Did Neo-soul ever disappear? The sophisticated, challenging, emotional and organic alternative to it’s pesticidal, hollow, sample-obsessed, accessibly comfortable and digital-dependable sister: conventional R&B, had its glory in the mid 1990s and was made famous by musicians such as Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Macy Gray and Angie Stone. Then at the start of this century, it suddenly vanished with one theory being that the uncompromising, complex and fragile nature of the compositions weren’t commercially viable enough for record labels’ big buck ambitions and soulless marketing campaigns.
Banished like a freakish child thrown in the sewers for being too irregular and forced to fend for itself, it remained existential in music’s underground caves. Although recent saviours in Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Mayer Hawthorne’s A Strange Arrangement and the return of pioneer D’Angelo with his first album in over a decade: The Black Messiah, have suggested an uprising is forming. Giggly and romantic lonely heart Lydia René from Mount Holly, New Jersey, doesn’t appear to have the fighting spirit to be the Che Guevara of Neo-Soul from her interview clip or friendly EP cover, but she is the underdog ready to be underestimated.
Inhibiting the afro hair and complimentary lyrics of self-confessed idol Jill Scott, she has boldly teamed up with one of the producers of the more confrontational Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – one of the revolutionary albums of the Neo-Soul genre – for her new album Vintage Heart. The format of intros, reprise and interludes are a standardized format for Neo-soul albums helping to make up the iconic releases from Badu, Hill and Scott by illustrating their album structure and conceptual nature.
Lydia René’s album begins with “Nice To Meet You”, sunny acoustic guitar and humming (which are experimented on other tracks in the album) are interrupted by a conversation between the singer and a curious male fan who asks her questions about her music in an awkward and slightly creepy manner, that hints at a subsequent dinner invitation, especially when he asks René’s relationship availability status. The interaction is based around small talk which unfortunately sounds a little unrealistic, is badly acted and dull in its content but it ultimately leads to the introduction of the singer’s name and album’s themes.
Even if delivery is unconvincing, at least the idea is great for its personal touch, welcoming courtesy and odes to the talking intros other neo-soul albums: Alicia Keys’s “Piano and I” (contains harmonies and an instrumental melody like on “Nice To Meet You”), Lauryn Hill’s “Intro” (in the form of a school registration) and Jill Scott’s “Jilltro”, although the latter is a monologue introducing herself rather than a spontaneous question and answer session, despite also fittingly containing self-promotion name-dropping.
Interestingly, “Power Soul Intro” by Pever Everett lecturers about his invented genre and its connection to the “knowledge of love” and freedom from urban chaos and that would have been an applicable technique to invite us into the world of Lydia René’s music because it too redefines Neo-soul for a new generation. In fact this could be a new genre entitled alternative-progressive neo-soul.
The use of “progressive” sounds contradictory considering the album is entitled Vintage Heart but it’s highly appropriate for two reasons. The first reason is its surprising use of progressive rock guitars. Admittedly her name has a close resemblance to Neo-soul-fusion artist Janelle Monáe – whose album consisted of quasi-Prince psychedelic rock soul and incidentally is inspired by Neo-soul queen Erykah Badu – but the use of progressive rock guitars was still unexpected due its absence on the albums of her major influence Jill Scott.
When you hear the idiosyncratic clicks and sparkle dust of Scott on the fast latin acoustics on “Only In Time, it’s also harder to belief. A powerful example of this progressive rock is on “True Love”, Lydia René persistently maintains a soulful and golden-Kelis tone which can be seen as stereotypical of her genre but it’s backed by an electric shred guitar that is allowed to improvise, jam and given a progressive rock spotlight. It could be a gimmick but it’s played with such authentic and passionate arpeggios that it has a purposeful place in it’s composition.
It also exists on the interlude “Where Are You?” along with tapping percussion, before disappearing into gospel organ and a recycled mixture of backward taping and guitar repetition that sounds a kin to the experimental moments of the aforementioned Janelle Monáe. The string alterations the reprise on “Only in Time Reprise” also seem like Monáe’s thing – especially on Electric Lady – whilst the orchestral daydream of bonus track “Cares Chorus” is like Monáe’s moments of Willy Wonka wizardry: “Suite III: Overture, Mushrooms & Roses”, “Look Into My Eyes” and “Suite V: Electric Overture”. It also importantly shows off René’s diverse and technically brilliant vocals with it reaching of graceful falsettos that suggest she will be an inspiring vocalist of the future.
The other rationale for the progressive term is how her neo-soul is integrated with modern techniques and trending attributes of blips, glitches and futuristic framing. It joins artists like James Blake in this mission but with a rather more obvious lean to the past in the vocals, less dependency on Electro-Soul qualities and emphasizing on its female associations. Interlude “Where Are You?” ends with an contrast of organic instruments cut apart by digital propellers and thumps and glitches past “True Love”. After a euphoric rise of synths, “Feels So Nice” uses voice alterations to deepen, twist, swipe and echo her voice in Purity Ring and FKA Twigs fashion. Yet the song is very human for its lyrics about laziness and simplistic relationships: “Look at cartoons, eat some cereal, exactly where we belong”.
The current enthrallment with disco funk – thanks to Daft Punk, Mark Ronson, Tuxedo, Marina and the Diamonds, Chromeo and the new release from godfathers Chic – stylizes the mid-tempo groove on “Last Night”. Although this is much closer to Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” for its arrangement of changing mood tempos and smooth key alterations that switch from being danceable to lounging on the brown leather sofas. It’s also refreshingly endearing for its female perspective of the predicament of falling in love with after just one meeting and having to hide those feelings to fit with the dating game rules. Usually, neo-soul empowers women but it doesn’t always equalize their thoughts with stereotypical masculine opinions and sometimes fails to show vulnerabilities.
Neo-Soul by definition is an elegant mix of lifestyles and genres that can range enormously and René’s album surprises once again with the Southern rock guitar riff in “That’s Life” which points to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”. The semi-rapping and blues organ also remind us of the gospel sound and mentality of Lauryn Hill who used any instrument that she fell in love with, resulting in an abundant collection.
Ultimately, Vintage Heart is a very eclectic promising experience that builds anticipation towards its completed LP releases. Which should be something epic. Let’s be hopeful that it sticks to the principles of Neo-soul in looking both backward and forward, freedom of creativity, deeply personal lyrics and maintaining complete control in the production process in the same methodology Lauryn Hill maintained for her The Miseducation album, If this is the case, we could see another masterpiece on our hands. For now let’s get alternative-progressive-neo-soul trending on social media.
Lydia Rene’s Vintage Heart album is out now, purchase it here.
Words by Matt Hobbs