lauryn Hill, a singer-rapper-songwriter with the hip-hop trio the Fugees, is releasing in August her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Her album is the kind of galvanizing work neo-soul needs: unabashedly personal, unrelentingly confrontational, uncommonly inventive.
Miseducation is a musical education. The CD's songs range from the Jamaican patois-tinged rap of Lost Ones to the unexpected hip-hop harmonizing of Doo Wop. Hill proves herself a master of many genres, but she's no dabbler--what makes this album a wonder is how personally she takes everything. Hill's songs detail, painfully, intelligently, her problems with manipulative men, her childhood in New Jersey, her decision, as a young single mother, not to abort her baby boy. "Sometimes it's hard to really make any statements when you know that the industry caters to hit singles rather than to developing artists," says Hill. "[But] I definitely felt like I wanted to push the envelope of hip-hop. It was very important to me that the music be very raw...and there be a lot of live instrumentation."
Maxwell's nuanced new CD might not make as big a chart splash as Hill's, and it might be dismissed by some as overly subtle. However, the album's subdued tone shouldn't be misread as timidity. Maxwell wants to draw you in, cast a spell, and by singing in falsetto, by crooning and cooing, by whispering his way through songs, he forces listeners to really listen, to confront the emotions in his songs rather than avoid them through the cathartic escape hatch of volume. One song, the gorgeous, unhurried Submerge: Til We Become the Sun, is an abstractly worded ballad about two lovers flowing into each other and facing up to their deepest selves. "I think people are a lot smarter than they are credited for being," says Maxwell. "I like to challenge what some people think most people will accept and listen to, particularly African Americans and particularly in the R. and B. genre. To me, it's important to reflect the alternative."
D'Angelo too is looking for alternatives. His 1995 debut, Brown Sugar, sold more than a million copies; more recently he recorded a sultry, spacious duet with Hill, Nothing Even Matters, that will appear on her solo CD. He's now holed up in Electric Lady Studios (where Jimi Hendrix recorded) working on his own album. "I avoid the radio," says D'Angelo. "I want to take hip-hop and funk and make it new again. I want to take it back to basics. I'm tired of all the synthetic stuff."
In his search for a fresh sound, D'Angelo has recruited an eclectic crew of musicians to work on the new CD, including jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove. "The mid-to-late '60s was the golden age of soul and funk," says D'Angelo. "It wasn't like now, where you have one producer working for a slew of artists, who all sound the same. Artists are no longer self-contained and are more prone to conform. In the '60s, people were defying what people expected. That's what's missing now."
No longer. Hill, D'Angelo and Maxwell are distinct performers, but they share a willingness to challenge musical orthodoxy. For too long, critics, taking the public with them, have looked to rock and gangsta rap to fill the pantheon of pop heroes. But there was a time when auteurs had soul, when Marvin was asking what's going on, when Stevie was singing songs in the key of life, when Aretha was demanding respect. This season, with the ascension of a new generation of neo-soul stars, the past may be present again, and, to paraphrase Fanon, the future may be opening up.