Celebrating 20 Years of India.Arie’s Acoustic Soul

Personal Space’s Jesse Chevan makes a case for the neo-soul album’s renaissance.

Fine, you’re right; Acoustic Soul, India.Arie’s 2001 debut album, is relatively innocuous coffee shop soul. Not helping is the fact that the album’s title sounds like a Starbucks sponcon Spotify playlist. 

If I had to guess, I think my mom actually had bought the CD at a Starbucks, and then left it in her car (I fully associate it with her red PT Cruiser and the red fuzzy dice hanging from her rearview, which, like, duh). And sure, part of me wishes that I could say that in 2001, my preternaturally eclectic listening habits drew me to the more outré fare released that year, like Henry Threadgill’s way-out-there Zooid album Up Popped the Two Lips, or even Daft Punk’s nu-disco thesis Discovery. But I wasn’t. In between pleading with my parents for a Gamecube and learning, I dunno, like, fractions, I was listening to Acoustic Soul, memorizing lyric after encouraging, optimistic lyric. I loved it then — and 20 years later, I still do. 

With Acoustic Soul, her full-length debut, India.Arie was positioned to join the ranks of turn-of-the-millennium neo soul mavens like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and even Alicia Keys, whose music re-introduced elements of intimacy, spirituality, and organicism absent in “mainstream” radio R&B. These performers, many of whom wrote their own material, all drew from the sonic well of ‘70s soul while adopting the crisp minimalism and visual brashness of hip hop and decanting R&B’s old lyrical wine of romance and sex into the new wineskins of social consciousness, Black Feminist thought, and New Age spiritualist symbolism (i.e. D’Angelo’s “The Root”: “Like the rain to the dirt/From the wine to the vine/From the Alpha to creation/To the end of time”). Nostalgia and depth (both, undoubtedly — and this is no dig — performative) were the coin of the realm.

Yet while albums like D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Badu’s Mama’s Gun have enjoyed hipster-y followings and occasional renaissances in recent years (the Beyonce bump is REAL!), India.Arie and Acoustic Soul have enjoyed no such revival. To be sure, Arie has continued to release outstanding music, winning four Grammys between 2003 and 2011 and climbing to No. 1 on the Billboard Adult R&B Songs chart in 2019 with her single “Steady Love.” For all this success, however, she has not been the beneficiary of the same neo-soul canonization enjoyed by many of her contemporaries. Outside of a core group of devoted fans, it seems that she has been remembered as a one or two-hit wonder, if she is remembered at all

Acoustic Soul enjoyed slow and steady success after its release in March of 2001 and within two years of its release, the album was certified double platinum, surpassing the sales and industry accolades earned by almost every comparable album (with the exception of Acoustic Soul notoriously losing to Alicia Keys’ Songs in A Minor in five categories at the 2002 Grammys). It is a well-balanced record, some songs luxuriating in head-nodding groove (“Strength Courage & Wisdom,” “Part of My Life”), while others clear a more tranquil space for Arie’s tender alto (“Ready For Love”). The neo soul imperative to diffract R&B’s lyrical saws through a Black Feminist prism runs throughout the record. “Promises” touchingly narrates stories of commitment while “Beautiful” maturely navigates a challenging relationship through self-care and recuperative solitude framed in the language of mystical oblivion (“I wanna go to place where I am nothing and everything”). 

Arie’s versatile guitar playing and rich-as-Croesus alto provide a sonic through-line from track to track; beyond these elements, the production is impressively diverse, from the Timbaland-esque retrofuturism of “Simple” (which could easily slot onto an Aaliyah or Amerie record — dig the synth harp) to the acoustic open-mic night vibe of “Promises.” You’re also rarely more than 30 seconds away from the shimmering sweep of windchimes, the album’s Best Supporting Instrument. Acoustic Soul is surely best known for its two singles; the Womanist self-love anthem “Video” (as relevant in the age of Instagram and TikTok sexualized hypervisuality as ever) and the Afro-diasporic love incantation “Brown Skin.” The latter is my favorite cut from the record: while the rhythm section oozes with viscous funk, Arie’s voice swoops and dips in dynamic contrasts from section to section, culminating in some brief but raw vocal clipping that overwhelms the track during a run at 2:12 that always gives me shivers. 

As critical observers have long noted, popular music, almost by definition, offers its listeners bite-sized rations of transcendence; that is, escape or liberation from the everyday through the alchemy of lyric, melody, and rhythm (though probably in reverse order). Black studies scholar Emily J. Lordi argues that the soul of soul music refers not to some ineffable Black essence, but instead to a “logic” derived from Black life; it references “a kind of virtuosic survivorship specific to black people as a group” – a learned, yet culturally-idiomatic capacity for transcending iniquitous conditions and making meaning out of suffering. Not only does this logic of overcoming manifest in the lyrical content of soul, but, as Lordi maintains, it manifests in the sonic aesthetics of the genre as well, through vocal ad libs, falsetto; perhaps even in a moment where a voice exceeds the readiness of technology to record it. 

By embracing the logic of soul, neo soul artists like Arie create more than mere sonic pastiche: they reject the decadence of radio R&B by re-situating the mechanisms of pop music’s transcendence – the escape routes from the world designed for us listeners – back through the lessons of struggle, ritual, and the every-day. Neo soul songs aren’t narratives of neoliberal independence and triumph, but meditations on quotidian, yet no less profound or radical, forms of liberation. On Acoustic Soul, India.Arie sings songs about the achievement of self-consciousness and liberation through spiritualized love and acts of devotion and meaningful suffering. The language she uses, however, contrasts with that of D’Angelo, Badu or Hill, all of whose poetry may scan as gnomic or arcanely referential. Importantly, this apparent obscurity is often rooted in the specificity of Black life and history, creating immediacy for some listeners and estrangement for others. For white critics, I suspect that this obscurity may translate as a racialized sublime, an unassimilable element that produces powerful desire. I further wonder if some of the lack of retrospective celebration for India.Arie by white critics stems from the presumption that, because of the accessibility (occasionally bordering on didacticism) of her language, they/we can understood her almost too-clearly! 

But why is this bad? I would offer that the “soul” of Acoustic Soul is, ultimately, less a means to compartmentalize and commodify (though this is always a possibility), a means to make the music easier to sell, and more an assertion of belonging to a powerful tradition and logic of Black expression, the soul logic. It is a call to hear in the music a specific type of transcendence. So next time you’re sipping an overpriced oat milk latte and “Video” comes on – and it surely will – try and listen again with generous ears. Perhaps you’ll agree with me that it’s high time for the India.Arie renaissance. 

“I’ve drawn a conclusion, it’s all an illusion, confusion’s the name of the game/A misconception, a vast deception/Something’s gotta change”

Personal Space is a conundrum: indie without a scene, prog disdaining complexity, a dad band without dads. Since they released their debut EP, The Early Universe Was Entirely Opaque, in 2014, the band has been a work in progress, perennially under review. For their official debut, Sam Rosenthal and Henry Koehler joined forces with Alex Silva and Jesse Chevan, recently of Brooklyn smoothcore band Face of Man, to release 2016’s Ecstatic Burbs on Tiny Engines. Ecstatic Burbs showcased the band’s “eccentro-pop” sound and range of influences, from experimental post-punk like the Dismemberment Plan to the baroque pop of The Zombies, and earned the band praise from the Village Voice, Stereogum, and Brooklyn Vegan.

A Lifetime of Leisure, the band’s second LP release, and its first for Good Eye, showcases the members’ development, musically and personally, since Ecstatic Burbs was released. Where Ecstatic Burbs dealt with reconciling the saccharine surreality of a suburban upbringing with the stark realities of life after college, A Lifetime of Leisure finds Personal Space negotiating more thematically complex terrain. The world has gotten a lot darker in the intervening years, and the grooves have followed suit. Like Steely Dan with less glitz, or a mordant Pinback, the 10 tracks on ALOL find the band fretting over downward mobility, preoccupied with ethically sourcing their groceries, and hoping, against hope, that humanity can still find its way to a very chill, socialist utopia.