New Names in Neo-Soul You Need to Know
Tune in to the new generation of neo-soul stars
Words: Kristan J Caryl
Neo-soul is in a real purple patch right now. It’s a sound that was first conceived in the mid- to late-nineties when r&b was fused with ’70s soul and the deeper end of the instrumental hip-hop spectrum. As well as being musically deep, it’s also a lyrically deep and self-conscious sound that, today, muses on anything from mental health to the black experience.
Early neo-soul masterpieces like D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, anything by Erykah Badu and Jill Scott’s Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol.1 remain definitive to this day, and will likely never be bettered. But that’s not to say the new generation of neo-soul stars aren’t bringing plenty of fresh perspectives and new influences to the table.
Neo-soul is a scene that remains refreshingly dominated by women, and often women of colour, with breakout stars everywhere from Chicago to London, Manchester to Australia. Historically, it has remained a comparatively fringe sound, with few artists crossing over to major chart success, meaning that the likes of Jill Scott and Erykah Badu remain criminally underrated in the wider scheme of things. With a wealth of younger stars coming through, though, that may one day change. Here are our tips for the most essential new names in the game.
At just 20 years old, Minneapolis-based Dizzy Fae is the youngest name on our list. This month she releases her debut mixtape, NO GMO – the title is a nod to the poor diet she had when growing up and recent realisation that heathy food matters – and it’s one that traverses shimmering late night lullabies, pained deep house, bristling rap, hyper emotive pop and plenty in between. It speaks of an artist with a widescreen musical playbook and the confidence to put them all together in one place.
Greentea Peng was born in South East London before being moved to the South East coastal town of Hastings. Her vibrant personal style – plenty of piercings, ethnic tattoos all over her body, lots of jewellery – is just as vibrant as her music. Her debut EP from last year found her singing about coming of age experiences, the break-up of toxic relationships, empowerment and more. Her voice is so beautifully smoky, aloof and of such buttery depths that it doesn’t really matter what she’s singing about because it will have your heart melted anyway. How she develops from the late night stoner sounds of her debut will be fascinating indeed.
IAMDDB is at the centre of her own musical world, where trap, jazz, hip-hop, rap and soul all coalesce into something beautifully emotive and absorbing. The fearless 23-year-old hails from Manchester and only put out her first track in 2016, the same day she quit university just an hour after enrolling. Of Angolan descent through her father, she has a smooth flow that is part rap, part singing, and brimming with all-out attitude that often draws on deeply personal experiences. A demon in the live area, she’s put out a series of mixtapes that she dubs “urban jazz” and caters to balmy outdoor partying as well as more quiet moments of introspective home listening. A debut album is on the way.
Fatimah Nyeema Warner is Noname, a Chicago native who began rapping and, more importantly, performing slam poetry in her teens. That background in aesthetic and rhythmic language continues to define her work and stand her apart: last year brought her second studio album, Room 25, which musically owes a debt to traditional neo-soul, but lyrically is very much future facing. Subtly intricate vocal deliveries are remarkably clear, tight and precise, while the gorgeous instrumentals, cosmic swirls and funky live drumming all make for something as soothing and romantic as it is sun-kissed.
As ever larger sections of society become more enlightened on issues of race, gender inequality and equal rights, it’s important to have artists to represent those views on a wider plane. And that’s just what Chicago’s Jamila Woods is doing with her music, especially her latest album LEGACY! LEGACY! It mixes serious political commentary with rich r&b past and present. Littered with acerbic wit, wordplay and personal introspection, it’s a thoughtful album that starts with the declaration that “I am not your typical girl”, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Solange is, let’s be honest, the far better of the Knowles sisters. She’s proved that across three albums that excelled even while following traditional structures. Her fourth, When I Go Home, however, is cast free of all rules and expectations and is as experimental as any free jazz album. It features mostly very short vignettes with repeated vocal mantras, floating Moogs, plaintive keys and skeletal drum lines that are ephemeral and dream-like. Her heart-wrenching loops last long enough to get you where it hurts but not so long as to allow you to tune out, and the whole thing is a genuinely groundbreaking deconstruction of pop, jazz, soul and hip-hop that demands repeated listens.
Further listening: Kali Uchis, the formerly Gorillaz-produced Colombian-American with Latino influences a plenty, Erika de Casier, who you can read about in our We Love section, Jordan Rakei, the Australian soul boy who has put out a trio of gorgeous records, core Eglo Records’ artist Fatima and her huge vocal range, and Swindle, the Brownswood signing who brings clean contemporary production and futurist sounds to the scene.