[2 July 2008]
Staying clear of tangential forays into the dangerous world of the speculative was my primary concern upon reviewing D’Angelo’s The Best So Far, but after immersing myself in the collection’s sonic and visual offerings, it proved impossible to not engage in deep thought about this Richmond native, his pregnant silences in recent years, and our unrelenting obsession with his extended absence from the music scene.
Much has been written about D’Angelo, ranging from thought-provoking to downright neurotic. Of the voluminous commentary on the soul singer, the caustic “where have you been, you owe us another Voodoo” nonsense annoys me the most. Not because of a lack of understanding or sympathy on my part for those who genuinely miss this talented artist, but precisely because of the sense of entitlement pervading so many “come back D’Angelo” rallying calls.
Let’s be real about our unenviable role as consumers in the topsy turvy world of commercial art: if we’re lucky enough, the artist we love madly will saturate us with quality material that never stops giving pleasure, but just in case the opposite happens, even the most devout must remember the good times and move on.
Now, moving on and turning the corner with regards to D’Angelo has been rendered a tad bit more complicated with the release of The Best So Far. Comprised of material from his two studio albums, Brown Sugar and Voodoo, as well as soundtrack cuts and live material, Best So Far may not comprehensively display the depth of D’Angelo’s talents, but it certainly proves why his conspicuous absence has been so greatly felt by music fans and critics alike.
Quibbles about this compilation’s inclusions and omissions are a certainty, though one can hardly deny its value. All that this gifted man child was (and possibly could still be) finds expression: Fearless leader, introspective disciple, passionate lover, spiritual being, populist modernist, keeper of the tradition.
Organized chronologically rather than thematically, the greatest hits collection starts off with five selections from Brown Sugar. Coming out three months before one million brothers descended upon the nation’s capital on October 16 in a moving display of unity, pride, and contrition, the release of D’Angelo’s debut was one of the many significant cultural events of 1995. Certified bangers “Brown Sugar”, “Cruisin”, and “Lady” anchored an album filled with scrumptious forays into jazz, gospel, and blue light basement soul. Solid throughout, Brown Sugar blasted out of the windows of living rooms, dormitories, and slowly moving vehicles occupied by those “wanna-be-seen” drivers and passengers that add that special flavor to sweltering summer days.
No question, this was a special album. All the smash hits were memorized, but the truly devout had their special cuts that confirmed in their minds this brother’s uniqueness. Small surprise given my love for the sacred songs, the gospel-inflected “Higher” was a personal favorite. Shut in your bones fiyah of the Shirley Caesar variety, Brown Sugar’s closing track was a remarkable display of the spiritual and sacred currents running through this son of a preacher man’s captivating soul.
Talented beyond his years, D’Angelo not only had an amazing work of art, but he also had a superbly crafted story.
Cognizant of the fact that he had something special on his hands, Neo-Soul mastermind Kedar Massenger crafted a marketing agenda which would influence the ways in which D’Angelo would be discussed, understood, and presented. Special emphasis would be placed on D’s vast talents as a singer/writer/instrumentalist/producer and his deep connections to the pool of black genius. Comparisons to his heros Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye framed a narrative intent on assuring us that D’Angelo was here to not only provide pleasure but to revitalize the soul tradition, to bring back true musicianship. Of course, more than a few young musicians who had already been around the block once or twice raised an eyebrow (or two), but that’s a whole ‘nutha story.
Fortunately for D’Angelo and for us, his art lived up to the developing mythology. Sales of Brown Sugar reached the platinum mountaintop, singles climbed to the upper reaches of the R&B charts, and tickets of live shows moved swiftly.
A star had been born.
All the things immediately recognizable in the great ones—boundless talent, charisma, artistic nerve, and a sense of connectedness with the times—D’Angelo possessed in abundant quantity.
All the buzz surrounding the art and the symbol heightened anticipation for D’Angelo’s next stroke of genius. Diehard fans and critics alike pondered his next move: Would the gifted singer revisit the sounds of Brown Sugar, or would he venture into the funky world of the unknown, the deep sea of the avant garde?
Five years would pass before his growing legion of worshipers received an answer, but the situation was hardly stagnant. An import disc of live songs and tracks from an assortment of places hit the marketplace between 1996 and 1999. Not all but many of these “goodies” are included in The Best So Far. The first reaction might be to dismiss these tracks, but when one considers the fact that this compilation is really about telling the enigmatic saga of D’Angelo’s career trajectory, the inclusion of his cover of Prince’s “She’s Always in My Hair”, his duet with Neo-Soul comrade Erykah Badu, “Your Precious Love”, and other choice cuts makes perfect sense.
One only wishes, however, that the compilation’s producers had included a couple more tracks from the Live at the Jazz Café London release. Would have loved for fans who missed this smoker to get a listen of DAngelo’s blazing entry on “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine”, his vocal fury on “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker”, or the background vocalists’ ridiculous call-and-response session on “Lady”. Whew!!!
As one can probably infer from the previous paragraph, this live release tempered my anticipation for D’Angelo’s return; but not everyone shared my patience. Trickling news that the gifted musician was swapping notes and vibes with a stable crew of musicians that included Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and guitarist/bassist Charlie Hunter put folks in a state of frenzy. Word leaked that these keepers of the tradition were practicing and perfecting what activist-writer Kalamu y Salaam refers to as the “jazz paradigm”, pursuing individual self-discovery and development within a collective context.
Out of their collective creations in Electric Lady Studios came spirit music, unity music, the artistic realization of Amiri Baraka and Askia Toure’s dreams:
Voodoo. A work of art familiar and fabulous. Stunningly sensual yet intensely spiritual. Steeped in the tradition but ever mindful of future possibilities.
Much to D’Angelo’s delight, his studio project had an impressive first week. A provocative video for Voodoo’s biggest single, “Untitled”, propelled all kinds of folks to the record store, but for those fans who had anointed D’Angelo with saving powers, spiritual nourishment and deliverance came from other moments, like his spine-chilling homage to the ancestors and his precious gift (Michael) on “Africa”, his fusion of balls-to-the wall swagger and existential uncertainty on “The Line”, and his audacious display of male vulnerability on “The Root”. Enmeshed in the thickets of deep groove on Voodoo are intriguing narratives of love, pain, self-critique, and paranoia. Unfortunately, the songs (“Left and Right”, “Untitled”, “Send It On”, “Feel Like Makin’ Love”, and a truncated interlude version of “Devil’s Pie) from Voodoo selected for The Best So Far don’t necessary represent or transmit this particular strength of the album.
Small gripes aside, The Best So Far achieves what most greatest hits set out to do: provide a summation of an artist’s career and ignite interest in their available and future work.
One hopes that this is only the beginning.