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While many neo-soul artists have found video support at MTV, VH1 and BET, with the exception of Macy Gray, Top 40 radio play has been much harder to come by. Keys’ "Fallin’" will very likely reverse that trend.
ON RECORDS: NEO-SOUL NIRVANA
As Teenpop Declines, Alicia, Jill, India, Musiq, Sunshine Move To Fill The Void

By Lenny Beer and Jon O’Hara

It’s as plain to see as the towel that occasionally adorns Erykah Badu’s head. And like Badu’s often-colorful headdress, its mysteries have yet to be fully revealed.

We’re talking, of course, about the hip-hop-inflected, jazz-informed, R&B-rooted sounds of neo-soul, and this much we do know: It’s huge. And with last week’s stunning #1 debut for Alicia Keys heralding the kind of mass-appeal breakthrough the nascent genre’s been lacking, it’s only getting bigger.

"Songs in A Minor," the J Records debut from 20-year-old New Yorker Keys, is the latest of a half-dozen or so releases from new artists since Badu dropped her "Baduizm" (Motown) on our collective domes in February 1997, arguably pioneering the neo-soul sound. Since then, albums by Macy Gray, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, India.Arie, Sunshine Anderson and now Keys have broadened the genre, selling more than 10 million records collectively. (Singer/rapper Lauryn Hill, whose "Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" swept the Grammys in 1998, may have opened the door to neo-soul with her work on the Fugees’ "The Score," but she leans toward a harder hip-hop edge than the other artists we’re looking at for the sake of this discussion.)

However, while many neo-soul artists have found video support at MTV, VH1 and BET, with the exception of Macy Gray, Top 40 radio play has been much harder to come by. Keys’ "Fallin’," which is currently hot at Rhythm and Crossover, will very likely reverse that trend as J’s Top 40 campaign gets underway. And given the depth of Keys’ album, her youth and the diversity of her material—both Keys and "A Minor" are a lock for Grammy glory in ’02—she’s on the verge of becoming a mass-appeal radio staple.

It couldn’t come at a better time. With the decline of teenpop, rock has already proved resurgent, as witnessed by strong chart debuts for Dave Matthews, Weezer, Staind, Tool and Blink-182. Now neo-soul is moving in to further fill the void: Strong recent chart debuts have included Musiq’s "Aijuswanaseing" (Def Jam) in November, India.Arie’s "Acoustic Soul" (Motown) in March and Anderson’s "Your Woman" (Atlantic) in April. All sold strongly out of the box—again, with minimal Pop radio exposure—and have helped to build the genre’s momentum.

When you think about it, the growing audience for neo-soul makes sense: If the pendulum is swinging for teenpop, it’s swinging for mainstream rap and hip-hop as well. And just as a little punk-rock trio from the Pacific Northwest lumber country felled so-called "corporate rock" in the early ’90s, it’s only natural that something more organic such as neo-soul would begin to seriously engage audiences who are outgrowing cookie-cutter pop and rap music. Listeners are ready for something a little more sophisticated.

Which brings us back to Alicia Keys. If you need convincing that the neo-soul movement is bigger than you think, consider this: In its first week, "Songs in A Minor" sold nearly three times what people expected, and the album has held up unusually well in its second, dropping only 25% to 168k. Exposure on "Oprah," "The Tonight Show" and "The View" aside, that only happens if the music is connecting with people in a very big way.

We may never know the secrets of Badu’s turban (what’s in there? a sandwich? a midget?), but Erykah, Macy, Jill, Musiq, India, Sunshine and now Alicia have already shown us what they have up their sleeves. Watch closely as radio reacts to this latest manifestation of a potent new genre and you’ll see it’s no illusion. This is magic time.

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