Portraits in Black and Blue: The Voltaic Rehabilitation of Neo-soul
Portraits in Black and Blue is a new, bi-monthly feature bridging gaps between a millennial present and the increasingly ethereal past, contextualizing the music and trends of emerging and progressive artists, trying to make sense of this crazy, fucked-up world. Illustrations by Jacob Garner.
The Greek word “neos” bears a number of stark connotations including “new, young, youthful; fresh, strange; lately, just now.” In hindsight it seems more than appropriate that Motown record executive Kedar Massenburg first coined the term “neo-classical soul” in the late 1990s to individualize the music being produced by new label signee Erykah Badu. Her debut album Baduizm changed the tone of contemporary black music. It openly disregarded the substance of commercially successful black music, manifesting as a comfortable creative niche in which the past and future could coalesce. Soon after the term Massenburg had coined shortened to its colloquial form, sensationalized by The Roots’ drummer and producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson at Electric Lady Studios.
Last year saw the release of Questlove’s first book, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According To Questlove, a memoir of his success as a drummer, producer and DJ. He lectures on the state of hip hop when his leftist, avant-garde rap group The Roots came to fruition. The left was constituted by groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul and contemporaries OutKast and The Fugees, defending the traditional ethics and cultural authenticity of hip hop’s origin: political protest, societal progression, a means of retribution. The right was situated upon the commercial implosion of records like The Chronic and Ready To Die; retrograde subjects of overwrought materialism, chauvinism, and violence, best articulated by critic Tricia Rose as “the cultural arm of predatory capitalism.”
This is the force that Questlove and The Roots actively sought to admonish. Their 1997 album Things Fall Apart was a spunky, percolated counterpoint to the Billboard charts and radio airwaves. In their aesthetic revolution they garnered a community of artists: family, friends, friends of friends, pizza delivery boys who took part in an extensive Philadelphia house party. Questlove wrote:
“It was a madhouse. People were milling around outside, waking up the neighbors, playing loud music until all hours. But it wasn’t people playing loud music on boomboxes or stereos. They were actually playing it on guitars and singing on microphones. They were making loud music, putting it into a space where there had been no music before. By the seventh week I was calling the police to say, ‘There’s a disturbance at 2309 St. Albans.’ Just to get some sleep, I was calling the cops on myself! But when I think about that time, the most amazing thing is how many of those artists made it. There were at least eighteen record contracts in the room, and at least nine of the people who became recording artists ended up bigger than us. And yet, it was an indisputably magical time, a kind of rebirth. If hip-hop had died at the 1995 Source Awards, I felt like something new was born on St. Albans.”
Musiq Soulchild, Erykah Badu, Jazmine Sullivan, and Indie.Arie were just a few of the contributors to a like-minded coalition of soul-based artists who sought to confront the future of music by conjuring up the past. Not much later these artists would convene as a musical collective called the Soulquarians in the image their artistic predecessors Native Tongues. Following the incident at St. Albans, though, Questlove became an integral force in the production and recording of Common’s Like Water For Chocolate and D’Angelo’s Voodoo. The latter’s contribution to contemporary black music was arguably the most abrasive musical evolution of a recording artist post-1997. Everything about the record rejected the rudimentary sample-based production of Puff Daddy. It was bred from a cascade of cross-grained influence. Trading drum pads and synthesizers for a more organic approach, the drum kit sounds drunk and lag-timed, caked with a fine layer of groove-oriented antiquity, yet somehow it sounds warped. J. Dilla imprinted Voodoo with a style of production that at once delves into the past as velvety analog textures and bounds toward the unknown in a series of electro-tinged, lucid propulsions. Engineer Russell Elevado similarly garnished the record with unconventional innovation. On the part-two interlude of “Greatdayindamornin’,” he channels Questlove’s studio drum feed through a guitar amp and a processor before it’s routed to the sound board. “It gave them this unimaginable analog sound, like they were drums coming from 1950,” recalled Questlove in his memoir.
Despite the sultry smooth seduction of the record, D’Angelo’s Y2K-era release sounds a bit like desperation. Before the release there was a kind of anxiety in the recorded music industry surrounding black contemporary music, everything was beginning to lean one side. But Voodoo changed all of that. Credit the aesthetic visionary J. Dilla or D’Angelo’s torso circa 2000, regardless, the record was embraced by an overwhelming number of fans in all shapes and colors and backgrounds. It was fresh, fearless and nostalgic of all the right things, marking the legitimate induction of neo-soul to popular music.
The hype would hardly subsist. By 2002, the artistic valor of neo-soul was already being cross-examined by hierarchical facets of the industry. In an interview with Billboard, record executive Massenburg said, “They don’t want this music to be looked at as a genre. Because, when you classify music, it becomes a fad, which tends to go away.” The same musicians and artists who helped to popularize neo-soul were suddenly and inexplicably retreating from it. D’Angelo embarked on a decade-long bout of reclusion and alcoholism; the last few years have sparked conversation about the alleged production of his first post-Voodoo album, but it’s starting to feel less like an anticipated follow-up and more like an urban legend. Common sought a divergent form of music, inspired incomprehensibly by Kraftwerk, on his subsequent record Electric Circus. Lauryn Hill took up a self-imposed exile to South Africa. J. Dilla died of an extremely rare blood disease. Neo-soul, at least for the moment, was suspended in a frightening slipshod kind of purgatory.