It’s often hard to keep track of the names we give emerging musical genres. Sometimes, however, a style is so distinct it deserves a second listen, and gathers a big enough following to carve its own place in an already crowded market. That seems to have been the case with neo soul: a genre that combines elements of R&B, 70’s-era soul, and hip hop. The resulting sound is mellow yet catchy, both a modern beat and a throwback to classical, genre-defining music.
Although it’s actually been around for a few decades, neo soul has ridden a renewed popularity in its parent genres, as well as a general thirst for meaningful music. One of its key characteristics is more profound, sometimes poetic lyrics compared to modern R&B. It’s also known for having a more soulful, personal sound than most contemporary creations.
Tony! Toni! Toné!, the band made famous by musician Raphael Saadiq, is credited with putting neo soul on the map in the mid-1990s. However, the likes of Erykah Badu and D’Angelo are likely the ones that helped give it its current status. Indeed, Badu’s style has become an unofficial blueprint for the sound of neo soul. Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, and similar acts all show traces of Badu’s influence, albeit with a distinctly American twist.
One of the reasons it took so long to take hold in the U.S. is that neo soul has a far smaller commercial interest. The first—and most “authentic”—neo soul artists are more about expression and creativity than making it big. Therefore, they never really sought out the record companies and remained largely unheard even as their followers brought the music to the big cities. That’s all starting to change, however: as music fans start to value individualism and seek out more unique sounds, many are picking up neo soul, and big-name artists have started adapting their styles accordingly.
As is often the case in the music industry, there are those who aren’t as ready to embrace the new genre. A few artists have actively, and sometimes publicly, dissociated themselves from the movement, as the term neo soul been used by record labels to attract a growing niche of fans. Many prefer to refer to their music as soul. But labels will always stick—and for most fans of the genre, the label doesn’t matter as long as they’ve got a good connection with the music.