D’Angelo’s Grassroots Network of Soul

In 2012, the singer D’Angelo has suddenly reemerged. He has he been touring with new songs, which, aside from a few collaborations, represent his first new material since 2000. He was recently the subject of a GQ story that discussed his lengthy absence, his struggles with weight and addiction, and a series of recent performances in Europe. Still, D’Angelo enjoys unprecedented clout for an artist who has released just two albums over nearly two decades: Only a handful of singers could charge $115 a ticket for a July 4th show in L.A. — fewer could get away with that if their last album came out in 2000.

But that last album, Voodoo, earned D’Angelo enough capital to hole up for a long time. Critics loved it, and it remains a point of reference. In his recent review of Frank Ocean’s new album Channel Orange, the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones noted that Ocean’s “musical precedents” include “D’Angelo’s quiet and vague masterpiece from 2000, Voodoo.” The album also enjoyed commercial success, with Grammies and platinum status. Voodoo was embraced by those who long for the days when soul and funk reigned supreme, but it also broke with the past enough to earn it the adjective “neo” — instead of the other modifier often thrown at soul and funk singers, “revivalists”. In a genre dominated by big voices like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown, D’Angelo innovated by moving away from the notion of a lone emotive voice. Instead, he embraced a more open, egalitarian style, achieved by endlessly multiplying his vocals, ceding more space to instrumentation, and connecting and merging his songs, regardless of their difference. This “neo” approach allowed him to work in exciting and unpredictable ways with more classic structures.

D’Angelo – “Cruisin’”

D’Angelo proudly displays his fondness for the work of older R&B stars. His two albums (before Voodoo, he put out Brown Sugar, in 1995) include a catholic cover of Smokey Robinson’s late ‘70s hit “Cruisin’”, a heist of a horn line from Kool & the Gang’s 1969 “Sea Of Tranquility” for the song “Send It On”, and a reinterpretation of the wispy Roberta Flack ballad “Feel Like Makin’ Love” as a chugging ode to desire. He also redid Prince’s “She’s Always in My Hair” for the Scream 2 soundtrack, and he has covered numerous ‘70s funk classics live, from Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Superman Lover” to Earth, Wind, And Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love”. These homages are a savvy move for an R&B singer. The old greats are firmly ensconced in the musical canon, and by demonstrating his love for them, D’Angelo provides an easy entry into his music, while necessarily associating him with his forebears.

Instrumentally, D’Angelo employs many of the same tools as his predecessors in the R&B canon. He sings ballads that follow the basic soul structure — steady drums, easy bass, guitar and horn accents. He likes short and evocative electric piano riffs, like those employed by Curtis Mayfield in “Freddie’s Dead” or Parliament in “Mothership Connection”. The guitars in D’Angelo’s songs can run through the signature sounds of funk, playing fast and loose with choppy chicken scratch or modulating through a wah-wah pedal; they can also take on the hard fuzzy edges of Prince or the steady walk of the blues. The bass, flexible and conspicuous, adeptly plays any number of R&B styles.

D’Angelo’s vocals also owe much to the work of his musical ancestors. His voice ranges easily, capable of various smooth falsetto pyrotechnics. Like Marvin Gaye on the albums I Want You and Here, My Dear, D’Angelo relies heavily on layered backing vocals, doubling, tripling, quadrupling his own voice and sending it out to echo or counter the lead, which usually receives the cloning treatment as well (a trick employed with great success by Prince on the albums Dirty Mind and Controversy). In the same manner as Gaye or Al Green, D’Angelo sings of matters sexual and spiritual with equal aplomb, and sometimes it isn’t easy to tell if his intentions are carnal or something else entirely — his song “Brown Sugar” could be about sex, or it could be about weed.

D’Angelo – “Brown Sugar”

But D’Angelo changes the angles and emphasizes different elements in his musical frameworks. The R&B giants express powerful, universal emotions, exposing their feelings for the listener and holding little back while baring their souls — think of the lust in Marvin Gaye’s piercing yell during a song like “I Want You”, the impossibly high screams of frustration from Prince on “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore”, or James Brown almost anywhere. In contrast, D’Angelo is a cooler singer, more contained than any of these stars. His shrieks and moans rarely break a certain threshold; he seldom sounds unmoored or overcome by emotion or desire. Even in a song with a title as angry and threatening as “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker”, his vocals remain remarkably even; a high, wordless moan never loses control or gives in to the frustration and jealousy the singer feels because he found his lover cheating on him. At times it can be hard to hear exactly what D’Angelo is singing, as if he wants to put a barrier between himself and his audience by mumbling and blurring syllables together.

By playing down the concept of the lone singer who provides a direct look at his uncovered feelings, D’Angelo allows his music to be taken over by his grassroots network of soulful multiplicity. Each song carries on a conversation between a series of D’Angelos, with the chorus of self at least as potent as the primary vocal. You hardly ever hear just one voice in D’Angelo’s music. Instead, a congregation appears: several D’Angelos sing the lead vocal; several sing back-up; another will suddenly pop up to intone an aside or throw out a comment. The innumerable harmonizing voices act in unpredictable ways, and at times it can be hard to discern — in fact, it doesn’t matter — which vocal leads and which supports.

D’Angelo’s debut album Brown Sugar favored this kind of group vocalizing, but did not embrace it completely. The album also showcased a potent rhythm section high in the mix, allowing for a more equitable spotlight between singer and band. Compared to a singer like Al Green, who has dancing cymbals and modest ticking patterns underlying many of his hits, light and effective, D’Angelo cranks up the power in his percussion, on both the high and low ends, and partially cedes the floor to drums (especially cracking rim-shots) and big bass right next to his voice. The prominence of the rhythm section gives the songs more heft than you might expect from all the smooth falsetto.

On Voodoo, D’Angelo expanded on the vocal techniques in Brown Sugar, further submerging the primary vocal line and relying almost entirely on a multi-voiced, chimerical approach. In some songs, like “Left And Right”, which includes verses from rappers Method Man and Redman, D’Angelo still works mainly with a solo vocal. But usually he builds around group singing — sometimes wordless — and a number of voices. “The Line” employs these loose, collective vocals to sooth and smooth any ruffled feathers, while softly asserting strength as if it’s the majority consensus from an assembly of D’Angelos: “I’m gonna hold, hold on, to my pride / I’m gonna stick to my guns.”

In the mixing and massing of his vocals, D’Angelo does not appear naked out in front of the band in the manner of many R&B singers, and the instruments — not just the rhythm section, but often guitar or brass as well — are nearly equal to the voices, giving the songs a democratic impact. No single thing clearly dominates, leading to a feeling of openness and inclusion, a sense that other instruments or other voices (or the listener) can come and go and fit right in. Slower tracks and ballads like “Send It On”, “One Mo’ Gin”, and “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”, benefit most from this system, as the layered group-sing and prominent instruments add more variation, surprise, and nuance to a traditional, predictable form.

D’Angelo’s democratic feel extends to the very foundation of his arrangements — the drumming. At least five songs on Voodoo add human claps or snaps to the drumbeat, either for the duration of a song (“Feel Like Makin’ Love”) or for the opening and closing stages. Just as D’Angelo rarely overpowers his songs with a single vocal, he doesn’t believe in a single percussive authority; at any point, a round of claps or some slight snaps might have the final say. This both adds a dose of fragility to the music and serves to emphasize its egalitarian cohesion.

In addition to this communal drumming, D’Angelo works to connect songs on Voodoo in a way he didn’t on his first release, linking them with studio murk from recording sessions or by bleeding together different drum patterns. This approach joins songs that are not otherwise similar. Voodoo begins with “Playa Playa”, a seven-minute track that gradually builds into a sturdy funk amble. “Playa Playa” dissipates into some studio ambience and then thins out in front of the hard-beating rays of “Devils Pie”, the most propulsive song on the album — mainly just heavy bass, percussion, and a keening, distorted guitar. As “Devil’s Pie” fades, the drums slip away from their steady pattern and fingers start snapping as a placeholder. A splintered, descending guitar begins to fill in for the snapped beats, and then the drums re-join, followed closely by the rapper Redman, for “Left and Right”. These transitions maintain a wobbly continuity as the album moves from the dense sinewy funk of the first track to the dynamic, threatening pound of the second, through the lewd, swaying come-on of the third.

D’Angelo – “Left and Right”

The open feeling fostered by the vocals and the cross-track unity of the transitions allows the instruments to maintain an appealing slackness and give D’Angelo flexibility that never seems forced or unnatural. “Chicken Grease” rides a funky guitar playing a couple of short riffs. It seems haphazard, as if the guitarist isn’t quite sure what to play and decides to hedge his bets by alternating between two choices. Sometimes the guitar drops out and lets the drums take the track; sometimes it pushes the song. “Feel Like Makin’ Love” has the biggest beat on the album, composed of a fat drum and a handclap. The huge, crass beat tops D’Angelo’s singing, while the bass plays a doubled-up rhythm and the horns accentuate the song’s curves. Occasionally, a different horn line materializes, rising steadily up and then leaving as suddenly as it came. It might return to provide a symmetrical descent an indeterminate number of beats later, but it also might not. These irregular horns are unusual and tantalizing, making the song unpredictable in a way that soul — and the Roberta Flack original — does not usually aim for.

D’Angelo’s approach gained him considerable acclaim and commercial success. Then, he vanished. Once again, there are rumors of a new D’Angelo album. What could that look like? After his lengthy and confounding hiatus, he might want to avoid risks, play it safe, and focus on reestablishing his presence. Then again, D’Angelo’s rich recordings suggest another possibility — a continuation of the path he carved from Brown Sugar to Voodoo, creating increasingly open-ended, inclusive, and surprising soul and funk.

D’Angelo – 2012 BET Awards performance