In the early years of the 21st century, radio playlists were dominated by nu-metal, pop-punk, Eminem and R&B. By now the former two movements are basically considered amusing follies, but plenty of work from the latter two has stood the test of time. However, in many cases, the era-defining appeal of material from that period has placed restrictions on substantial stylistic progress (does anyone remember Eminem’sRecovery?).
Over the last 14 years, Musiq Soulchild has released six albums of Grammy-nominated and commercially successful contemporary R&B. Along the way, he’s realised the pitfalls of not changing up his signature sound.
“You’re trying to live up to something that’s gone,” he says. “I can’t be the same person that I used to be. That moment has come and gone. It’s just scientifically impossible. But we stress ourselves out, lose our hair trying to live up to something that just isn’t real.”
After a few years spent finding his voice on the Philadelphia club scene, Soulchild garnered wide recognition forthe soulful vocals and feel-good R&B of his 2000 debut LP, Aijuswanaseing. Even though he’s successfully stayed within the realms of neo-soul and R&B on subsequent releases, he explains that his allegiance to the genre is largely an outcome of external impositions.
“There is this concept that I initially came out as an R&B artist. No – I was an artist who was able to be immediately successful with R&B music. It could have been anything. It’s just that R&B music was more lucrative than any other genre of music for me at the time.
“I think that just sticking to one genre of music is like asking an actor to play the same role in every movie that they’re in. For some people, for whatever reason, it makes sense for a musician to just make one thing.”
Last year Soulchild released 9ine, an active attempt to break free from the shackles imposed by listener expectations. The record is a collaboration with fellow R&B mainstay Syleena Johnson – but what’s unique about it is that it’s composed entirely of reggae songs.
“It was something that presented itself to me,” he explains, “and I just went along with it and something amazing came out of it. [Syleena’s] an amazing artist and a good friend of mine and we got a chance to be creative for the sake of being creative. If it made a whole lot of money [that would be] fine, but that’s not why we did it.”
At a glance, the release of a reggae album from two artists hitherto entrenched in the world of R&B seems like a rather radical move. But, once again, this impression stems from a supposition that all artists will stay inside their clearly labelled container.
“That was a representation of the other interests that I have,” Soulchild says. “I’m not going to stop making R&B music, it’s just that I have so many other musical interests. If I could successfully put out a hip hop album, I would. If I could successfully put out a jazz album, I would. But I always get that push back – ‘Oh no, you’re an R&B artist, nobody wants to hear you making jazz music.’ That doesn’t make sense to me, but I do know that’s the reality, because there’s just that criteria of, ‘If you started in one lane, stay there.’”
In a commercial sense, 9ine isn’t one of the big triumphs of Soulchild’s trans-decade career. Of course, when you’re plying in the pop sphere there’s never any guarantee that expressing exactly what you want will generate satisfactory commercial returns. This means that in order to meet industry demand, one’s true ambitions are often compromised.
In this regard, Soulchild stresses he’s “never really pursued fame and glory”; rather, he “always wanted the work to speak for itself”. But he does admit, “Through the years I’ve basically conceded to a lot of what the label wanted me to do or whatever radio wanted from me. I may have put my own personal creative passions aside to serve that.”
At the end of the day Soulchild maintains a dedicated listenership, which is largely responsible for keeping him alive in the often-fickle pop music industry. So while he might have felt stylistically confined at times, he understands the significance of the fans.
“If I made it about me I would be a very bitter artist. But I’m not – in fact I’m very grateful that, despite whatever the projects may have been, people were able to enjoy what I put out. I was able to commercially thrive in this game. In no way am I upset or feel in any kind of negative, mad way about it.”
This October, Soulchild will join Maxwell, D’Angelo, Common and many more at the inaugural Soulfest. In the meantime he’s hard at work on a follow-up to his 2011 solo LP, MusiqInTheMagiq. And this time around, his chief objectives surpass what’s likely to be commercially viable.
“I have to consider you guys, according to what I know you’re going to need, regardless of what the trends are,” he says. “Regardless of what the trends are, you’re going to want good music. Good music is not contingent on what’s going on at the moment. Good music depends on the time, effort and the quality of the product. I definitely want to make sure that you guys are getting the best that I can give you.”
Musiq Soulchild will be playing at SoulfestalongsideMaxwell, D’Angelo, Common, Aloe Blacc, Mos Def and more at Victoria Park, BroadwayonSaturday October 18.