Neo-Soul 2020: 11 Artists Pushing the Sound Into the New Decade
As we enter into the third decade of the movement of a genre and its iteration, Okayplayer has highlighted 11 artists that are on the precipice of pushing neo-soul forward.
Neo-soul was born out of a necessity for the representation of the black alternative. Former Motown Records president William “Kedar” Massenburg coined the phrase in the 1990s as a means to properly categorize an emerging sound that fused jazz, soul, hip-hop, and R&B that his early artists — D’Angelo and Erykah Badu — were at the helm of. Neo-soul makes masterpieces out of life’s minutia, where a long walk with Jill Scott or some brown sugar from D’Angelo carries a deeper layer of meaning often overlooked by traditional R&B.
For more than two decades, the neo-soul sound has produced some of the most prolific artists of generations including Maxwell, Floetry, Frank Ocean and most recently Anderson Paak.
As we enter into the third decade of the movement of a genre and its iterations, Okayplayer has highlighted 11 artists that are on the precipice of pushing neo-soul forward. It’s also a way to celebrate our second On & On: A Night of Neo Soul party, which is going down this Thursday at Paper Tiger in Los Angeles. You can RSVP for that party here.
Lacy is cut from the abstract neo-soul cloth of Frank Ocean where you’re just as likely to have a jam session as you are to hear philosophical quips like, “I only feel energy, I see no gender.” The renaissance man of The Internet, he came to solo fame making beautiful music of his own. His voice carries over bare guitar licks and spacey distortions without ever losing the soul of it all.
This UK-born artist is equal parts singer-songwriter, with honeyed vocals that stick in your mind for days and lyrics too vivid to forget. Mahalia’s songs of love and anguish typically exist in narratives, similar to Jill Scott, who paved her path. That makes her lyrical prowess central to her music’s enjoyment, something seldom found in much of today’s popular R&B.
Adrian Daniel sounds like Brooklyn. The Kings County-native’s heart-melting falsetto can ignite hip-hop breakbeats and tearful string arrangements with the self-assured swag of the borough often referred to as a planet. His music has the inviting experimentation and vulnerability that is reminiscent of fellow Brooklynite Maxwell.
This vibrant R&B sister duo float between the soulful chemistry of Floetry and the unapologetically assertive of City Girls to produce neo-soul with some bite. They’re sensual without being gratuitous. But, they’ll still harmonize about a lover “havin’ me so shook, gettin’ me so off.” Artful sexual empowerment has been the basis of some of the best neo-soul music and VanJess has it in spades.
Donavon is a glitch in the R&B matrix where true love songs are lost in a sea of singers sounding happier to be out of love than in it. The avant-garde singer and instrumentalist is “more D’Angelo “Lady” than modern-day R&B, eschewing the turn up for bedroom intimate vocals and production emotive enough to submerge you in the feels with his unique twist on neo-soul.
Ari Lennox’s vocals are as soft and nourishing as the shea butter that titles her breakthrough debut album. She’s a ’90s baby that was raised by the classics, coming of age in an Instagram generation who can make Tinder plights sound rich with soul, not vapid millennial qualms. Her down to earth yet ephemeral vibe may be akin to Erykah Badu, but Lennox is a unique brand of neo-soul all her own.
Marco McKinnis doesn’t sound real— in the way dreams feel like distorted fragments of reality. The young, Virginia native is Anthony Hamilton meets D’Angelo, and will find love in the middle of the party surrounded by hazy ambient sounds before everything slows down and he bares his soul at the center of the room or in private soliloquy. That’s what McKinnis delivers that few other artists do; he is the soul at the center of the party.
Everyone sings about love, but Baby Rose’s exquisitely guttural voice makes it palpable. She sounds like she brings the depths of her soul to the surface, which essentially is what love is. Baby Rose has a singular voice that cuts through the monotony of mainstream R&B and it makes her anguish and love musings too visceral to be matched by many others.
Kyle Dion is a refreshing return to a time when men would sing to the women they loved at a register so high it sounded like tearful begging. His vocal range is vast and his lush instrumentation is varied enough for his music to have the sort of genre-blending that has made so many neo-soul classics timeless.
His love odes are imbued with a Raphael Saadiq-esque adventurousness where a groovy funk track about the futility of love can slow to a somber crawl without losing its soul. The New Orleans native can soundtrack the busiest of dance floors and saddest of breakups while maintaining a level of musicality that makes him stand out in this new wave of neo-soul.
There’s a faint Bilal tinge to Omari’s seductively yet commanding voice with music that leans heavy on a jazz/hip-hop that made the 1st Born Second singer a neo-soul staple. In a generation that prioritizes “vibes” over anything else in music, Iman embodies the expansion of the sound.
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