Young sisters are doing it for themselves

April 12, 2002



Though the roots of the movement are probably best traced to 1997 and "Baduizm," the seductive debut by the sleepy-eyed Erykah Badu, the galvanizing moment in the musical uprising that's been dubbed "NeoSoul" or "Natural R&B," Female Division, really came in 2001 on the closing bonus track of Angie Stone's sophomore offering, "Mahogany Soul."

In the sweetest of cooing voices, over a laidback, late-night jazz groove, a wheezing Hammond organ, and a tinkling piano that are pure Motown-era Marvin Gaye, the Afro-topped Stone addresses an errant lover who's finally stumbling through the door at 3 a.m.

"I don't wanna hear your stories, I don't wanna hear your lies," Stone tells him. She's building steam slowly, like a home cappuccino machine. "Let me go to bed, swallow my pride; you'll be sleeping outside." Then, with the help of a chorus of female backing vocals, she drops the hammer: "It's that time of the month--don't even mess with me!"

Pity the poor fool who ignores her.

Taken as a whole, the women of NeoSoul are the most potent expression of female empowerment in African-American music since Aretha Franklin first demanded a little "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" and heralded her "Freedom!" with a gospel-trained voice that shook the rafters back in the late 1960s. And from a feminist perspective, the critical and commercial success of Badu, Macy Gray, Jill Scott, Stone, India Arie, Jaguar Wright, Kelis, Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys is long overdue.

For more than a decade, hip-hop has been dominated by macho braggarts and testosterone-crazed boneheads rapping about the size of their members and dissing the alleged legions of "bitches and hoes" who are all out to "play" them and walk off with their "floss." From that sublimely self-centered john, Jay-Z, to that accused wife-beater, Eminem, this strain of lyrical discourse has never really risen above the following memorable couplet from N.W.A's groundbreaking 1991 album, "Niggaz4Life": "Yo, b---/Hop in my pickup/And suck my d--- up/'Til you hiccup!"

After years of putting up with crap like that, black women are finally coming on strong and asserting themselves--or so goes the line that's held by many critics. But though they were few and far between, there have certainly been powerful women in hip-hop and R&B before (Queen Latifah! En Vogue! Salt-N-Pepa!), and they stood as a welcome alternative to the more poplike Barbie dolls (TLC, Destiny's Child).

Characterizing the diverse group of singers, songwriters, and personalities in NeoSoul as merely a knee-jerk reaction to their male counterparts is really just another way of minimizing their influence and limiting their voices--as indeed are the genre names that have unwillingly been foisted upon them. Talk to any of these performers and they'll be quick to tell you that there's nothing "neo" about their musical or spiritual souls.

"I don't know about any of that," Gray says in her squeaky voice, chuckling at any attempt to label her sounds. "I just make music with my band--whatever feels right."

It was The New York Times that first pushed the term "Natural R&B." The paper helpfully explained that this was a reference to the artists' nappy hair styles, but this phrase was a little more appropriate in the musical sense: Through the same period that the bully boys held sway in hip-hop, a gang of sweet-talking Lotharios in sensitive New Age guys' clothing dominated the other major strain of black pop with a very un-natural brand of R&B--one that was supremely saccharine, absurdly synthetic, harshly digital, and devoid of any real sweat or soul.

Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds may have seemed like a gentleman, but you just knew he was heading to the strip club shortly after kissing his lady goodnight. At least R. Kelly was up front about his dueling obsessions, mixing anthems of spiritual enlightenment such as "I Believe I Can Fly" with hot-and-horny come-ons like "Bump 'N Grind." But the platinum-selling superstar has turned out to be reprehensible on a whole other level: Chicago police are investigating him for having sex with a minor and videotaping the act.

In light of such offenses, it's little wonder that Badu titled her sophomore album "Mama's Gun." "Most of the time, you don't even know your mama has a gun, you know?" she muses on the web site Hip Online. "And when she pulls it out and shows it to you, it's something serious. The way life is to me right now, we're at a very detrimental time: Our sons and daughters are going to need something to take with them for protection. So they can put my album in their holster!"

But the women of NeoSoul aren't only about redressing the balance of power between the sexes or seeking a little "Dirty Harry"/"Death Wish"-style vigilante justice. Musically, they are all attempting a return to the values of soul, funk, and R&B back in the era before Pro Tools, computer programming, and digital multi-tracking, when a strong singer fronting a kickin' band either delivered the goods, or she went back to work on the assembly line.

There is none of the hollow vocal showboating of a glittery mainstream diva like Whitney Houston or the overdubbed fakery of a video queen like Janet Jackson. These women are reaching back to the heroines of an earlier era, and their role models have responded approvingly.

"There's no soul--no giving!--and a lot of that just ain't movin' me," former Chicagoan Chaka Khan says of most modern R&B. "You need to take a breath: There's gotta be some heartbeat going on! Jill Scott has got the right idea; she's kind of retro-esque. This is the return of music coming back! I went to see Erykah Badu, and it was alright! Now it seems like people are kind of catching on. These kids are sort of getting it, and they're seeing the beauty and the joy of playing an instrument and what it's really about."

This is high praise indeed coming from the voice who gave us "I'm Every Woman." But Khan is wrong about one thing: Aside from a fondness for certain instrumental sounds like real drums, the aforementioned Hammond, or the occasional burst of wah-wah guitar, there's nothing dated or retro about the music on the best NeoSoul albums. These discs succeed because of a return to musical values that are tied to no one era, favoring strong grooves, solid hooks, and the interaction of instrumentalists performing live and in the moment.

The Black Crowes or Lenny Kravitz are retro-revivalists. The women of NeoSoul are more like Nirvana--simply timeless.

There's another instructive comparison with rock to be made in terms of many of these women's lyrics. Like Courtney Love, Polly Harvey, and Liz Phair in the alternative-rock era of the early '90s, the strongest NeoSoul artists have complex, sophisticated, and subtly nuanced takes on femininity in general and sex in particular.

The Women's Studies crowd tends to call it "post-" or "sex-positive" feminism, an egghead term that simply means these ladies (like the most enlightened of us men) sometimes enjoy being in control, and sometimes willingly cede the reigns. They are sometimes horny, and sometimes repulsed by the very idea of sex. And not only are they unafraid to explore these ambiguities and uncertainties, but they won't apologize for them.

Also, just as the flowering of startlingly original female voices in rock eventually gave way to a wave of easily marketed, cheerfully commodified imitators (Alanis Morissette, Meredith Brooks, and their ilk, with the Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera crowd following not far behind), the leading lights of NeoSoul have spawned a wave of watered-down wannabes nipping at their heels--Keys first and foremost among them.

Here is a look at the female artists who are most deserving of our attention, more or less in order of their importance. (The men of NeoSoul deserve their props, too--especially D'Angelo and Maxwell--but they'll get their due on another day.)


Born Erica Wright in Dallas, Texas, Badu was raised on '70s soul (Khan was a particular heroine) before she fell for hip-hop, abandoned her "slave name" and became Erykah ("'Kah' is the inner self, which can do no wrong," she says) Badu (Arabic for "to manifest truth and light").

She debuted as a solo artist with '97's "Baduizm" (Motown), scoring a platinum hit with songs such as "On & On" (inspired by "The Color Purple") and the prayerful "Certainly." Here and elsewhere, she mixes a jazzy, scatting delivery with grooves that are equal parts modern hip-hop and old-school soul music.

Standing proud and regal in her African head wrap, Badu represents a newer, realer, Afrocentric sex symbol: earthy and passionate, but no one to be trifled with, as she proves on her sophomore outing. "This is how I look without makeup/And with no bra my ninnies sag down low," she raps on "Cleva." "My hair ain't never hung down to my shoulders/And it might not grow, ya never know/But I'm clever when I bust a rhyme/Clever always on ya mind/She's clever and I really wanna grow."


Propelled by a $15 million marketing push courtesy of Epic Records, Gray debuted in a big way with 1999's "On How Life Is," which features 10 songs representing some of the most vibrant and sexy genre-blurring sounds since late '80s Prince, an obvious inspiration.

The skinny, towering singer has a love-it or hate-it voice that had also earned comparisons to Billie Holiday and a higher-pitched Tina Turner. But Gray is freakier and funnier than either of those women. Whether she's berating a one-night stand ("Why Didn't You Call Me"), praying to her Creator ("I Can't Wait to Meetchu'), or vamping it up a la Prince at his nastiest ("Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak"), the thirty-something native of Canton, Ohio is a one-of-a-kind character who accepts no genre boundaries.

Though her second album, 2001's "The Id," has yet to match the sales of the debut, it's an even stronger effort as Gray pauses to laugh at herself, the whole sticky business of sex and race relations, and pop culture in general. In "Sexual Revolution," a celebratory groove that falls somewhere between Donna Summer and Parliament-Funkadelic, she sings, "Your mama told you to be discreet/And keep your freak to yourself/But your mama lied to you all this time/She knows as well as you and I/You've got to express what is taboo in you/And share your freak with the rest of us!"

You go, girl!


Raised in Philadelphia, Scott started out as a poet, until she was "discovered" by producer and drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, who urged her to join the Roots in the recording studio. That collaboration resulted in 1999's hit single, "You Got Me," which she sang on "The Roots Come Alive." In between touring with a production of the musical "Rent," she popped up on other recordings by Eric Benet, Will Smith, and Chicago rapper Common, until finally releasing her own long-player in 2000, "Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1" (Sony).

Like Gray, the voluptuous Scott is no Gap model, but a real woman whose sex appeal comes from within. In the video for her hit "A Long Walk," she exudes an inviting glow that is the very definition of sensuality as she strolls through her very real and multi-cultural neighborhood, addressing the camera (and us) as a stand-in for her lover.

Scott followed this impressive debut by underscoring her talents onstage with 2001's "Experience: Jill Scott 826 +." The live double-disc set starts jazzy and quiet and gets progressively funkier as Common and soul legend Ronald Isley pop by for cameo appearances. Scott builds to a poignant declaration of independence and self-empowerment, advising the lover of a run-around man during a between-songs monologue: "You're gonna have to kick some ass!"


Stone came to NeoSoul after trying her hand at rap (via the trio Sequence) and acid jazz (she led Vertical Hold) and collaborating with D'Angelo on "Brown Sugar." (She also had a child with him.) After Scott, she has the strongest voice of any of these singers, and while the songwriting isn't quite as memorable, the vocals carry the day on her 1999 debut, Black Diamond, as well as its superior follow-up, Mahogany Soul. Stone doesn't just sing about her period (as in "Time of the Month," which was quoted earlier) or her temper (another tune is entitled "Pissed Off"). She also croons enchantingly of "Snowflakes" and (in a duet with Musiq Soulchild) "The Ingredients of Love."


Dissed by the Grammys in their rush to anoint Keys, Arie actually made a much stronger album in 2001 with her debut effort, "Acoustic Soul." Born in Denver, she spent her teen years in Atlanta, where she was steeped in blues, soul, and Motown and became an accomplished guitarist and songwriter. She got her break on the second stage of 1998's Lilith Fair, which eventually led to a deal with Motown.

Two years in the making, "Acoustic Soul" found Arie arriving well-primed for success. How could MTV (or radio, for that matter) ignore an irresistibly cool single called "Video"? Only Grammy voters seemed immune to her charms, but she may yet have the last laugh.


This Philadelphia singer (yet another ally of the Roots) first caught my attention when she opened for Maxwell and ended a short but impressive set with a bravura harmony vocal workout on "Leaving On A Jet Plane." Wright's debut album "Denials Delusions and Decisions" (MCA) delivers on the promise of her live performance with a sassy, sexy set of tunes such as "Same Sh*t Different Day" and "Ain't Nobody Playin'."

In song as in the liner notes, Wright minces no words. Addressing her ex-boyfriends, she notes, "You all made great writing material!"


The U.K.'s frizzy-haired entry in the NeoSoul sweepstakes left home at 16 and started turning heads with the nimble flow and smooth-tongued rapping on 1999's debut, "Kaleidoscope." Produced by the Neptunes, last year's "Wanderland" is even better. Scheduled to be issued in the U.S. by Virgin, Mixmag dubbed the disc "the most vivid sexual fantasy since Prince went around the world in a day," and that was only partly hyperbole.


Born in the suburbs outside Newark, N.J., Hill first won acclaim as a member of the famously fractured Fugees, though it was her first solo album in 1998 that had critics falling all over themselves to deliver enough accolades. But "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" still leaves me cold: When she tries to present herself as an Afrocentric "edutainer" in the mold of Chuck D. or KRS-One, Hill comes off as preachy, and there isn't much passion in her cover of Frankie Vali's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."

Maybe it was just that Hill was a refreshing change after female caricatures like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown. "Don't be a hard rock when you really are a gem," she advises her sisters in "Doo Wop." And Carlos Santana does add some spark to "To Zion," which finds Hill rapping about her decision not to abort her son by Rohan Marley.

At long last, Hill is preparing to drop a new album on May 7. But it's just a two-disc set based on her appearance on MTV's "Unplugged," and she passed on an offer to perform as part of Moby's diverse Area: Two tour.


Last summer, this young New Yorker surprised everyone when her debut album "Songs In A Minor" entered the Billboard chart at No. 1, even though Keys was a virtual unknown. Among music-industry insiders, credit has been evenly divided between Keys--a progeny on piano who walked away from a scholarship to Columbia University to concentrate on her music--and former Arista Records head Clive Davis, who used all his considerable muscle to make his latest protege the first star on his new label, J Records.

Keys credits her success to a combination of Clive and her music being the right sound at the right time, and she's smart enough to give props to her fellow NeoSoul artists. "I admire them for what they do and the time and the effort and the heart that they put into it, and I'm very happy to be a part of it," she says. "I feel that everybody has their own faith and place and their own individuality that makes them have their own niche."

Keys' niche is in attacking her Kurzweil piano synthesizer as if she's hammering a nail into a concrete wall while alternating rather stiff rapping with singing that is neither particularly strong (like Scott's) or distinctive (like Gray's or Badu's) in songs such as "Girlfriend," "Jane Doe," and her breakthrough hit, "Fallin'," which plays like an African-American take of Fiona Apple.