Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 83 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone,” off her hit 1997 live album, with help from writer Clover Hope. Below is an excerpt of this episode’s transcript.
You’re right to be skeptical. Any new musical genre name is a little corny, right? Neo-soul is a better name than trip-hop or electronica or neo-swing—that’s one of the bad neos—but really the reason to be skeptical is that obviously it’s called neo-soul as a way to imply that regular soul music, here in the mid-’90s, is bad now. Or at least corrupted. Corrupted in part, theoretically, by rap music. Early and mid-’90s soul and R&B singers just wanna be rappers now. They want the swagger that rappers have. And forget evoking or reaching the level of all the ’60s and ’70s big shots—they want to just sample all those greats, the way rappers do.
So here’s a thought experiment. Picture the Roots, the great Philly rap group the Roots, who’re just getting started in the early ’90s. Questlove, Black Thought, etc. They’re all crammed into a tiny van—there’s a clown car aspect to the Roots’ touring situation here in the band’s infancy—and this comes on the radio.
Here is Questlove—Roots drummer, DJ, record-collector polymath, Oscar-winning filmmaker not currently banned from attending the Oscars—in his autobiography, his first book (from 2013), called Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. “The day that Mary J. Blige’s ‘My Life’ came out in 1994, we all just sat in the van scratching our heads. We had never heard anyone sing over samples before, and here she was, with Roy Ayers’s ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ under her, making up a new vocal, new lyrics. We were so caught between rejecting it as untenable and accepting it as the vanguard.”
“My Life” is way closer to being the vanguard, but I think I get why they all got freaked out.
Listen, I love this song. This is a pro–Mary J. Blige shop. I think we’ve established that. But what does it mean that “My Life,” one of the best soul songs of the ’90s, is very explicitly built on the foundation of one of the best soul songs of the ’70s? If you’re the Roots, if you’re Questlove, it means that beyond Mary J. Blige herself, this whole genre is in trouble. In his book, he writes, “Like any new development, there was lag time. It took a year for us to digest it and accept that R&B singers were trying to be hip-hop artists. There was nowhere left for them to go. I hated what contemporary R&B had become. It was trite. It was soulless. It had no authentic passion. It was doing very little for me. And then I heard D’Angelo and my head was turned.”
D’Angelo is from Richmond, Virginia. He was born in 1974. He was 2 years old when “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” came out, and he was 21 years old when his debut album, Brown Sugar, came out in 1995. Questlove was into it. “It changed my life. Here was a singer who connected as deeply with me as the best hip-hop. It was that first album, of course, but it was more than that: It was what I heard behind the album, the sensibility that powered the songs, the ability to locate the heart of the best soul music. It was out of step with the times but in a way that made it seem like he was stepping into uncharted territory.” Speaking of locating the heart of the best soul music, my personal favorite song on Brown Sugar is D’Angelo’s cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin,” a.k.a. the “Summertime” of 1979.
Great album, Brown Sugar. It is steeped in the ’70s but spiritually feels like the ’90s; it is conversant with hip-hop but does not spiritually submit to hip-hop. Delicate balance. D’Angelo figured it out early; Mary J. Blige figured it out early. But it’s a tough balance for other new R&B singers to strike. Questlove’s gonna work on the next D’Angelo record, which is called Voodoo and comes out in January 2000, and that’s a whole thing. But here in ’95, D’Angelo is a new artist with an old soul, and he’s got a manager named Kedar Massenburg, who’s naturally thinking about promotion, about marketing schemes. And so Kedar decides to promote his new artist by making D’Angelo the face of a whole new genre: neo-soul. These facts are not in dispute. Kedar owns the trademark; “‘Neo-Soul’ Genre Creator” is the first line of Kedar’s Instagram bio. Sure! If it’s 1995 and you’re trying to build a whole new genre of music around one person, D’Angelo’s an excellent choice. The filthier his lyrics get, the smoother he sounds. I don’t know how he does that.
My favorite YouTube comment for the song “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” is “Never heard anybody cuss so smooth. Song gives me chills.” All right, fine: Let’s call this neo-soul. Who else should we call neo-soul? The first Maxwell record, called Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, comes out in 1996, and he’s not so much into cussing, but I bet he’d sound pretty fuckin’ smooth if he were.
This is my favorite song on Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, and I am only slightly embarrassed to inform you that it’s called “...Til the Cops Come Knockin’.”
With both these records, the debut albums from D’Angelo and Maxwell, it’s not that they don’t have great melodies or hooks or whole pop songs, but I do think that primarily they’re both triumphant creators of atmosphere, of mood, of vibe, whatever the word vibe means to you. It’s not “background music” in the sense that it’s extraneous or ignorable, but there’s an immersive quality, a whole so overwhelming that you forget all the individual parts, and you also forget how to add all the parts together to confirm that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is music that still sounds fantastic when it’s faintly audible over the roar of a bathtub faucet, whether you’re making a baby in that bathtub or it’s two years later and now you’re giving the baby you made a bath in the bathtub. It’s great music for zoning out, whether that’s an amorous activity for you or not amorous in the slightest.
Is that emphasis on languorous atmosphere over immediate pop hooks the neo part of neo-soul? How are we all feeling about the term neo-soul so far? Not everyone’s crazy about it. In a Billboard magazine article from 2002, when neo-soul is very much still happening, Kedar Massenburg is still bragging about inventing it. But Raphael Saadiq—singer, songwriter, and producer; Oakland R&B great; founding member of the killer R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné!—Raphael Saadiq’s not into neo-soul. He says, “Neo-soul is disrespectful for me because you’re calling something new soul. When did it stop? It never stopped. I understand it for marketing reasons. I get that. But people who really love music can’t respect that because it’s not new soul. You either have soul or you don’t.”
Fair enough. If you know where to look, soul, R&B, urban suite music—whatever you want to call it—this music is already thriving in 1995, when the neo-soul marketing revolution kicks off. And that marketing revolution doesn’t become a real revolution until 1997, when Erykah Badu shows up.
Erica Wright was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1971, and was raised mostly by her mother, Kolleen with a K, an actress who did a lot of local theater. Erica herself started doing theater when she was 4 years old and wrote her first song when she was around 7. As for her singing voice, she says in Joel McIver’s 2002 book Erykah Badu: The First Lady of Neo-soul, “I’ve got tapes from when I was 5 years old, and I think I sound exactly the same. Nobody taught me. It was just the right situation. Now it’s effortless. The Creator does it.”
By then Erica had decided that her all-time favorite musician was Stevie Wonder, and she’d started performing in front of a mirror and imagining that she was a backup singer for Chaka Khan. In grade school Erica played Annie in a production of Annie; early in her teenage years, she saw her first concert, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, and soon she was rapping under the name MC Apples. No reason. It’s a fine name. A couple of years later, Erica decided that Erica, e-r-i-c-a, was a slave name, and she wanted to change it; her mother convinced her to just, y’know, change the spelling. So Erica became Erykah—e-r-y-k-a-h—because k-a-h, kah, can mean “the inner self” or “that which can do no wrong,” and the letter Y is the 25th letter of the alphabet. Separate 25 into two and five; two plus five is seven; seven is the perfect number and a prime number divisible only by one or by itself. That’s the reason.
She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1989 and went to Grambling State University in Louisiana. Theater studies. She also started a rap duo with her cousin Bradford; they called themselves Erykah Free. They made a demo. An enterprising young manager named Kedar Massenburg heard this demo and liked it but signed Erykah as a solo artist. Erykah Badu. Badu is a nod to her love of jazz, of jazz singing, of scatting. Pretty soon she releases a live album that starts like this.
Erykah Badu’s debut album, Baduizm, comes out in February 1997, and pretty much immediately she’s a star. She’s got the immediately iconic head wrap; live, she’s got the incense, the candles; she’s got a very quietly fantastic sense of comic timing. Here she is explaining the album title Baduizm to Regis and Kathie Lee.
Have I mentioned that one of Erykah’s first jobs was working as a waitress at Steve Harvey’s Comedy House in Dallas? Pretty quickly, she talked her way onstage. That feels relevant.
In 2011, while speaking with our dear friend and Ringer overlord Sean Fennessey for GQ magazine, she also talked about how she felt about her manager calling her music neo-soul. “It was constructed outside of us. I think titles in music are mainly constructed to categorize things to sell units. If I can speak for a lot of artists who feel the same way I do, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t have one song that sounds like another one in my entire catalog. It only sounds alike because I’m present in all of it.”
It’s not that neo-soul was total bullshit or totally unuseful. The great New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh, writing about Erykah in 2016, wrote, “Neo-soul spoke to and for an increasingly confident Black bohemian culture—politically aware, spiritually minded, middle class. Its exponents took pains to show that mainstream hip-hop videos offered only a partial representation of Black life.” But he also wrote about how Erykah, from the very beginning, did exist outside that box or any box. He said, “Of course, Baduizm had its own understated hip-hop swagger. Badu’s willowy voice, softened by vibrato, inspired comparisons to Billie Holiday, but she had a rapper’s sense of rhythm and restraint: she knew how to stack syllables and deploy slang, and she knew when not to smother the beat with extraneous ad-libs.”
He also noted, politely, that Erykah back in ’97 was sometimes willing to frame herself at least as something new for soul music, something necessary, something healing. She once told BET, “Music is kind of sick. It’s going through a rebirthing process, and I found myself being one of the midwives.”
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.