Now in its third decade, neo-soul is no passing craze. Two seminal records of the genre – D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun – turned twenty in 2020. All these years later, there’s no shortage of artists continuing to take the genre forward.
R&B has also seen something of a resurgence in recent times, with contemporary and alternative R&B artists taking cues from the smoother sounds of 90s R&B, and fusing it with everything from indie to jazz.
With all their crossovers, we’re just going to take the two genres together here to present some of the most interesting R&B and neo-soul artists we’ve been listening to in 2020. The artists in this list are cases-in-point of how varied these genres can be, borrowing from each other and further afield to develop some of the vibiest music we’ve heard this year.
Yazmin Lacey’s steady, low-energy jazz soul vibes have resonated in a big way across the UK jazz scene. Understated and restrained, in her live performances, Lacey carries an air of humility and warmth – a curious juxtaposition to the coolness of her music, underpinned with hip-hop and jazz grooves. At its core, Yazmin Lacey’s music bears the distinctive marks of neo-soul, as she builds on jazz and soul foundations to create something distinctly contemporary, capturing the essence of what the genre has come to mean. Check out her recent single ‘Morning Matters.’
Hailing from Manchester, Mali Hayes has been making waves across the UK with her heavily R&B-influenced brand of neo-soul. Part of Gilles Peterson’s esteemed Future Bubblers programme, Mali Hayes’ smooth, soulful delivery has made her the perfect fit for collaborations with the likes of UK hip-hop heavyweights Foreign Beggar and Leeds’ Abstract Orchestra (make sure to check these out). Her single ‘Hate on Me’ is a flawless example of the British variety of neo-soul, with its understated soul hooks, and lyrical themes of personal empowerment and self-affirmation.
Describing themselves as electronic-soul, the heavy hip-hop influence in Noya Rao’s grooves, and the lilting voice of singer Olivia Bhattacharjee camp them within the neo-soul space. Based in Leeds, and benefitting, no doubt, from the strong jazz presence in that city, Noya Rao lean towards the more electronic side of the genre, with synths providing the foundational texture of their sound. They nail the ‘drunk’ hip-hop grooves live, and this combined with the rich synths, and Bhattacharjee’s floating melodies make them a very pleasant listen. Check out their single Pina.
Downtown Kayoto’s discography is experimental and diverse, and his latest releases have seen his sound coagulate into something firmly alt-R&B. Hailing from near the Victoria Falls in Zambia, Downtown now calls the somewhat-less-romantic Kingston-upon-Hull his home – something which he carries proudly. Releases including the sweetly addictive ‘Feels Like,’ and ‘Do Better’ are deeply melodic, and come with some stunning visuals. Downtown Kayoto’s optimistic lyrics are heavy on themes of identity, self-development, and moving forward.
Dijon’s hazy, folky How Do You Feel About Getting Married has been one of the most interesting records in the soul space to emerge this year. With heavy folk and indie influences accompanying the R&B-esque vocals, the singer and songwriter’s debut solo EP is saturated with tingling falsetto, glistening acoustic guitars, and even slide guitar. Growing up between Germany and the US, Dijon is based in Los Angeles, but calls Maryland home – which maybe says something about the surprising, almost Americana-y influences you’ll hear here.
Of all the artists on this list, London’s Aaron Taylor stays truest to the roots of neo-soul. Drawing heavily on classic soul sounds, brass textures, and jazz changes, Taylor’s tunes are big on tenderness and sensuality. I hear plenty of Stevie Wonder in this. But Taylor also brings some of the rougher, grittier features that distinguish neo-soul from its predecessor. Check out his debut album Icarus.
Blending elements of jazz, soul, and rock, B-ahwe’s debut album Nuance is a real melting pot of genres, never straying too far from the neo-soul realm. A stalwart of Leeds’ jazz scene, B-ahwe’s voice meanders like a butterfly over shifting textures on this record. Truest to jazz and soul in her delivery and style, B-ahwe’s is a powerful and versatile voice. Watch out for her, also, on collabs with Nix Northwest and apltn.
Eric Mayson forgoes any simplisstic clichés associated with neo-soul in his complex, profound, and searingly expressive music. The Minneapolis-based artist blends soul with electronica and jazz to stunning effect. His outstanding and poetic 2019 album Op-Nope explores the march of time, the pain of personal growth, and the vast potential of human experience. That record is one of my favourite discoveries of the last year or so.
You won’t find him on Google (just try searching ‘simon a.’) – so to make it easy for you, here’s a link to his YouTube, Bandcamp, and Instagram. The mysterious Londoner’s music is reliably downbeat, dreamy, and dripping with soul. Simon a.’s tight and cohesive production is at times reminiscent of James Blake, with his honest and vulnerable lyrics and delivery reaching towards the heights of Frank Ocean’s artistry. Hitting the sweet spot between listenability and originality, I suspect it won’t be long before the algorithms, if not the gods of musical taste, grant simon a. his rightful place.
Nyah Grace’s music falls towards the smoother end of the spectrum of the artists on this list. Hailing from the rural expanses of Oregon, Nyah Grace now calls the bustling metropolis of London home. Crossing over smooth soul with more contemporary elements of R&B, her debut album Honey-Coloured calls to mind the likes of Lauryn Hill, Corinne Bailey Rae (who features on ‘My Sista Told Me’), and Billie Holiday.
Australia’s neo-soul scene is one of the best in the world, and Brisbane’s Tiana Khasi is a case in point. Her stunning debut EP Meghalaya , which pays tribute to her Samoan and Indian heritage, is an experimental soul odyssey. With heavy doses of synths, strings, and percussion, Tiana Khasi’s brand of future soul is bold and boundary pushing, without sacrificing the fundamentals – big grooves and sweet, soulful hooks.
Foushee unknowingly became a TikTok sensation when her track ‘Deep End’ was sampled, without credit, by Sleepy Hallow (after some weeks, her name was eventually added to the listing). Honestly, just skip that version and go straight to the original. Her breathy, almost whispered vocals – which you’ll hear on most of the tracks – combined with washy, hazy production, and elements of jazz and hip-hop, make for some beautiful, sleepily sensual sounds – check out ‘Pillow’ for the full effect.
Nostalgic and dreamy, Treasure blends soulful melodies with bedroom pop production. On the ambient end of the spectrum, Treasure eschews the big hip-hop based grooves common to neo-soul, leaning towards the simplicity of indie rhythms. His highly listenable twinkling guitars, jazz chords, and falsetto vocals have seen Treasure sneak onto some big playlists, making him one of those artists you might well have heard over the airwaves, with or without knowing. Now you know his name. Check out his album Suffocation & Air.
James Tillman offers a sophisticated departure from some of the easier clichés of neo-soul. Despite the foundational soul element of his sound – the overall harmony, and soulful delivery – Tillman’s music pulls in all sorts of different directions from the mystical sounds of ‘Arizona,’ the bossa nova and experimental aspects of ‘Casual Encounters,’ to the big, head-nod grooves of ‘Lose Control’ which make you want to do just that. It’s no surprise to learn that by Tillman’s own admission, fellow Washingtonian Marvin Gaye had a big influence on him. Listen for those percussion layers on Tillman’s ‘5AM’, reminiscent of the legendary What’s Going On.
Another staple of Australia’s neo-soul scene is the 30/70 collective. Featuring the vocal talent of Allysha Joy (check out her solo stuff, too), 30/70 are known for their tight grooves, blending jazz and hip-hop elements. Their future soul sound takes off from the likes of Haitus Kayote, heading in a cosmic direction, with their latest record Fluid Motion even referencing elements of grime and dub.
Hailing from LA, rapper and producer Swoon blends elements of R&B, hip-hop, and indie in his distinctive and clever music. His EP An Ending is great, but to get the full effect of this artist, you need to get on YouTube. Honesty and candour come through strongly in Swoon’s lyrics, with the artist exploring the difference between honesty and confessionality. Swoon’s work really comes together in his stunning videos. Watch out for the motifs of people dancing on hilltops, and near misses with road traffic.
Manchester’s Femi Tahiru blends R&B and soul with guitar-based indie, combining elements from two of the musical genres his city is famous for. Lo-fi elements in his beats and production, combined with lyrics that delve into the ins-and-outs of cosmopolitan millennial life, Femi Tahiru’s sound captures something of the essence of this generation. Check out his 2020 singles ‘The Weekend,’ and ‘Signs.’
Making her return in the midst of the madness of 2020, singer and producer Tonia Victoria’s R&B sound is influenced by South London and Huddersfield. Her latest release ‘U Cute’ marks a playful and uplifting progression from her introspective and deep Herstory EP, and the mournful ‘Pitter Pat,’ her biggest single to date.
Living between the UK and the US, Lucy DK’s tender yet raw music is full of references to the transitory and fleeting aspects of contemporary life, and the search for connection. After experimenting with Americana in Nashville for some months, Lucy DK eventually found herself drawn towards the realness and provocativeness of hip-hop and R&B. Check out her singles ‘Family Drama’ and ‘Beth’s in China’, along with her 2020 EP Waterlilies.
Manchester rapper KinKai’s 2020 album A Pennies Worth blends elements of lo-fi, jazz, hip-hop and soul. Exploring the themes of everyday life, mental health, and aspirations, the record represents all that’s good about Manchester’s hip-hop and neo-soul crossover scene. Make sure to check out his collaborations with Glue70, Skeltr, and Children of Zeus, too.