Chris Rizik: Indie Soulers Don't Need To Try To Be Rihanna

 If you've been following independent soul for awhile, you're probably scratching your head about some recent trends.  And if you're in your 40s or 50s, you may be beginning to draw blood from all that scratching.

Over the course of the last decade, a new generation of independent soul singers arrived. Proclaiming that they were carrying the torch of Donny and Marvin and Roberta, many of them captured the sense of purpose and melody of those classic soul artists of the 70s - for my money the high point of soul music - while bringing forward the sound with 21st century sensibilities.

 If you've been following independent soul for awhile, you're probably scratching your head about some recent trends.  And if you're in your 40s or 50s, you may be beginning to draw blood from all that scratching.

Over the course of the last decade, a new generation of independent soul singers arrived. Proclaiming that they were carrying the torch of Donny and Marvin and Roberta, many of them captured the sense of purpose and melody of those classic soul artists of the 70s - for my money the high point of soul music - while bringing forward the sound with 21st century sensibilities.

But a funny thing is happening to some of this newer generation of soul music torch bearers.  They're now ten years older than when the movement began, and they appear to be suffering an identity crisis that is a corollary to what their major label counterparts are experiencing, as beautifully summarized in a recent piece from our Music Editor, L. Michael Gipson, about Toni Braxton:

No matter how big an act they are there is something mysterious that happens to artists and their labels once a talent turns thirty, or at least is forced to admit it, and the curiosity lasts until the artist hits their forties, when they are considered a vet and jazz, gospel, covers and a new comeback adventurism is allowed... It happened to multi-Grammy Award-winning Toni Braxton after the double-platinum The Heat (some might argue it happened after the 20 million-seller Secrets). Back then, Braxton's record label suddenly had no idea how to market her and the material began to suffer from trend chasing, a nearly always disastrous decision.

A somewhat similar malady now appears to be rearing its head in the world of independent soul. I say this because we receive advance cuts from upcoming albums of many independent artists, and I'm shocked at how many appear to have decided that they are going to enter their late 30s kicking and screaming, afraid of skewing "too old" with their audience (the same audience that became the mainstay of their fanbase for the past decade), or maybe even more afraid that, despite their indie credentials and a solid body of work, they are approaching 40 still not having achieved the level of commercial acclaim they wanted. So they are awkwardly reinventing their music to try to reach those elusive 20-somethings (who have never been their audience in the first place). Song after song I receive now features a talented adult soul artist adopting hip-hop elements and heavy electronics (boasting that their new, young producer also worked with this or that top 40 R&B performer), trying to proclaim its hipness at the expense of anything resembling the sense of melody and maturity that brought that artist to the show and won his or her existing fans.  And what I'm hearing is not a creative step forward. It appears more like desperation from artists who neither appear comfortable nor all that interesting with their new autotuned electronic production that sounds like, well, everything else on the radio.

Part of delusion behind all this is the mistaken logic that the major record companies were singing for years: young people buy music and people over 30 don't.  That was the music Gospel, until they found out it was completely false.  Aside from teen artist Taylor Swift, the biggest selling albums of the past 3 years have been from artists like Michael Buble, Josh Groban, Carrie Underwood and Susan Boyle - artists who draw substantially from older audiences. The over 30 crowd buys more CDs, illegally downloads less and, frankly, has more money to spend on concerts and recorded music.  And nowhere has that been more evident than in the new soul movement.

All that being said, not all the major indie soul artists are pandering to get a younger audience.  Take the new album by P.J. Morton, Walk Alone, or Angela Johnson's upcoming It's Personal.  In both cases these talented artists have created albums that are distinct from their earlier work and show them to be continuing to develop as musicians and lyricists.  But both artists appear comfortable enough in their musical skins that they're not trying to mimic Rihanna or Jason Derulo in order to bring in younger fans.  They are who they are, and if the history of music shows anything, it is that audiences find great music and that great careers invariably come from artists who are true to themselves.  Indie soul king Eric Roberson received both praise and some criticism for his most recent album, Music Fan First, with it's increased hip-hop influences. But longtime Erro fans know that this was not youth pandering: those influences have always been in his music, and his incorporation of varied beats along with jazz and rock elements were part of an artistic explosion, resulting in his most complex and ambitious album to date. He was rewarded for his risk-taking with his most successful album ever (which, yes, brought in some younger audiences for the right reasons), as well as a Grammy nomination.

Even on the major label side of soul, artists like Jaheim and Monica are finding both a creative and commercial groove by embracing their maturity, as recently they've each issued arguably the best album of their careers while achieving great sales - mostly to 30 and 40-somethings. And mainstays like Maxwell and Sade have gone platinum relying on their loyal over-30 fans.

Unfortunately, much of what is hitting my desk - and what it appears we'll continue to experience as the year goes on - doesn't sound like indie artists stretching themselves to reach their creative potential or to embrace who they really are. It sounds instead like artistic confusion, an attempt to capture their own youth and to "finally make it" by grabbing a phantom larger, younger audience, even at the expense of their true muse and their longtime fans.  It is a story that has played out hundreds of times over the past several decades, so I don't know why I should have expected something different from these artists who I've come to know and personally admire over the seven years of SoulTracks.  But it feels like they're chasing shadows and stunting rather than enhancing their artistic development.  And it will be sad to see some good people making a really bad mistake.

By Chris Rizik

 
SoulTracks Choice Cut - Toni Redd - "Underneath My Skin"
Song of the Month - Stokley - "Level"
CD of the Month - Phil Perry - Breathless
Pre-order now! - Norman Brown - Let It Go

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