For our latest Retro Neo, we spoke with Xavier Omär, who talked about borrowing from D’Angelo, the gospel qualities of Floetry’s “Say Yes,” and what has changed the most about neo-soul.
Xavier Omär dares to be different. Instead of yearning for closure he asks “can I get reparations for the pain?” The seductive poeticism that Omär produces is reminiscent of the nimble lyricism of Musiq Soulchild. For Omär, Soulchild’s music — as is with neo-soul — has a special place in music.
“Neo-soul can be based much more in feeling than R&B, which can lean to more pop style melodies,” Xavier Omär told Okayplayer.
Within that space is room to innovate and Omär — who dropped his excellent if You Feel album last October — has plans to take the neo-soul sound to places its never been. In our latest installment of Retro Neo — where we speak with future trailblazers of neo-soul about the genre — Omär discusses borrowing from D’Angelo, the gospel qualities of Floetry’s “Say Yes,” and what has changed the most about neo-soul.
What is your earliest memory with neo-soul?
Xavier Omär: My earliest memory that truly sticks with me is Musiq Soulchild. I’m sure there had to be something before that, but I grew up in a family of musicians and we were at church all the time. My dad was a minister of music at the church that we were at. I was always around gospel and jazz because he was a jazz musician as well. Hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul — and anything in that lane — I didn’t get into those things until later in life. So, I had to be at least maybe 11, 12 or something like that when I remember Musiq Soulchild. I remember “Just Friends.” I have a distinct memory of that time period when that song dropped, how that one stuck to me so much, and holding on to when he was dropping his next project after that, with aijuswanaseing, and then going into Juslisen and then into Soulstar. He’s my first memory of that sound in particular.
How would you describe the neo-soul sound?
It’s weird because it is R&B, but I guess it has its own room where it can get more intricate. Neo-soul can be based much more in feeling than R&B, which can lean to more pop style melodies. In neo-soul, and soul music in general, it’s not really about trying to grab the attention as much as it’s about putting out what your heart and soul feels. You can tell the difference in how they take more time with their music and musicianship. A song like the D’Angelo’s “Untitled” — while it does eventually make radio for a little —wasn’t made thinking about the radio.
You put out Everlasting Wave in 2016 and you said you made eight different styles of R&B just to show that it wasn’t part of the SoundCloud wave. Of those eight songs, which song would you say is the closest to the neo-soul sound you described?
If any are closest to that sound it would be “Grown Woman.” There was a part in that song I do where it’s just kind of like back and forth. I did that because it felt like D’Angelo. I legitimately referenced him on that. I can’t even think of what particular song I got it from, but I just knew it felt like D’Angelo. So, if there was to be kind of a fusion between some New York hip-hop and neo-soul music, I think that’s the song right there.
You make different genres blend so well with neo-soul on your projects. Are there any qualities that those genres share with neo-soul?
There are a lot of songs by D’Angelo that we could do this with. When “Untitled” starts to rev up toward the end and those guitars get heavy, how’s that not some form of rock music? Rock came from Black voices, from Black artists. Rock, gospel, R&B, soul, are all knitted together. Number one, because they all had to start with a guitar pretty much, right? That’s the thread, and it’s just about the aggressiveness of the moment. I think we’ve separated them as we have progressed in music to make it more clear because certain people love certain styles of music more than others and that’s just natural. But, in essence, I feel like one artist is capable of making all those things and it not feeling too separate because those genres did come from pretty much the same voice. Someone that has a heavier gospel voice could also make an R&B record, blues records, soul record, or a rock record. I tend to try to play with those connections, especially on my live show. I make some songs really aggressive; I think people don’t expect that. I think they expect a really smooth, straight line, romantic, night. And then I’m jumping and kicking with the band.
What are some neo-soul songs that inspired who Xavier Omär is?
“The Charade” by D’Angelo and the Vanguard album, man. That’s that connection between rock and soul right there too. I love that record. To go back to Musiq Soulchild, “One Night.” It’s a very random record but I really like it. It’s got these little congas and stuff in it that just felt a little different for the time. It hearkens back to Marvin Gaye just a little bit but it’s still very modern, it’s still very much Musiq Soulchild. There was not a single person who wasn’t affected by “Say Yes” by Floetry. To me, “Say Yes” is a gospel song even though nobody says it. Those are church chords. That’s altar call music at the church.
I get a neo-soul vibe from your song “LIke I Feel” with Mereba. Are there any other songs from your latest project if You Feel that draw from neo-soul?
I wasn’t necessarily pulling for Marvin Gaye but it just felt like that. I didn’t have to rewrite that song in any way, that was the first thought, how that song came out. It was so natural and I think it was because it felt so familiar. And that’s because of Marvin Gaye and a lot of neo soul music. That to me, is a good example of my current music as well. Obviously so much more, it leans way more toward late ’90s R&B, maybe early 2000s R&B like Dru Hill. But to me that still fits in that timeframe of what was going on in music. What else on the album? That may be it as far as just the classic neo soul feeling music. If there’s anything that’s new age, for sure it would be “SURF.” That’s it to me though.
From all your music, what neo soul artist do you think would add to one of your songs if they got on it?
I’ve really, really wanted Sisqo on “So Much More.” I wanted him at the end of the song particularly, or possibly doing a remix. I’m too intimidated to ever try anything with Musiq because he is so talented. But, a song like “Like I Feel,” he would kill that. He would take it to a new world. I know you heard the “Your Turn” joint he did on Ty Dolla $ign’s Featuring Ty Dolla $ign album. Musiq just killed that record. If he took the time today and just wanted to go on a feature tour T-Pain-style, he would kill it.
How do you feel the neo-soul sound has evolved over the years since you started listening to it?
I feel like it got lost a little bit for a short period and then there was this resurgence because people became less enamored with just beat production. There was a time where you had to have it, but people started getting excited about musicianship again… Snoh Aalegra, SiR, Masego, Kirby… there are a lot of artists who just make it work so well and you can hear it in the music. To me, especially with the artists that I’ve just named, I feel like it’s been elevated and revived because there was a period where it was lost. It’s unique now. I don’t feel that it’s as gritty as it used to be. Let me add Lucky Daye in there too, especially with D’Mile, our producer, it’s not as gritty and heart-wrenching as it once was.
What can we expect from Xavier Omär in 2021?
I’m looking to just record the next album. Once I realized that I had dropped two albums in literally 11 months, I was like, “Maybe I can actually take a year and just create instead of trying to drop.” This year I definitely plan to drop some singles. I got one that I want to go for the summer right now. I’m going to be restarting my podcast. I’m going to be trying a bunch of different stuff musically, too. I feel like in between now I’m having just a good time. If I want to kind of experiment more, then I can do that. And then when it’s album season, I know where I want to go. I’m not going this year without dropping music, I’m definitely creating.
Banner Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire