An Introduction to Neo Soul
Words: Charlie Lake
Neo Soul is an unconventional genre, its name coined by the music industry entrepreneur Kedar Massenburg during the late 1990s. With its foundations in soul and contemporary R&B, neo soul can be characterized by an unorthodox blend of classic soul, funk, jazz, R&B and certain aspects of Hip Hop. Since the genre is so lowkey and relaxed by nature, it is ideal for anyone seeking music which breaks away from typical R&B. The following albums are some recommendations for people who have not touched on the genre before and are the perfect introduction.
PROCESS – SAMPHA
After singing with the likes of Drake, Solange and Kanye West, Sampha released his debut LP, Process in 2017. This is remarkable piece of experimental soul from the British producer-singer. The ‘process’ of the title refers to that of grieving he is experiencing as much as it does making music. Not that there’s much distinction shown in these 10 therapeutic songs about love, self-discovery and ambition. ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’ is the saddest, most melancholic song on the album.
It is a stripped-back eulogy to his mother. Elsewhere, there are plenty of masterful production touches, such as the lurching groove on ‘Blood on Me’ and the plethora of percussion instruments used on the record’s opener, ‘Plastic 100ºC’, for example. More often, however, the music and production take the backseat. It’s simply an accompaniment to Sampha’s main instrument: his voice.
BLONDE - FRANK OCEAN
Blonde marks the singer’s return after his massive commercial breakthrough success record ‘Channel Orange’ in 2012. The beauty of this project is the way it finds power in the simplicity and stripped back vocals, as opposed to the overcomplicated instrumentals seen on its predecessor. In fact, it is a complete contrapositive to it. Blonde boasts collaborators from a variety of genres and star quality unparalleled by anything else you might have heard in 2016 - Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, André 3000, Amber Coffman and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, to name just a few.
Blonde’s mood is druggy and dislocated – there are frequent references to marijuana and psychedelics, however the song writing is unconventional rather than unfinished. The demo-type skeletal structure of songs such as ‘Good Guy’, ‘Pretty Sweet’ and ‘Skyline To’ truly embodies the lowkey theme of the album. Whilst the record is largely consistent in quality throughout, the standout tracks are arguably Self Control, Nights, White Ferrari, Godspeed and Pink + White and often it is the vocals which make these songs what they are.
FREUDIAN – DANIEL CAESAR
Freudian comes as the debut full length album from singer and songwriter Daniel Caesar, following several short EPs in the 2014 and 2015. The album has a feel good and laid-back sound and like much of the contemporary soul genre, it can almost be labelled as a R&B album. The song writing is evidently the true hero of the album, with Caesar pouring out his heart and soul, much like the album name would suggest. The project has parallels with the Future Nostalgia EP by the young Frank Ocean. The album kicks off with two solid opening tracks, ‘Get You’ featuring Kali Uchis and ‘Best Part’ featuring H.E.R.
The latter, despite being very quiet and intimate is by far one of catchiest songs. The album then regains the same energy in the middle, after a couple of weaker songs, with ‘We Find Love’. This is one of the better performed and written tracks of the 10 tracks, with the percussion and Daniel’s voice coming together perfectly. Towards the end of the album is ‘Blessed’, a song whose lyrics are so captivating and personal that elevates it to the top of the track list. Caesar addresses an unhappy relationship, whose unhealthy nature he is responsible for. It really is no wonder that Exclaim! ranked the album at number 5 on their "Top 10 Soul and R&B Albums of 2017".
ISOLATION - KALI UCHIS
For an album that is fifteen tracks to be this consistently good is without a doubt an artistic triumph that quite rightly placed it on almost every Best Of list at the end of the 2018. The album is stacked with collaborators such as Damon Albarn, DJ Dahi, Thundercat, Kevin Parker, Tyler the Creator, Jorja Smith and Steve Lacy to list just a handful of the many different influences to the album. The ability to glide effortlessly between genres is Kali’s forte throughout this record, especially when comparing funk-inspired tracks like ‘Dead To Me’, ‘Just a Stranger’ and ‘After the Storm’ to songs like ‘Nuestro Planeta’, which is performed entirely in Spanish or ‘Feel Like A Fool’, which sounds very much like an Amy Winehouse inspired effort.
On the dreamy opener, ‘Body Language’, we see she is eyeing up big things: “I’m packing all my bags and leaving it behind / there’s no tracking where I’m going”, which really illustrates her early career, moving to America from Columbia to pursue her dream. The groovy ‘Miami’, meanwhile, produced by Drake hitmaker DJ Dahi showcases her rapid ascent to being a top name in the industry. As a uniting force, Kali Uchi could not be stronger, nor nimbler with her ability to match catchy, soulful beats with her diverse vocals. The record pays tribute to pop’s past while making it sound contemporary through glowing homage to black and Hispanic favourites and a global team of collaborations housed in classic soul and R&B. Isolation is a star turn from an artist who has already proven that she is ready for it.