Retro Neo: KIRBY on How D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’ Helped Her Heal During the Pandemic
Retro-Neo is an interview series where we speak with future trailblazers of neo-soul about their connection to the genre. In our second edition, we spoke with singer KIRBY about what makes neo-soul different than R&B.
Neo-soul heals KIRBY.
The accomplished singer-songwriter helped Kanye West turn his mourning into a cathartic conversation with his deceased mother, Donda West, as a co-writer on “Only One.” Her artfully direct declarations of love created the lyrical DNA of Beyoncé’s “Die For You,” which the super star released to commemorate the seventh anniversary of her marriage. KIRBY has infused some of your favorite songs with the healing powers she learned from her neo-soul upbringing.
“[Neo-soul] is like the music you listen to to heal your trauma versus R&B music, which is the music I listen to to hear the story of my trauma,” KIRBY told Okayplayer.
As one of the contemporary artists pushing neo-soul forward, her own music has grown from those neo-soul roots. Her sexual prowess is “high-price velvet” similar to how Jill Scott’s love dripped down her chin while pleasing her partner on “Love Rain.” KIRBY songs can cocoon you in funk-filled orchestration and otherworldly vocals on “We Don’t Funk” reminiscent of Erykah Badu’s carnival of funk “Amerykahn Promise.” Speaking with Okayplayer for Retro Neo, Kirby explains how she had to grow to love neo-soul, how D’Angelo’s The Black Messiah has helped her get through the COVID-19 pandemic, and doing Voodoo-inspired music for her next project.
What is your earliest memory of being introduced to neo-soul?
KIRBY: I think I was introduced to [Erykah] Badu before I was introduced to Jill [Scott]. I have a sister who was eight years older and was always into very mature, dope music before I had any type of taste. I remember my sister playing Baduizm and not being into it. I was like, “What is this? What does she mean by ‘apple tree?'” I vividly remember being in the beauty salon and just being like, “Uhhh, what is she talking about, sis?” I was seven years old, so I didn’t get it at the time. But, that was my first time being introduced to that music. I think it touched me then but I didn’t have the maturity or musical palette enough to understand what I was feeling. At that time, I could probably quote Lil Kim lyrics way better [than] I could quote some Badu.
What was the first song or moment where you realized you liked neo-soul?
Musiq Soulchild really did something for me. “Halfcrazy” was my joint. I think around that time I was having middle school crushes, so I was feeling half-crazy. Aijuswanaseing and Juslisen touched me to the point when I go back to listen to his music, I know so much of the lyrics. He was so different.
What are three neo-soul albums that shaped you personally and musically?
As a woman, I have to say Mama’s Gun by Erykah Badu. I remember really going back and relearning that album in college. I had to do some improv class and I improved “My eyes are green because I eat a lot of vegetables” [from “Green Eyes”]. That album helped me walk into my womanhood and understand heartbreak — “Penitentiary Philosophy.” When I hear neo-soul, I don’t think it defines a sound as much as it defines an era. I felt that album really spoke to the woman I was becoming at that time. Also Musiq’s Aijuswannaseing. He has some records I want sung at my wedding. He’s my top person when it comes to love songs. Then, of course, Queen Jill Scott. The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Vol. 3 was a grown-ass record. Jill, for me, has a way of bringing sexuality and sensuality into neo-soul in a way only a D’Angelo can do, but she does it from a woman’s perspective. That was a really important feminine neo-soul record.
Any of your music directly inspired by the neo-soul music you’ve grown to love?
You’ll be able to hear neo-soul heavily in this next project because I came in, “I want to use jazzy chords. I want to do a record that feels like a woman singing after she’s listened to D’Angelo’s Voodoo.” I wanted to be more neo-soul leaning on this next record coming out because the first record [Sis.] had some funk moments and 70s soul moment, but neo-soul has a healing component to it. There’s something about it that’s very reflective. It’s like the music you listen to to heal your trauma versus R&B music, which is the music I listen to to hear the story of my trauma. Neo-soul has a healing and restorative component to it. I felt so overwhelmed with what was going on with COVID[-19], I felt I needed those chords that calm you.
When I listen to neo-soul, I feel a calmness. I told my producer, “Let’s listen to D’Angelo’s ‘Send It On.’ Let’s put on Badu’s “Otherside of the Game.” Let’s put on these records that have a slower tempo, jazzier chords, sidestick drums, and really focus on the comfort neo-soul always gives me. I have a song on this next record called “Take Care” that is directly from the book of neo-soul and hopefully does it justice. If that song was on a playlist, I definitely feel like you can put that between Badu’s “Otherside of the Game” and D’Angelo’s “Send It On.”
What is some neo-soul music that got you through some personal hardships?
You listen to “The Charade” on D’Angelo’s The Black Messiah and I feel that’s a song a lot of people don’t talk about. With all that was going on last year, it had the energy of the political distress we were feeling. That’s the type of song I would put on if I needed to energize myself to fight the good fight about what’s going on in our culture. When I’m in my feelings about a man, I listen to Music Soulchild’s “Mary Go Round.” That shit be having me going in. Whenever I need to not bring on not bringing baggage from previous relationships into the love I’m working on now, I put on Musiq’s “Previous Cast” because it’s therapeutic. It’s like, “Girl, I’m not the one to blame. I need you to know I’m a good man.” You really don’t hear those type of songs these days. Also, Erykah’s “Cleva” or “Appletree.” Those songs have so much meaning in the lyrics. On “Appletree,” she’s literally giving you the playbook on how to be a self-sustaining woman. She gives you songs that make you feel, as a woman, you’re whole. Even a song like “Orange Moon.” Having that energy in your music alone is healing. For me, I try my best to try and mirror that.
There’s a bit of cheeky metaphor writing on a song of yours like “Kool-Aid” that is reminiscent in traditional neo-soul.
Neo-soul is so personal and visual. Jill Scott walks you through her day and tells you what she had for breakfast in her record. Those type of details are really only found in country music. We take you through a journey and that’s what I try to do in my music. I try to never leave a detail out just to get to the hook. Neo-soul rewards the patient listener because there are so many gems you get in a lyric from a D’Angelo, Badu, Musiq, and Bilal. You can’t just rush through. I definitely try to piggyback off the Jill Scott bag, lyrically, when she gives you those details or decides to not give you a lyric and decides to give you a “La-Di-Da-Da-Da.” You know what she’s feeling even if she’s just scatting right there.
How has the neo-soul sound evolved and where does KIRBY fit in?
We’re just now beginning to see the future generation of neo-soul. My prayer is that I’m one of the contributors to the furthering of the sound. Neo-Soul is different than R&B. There’s a difference between a Jagged Edge song and a Bilal record. The instrumentation is different. I think there’s a lot of room for neo-soul, in this generation, to come forth. What’s cool about it is it’ll be heavily integrated with hip-hop. You’ll see your favorite neo-soul artists not just singing but rapping at the same time. If Badu came out today she would undoubtedly be giving you her flow more. I feel neo-soul won’t be limited to just melody. We haven’t even hit the peak of what the new stars of the neo-souls are going to be. I promise you, I’m going to keep throwing my arrow at the board until I hit the bullseye.
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire