Five years ago, as Michael D’Angelo Archer brooded over his Fender Rhodes borrowing generous portions of “chronic” and tragic “Soul Man” sensibilities, critics anointed Brown Sugar, D’Angelo’s debut release the second coming of soul. Equally drenched with Marvin Gaye’s paranoia (“Shit, Damn, Motherfucker”), a blunt for blunt Smokey Robinson falsetto (“Cruisin’”) and Prince-like religious sexual fervor (“Heaven”), black radio steered clear of the anti-ghetto fab genius until the radio-friendly “Lady” dropped three singles deep into the album. By then D’Angelo was fending off challenges from Erykah Badu, Eric Benet, Maxwell, Rashaan Patterson and the omnipresent Lauryn Hill (repeat after me, Miseducation was not a Hip-Hop album) for the Neo-Soul/Alternative R&B throne.
While Maxwell’s hair became most talked about doo since Angela Davis’s ‘fro and Eric Benet’s bare feet became the toast of the town and Halle Barry’s warm bed, both still managed to release two studio recordings, while D’Angelo’s label folded and he became embattled with his personal management. Premium soundtrack remakes of Eddie Kendrick’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” (Get On the Bus) and the Ohio Players’s “Heaven Must Be Like This” (Down in the Delta), a succulent duet with the aforementioned Hill (“Nothing Really Matters”), and high profile gigs with Eric Clapton helped keep the brotha’s memory alive, while Voodoo, the follow-up to Brown Sugar became the most delayed and over-hyped project this side of a Michael Jackson marriage.
After a November 1999 release date was pushed back to January 2000, the first single “Left and Right,” featuring the more blunted by the minute duo of Method Man and Redman and enough misogynistic lyrics to choke a few neo-Cons, was released in the fall of 1999 accompanied by a performance on the Chris Rock Show, where D’Angelo debuted the sparse funk jam “Chicken Grease.” One could see Voodoo slipping off the deep end of Hot 200 obscurity like Keith Sweat’s Still in the Game or every one of those Soul II Soul recordings from the 1990s, but then came “The Video.”
One could call the video for “Untitled (How Does it Feel) narcissistic, but in an era when most R&B videos are nothing but “bling, bling” and booty, D’Angelo’s bare naked torso was refreshing. For an artist who regularly appeared stooped over his instrument, with an assortment of wool caps pulled over his eyes, the video was a striking admission that it is no longer simply about the music; Image is damn near everything, how else do you explain the successes of Jagged Edge or Ideal. But, oh the music…“Untitled” is simply the best Prince song since his Diamonds and Pearls days. Written in collaboration with Soul-cousin Rafael Saadiq, “Untitled” was intended as a tribute to “The Artist,” in lieu of a rumored straight-up jack of “Adore.” With “Untitled” the jack remains intact, though arguably Prince has never sounded better channeled through D’Angelo. It is quite simply the recording’s best track
While “Untitled” may be a singular moment on Voodoo, this is no Brown Sugar the sequel. Only the tracks “The Line” and “The Root,” a mid-tempo joint, anchored by the signature riffs of guitarist Charlie Hunter even remotely invoke the spirit and mood of the debut recording. Unlike Brown Sugar, Voodoo is laced with hardcore funk/dance jams like the aforementioned “Chicken Grease.” While “Playa, Playa” and “Devil’s Pie” serve as introductory filler (the two tracks open the recording) the exquisite “Spanish Joint” co-written with Hargrove and very much influenced by Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” may be the most inventive track on the album.
D’Angelo’s strengths remain with his writing and performance of mid-tempos and ballads. “One Mo ‘Gin,” the title a southern colloquial conflation of the terms “One More Time” and “Again,” (with a shout-out no doubt to Ced the Entertainer) is one of the record’s most memorable tracks. While the song’s intro evokes the psychopathic “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker,” D’Angelo is this reminiscing about a former lover instead of homicide. The lilting “Send it On,” one of several songs co-written with baby-mama Angie Stone and which features trumpeter Roy Hargrove on flugel horn, evokes the late ‘70s sounds of Angela Bofill (“I Try”). His muscular remake of “Feel Like Making Love” sans the rumored appearance of Lauryn Hill, brings little of the drama that “Cruisin’” brought to Brown Sugar, but it is the best remake of the song since Marlena Shaw smoothed it out on the Jazz tip 25 years ago.
Voodoo perhaps features the most aggressive multi-tracking of an artist’s voice since Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get in On. While some may lament the absence of D’Angelo own voice in his singing style, only “Greatdayndamornin’” suggest otherwise, one could do worse than sound like Prince, Marvin, Curtis and on occasion Al Green. There are very few perfect recordings; even “Flying High (In the Friendly Skies)” seemed intrusive on Marvin Gaye’s seminal Soul classic What’s Going On. Voodoo is as uneven as any good recording is today, but D’Angelo is too be commended for bucking the trends.
In an era where so much pop is driven by star producers, (a number as seemingly small as the soon to be “Big Four” recording empires), D’Angelo has created an anti-producer project. Voodoo features less single opportunities than it’s predecessor, leading my fellow critic Frank Paul Jr., to suggest that Voodoo, like Maxwell’s Embrya was an example of AOS (album oriented Soul). In a press video accompanying the release of Voodoo, D’Angelo suggests that he was trying to create a sound that was in transition, like the early work of Funkadelic or the early solo work of Curtis Mayfield. Voodoo may well be the working blueprint for “post-Soul” black pop, a tradition in desperate need of a overhaul, but are pop audiences ready to embrace more than the same five melodies and the same five bass-lines. More importantly, will black radio, which remains a digitized “chitlin’ circuit” for R&B performers, be willing to challenge and possibly alienate the very same audiences they cultivated in the first place, by playing the familiar and the accessible.