Story, Song, Sensuality, Attitude
Vice & Verses: Neo-Soul Brigade is a new celebration of word, sound, and multicultural craic. The nature of tonight’s event takes traditional African-American forms of expression — soul, hip-hop, jazz, blues, spoken word poetry – and fuses them with the international cultures and expressions they’ve met in the contemporary age. Soul updated and operating with other forms was coined “neo-soul” in the late 1990s. In recent years, Ireland’s joined the bandwagon, and we’re not talking about “The Commitments.” Here’s a journey through neo-soul to get you in the mood.
Dallas, Texas: Erykah Badu – “On and On,” 1997
And so we begin with the “Queen of Neo-Soul.” Erykah Badu, cloaked in historicity while conjuring the new, debuted with “Baduizm” in 1997, a sumptuous mix of contemporary R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and funk. “On and On” was the album’s first single. The video is phenomenal, as it takes us to the roots of black music: the South, toil, hardship, where African-American musical forms from gospel to electronica have their foundation. Creating beauty from uncertainty were these sounds’ raison d’etre. The video is steeped in so much cultural nuance, even down to why African and African-American women would wrap their hair — to keep it up and away during days of sweltering outdoor labor. Badu, along with early neo-soul contemporaries D’Angelo and Maxwell, injected international sales appeal into what had been a niche American market.
Richmond, Virginia/New York: D’Angelo – “Brown Sugar,” 1995
What many considered a love song is actually a comically self-aware ode to Mary Jane. The butter-smooth vocals and laid-back beat combined hip-hop and R&B in a way that spread around the world, an influence seen in Irish musicians today such as Funzo. D’Angelo plastered the image of alpha mascuinity and male sensuality onto singing, showing that a male R&B vocalist could be more complex than a lovesick crooner.
Toronto: The Weeknd – “Tell Your Friends,” 2015
The Weeknd is interesting to me due to combining old hip-hop lyrical themes of partying, boasting, and bravado with Michael-Jackson-esque vocals, a consistent indie-film video aesthetic, and references to contemporary digital life. His music and image is everything enjoyable about hipster culture (just look at his hair): the postmodern “it’s all been done before” wink, the irreverance, the sleekness. But he’s also self-aware, artistic, and genuinely soulful. The Weeknd is akin to 2015 Brooklyn youth meets “I Wanna Rock With You” MJ.
London: FKA Twigs – “Papi Pacify,” 2013
FKA Twigs is a time-bomb of innovation. The half-Jamaican, 1/4-Spanish, 1/4 English, London-born dancer, songwriter, and singer also concieves of and directs her own videos — each a piece of boundary-pushing art. Her sound, to me, is firmly trip-hop, which originated as England’s dark, psychedelic answer to hip-hop in the early 1990s. The most recognized names in trip-hop are Tricky, Massive Attack, and Portishead, all associated with ’90s Britain. Twigs takes the smoky, glitchy beats and silky vocals associated with the genre and injects them with wholly distinct new life.
London/New York: Floetry – “Say Yes,” 2002
No neo-soul compendium would be complete without the gorgeous afrocentric essence of Floetry. Floetry, who got their start in the British spoken word scene before moving to New York, was part of the early consortium putting neo-soul on the map. In fact, along with Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, their presence on the music scene pushed the very idea of what neo-soul is, and confirmed its feminine dominance. Being British, they also gave it an international flavor for the first time. They mix vocals with spoken word and tout the attitude of performance poetry culture. The video oozes authenticity; it takes me right back to Harlem. Neo-soul’s about pride: in one’s self, in one’s culture, in one’s message. It’s all here, the scribbling in notebooks on a subway, the dreadlocks once they were finally de-stigmatized, black love, black art, ahhh.
Dublin: Funzo, “Take Our Time,” 2012
Dublin’s Funzo is a perfect example of how diverse neo-soul is today, 18 years after the term was first coined by Erykah’s Badu’s label exec, Kedar Massenburg, to market her sound. Liam McDermott, who performs at Vice & Verses, has a voice I like to call “a powdery pink fog.” When you first spy this Leixlip, Kildare-bred lad, you mightn’t expect the emotion-rich timbre and personal lyrics of his style, unique in Ireland. His is arguably the mot recognized name in Irish R&B today, and this beautiful ode to human fragility and relationships lets you know why.
Vice & Verses: Neo Soul Brigade, Tuesday 1 December, 8 p.m., The Liquor Rooms, 5 Wellington Quay
Clara Rose Thornton
Spoken Word Artist | Culture Journalist | Organizer
M: +353 87.391.7222 (Dublin)
M: +1 917.675.3291 (New York)