From Nick Hakim to KeiyaA to Ari Lennox, here are 23 contemporary artists pushing neo-soul forward in 2020.
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.
We are now in 2020 and the movement is as strong as ever. Okayplayer has highlighted 23 artists that are pushing neo-soul forward.
Chances are your introduction to Q was on the soundtrack for the fourth season of HBO’s Insecure. He didn’t just add a verse to fellow neo-soul star Baby Rose’s “Show You,” he took the sonic world she curated for her love and expanded it. Q is from the ilk of Bilal with a falsetto that can pierce through any indifference and a penchant for snatching your attention with the tantalizingly abstract. When you can make a song about hearing demons (“I Get Tired”) a bop, you’re on your way to mining the human condition for hits.
From the earthy lineage of neo-soul goddess Meshell Ndegeocello, KeiyaA can sorrowfully expel “get your boot off my neck, so we can both progress” (“Way Eye”) with both urgency and grace. The calming assertiveness of her voice is borderline therapeutic and with the world currently burning in civil unrest, she may emerge from the flames a shining star that soothed the souls of many.
Umi’s voice sounds as if it rests on a cloud it pierces to shine inviting light on. The whispered intimacy and healer vibes of her music are reminiscent of new school neo-soul princess Jhené Aiko.
St. Beauty doesn’t ask, they tell. With St. Beauty, an abusive lover isn’t dealt with through tearful ballads, but rather with a trial by fire with lines like, “You try to control me; then try to console me; you don’t even know me; I just think you’re trolling.” The enchanting musical duo of Alexe Belle and Isis Valentino never sound like they’re surrendering to love in a way that’s akin to their Wondaland Arts Society boss Janelle Monáe. It’s also empowering to women across the world.
There’s a weight to Giveon’s bassy baritone that rests on your mind until it descends to your soul. It’s Giveon’s rasp that gives Drake’s “Chicago Freestyle” the frostiness needed for a song to be named after the Windy City. That feature, on one of the biggest albums of the year so far, could be the launchpad that’ll put this neo-soul stalwart in the faces of millions, exactly where his talents warrant he should be.
Listen to “John Redcorn” and melt; listen to “D’Evils” and fade; listen to “Fire” and elevate. That’s SiR — a mood conductor often sending listeners on hazy travels to different emotional states. His voice is smoldering in the way a lit candle is, illuminating in its slow burn and relaxing in its effects.
The 26-year-old songstress’ music is imbued with the sort of sultriness that entices without exploiting. She’s as likely to “give your eyes a taste” (“Generous”) as she is to slap that taste out your mouth with defiant proclamations of “if I want it, I’ll ask for it.” (“1894”). Mark’s enticing ability to stretch her soft voice into dynamic range is reminiscent of some of Corinne Bailey Rae’s best work.
Nick Hakim’s music is a mosaic of sounds that warp around you. There’s an almost ghostly psychedelic tinge to his voice on songs like breakout single “I Don’t Know,” which is so in tune with the instrumentation it almost sounds as if Hakim himself is emanating from each acoustic guitar string plucks. As with most neo-soul, Hakim’s music can’t fit in a box, it can only be felt by the soul.
This 23-year-old upstart’s music is imbued with enough bedroom intimacy to sound like he’s telling a secret only to you. He can make a random Thursday night sound like it’s brimming with hedonistic possibilities (“Thursday”) and when he says “I’m yours” (“Yours”) you believe it. His beautiful duets with Ty Dolla $ign and The Internet’s Syd are evidence Leven Kali is a neo-soul newcomer who belongs to be here.
Liv.eLiv.e’s music harkens back to neo-soul’s analog roots that helped birth the lo-fi renaissance of the last decade. Songs like “Needyougone,” with its thick basslines, envelopes you in a cacophony of ambient sounds with Liv.e’s voice being more of a guide through it all than the narrator. Her ability to conjure nostalgia with only 22 years of living on Earth makes one wonder if a legend will be born if and when she masters those neo-soul proclivities that minuted other legends like Jill Scott.
Rest your ears on the pillow-soft sound beds 22-year-old Miami-raised, L.A.-based singer Jenevieve. I promise you won’t notice the depth of your immersion. She’s only two songs deep into her career — “Baby Powder” and “Medallion” — yet she already exhibits a level of poetic acuity that belies her age.
Give KIRBY 122 seconds and she can transport you back to the funk-filled vibes of Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah with her own brand of stank face-inducing singing prowess. She’s “sweeter than your Kool-Aid,” sensuality is “high priced velvet,” and has already had her words sung by the likes of Rihanna, Kanye West, Ariana Grande, and Keyshia Cole. So, KIRBY isn’t next, she’s neo-soul now.
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