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The End of Neo-Soul.


The most polite coup of popular music took place in the late 90s via “Neo-Soul”. Though a wrongheaded, rockist-bait term nearly from its inception, the music of Neo-Soul–you know, the part that actually matters–casually but radically shifted what R & B and rap could and would do to this day.

Though the incense, plodding pretentious rhythms, headwraps, that nebulous “groove”, and the pseudo-sophistication of it all should never be forgotten, the real legacy of Neo-Soul lies in its embrace of the avant-garde and the casual grafting of the vanguard (back) onto the pop landscape: Free Jazz, a comfort with ambition/pretension, skittering electronics, weirdo production tricks, open-space, Psychedelic music, etc.

That Neo-Soul arrived at the same time as the early rumbles of the regional–especially Southern–rap takeover that’d flourish in the 2000s, is no coincidence. Though Neo-Soul both actively and accidentally set itself up in opposition to Cash Money or No Limit (and of course, Puffy too), “Neo-Soul” and “Southern Rap”–two know ‘em when you hear ‘em subgenres–have a great deal in common and pretty much define the “sound” of R & B and rap in the 2000s. Conveniently for all involved, Neo-Soul’s influence has been sorta pushed to the side. A pocket of open-mindedness instead of a piece of an ever-changing, ongoing popular music landscape.

For R & B and rap (or even just music) traditionalists, Neo-Soul’s strength came in its appreciation for and building upon the past–at a time where many saw music of the past mindlessly pilfered for quick hits. As a result, there’s no motivation or interest in connecting the dots between D’Angelo and Dilla and Timbaland and Mannie Fresh and The-Dream, though they’re very much there. It’s all avant-pop. Neo-Soul is both incredibly overrated and underrated. For once, focus on the underrated part.

As we move into fall, hit Google Blog Search and download look back at a summer of Neo-Soul and Neo-Soul derived releases: Jay Stay Paid, Mos Def’s The Ecstatic, Sa-Ra’s Nuclear Revolution, Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night, and Robert Glasper’s Double-Booked. In these records, you’ll hear the high-highs and mind-bogglingly pretentious lows of Neo-Soul, the way a whole bunch of singing, instrumentation, and melody, plenty of noodling, production trickery, and a hardheaded devotion to sonic and thematic consistency, ends up spreading out in weird, really interesting ways. For better and worse.

Mos Def finally figured out the rapping and singing thing and his work’s all the more powerful for it. Something like “Life In Marvelous Times” may even at first, sound like Mos’ resolute concession to synth-rap, but don’t forget Neo-Soul innovator Dilla’s work on Q-Tip’s Amplified and you know, tracks like “In The Night/While You Slept (I Crept)” or “9th Caller” on Jay Stay Paid. Sa-Ra is all Dilla weirdness and nothing more, spread over two discs, the jammy, “experimental” half-formed aspects of Neo-Soul stretched to true indulgence–the non-rapping stuff on Willie Isz’s Georgiavania sounds like Sa-Ra, “Dirty Beauty” even has vampire accents.

Maxwell’s album, absurdly titled, apparently part of a trilogy (talk about indulgence) is also a tiny masterpiece. Oddly, quietly experimental and also ready for anybody’s ears–this is why it’s sold over 300,000 copies–feels oddly 90s and also on-the-cusp of something. Either way it’s not of the moment. Then there’s Robert Glasper’s Double-Booked, a flat-out jazz artist but not really, who peppers the half of his record that isn’t weirdly vivid traditionalist jazz with flutters of electronics and some vocoder mumbles. A perfect companion to BLACKsummers’night, touching on modern sounds completely on its own terms. This is the point where artists become fascinating and irrelevant. The point where Neo-Soul ends.

Not an “end” in the sense of it being over or irrelevant or uncool or passé (though all of those are true) but that the genre’s eaten itself, fully worming its way into the landscape of mainstream R & B and hip-hop. Meanwhile, hip-hop’s inextricably linked itself to pop, no small thanks to those radically individual Neo-Soulsters and some of the smartest, hard-headed-ly street rappers of the South and their maestro-like producers.

Neo-Soul prided itself on eclecticism and now, we’re all eclectic because the internet’s opened wide the doors of music and there’s hardly a monoculture. For example, it’s verifiable that the singing rapper right now Drake’s heard some Houston stuff, if not because his good friends are Lil Wayne and Kanye (whose been working with Rap-A-Lot’s Mike Dean for a while now), then the fact that he’s rapped over “June 27th” on a mixtape, which mean his soul-rap warbles might have a tinge of Big Moe in them, as well as Maxwell or Mos Def. This is rap’s 2009 model: The destruction of borders between rapping and singing, “street” and “for the ladies”, corporate and commutative. Isn’t that Neo-Soul?

further reading/viewing:
-”The End of Science Fiction” by J. Hoberman from Vulgar Modernism
-Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night review by David Drake for Pitchfork
-”Some Ol’ Terminator Shit” by ME
-Drake “November 18th”
-Maxwell “Phoenixrise”
-Robert Glasper “Butterfly”

Written by Brandon

October 5th, 2009 at 4:54 am