Sade’s Heirs: A New Chapter in Britain’s Great Smooth Soul Story
Sade are truly one of the great UK musical exports, but perhaps don't get the credit they deserve for this. Globally, their records have outsold Oasis and more than doubled Radiohead’s figures, they’re beloved of generations of hip-hop artists in the US – but a critical mainstream continually dominated by a white rock consensus has always side-lined them.
For the longest time, they were dismissed as “wine bar”, “coffee table” or “dinner party” music (as if socialising over wine, coffee or food is somehow bad), the smooth grooves and even smoother tones of singer Sade Adu’s voice treated as lightweight, even though they are self-evidently deadly serious in intent and delivery, and intellectually and emotionally weighty.
Hopefully, though, a new box set of all their releases is part of a reassessment, not just of Sade – who at least are great survivors, and whose catalogue speaks loudly for itself – but of a long tradition of ultra-sophisticated Black and multicultural British acts who are owed their place in the history books.
A recent documentary on the Liverpool soul/funk band The Real Thing was a long overdue paying of respects to a serious band with an amazing back story. And from Cymande to Soul II Soul to Floetry there are plenty more UK exports who deserve every bit as much attention and analysis as is given to rock, dance and other acts.
That applies as much to contemporary acts as to heritage ones, too. Right now, there is a cohort of soul, jazz and pop talent in Britain that expresses itself with the natural confidence of a generation who’s grown up on grime but radiates subtle yet dazzling musicality from every pore.
It’s emerged from a strikingly similar milieu from that which Sade came from in early 1980s London, too. While the music of British cities tended to be dominated by DJ/electronic-dominated post-rave forms (jungle, garage, dubstep, grime) through the 90s and 00s, now we are back to a period where multiple Latin, African and Caribbean styles interact with US rap and R&B, and live musicians are increasingly making their presence felt again.
There’s plenty of variety within this, mind. In our playlist, Lianne La Havas cuts loose in a classic gospel-soul style; Jorja Smith shows off classical vocal technique; Poppy Ajudha allows her voice to crack, Adele-like. The songs may be politicised like Greentea Peng’s staking a claim of ownership on her own city in “Ghost Town”, or Jorja’s “By Any Means”, or freaky and provocative like IAMDDB’s saucy and psychedelic “End of the World”.
There is high-end electronic beat-making, as on the remarkable talent Kay Young’s self-produced, contemplative, “Cruisin’”, and there are traditional soul values, as in the voice of Young’s regular collaborator Joel Culpepper who harks back to Curtis Mayfield and Al Green. There’s indie rock sensitivity from Arlo Parks and lavish pop values from Biig Piig. Yet tying it all together is a distinctive sonic spareness, and a willingness to let vocalists shine: very notable, especially given the R&B trends of the past decade, is the lack of conspicuous AutoTune.
You’ll hear plenty of US neo-soul influence here – from Solange and SZA, and lesser-known names like Kiana Ledé, Summer Walker, Snoh Aalegra, The Pheels, Flwr Chyld, Nick Hakim – and even hints of Billie Eilish and Lana Del Rey’s songwriting. It’s notable, too, that the African diaspora is bringing its own smooth vibes into the British scene too, from rising Nigerian star Rema to the hyper musical South African deep house variant known as Amapiano, and these influences are ever-present. But above all these are British expressions of the particular melting pots of London, Manchester and elsewhere; these acts are truly the heirs of Sade – and hopefully, some will become as known worldwide.
Cover Image: Sophie Muller
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs