The "Neo Soul" label has been slapped on several dozen new artists over the past few years, often by those looking to recapture the combination of musical greatness and social message of many of the great soul artists of early 70s. Where the Motown music factory turned out the most infectious, melodic pop/soul music ever, its slow demise in the 70s coincided with the arrival of the great generation of soul singer-songwriters, led by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield. While that great mini-era itself faded as disco rose to prominence in the last half of that decade, it has been remembered as a time when important social issues such as poverty, race, gender and ecology were addressed in an intelligent manner, and with an idealism in the possibility of change that has been missing from popular music for two decades. In fact, it is challenging to reconcile the messages of concern and hope found in 1972 to the despair and "culture of death" that has pervaded popular music, particularly in the last decade.
In that light, it is tough to label a singer such as, say, D'Angelo, as a successor to those great artists of the early 70s. He's a good songwriter and singer, but he's delivering a different package. I'm much more comfortable labeling India.Arie as a true "Neo Soul" artist, even if that is more regarding the spirit of her music than the 70s groove (which is better replicated by others such as Calvin Richardson or Angie Stone). For an artist who wasn't even born then, India.Arie is delivering a message that could have been delivered thirty years ago. Her consistent themes of self-love and brotherhood as a key to a better life still ring true in the 21st Century.
Born in Colorado but transplanted to Atlanta as a teenager, India.Arie played a number of instruments before focusing on her acoustic guitar. She drew inspiration from soul artists such as Wonder and Hathaway, but also from popular singer-songwriters James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt. After scoring a second stage spot at Sarah McLachlan's Lillith Fair, she was spotted by Motown CEO Kedar Massenberg and signed in 1999 to record her debut album. She tested the Motown brass's patience by taking two years to record Acoustic Soul, and tested radio programmers by creating a sound that didn't match the "flavor of the week," but drew on classic soul, hip-hop, and a surprising amount of pop/folk in an album that bounced between introspective acoustic ballads and bouncy pop/soul, and which openly acknowledged her debt to Wonder, Hathaway and others.
The initial buzz of the disc took it up the charts quickly, but it faded nearly as fast. It wasn't until the lead single, "Video," a song about the importance of inner beauty and self-confidence, began its slow rise on the charts that India.Arie reached the broad public consciousness. This was enhanced by a surprising 7 Grammy nominations. Acoustic Soul ended up a left-field hit, appealing to both young listeners and lovers of classic soul and folk.
The success of Acoustic Soul created great anticipation for Arie's next album, 2002's Voyage to India. Voyage, led off by the first single, "Little Things," (a nifty updating of Rufus's "Hollywood"), bore many resemblances to its predecessor, but was a quieter, more introspective album. It was a slightly less commercial and critical success than Acoustic Soul, but was still an enjoyable, solid disc.
India.Arie took a few years of introspection and travel before releasing her third disc, Testimony: Vol 1, Life and Relationship. Featuring another song of self-affirmation, "I Am Not My Hair," it became her first #1 album and another solid addition to her discography. She followed in in early 2009 with the sequel, Testimony: Vol. 2, Love and Politics, her most introspective album yet. Her duet with Musiq, "Chocolate High" became a smash and led to great anticipation for the album.
Through her four albums, India.Arie has managed to deliver her largely acoustic message of self-worth clearly and generally without sounding preachy or pretentious. Both likeable and talented, she has established herself as one of the leaders of the new soul movement, seemingly as comfortable playing in a small coffee house as on a major stage. And she has opened the door for other artists from Anthony David to Lizz Wright, who bring a less manufactured, more organic sound to soul.
In 2012, Arie was embroiled in a lawsuit from her former manager, but she finally released new music in the form of the song "Cocoa Butter" in early 2013 and scheduled the release of her first album in four years, SongVersation, for late June.
By Chris Rizik