Genre Breakdown | Neo Soul


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History in a Nutshell

Coined by Kedar Massenburg, former Motown Records president, in the latter half of the 90s, the term “Neo Soul” was meant to capture the spirit of an array of then burgeoning artists. The spirit was that of the next generation of R&B and soul. Though much like traditional soul and R&B, Neo Soul had an organic, alternative feel to it that gave it separate form from the rest. You’d most likely recognize names such as Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Lauryn Hill, major proponents of the Neo Soul movement. Though the short period of mainstream light for neo soul began to see a decline in the early 2000s, and pop and electronic began to take over, we have started to see a resurgence of neo soul artists in the past few years (Hiatus Kaiyote, Moonchild, and Aloe Blacc to name a few), that have once again redefined the genre. While I could go on for hours talking about the intricacies of music and production in each band, let’s instead take neo soul back to its roots.


The major separation between R&B and neo soul is the lyricism. Neo Soul, even with its swagger, tends to have a more conscious-driven lyrical style rather than broad stroke “single-focused” lyrics, speaking on things such as politics, culture, or the deeper understandings of love. Though there are men that are prominent in the neo soul genre, female artists have and continue to be the most prominent figures in the genre. That is why we tend to have lyrics that are more seductive, sinuous, and coy, no mater what the topic of focus is.


When the genre took off, many neo soul artists began exploring rhythmic possibilities to separate their music from others. The major way to differentiate Neo Soul-style drums or grooves from other genres like hip-hop or R&B is to note the human factor. You’ll typically find that there is a swing or “sloppiness” to the style that gives it that humanized quality, whether a real drum kit or a beat pad. Think classic J Dilla. He never quantized (lined up in time) his drums for his grooves. That’s why they have that bump or “sloppiness” that we have come to know and love.

Besides that, you’ll notice that the drums are almost never processed, and usually sit in the back of neo soul mixes totally dry. For real drum kits, think old vintage kits like the Ludwig sparkle kits that were super popular in the late 60s and early 70s. They are the antithesis of the 80s-style or EDM-style drums that are typically over-compressed, over-processed, and drenched in loads of reverb and delay. For the best idea of Neo Soul drums, check out Questlove’s playing on D’angelo’s 2000 album, Voodoo.


The bass in neo soul music gets much of its character from old Motown legends like James Jameson. He, among other players in that area, had the ability to play deep in the pocket, yet retain a smooth, and silky sort of sound. Now this is where neo soul differs a bit. Because the drums ride back on the beat a little bit, that means that the bass has to as well. If you’re a burgeoning neo soul bassist, we would highly recommend practicing that pocket-style of playing like James Jameson, and once you’ve perfected that, try shifting it back and giving it swing.

As for the sonic quality of the bass in neo soul songs, we would highly recommend something along the lines of a Fender Jazz Bass or P-Bass with flat-wound strings to get that deep, rich sound. A great modern bassist to check out is Pino Palladino. Not only has he played with legends like The Who, John Mayer, and Eric Clapton, but he has also grooved his way onto some of the most prominent neo soul records of all time. Check out Pino’s playing on Musiq Soulchild’s 2000 debut album, Aijuswanaseing.


Electric pianos are to neo soul as electric guitar is to rock and roll. There is something about the soft tine of keys that over smooth bass and drums that adds a creamy layer to the overall texture of neo soul. One of the most popular instruments that we now see as the cliché of neo soul is the Fender Rhodes. The mellow tines are soft and subtle and allow players the same versatility as a piano without that long release time that makes the sound of a piano so large.

Because neo soul derives itself from the sounds of jazz as well, players will typically mess around with different voicings or inversions to make it sound more interesting. After all, the playing is usually very subtle and almost improvisatory, leaving room for chords like major 9s or minor 7s. One of the first times I heard the Fender Rhodes in action was on Erykah Badu’s “Appletree” from her 1997 album, Baduizm.


While surely not on every neo soul song, horns are becoming increasingly popular on modern neo soul. It’s almost homage to the Muscle Shoals guys from back in the day. Horns on these neo soul records are much softer than the horns you would hear on say, an old Chicago or Earth, Wind, and Fire album. Whether quick stabs or mellow, pad-like sustained chords, your best bet is to listen for the soft, or even muted, sound.

One of my favorite modern neo soul groups is a small trio out of Los Angeles called Moonchild. Check out one of their first songs from their 2012 album Be Free, entitled “Back To Me”.

Essential Neo Soul Albums

Baduizm – Erykah Badu

Nimble, organic, conscious, and elevating, are a few ways to describe one of the most revolutionary neo soul albums that ever graced the ears of the public. Erykah Badu’s voice is delicate like jazz singers of the past, yet soulful in its inflection. If hip-hop was put through a time machine and sent back to the 70s for a soft, Motown makeover, this album would be the final product.

Voodoo – D’Angelo

With his deep and dirty embrace of R&B and neo soul, D’Angelo’s Voodoo was probably the defining album for neo soul, and helped to define and era of R&B that truly hadn’t been present since Prince. It’s slow motion, sexy funk, sat atop the casual rhythms of Questlove and Palladino. “Untitled” brought back the idea of slow burn ballads that peaked in the 80s, and for that, Voodoo is a winner.

Choose Your Weapon – Hiatus Kaiyote

Whether you want to consider this psychedelic, polyrhythmic, progressive jazz, album as true neo soul or not, is up to you. I consider it the neo soul of the future, especially with songs like “Molasses” or “Fingerprints”. The rest of it is quite an adventure, but an excellent one nonetheless. I have nothing but the utmost respect for this group and I encourage you to take time and really listen to this album to pick up on all of its elements.