Neo soul is a genre of popular music. The term was coined by music industry entrepreneur Kedar Massenburg during the late 1990s to market and describe a style of music that emerged from soul and contemporary R&B. Heavily based in soul music, neo soul is distinguished by a less conventional sound than its contemporary R&B counterpart, with incorporated elements ranging from jazz, funk, hip hop and electronic to pop, fusion, and African music. It has been noted by music writers for its traditional R&B influences, conscious-driven lyrics, and strong female presence.
Neo soul developed during the 1980s and early 1990s, in the United States and United Kingdom, as a soul revival movement. It earned mainstream success during the 1990s, with the commercial and critical breakthroughs of several artists, including D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Maxwell. Their music was marketed as an alternative to the producer-driven, digitally approached R&B of the time.
Since its initial mainstream popularity and impact on the sound of contemporary R&B, neo soul has been expanded and diversified musically through the works of both American and international artists. Its mainstream presence declined during the 2000s, although newer artists emerged through more independent means of marketing their music. According to music journalist Mark Anthony Neal, "neo-soul and its various incarnations has helped to redefine the boundaries and contours of black pop."
"By definition, neo-soul is a paradox. Neo means new. Soul is timeless. All the neo-soul artists, in various ways, perform balancing acts, exploring classic soul idioms while injecting a living, breathing presence into time-tested formulas. They humanize R&B, which has often been reduced to a factory-perfected product. Like sushi, neo-soul is fresh enough to be served raw."
As a term, neo soul was coined by Kedar Massenburg of Motown Records in the late 1990s as a marketing category following the commercial breakthroughs of artists such as D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Maxwell. The success of D'Angelo's 1995 debut album Brown Sugar has been regarded by several writers and music critics as inspiration behind the term's origin. While some artists have ignored the label, others have received the designation with controversy because it may seem contrived to music audiences and imply that soul music had ended at some point in time. In a 2002 interview for Billboard, Massenburg said that genre classifications are often unpopular because they may be suggestive of a short-lived trend. However, although he said neo soul is still essentially soul music, Massenburg felt there was a need to market artists of the genre for listeners to have an understanding of what they were buying.
In a 2010 article for PopMatters, music writer Tyler Lewis said that neo soul has been received with much controversy: "Given the way black music has been named by (usually) outsiders ever since the blues, the reaction to the name by artists who ostensibly fit into the 'neo-soul' category represents a wonderful example of black self-determination in an industry that is still defiantly wedded to narrow definitions and images of black folks." Jason Anderson of CBC News compares the etymology of neo soul to that of "new wave" and comments: "As imperfect as the term may be, neo-soul is still an effective tag to describe the mix of chic modernity and time-honoured tradition that distinguished the genre's best examples. Neo-soul artists tried to look both backward and forward, acting in the belief that a continuum might exist."