I know, I know. If you’re anything like me, you can probably feel your insides melting right about now, sending a euphoric wave of soul sweeping through your body all the way to your fingertips. After all, this is neo-soul at its finest. The impossibly smooth blend of jazz and soul. The kiss of hip-hop sensibilities that grace the raw – yet rich – production. These albums made even the hardest hip-hop heads drops their b-boy posturing, if only for a moment. These albums have also yet to be duplicated in terms of overall sound and composition.
Let’s set aside the fact that both albums were (technically) debuts. Let’s also set aside the fact that these albums and artists were instrumental in launching one of most artistically innovative genres of contemporary music. Instead let’s focus on the music itself. With their debut albums, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu spearheaded a new sound, by taking elements of the old and giving them vibrant musical makeovers. At the time of their respective releases, the more obvious comparisons to Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday were practically inevitable. And while those comparisons are certainly justifiable, one cannot simply stop there.
Both albums incorporated the soul of their predecessors updated with bass-driven jazz. It’s tempting to label the sound “organic,” but does that do it justice? The songs were loose and breezy, yet carefully crafted. They generally (with some exceptions) operated within a hip-hop framework, following the structure of 90s boom-bap. Meanwhile the liquid production was uniquely warm and inviting, drawing in the listener with each note. Brown Sugar and Baduizm are remarkable examples of sonically cohesive albums, as each sticks to a script throughout.
Despite the tremendous instrumentation, the albums ultimately stand as landmarks because of the vocal performances. Both singers display a laid-back, low-key persona, allowing their voices to ride calmly over the music. Erykah’s album exhibited a bit more of a lazy drawl, due to its slower pace. Still, neither singer strains for notes, and unlike many of today’s singers, neither resorted to killing their vocal chords for that extra emphasis. Erykah’s range was impressive enough that she could jump around her scales with ease, while D’Angelo supplemented his crooning with his tremendous falsetto. Furthermore, D’Angelo and Erykah showed their maturity through their songwriting, using interesting topical matter that didn’t necessarily fit the stereotypical love song mold of 90s rhythm and blues.
What makes these two albums stand out in my mind is that their sounds have never quite been duplicated over the course of a full album. After their debuts, the two joined up with the rest of the Soulquarian collective. Their successive albums, though extremely enjoyable and successful musical statements, were different. They were more jam-oriented, as the musicians experimented with a variety of new sounds.
D’Angelo and Erykah’s neo-soul contemporaries were also operating on slightly different pages. Maxwell had his own brand of ambient lounge music that blended with his soulful voice. Raphael Saadiq was more rooted in new jack swing. Lauryn Hill (perhaps the most talented of the lot) was edgier, as she firmly embraced her role as an singer and an emcee. She too had a tendency to incorporate more reggae into her music than either D’Angelo and Erykah. Finally, in today’s musical landscape there is a vast range of artists who fall somewhere into the neo-soul spectrum. Artists such as J*Davey, Muhsinah, Sa-Ra, The Foreign Exchange, and Ledisi have all created acclaimed music with an array of styles, yet have not matched the sounds present on Brown Sugar and Baduizm.
So what is my point exactly? Am I suggesting that neo-soul today is not what it used to be? Of course I am. And that’s a great thing because it shows musical progression. There is certainly no way to say that one era of neo-soul is better than the other. I would however, love for another album that falls in line with the outrageously high standards set by Brown Sugar and Baduizm. I hope that if you’re still reading at this point, you find my conclusion agreeable.
And should you be scratching your head, wondering what exactly it was that prompted me to write this article, allow me to briefly explain. I was recently reviewing José James’ superb sophomore album, BlackMagic, when I was struck by the similarities between certain tracks of his and those of early D’Angelo and Erykah. The elements were all there: the jazz, the soul, the hip-hop. For a moment I was hoping that just maybe, I was hearing for the first time in over a decade something that I could confidently group with my two personal favorite neo-soul albums. Unfortunately, I was not. Nonetheless, BlackMagic is yet another example of the evolution and progression of neo-soul.