What is independent soul? The term itself seems like an oxymoron. Soul artists that aren’t signed to major labels don’t have the same kind of cultural impact that, say, indie-rock and indie hip-hop artists can have. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Over the past decade, a thriving network has emerged for Grammy-nominated ensembles like the Foreign Exchange, entrepreneurial-minded singers like Eric Roberson, and R&B veterans like Bobby V and Faith Evans (who both record for the mini-major EOne Music).
And 2012 may be the best year for indie-soul since 2009, when the cutting-edge funk and future jazz of Dam-Funk’s Toeachizown and Sa-Ra Creative Partners’ Nuclear Evolution: The Age of Love exposed an underground more sonically diverse than just neo-soul and quiet storm balladry. Some of the renewed attention is due to the Weeknd, whose Trilogy compilation gathered three EPs he released on the Internet in 2011; and Solange Knowles, who recovered from her disappointing stint on Columbia by signing with Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear’s Terrible Records and issuing her True EP. Their justifiably acclaimed efforts are signposts of a creative renaissance that’s remarkably deep.
Here’s a brief but not comprehensive list of the best; some of the artists whom didn’t make the list below include former Arrested Development singer and ‘90s neo-soul diva Dionne Farris, who just issued the surprisingly experimental Lady Dy: The Mixtape; and Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics big-band ‘60s pop debut It’s About Time.
Dawn Richard: Richard’s Armor On mini-album is everything the Diddy Dirty Money project should have been. Unlike Last Train to Paris, she eschews glossy EDM beats and Notorious B.I.G. back-from-the-dead cameos for elliptical songs like “Bombs” and boasts like “Just feed me beats and let me eat up all y’all.” Amid lyrics that range from swaggeringly confident to quietly introspective, she builds towards a single, bombastic, hands-in-the-air moment, and when she finally delivers it with the ecstatic “Faith,” it’s a delightfully climatic reward.
Solange: Set aside Lightspeed Champion’s playful accompaniment like the looping cheers on “Losing You” and the Laurie Anderson-like “oh-ah-oh” electronic vocalese of “Don’t Let Me Down.” The best thing about Solange’s True is her lyrics. On “Lovers in the Parking Lot,” she sings, “Played around with your heart/ Now I’m playing around in the dark/ Now I’m paying while we’re apart/ Guess I played myself from the start.” For “Don’t Let Me Down,” she offers, “I can’t get up/ I moved the mountains in my mind/ You bet your luck I’ll write your name in city lights.” It’s incredibly poetic stuff.
Jack Davey: As the lead in Hollyweird electro-funk duo J*Davey, Jack Davey made DIY R&B by pressing up CD-Rs of its 2005 gem The Beauty in Distortion and selling them at shows long before big-budget mixtapes by the likes of Jeremih and Trey Songz became fashionable. When a deal with Warner Bros. went nowhere and last year’s New Designer Drug drew criminally little attention, Jack Davey put the group on hiatus and re-launched as a solo artist. Her Lo-F! project, which was issued in two “Side A” and “Side B” EPs before getting a “DLux” release this month, is tough, garage-y funk rock. Produced by boyfriend Joey Strat of the Knux, it strips her down to her raw, vital essentials.
Georgia Anne Muldrow: Muldrow’s Seeds is a high point in a journey of defiant independence. Since breaking from Stones Throw with husband Dudley Perkins to launch her SomeOthaShip imprint, Muldrow has appeared on over a dozen albums with ruddy, visionary funk and occasional raps, most of which she produced herself. Perhaps it’s the guiding force of Madlib’s crackling soul loops – though he reportedly didn’t have much to do with the album’s actual production, and only gave Muldrow a beat tape to work with – but she gives one of her most dynamic performances. Themes like the recent death of her father, jazz guitarist Ronald Muldrow, and the war in Libya inspire this brightly optimistic and fearlessly opinionated gem.
Cody ChesnuTT: Landing on a Hundred is a sharp 180-degree turn from ChesnuTT’s 2002 debut. While The Headphone Masterpiece was a two-hour morass of low-fi funk and blues highlighted by “Look Good in Leather” and “Boylife in America,” the Atlanta singer-songwriter’s comeback is a succinct hour-long journey of spiritual redemption and florid throwback soul arrangements. Regardless of his new direction, ChesnuTT’s sincerity, and his ability to communicate that through words and sound shines through. Songs like “Don’t Follow Me” and “Love is More Than a Wedding Day” illustrate a man who has overcome personal demons to reach hard-won inner peace and musical catharsis.
TALWST: This Toronto singer’s Alien Tentacle Sex was bound for comparisons to the Weeknd’s Trilogy: Both list Carlo “Illangelo” Montagnese as an executive producer. But he doesn’t exactly “drink Alize with his cereal for breakfast” like the Weeknd, and his songs are less circuitous narratives than vividly rendered, traditionally structured R&B songs with throbbing electronic effects, from the crazy ping-pong rhythm of “Woman” to the tinkling chimes and piano of “Peace Tonight.” It’s just as much a production showcase as an intriguing debut by a new artist.
Jesse Boykins III: Thanks to an international release on Ninja Tune, Zulu Guru is Boykins’ breakout moment after years of modest, self-produced albums like 2009’s The Beauty Created. Melo-X produced it, and his trippy electronic neo-soul and occasional raps complement Boykins well. But this is really a showcase for the New York singer’s breathy, lush vocals, and smoothly hypnotic numbers like “Broken Wings” and “Outta My Mind,” and “The Perfect Blues.”
Kendra Morris: Regardless of the hype for ambient R&B, the retro sounds so popular in the past decade remain viable options, as Kendra Morris’ Banshee proves wonderfully. With its laconic slide guitar, sweeping Philly soul-like strings, and Morris’ anguished vocals, “If You Didn’t Go” and may be the best single of 2012 that you haven’t heard. “Concrete Waves” evokes both Mary J. Blige and Amy Winehouse, but they’re just misleading impressions of an emerging talent. Morris sassy and supple voice is a thing of its own.
Induce: Ryan “Induce” Smith is a well-known DJ and producer in Miami. His earlier albums like 2005’s Cycle were instrumental affairs, but on Halfway Between You and Me he sings and raps with help from Jack Splash (producer for Melanie Fiona, Kendrick Lamar, Cee-Lo Green and others) and South Florida rappers Seven Star and Fantab. He avoids Mayer Hawthorne comparisons by segueing between hooky downtempo with chicken-scratch guitar (“Cover Girl”), 80s-styled computer funk (“Pretty”), and groovy proto-house (“Get Down Saturday Night”), all of which he adorns with his surprisingly heartfelt vocals.
Choklate: Based in the Pacific Northwest, Choklate’s Fly EP is the latest installment of a catalog filled with warm, humanist neo-soul. For “Carbon Copy,” she argues, “Temptation is to be confrontational/ What we think we own really belongs to the world.” When she flirts with Musiq Soulchild on “The Stand”; and declares to Phonte of the Foreign Exchange (who’s back in rapper mode) on “Win,” “Put your hand on my chest/ And feel my heart racing,” she sounds just as assured as her better-known collaborators, and with just as much to offer.