Some of these artists left a strong mark on neo-soul in the 2010s, and others have yet to realize their potential fanbase and impact. But some things hold each of these artists together — a deep sense of soul’s past and present, a pitch-perfect voice, and the swagger it takes to amass a wide audience.
Ari Lennox — Key album: “Shea Butter Baby”
Her 2016 hit “Yuengling” caught many ears, but it took a truly awesome 2019 for mainstream listeners to realize Ari Lennox’s greatness. Her buttery-smooth voice is deepened by the stories of difficulty portrayed in her songs, creating an aura of alluring wisdom. Her immense talent supported by a skyrocketing Dreamville label means there’s no saying how high she can soar.
Solange — Key album: “A Seat at the Table”
Solange has an aura of beauty and power, and that is continually backed up by extremely soulful music, dense with storytelling about overcoming hardship and practicing wisdom. The journey to self-empowerment is difficult for anyone, and is made harder by the marginalization black women face. But Solange’s determination and power to spread it make her music incredible — and that’s not to mention her dove-like voice and conceptual album rollout and production. At points, her music can appear contrived or overly complex, but we’ll look back at her discography as an all-time great when all is said and done.
Mac Ayres — Key album: “Something to Feel”
Ayres has gained steam in the last few years, with a pair of rock-solid studio albums, “Something to Feel” and “Juicebox,” introducing listeners to a truly angelic voice displaying a seductive vulnerability that’ll draw you in and stroke your cheek and make you feel beautiful inside. We all know we could use some of that in quarantine. It’s unsurprising to see Ayres cite D’Angelo as one of his biggest influences, and while Ayres’s whiteness may seem in contrast to soul’s roots, his voice, spread-love attitude, and awareness make him a great addition to the genre.
Brent Faiyaz — Key album: “Sonder Son”
A tender voice and a strong sense of where he’s from make Faiyaz an exciting young voice in the genre. He’s only dropped one full-length album, “Sonder Son,” though his 2020 effort, “Fuck the World” is essentially his second despite being called an EP. His most common moods are sad and sexually charged, and his ability to blur the lines between the two makes him fit for a wide range of social situations (and anti-social ones). But that sadness seems altogether too pervasive — it seems like it holds him back at times from realizing his full potential. But that’s none of my business, and whatever his mood, Faiyaz has put out some of the strongest neo-soul the genre has seen.
Steve Lacy — Key album: “Apollo XXI”
Steve is only 21-years-old after three studio albums (two with The Internet), a demo-EP, and a Grammy victory. One of the youngest, most talented people in the music industry, Lacy has a searingly bright future ahead of him. His music ranges from R&B to funk to soul, an innovative entity in a music industry that often forces artists to pick one sound. Tracks like “Playground” and “Basement” might leave you wondering about whether he belongs in this genre, but further listening on his solo album “Apollo XI” shows a delicate voice and soothing vocals that place him at the forefront of the genre.
SZA — Key Album: “CTRL”
Before the commercial mega-success of “CTRL,” SZA was largely seen as a feature artist for her label mates. And she quickly showed everyone how unfair that conception was; “CTRL” showed the world gaping insecurity mixed with monstrous talent, and it would take serious ignorance to see her as anything other than a star. She’s in a similar boat as Lennox — her undeniable talent and a spot with an awesome label will afford her the industry-wide credibility it takes to sustain wide critical success.