"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."
—Dimitri Ehrlich, Vibe
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."