What is Neo-Soul Music?

what is neo soul

Neo-soul is a contemporary musical genre that emerged during the 90s. Many get this wrong, but Neo-Soul is a subgenre of modern R&B. The term itself was coined by Kedar Massenberg, a Motown Records executive, to describe a new groove-based style that combined the 70s soul with Jazzy harmonies with Funk elements and a strong Hip-Hop beat.

What does the term Neo-Soul mean?

Neo-Soul is a term made out of two words. “Neo” simply means “New,” and soul refers to the American musical genre Soul. In other words, it simply means a new kind of soul.

A brief history of Neo-Soul music:

In the 1990s, a new wave of singer-songwriters emerged, who were pushing the boundaries of the soul genre by blending elements of jazz and hip-hop with the classic ’70s soul aesthetic. They were creating a fresh, contemporary sound that went beyond simply reviving a past tradition.

The emergence of these pioneering artists in the 1990s was marked by the release of their seminal albums. Erykah Badu’s debut album Baduizm (1997), Tony! Toni! Toné!’s critically acclaimed Sons of Soul (1993) and D’Angelo’s game-changing masterpiece album Brown Sugar (1995), all helped to shape and define the neo-soul genre. However, it was Me’Shell NdegéOcello’s genre-defining album Plantation Lullabies that truly set the stage for the neo-soul movement. With her pioneering blend of female rap, jazzy harmonies, and hip-hop beats, it was an album that pushed the boundaries and set the bar for the next generation of neo-soul artists.

Characteristics of Neo-Soul

what is neo soul (Jill Scott)

Use of live instrumentation:

One of the defining characteristics of neo-soul is the musician-like attitude which is implemented even when incorporating electronic instruments such as drum machines and samplers. This approach not only harkens back to traditional soul and funk music but also adds a new level of energy and spontaneity to the music.

The musicians behind neo-soul are highly skilled, often coming from a jazz or gospel background. The incorporation of live instruments also allows for greater experimentation and flexibility in the studio. Neo-soul musicians often blend elements of jazz, funk, and rock into their music, which can be challenging to replicate with electronic production alone. This diversity of influences is what makes the genre so appealing and hard to define, offering something for everyone to enjoy. 

A Musical Mashup: The Sound of Neo-Soul

Neo-soul artists often pay homage to the classic soul sound by incorporating elements such as powerful vocals, gospel-inspired harmonies, and live instrumentation. The incorporation of funk elements like groovy basslines and syncopated rhythms results in a more upbeat and danceable sound. R&B, known for its smooth melodies and romantic lyrics, also plays a crucial role in shaping the neo-soul sound.

Hip-hop and Rap music also had a major influence on neo-soul, as evident in the heavy electronic beats, and strong presence of the bass in the music. Jazz and Gospel music also had a significant influence, particularly in the use of more sophisticated harmonies with a lot of Major 7 and minor 9 flavors that add an extra layer of depth and richness to the sound.

The Introspection and Authenticity in Neo-Soul Lyrics

One of the defining characteristics of neo-soul is its focus on introspective lyrics that delve into personal growth, self-empowerment, and relationships. Neo-soul artists often use their music as a means of expressing their own personal struggles and experiences and in turn, encouraging listeners to do the same.

The use of slang and colloquial language in neo-soul lyrics brings a unique authenticity to the music and often surprises listeners with its creativity and complexity. The lyrics in neo-soul music also reflect the experiences of the Black community in America, but with a more romantic and contemplative tone, as opposed to the more politically charged and socially conscious themes in other genres like Hip-Hop or Rap.

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Key artists and albums in Neo-Soul

Erykah Badu

Erykah Badu is considered one of the leading artists in the neo-soul genre and has been credited with helping to define and popularize its sound. She first rose to fame with the release of her debut album “Baduizm” in 1997. The album was a critical and commercial success, and it earned Badu several Grammy nominations and helped establish her as one of the leading voices in neo-soul.


D’Angelo’s debut album “Brown Sugar” is a true masterpiece of neo-soul. Released in 1995, it quickly established D’Angelo as one of the leading voices in the genre. This album is renowned for its live and authentic feel, thanks to the virtuoso musicianship of players such as Questlove, James Poyser, and Pino Palladino, and the expert production of D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

Jill Scott

Jill Scott’s debut album “Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Volume 1” is a true gem of neo-soul music. Released in 2000, it immediately cemented her status as a leading artist in the genre, known for her soulful and emotive vocals and her ability to craft powerful compositions. The album features timeless tracks such as “A Long Walk,” “Gettin’ in the Way,” and “It’s Love,” which are considered classics in the neo-soul genre.

Influence on contemporary R&B and hip-hop artists

The influence of neo-soul on contemporary R&B and hip-hop artists is undeniable. Many contemporary R&B and hip-hop artists have been heavily influenced by the genre and have incorporated elements of neo-soul into their own music.

For example, many contemporary R&B singers such as Frank Ocean, Solange, and H.E.R. have been influenced by the musical textures of neo-soul, as well as the use of live instrumentation and organic sounds. 

Continued relevance and popularity of the genre

Contemporary R&B singers such as Frank Ocean, Solange, and H.E.R. draw heavily from the rich, live instrumentation and intricate harmonies of neo-soul in their music. Similarly, hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and Smino incorporate neo-soul’s harmonic textures and slow beats into their own styles while also embracing the genre’s emphasis on personal storytelling and self-empowerment.

The neo-soul was the genre that connected these modern, sophisticated harmonies (that can even sound dissonant and mellow with Maj#11 chords and interesting sub-dominant harmonic connections) to Hip-Hop and other groove-based genres.

Gon Zadok

Gon Zadok is a Tel Aviv-based session player, recording artist, and independent producer for Simply and local artists. He plays various instruments, including guitar, bass, synths, and ukulele. Gon studied music at Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Israel and music production at SAE Institute in Berlin, Germany.

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