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Soul searching

A back-to-basics sound was once hailed as R&B's future. So where has the neo-soul movement gone?

If the buzz of the mid-1990s was to be believed, neo-soul was supposed to change everything.

Stripping away the artifice of contemporary R&B, in which cookie-cutter production gimmicks masked mediocre talents, neo-soul was championed as a triumph of earthy musical substance over glossy style. If hip-hop beats had come to dominate R&B, then neo-soul, embodied by such artists as D'Angelo, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu, would move toward the future by paying homage to the past. It was a modern musical movement, but steeped in the soulful influences of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and Donny Hathaway.

Yet eight years since D'Angelo's debut, ''Brown Sugar,'' trumpeted as the best soul record since the 1970s, unofficially began the so-called neo-soul era, few from this new breed of R&B artists have continued to have a major impact. Though Badu's underrated ''Worldwide Underground'' had a strong No. 3 debut on the Billboard album chart last month, it's already slipped to No. 24. Macy's Gray's last two albums, ''The Id'' in 2001 and ''The Trouble With Being Myself,'' released in July, were adored by critics but ignored by consumers. Bilal and Donnie, both great singers, saw their incredible debuts, ''1st Born Second'' (2001) and ''The Colored Section'' (2002), respectively, disappear without a trace. It's been years since D'Angelo, Maxwell, Jill Scott, or Alicia Keys released new studio albums.

And modern R&B is again dominated by slick confections such as Beyonce and Ashanti.

''The neo-soul movement is still there, but it's been underground, and it's trying to get the attention of the mainstream again,'' said John Constanza, a publicist for Glory Records, which recently issued ''Neo Soul United,'' a compilation featuring new soul artists.

Among the new crop of singers is Anthony Hamilton, whose latest album, ''Comin' From Where I'm From,'' was released to critical acclaim last month. With a voice as deep as chocolate and as smooth as caramel, the North Carolina native has been making music since the early 1990s. He sang backup for D'Angelo on the singer's 2000 ''Voodoo'' tour, and he may be best recognized for singing the hooky chorus of Nappy Roots' 2002 hit '''Po Folks.''

Yet with all the allusions to classic '70s soul that Hamilton's voice evokes, he doesn't want his music called neo-soul.

``I think people take neo-soul lightly,'' Hamilton said. ``It's a trend that came in and went. What I'm doing has been around since the beginning of music. It's traditional; it's not a trend.

''Besides, 'neo' reminds me of neon, like it's gonna glow in the dark or something. My music don't glow in the dark. 'Neo' reminds me of lime green or bright yellow. My music isn't lime green; it's brown and warm and soothing.''

Other modern soul singers echo Hamilton's ambivalence.

''I find that term to be so tricky. To me, it's just soul,'' said Los Angeles-based singer Lizz Fields, who came out of the same Philadelphia music scene as the Roots, Bilal, and Scott. Her debut CD, ''Bydaybynight,'' was released in February.

''My music is just a continuation of what we've known in the past,'' Fields said in a telephone interview. ``Unfortunately we live in a world where it has to be defined differently.''

For a minute there, what was called neo-soul seemed poised to become the mainstream. It was touted as not just an exciting shift in music, but a movement and a mind-set. It even spawned a neo-soul film, 1997's ''Love Jones,'' which featured Larenz Tate and Nia Long as jazz-loving, poetry-reciting black bohemians and a soundtrack with Meshell Ndegeocello, Groove Theory, and Dionne Farris.

If the music boasted a back-to-basics ethic, so too did videos by such artists as Maxwell, Scott, D'Angelo, Keys, and India.Arie. They didn't feature dancers, fancy clothes, or fanciful plotlines. India.Arie's breakthrough clip, ''Video,'' showed the singer-songwriter riding her bike, an acoustic guitar slung across her back, as she sang proudly of not being a supermodel or ''your average girl in the video.'' Scott's ''A Long Walk'' showed the singer doing exactly that -- taking a walk in her Philadelphia neighborhood and encountering friends along the way.

Most memorably, D'Angelo's ''Untitled (How Does It Feel)'' revealed the incredibly buff singer performing directly to the camera, wearing nothing more than his cornrows.

Despite its critical success, if neo-soul had an initial failing, it was the media-created label itself - a term that the artists, whom it was meant to represent, generally rejected.

As a means of signifying that this music wasn't the music of your parents' dusty 45s, it was sold and packaged as a new trend, but inevitably trends aren't built to last. Just as Seattle musicians resented having their punk-derived music branded as grunge, the new generation of soul singers wanted nothing to do with being tagged ''neo-soul.''

Reveling in a music-first ethic, the neo-soul movement could seem a little sanctimonious. It was soul music for smart people, with a tangible elitism and self-importance that some may have found off-putting. But there's no denying the luscious musicality, both familiar and fresh. Many of the new soul artists are songwriters and musicians as well as singers, and it gives their art a deeper personal touch. Neo-soul doesn't sound manufactured or producer-tweaked to within an inch of its life.

That natural quality is what made -- and continues to make -- this music stand out, says Temika Moore, a classically trained singer from Philadelphia who released her soul-jazz debut, ''Moment of Truth'' in July 2002.

''Neo-soul is just a way that our generation, the newer generation, embraces the idea of merging different kinds of music,'' said Moore. ''All music can be soulful. I think it just depends on the way it's communicated. I gravitated toward neo-soul because I like to fuse all the elements of gospel music, jazz, and R&B.''

Both Moore and Fields have songs on ''Neo Soul United,'' a stunning, eclectic collection of relatively unknown soul artists from across the country. It was her own love of soul music that led Natalie Esposito to start her independent New York-based label, Glory Records, which was specifically created to release ``Neo Soul United.''

Through the Internet and recommendations from friends, Esposito sought out unknown artists whose music ''captures the original spirit of soul music,'' she said.

''Neo-soul is soul. There's nothing new about it,'' she said. ''It's a way to recognize new artists, but it's soul music. I don't know why people have this concept of time when they hear the word 'soul' that it's old. Maybe some people could never get around that.''

Like other musical styles quickly consumed by the mainstream, then tossed aside, modern soul music has gone back to its roots - live shows in clubs in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, and Philadelphia before enthusiastic audiences. Philadelphia singer Musiq (formerly Musiq Soulchild) is finishing his third album, and Floetry, which deftly combines alternative soul and hip-hop, is enjoying a slow, steady climb with its 2002 debut, ''Floetic.''

If modern soul isn't dominating the pop and R&B charts, neither has it gone completely away.

''New soul artists are still blooming from the cracks, and what's important isn't labels, but the music,'' Fields said. ''When Maxwell did his music, when Jill did her music, when Erykah did her music, it was just honest music. The more people create honest music, music coming from a real place and not designed to fit into a specific genre, I think people will always gravitate toward it. That's my goal.

''Even if people say neo-soul is wack or old, it doesn't matter to me so long as the music I make comes from an honest place.''

Renée Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column appears on Tuesdays. She can be reached at

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