I rarely look back fondly on the 50’s and 60’s. Historically, our people were not having a great time (you have to go way back and to a different continent to find a period to be nostalgic about). But there are things that we would be remiss to forget—the stories told and created, the lives lived, and the music made. This sound, largely comprised of soul and R&B, is having a real mainstream renaissance—supposedly being led by voices like Adele, Sam Smith, and Amy Winehouse, with occasional interjections from The Weekend and Lianne La Havas. This new soul movement (not to be confused with neo-soul) has a particular face, and that face isn’t really Leon Bridges’, but maybe it should be.
I first found Leon Bridges, a native of Fort Worth, through his NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert. I think it’s probably one of the easiest ways to introduce Bridges, because words sometimes fail to capture how precisely it seems that Bridges has been transported from the 1960s and placed in the modern era. His style, both of dress and voice, could be from videos in segregated juke joints, if not for the colorful video and clarity of the sound. The content of his album, Coming Home, is light and romantic, often drawing from his own family history—in his song “Twistin’ and Groovin’,” written about the first time his grandparents met, he says “love the way that you dance, and honey, I’ve got a question: / Baby, would you be my queen?” In his song “Smooth Sailing,” he and his amazing background vocalist, Brittni Jessie, sing over horns and drums, “said I like the way (like the way) / you sail your ship down. / Let me be your cargo,” both charming and still coy enough to bring to life a different time, when boys and their love songs were both a little more subtle. The bulk of this album offers music for a Saturday afternoon, with little urgency or heaviness—though songs like “River,” a clear stand out on the album, have true emotional weight.
What Bridges lacks in urgency, though, is heartily made up for in cultural understanding and significance. He’s not trying to reinvent the wheel here—what’s good about Bridges is what has been good about soul since Cooke and Redding were new on the scene. What makes Bridges stand out to me is the way he’s being marketed. While the music remains the same, the audience seems to have changed. In a Guardian article, Bridges describes performing his song “Brown Skin Girl,” and asking “‘Where my brown-skinned girls at?’ And there’s maybe one or two in the room.” When we think of successful throwbacks to that classic sixties sound, we’re often thinking about white people—Amy Winehouse and St. Paul and the Broken Bones, both of whom I enjoy—while black artists with similar sound and influences seem to be grouped in other ways, like some of Lianne La Havas’ genre escaping songs that are sold as just pop, or even Solange’s clearly soul inspired alt-R&B. This makes some people, who are apparently not paying attention, think that black people have abandoned soul music. Take, for example, this quote attributed to Craig Charles, a radio DJ, in the Guardian article:
“I suppose young black people are always looking to be ahead of the curve – in the 70s, rather than northern soul, black people were into P-Funk and Earth, Wind and Fire, and so on, not the 60s soul. Now black people have moved on from soul to dubstep and hip-hop. I think white and black musical youth are almost a generation apart.”
The fact that Charles can confidently make this statement shows that there is a widespread lack of understanding of the nuances of black music. To say that black people have moved beyond gospel and soul ignores that the roots of hip hop and rap are in those very genres, and their influence is extremely apparent to this day. This ranges from obvious examples like samples from “Try a Little Tenderness” on Watch the Throne’s “Otis” or Willie Hutch’s “I Choose You” on UGK and OutKast’s "Int’l Players Anthem,” to more subtle examples like the gospel notes on “and Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy,” or West’s incorporation of Charlie Wilson, best known for his involvement in the Gap Band, on my future wedding song “Bound 2.” The incorporation of soul into rap and hip-hop is so common it’s practically a musical crutch, and so the idea that black youth have moved away from this style seems not only false, but also ignorant. I mean, how many times do rappers have to put gospel choirs in the background of their songs?
Coming Home is not the sort of album you put on before going out, but it does share a history with the modern black music that gets you hype to start your night, and Leon Bridges deserves a spot in your rotation and the modern soul renaissance. Despite accusations that he’s not doing anything new, Bridges’ ability to confidently handle the music and content of his region is all that’s necessary. Soul music, both as an element of hip hop and on its own, has always been valued because of its simple sound and ability to take us back to a different time—though similar in many ways. Even then, white artists were trying to become the face of traditionally black genres. And our communities are just as familiar with this appropriation as we are returning to the music that defines our history.