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Neo-Soul – History Famous Artists

Photograph of the blog post author, Annika Hope

Annika Hope


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Neo soul has been and is a part of the American music scene and in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s and it is making a comeback. There are plenty of talented artists in this type of genre and we will explore today what neo soul is, what the chord progression you need to know to be able to play neo soul music and the musicians who paved the way for those singing in this style of music today. So what exactly is neo soul? Read on to find out more. 

What is Neo-Soul?

Neo-soul has a close relationship with contemporary R&B – a sub genre if you will and you see the merging with the classic soul sounds of Stax and Motown Records with grooves borrowed from hip-hop, rock, funk, and electronic music. What we are essentially looking for are the smooth, rich and warm sounds in the Neo soul chords. We will explore further the neo soul chord progressions later on. 

The phrase was actually created by Kedar Massenburg in the 1990s to describe a particular style that was born out of soul and R&B. It became immensely popular and so many people loved the way it sounded. 

However, after a few years, the artists who bought it into fruition, began to move further from the mainstream and wanted to challenge musical boundaries. Therefore by the beginning of the 2000s, it had all but vanished. But we are now seeing neo soul artists again on the music scene. They started reappearing in the 2010s and thank goodness they did, because they brought new life to the genre. And I am so pleased to be able to write about it now. Someone like John Legend helped people rediscover the neo roots in a contemporary way. His sound is very distinguishable once you know about neo soul and you can hear the original layers of funk, rock and hip-hop all in one space. 

The bass line is key to the smooth sounds of neo soul. You can start with a drum beat to create harmony and melody in your neo soul track. It will essentially allow you to create neo soul music that is individual to you. You can always use the Virtual Drummer DEEP, part of UJAM’s collection, so you can use lots of cross-stick snare hits, straight-eighth hi hats, and swung kick drum rhythms. 

What Instruments Does Neo Soul Use? 

Neo soul leans more towards organic instruments, such as; electric guitars, basses and pianos. 

Neo Soul Chord Progressions 

What is important to note is that Neo soul chords originate from traditional 7th chords. If you are playing neo soul on a piano, the most authentic neo soul sound comes from an electric piano, but you can also create music on a grand piano too. 

There are four main foundational chord types – the major chord, the minor chord, augmented and diminished.

Beyond this, a chord progression is a group of chords played in a specific order and this order can have an affect on the emotional style of the music and the audience themselves. Neo soul is music theory heavy, but it does tend to go beyond the strict patterns you may find in other genres. Neo Soul chord progressions play in and outside the original key, which are more in step with the genre of  jazz.

The 4 chord types used in neo soul, which are; 

  • Extended chords – neo soul chords often extend past the complete triad, adding additional tones within and outside the scale’s octave.
  • Shell chords – Many neo soul chords will have plenty of extra notes, but the opposite is also true.
  • Altered chords – there will be more secondary dominants, key changes, and less common chord forms like diminished or augmented chords in neo soul. 
  • Inversions – these refer to a chord being played outside of its root order.

The 4 chord progressions that are used in neo soul are as follows; 

  • Minor I IV V – 1 4 5 chord progression (Alicia Keys – Fallin)
  • IIm7 V7 or IIm7 V7 Imaj7 VI7 – 2 5 1 chord progression (Stevie Wonder – Isn’t She Lovely)
  • I V/ii ii V I (CeeLo Green – Forget You)
  • Extended Dyads – (Luther Vandross – Never Too Much)

How To Write A Neo-Soul Song

Do you write the lyrics first or the melody? Everybody is different and you just have to work the best way for you. 

As we have mentioned above, you have to master the neo-soul chords and progressions first. There are tricky harmonies to overcome and it has roots in gospel music, jazz, soul or blues, so it is not a simple genre to tackle. Therefore, make yourself familiar with the basic chords and find a way that you can make individual work within the space. You need to find your own sound. 

You have to have as much soul in your sound as possible and this should come out in a lyrical sense. There has to be deep emotional context to the song, and it really has to resonate. 

The next step is to find a balance between the modern neo soul and at the same time harking back to the classics, like that of Diana Ross or Marvin Gaye for instance. There is that old soul but make it new and relatable to a modern audience. The characteristic 2-5-1 chord pattern is going to be a building block, on which you can create your own neo soul phrases.  

Neo Soul artists taking the world by storm 

These are some of the neo soul artists worth mentioning that have been making their mark on the music scene over the years. I hope you have heard of some of them and if not, you will have by the end of this article.


An American singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer. He first garnered attention after co-producing the single U Will Know for R&B supergroup Black Men United. With his debut album Brown Sugar, it was believed he began the neo soul movement so we have a lot to thank him for. His single on the album Lady, reached the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100.


He released his debut studio album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite in 1996 and music credits claimed that he helped push forward the rise of neo soul, similar to D’Angelo. 

In 2009 his fourth studio album BLACKsummers’night was released, which became his second album to reach number one on the Billboard 200 chart.

Lauryn Hill

She is a prominent female rapper and inspirational amongst this genre of music. She broke barriers for female rappers and shone a light on hip hop and neo soul, making them popular in the music industry. 

Her 1998 solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was the best-selling album of all time. Hill has won eight Grammy Awards, which broke the record for any female rapper to this day.

Erykah Badu

Erykah is an American singer-songwriter, record producer and actress. Influenced by R&B, soul, and hip hop, she released her debut album Baduizm in the year of 1997. This earned her critical acclaim and placed her at the forefront of the neo soul movement. She was given the nickname “Queen of Neo Soul” by music critics. She has been in many movies, of which include; Blues Brothers 2000, The Cider House Rules and House of D.

Jill Scott

Jill is an American singer, songwriter, model, poet and actress. Her 2000 debut album, Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds Vol. 1, went platinum and the follow-ups Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2 and The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Vol. 3,  both achieved gold status. 

Scott made her film debut in 2007 in Hounddog and Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?. In 2008, she starred in the BBC/HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, based on the novels of the same name by Alexander McCall Smith. After a four-year hiatus from music, Scott released her fourth album, The Light of the Sun, in 2011. In 2014, she starred in the film Get on Up as the second wife of James Brown. In 2015, she released her fifth album, Woman. Beginning in 2018, Scott appeared in The CW DC Comics superhero series Black Lightning as Lady Eve.

Arlo Parks

Arlo is a British singer and songwriter. Her debut studio album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, was released in 2021 to critical acclaim and peaked at number three on the UK Albums Chart. It earned her nominations for Album of the Year, Best New Artist and Best British Female Solo Artist at the 2021 Brit Awards. It won the 2021 Hyundai Mercury Prize for Best Album.

Closing Thoughts

Neo soul is all about the soul, the emotion behind the music. Music is the imagination, magic for the universe and this is what is integral to neo soul. You really have to breathe life into the genre, so people can resonate with it. There is no pretension in soul music and a nod to an older time can be heard in the notes. Soul will always be there, even if you call it neo soul, so just allow yourself to be inspired by it and find your own path.


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