Neo-Soul Playlist No. 2 – Breaking Walls, by Clara Rose Thornton of Vice and Verses

Neo-Soul: The World at Your Fingertips

Individualism, Community, Breaking Walls

By Clara Rose Thornton

The first neo-soul playlist focused on a trajectory. Answering those precious questions: What is neo-soul exactly? When and how did it start? Who are the big names? Who is my soulmate? Well, I didn’t answer the last one for you, but hopefully one or two of you came away with imaginary pillow talk for Erykah Badu or D’Angelo. As we’re moving along in Vice & Verses: Neo-Soul Brigade’s journey, flying in Parisian jazz singer Liv Monaghan and welcoming Dublin northsider Collie, Ireland’s only hip-hop artist to sign a major-label deal, so shall we journey down neo-soul’s colorful highway. Today’s playlist is all about now. Buzzy neo-soul. These six artists either recently released their debut album or have yet to record a full-length. You heard it here first.

Neo-soul is traditional African-American forms of expression — soul, hip-hop, jazz, blues, spoken word poetry — updated and operating with international cultures met today. Vice & Verses: Neo-Soul Brigade on Tuesday 2 February is where you can watch soul-shakin’ peacocks strut. It’s Ireland’s only night of hip-hop, jazz, neo-soul and musical poetry. People: get together, be together, stay together.

London: Jungle – “Busy Earnin’” (2014)

Let’s get the party started with an energizing burst of positivity and movement. Jungle is a seven-member collective. Their hypnotic, evolved ’70s funk is groove-oriented, with a focus on video aesthetics as opposed to band member identity. Jungle’s founding duo, Tom McFarlane and Josh Lloyd-Watson, childhood neigbors in London’s Shepherd Bush, were known simply as J and T before expanding the band for the live show. Once Jungle took off following the first single, “Platoon”, in July 2013, there was no turning back; the first London gig that December sold out in 24 hours. Mercury Prize nomination, Jools Holland — the business. “Busy Earnin’” is the first single from the debut self-titled album. Watch this first thing in the morning. Now don’t you want to go out and start some kind of club? My mornings now smell like team spirit.

New York City: Le1f – “Wut” (2012)

A neo-soul hallmark is subverting convention, and whispering to the past while blowing one’s utter individualism into its cracks. It’s possible that no artist working today does this as much as Khalif Diouf, an out gay rapper and graduate of Weslyan University’s school of dance, who’s avant-garde hip-hop (on a major label, it’s worth noting) confronts sexuality, gender, and race in a sea of glitchy beats. The video for “Wut” laughs at genre tropes (twerking, a ghetto girl with ”Poetic Justice” Janet Jackson braids, striped and colorful ’90s attire/”Fresh Prince” gear) with lyrics so refreshing they slap you, if you can hear them through his labyrinthine wordplay.

Birmingham, England: Laura Mvula – “Green Garden” (2014)

Laura Mvula trained at the Birmingham Conservatoire before cutting her teeth in local gospel choirs, then singing lead and composing for her own seven-piece jazz/neo-soul band, Judyshouse. With her formal training and eclectic experience, it feels a ripe decision to have re-recorded her 2013 debut album, “Sing to the Moon,” with Metropole Orkest – the Dutch jazz-pop orchestra that’s the largest full-time ensemble of its kind in the world. A re-released “Sing to the Moon” resulted in this quirky, energizing version of the tribute to her home in Kings Heath in Birmingham. The video’s depiction of black femininity and innocent black childhood is heartwarming and fresh.

Washington D.C./Gaithersburg, Maryland/Los Angeles: Kelela – “Rewind” (2015)

“Rewind” is currently my lusty dreams jam. Don’t we all have one? Kelela, née Kelela Mizanekristos, is a first-generation Ethiopian-American. Her sound and musical path are the purest essence of eclecticism: heavy metal, progressive metal, electronica and jazz standards form her history, and make appearances in her songs, which craft a new definition of “sultry”. She writes and produces her own music, gaining accolades from a bevy of queens as diverse as her fledgling pair of EPs, Solange to Bjork.

London: Szjerdene – “Are You Here” (2015)

This fresh minx has released two EPs: “Paragon” (2015) and “Patchwork” (2013). There’s no official video for “Are You Here” from “Paragon,” yet I had to include it since it’s acute longing, the trill in her celestial voice, and its mesmerizing dark synths are flag-wavers of trip-hop, my second-favorite genre. The chorus’ underlying beat structure would be at home in a Nine Inch Nails song. A press-shy vocalist, whose stage name is pronounced “J’er-deen”, she achieved fame by co-writing songs for Bonobo, the acclaimed trip-hop/electronica musician Simon Green.

London: Lianne La Havas – “Unstoppable” (2015)

Ahhhh. We end with a rich dish of molasses, an affirmation of life and love. Of the newest crop of multiethnic artists constructing paradigms within the legacies handed them, Lianne La Havas is the one that directly reminds me of songbirds putting neo-soul on the map in the late ’90s; Jill Scott and India.Aire come to mind. The style of the half-Greek, half-Jamaican La Havas is a mellow combination of alternative folk melodies and silky storytelling. I cheated here, as she’s on her second album. Although bending the rules is what neo-soul’s about. At this point, with the genre having gained alchemical history transcending the histories of its source metals, there’s only one hard and fast principle: That it is, indeed, “Unstoppable.” Like the nature of creativity itself.


Vice & Verses: Neo Soul Brigade, Tuesday 2 February, 8 p.m., The Liquor Rooms, 5 Wellington Quay, Dublin

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Clara Rose Thornton says, “Many smiles to you.”

Find me @ClaraRose.