December 15, 2014 felt like nothing short of a miracle. The odds favored, as they had for nearly 15 years, another calendar page gently drifting to the floor like a brittle leaf, without so much as any music from D’Angelo to show for it. Since 2001, Michael Eugene Archer had been working on something. For a while it was a live album. And for a while it was a record with Soultronics, the supergroup that D’Angelo had formed with Questlove, Pino Palladino and James Poyser. But for most of that long stretch of time, it was the third proper D’Angelo album, a mythic album long rumored to be called James River, but once it was actually released, bore the name Black Messiah.
That Black Messiah turned out to be as remarkable as promised is perhaps only a slightly lesser degree of miracle, a murky but deeply funky continuation of threads first woven with There’s a Riot Going On and intertwined with Sign ‘O’ the Times. D’Angelo wasn’t just back—he was back. Fiery, alive, channeling a renewed energy while speaking to a moment that felt urgent and necessary. And to get there he had to contend with hell, high water and an overwhelming lack of faith on the part of those around him. After the death of friend Fred Jordan in 2001 he began drinking heavily, and Virgin Records lost patience, withdrawing funding for a new album. His girlfriend left, he was arrested for drug possession, and was injured in a car accident. Every force in the universe seemed to bear down on the Richmond, Virginia artist and songwriter throughout the decade and a half that led up to its release, though perhaps no force as formidable as his previous album, Voodoo.
Voodoo, D’Angelo’s sophomore album released in January of 2000, is a nearly impossible act to follow. One of the greatest albums of the past 25 years, past 30, maybe ever, it can scarcely be replicated let alone improved upon. He should know better than anyone—he made it. Voodoo is an album that gets deep into your bones and your muscle tissue, your olfactory senses and your lungs. It’s elegantly grimy and bluesy and thick with ganja smoke, not psychedelic so much in the sense of hallucination as elevation. You don’t listen to this album, but rather become a part of its world for 80 minutes and revel in the sensory experience.
That kind of experience didn’t come so easily either; he spent only one-third of the time on Voodoo as he did on its follow-up, but following the breakout success of 1995’s Brown Sugar and its MTV staple title track, five years might as well have been 15. A leading light of the burgeoning neo-soul era that saw the rise of peers such as Erykah Badu and Maxwell, Brown Sugar came together within the span of a year in sessions in New York and Sacramento, its songs built out from demos that D’Angelo had made in his Richmond bedroom on a four-track recorder. After fighting a period of writer’s block, he began four years’ worth of sessions, often just vibing on loose ideas with producer Russell Elevado or collaborator Amir “Questlove” Thompson until a spark caught fire. They’d watch Soul Train, listen to Prince, Al Green and Fela Kuti, and made a pilgrimage to New York’s Electric Lady Studios, commissioned by Jimi Hendrix, a fellow voodoo priest himself—just one of the giants whose shoulders he built this masterful architecture upon.
“Jimi, Marvin Gaye, all the folks we were gravitating to. I believe they blessed the project,” he said in a 2000 Time profile.
Such names—along with a heavy dose of Prince—would set expectations high for any record, but D’Angelo doesn’t make any attempt to replicate what they’ve already done. He cooks up his own magic, earthy, soulful and deeply weird. Voodoo‘s production is warm, lush, but never overcrowded, a rhythmic sensibility with its watch set to Dilla time and arrangements that disorient as much as they mesmerize.
“When my musician friends first heard the album, they were confused,” notes Pino Palladino to Slate. “They thought: It sounds kinda weird, the timing’s kinda weird on it.
“[D’Angelo] wanted me to play as drunk and as slow and as dusted as I’ve ever played in my life,” added Questlove. “I don’t smoke or drink, so he really guided me to a level of creativity I wouldn’t normally reach without some sort of stimulant. The first year of recording he would say: ‘I need you to keep the pocket but don’t drag behind me, but play a little crooked,’ if that makes any sense whatsoever.”
Opening track “Playa Playa” carves out a nasty groove throughout its seven minutes, slowly getting off the ground with a fat bassline and effortless horn melodies. Once D’Angelo makes his voice heard, he lets loose with some eloquent trash talk, a baller on the court about to make an example of his opponent. Its actual origins are more hilarious than they might appear; he wrote the song while working on the Space Jam soundtrack, with the idea of dunking on a lineup of extraterrestrial monsters.
“Devil’s Pie” enlists Gang Starr’s DJ Premier to lend some turntablist skills to a gritty blues number, while Method Man and Redman’s guest verses on “Left & Right” only briefly threaten to upset the vibe that’s cultivated, established and unfuckwithable three songs into the album. (Q-Tip had previously been considered for the song, but those sessions proved fruitless.) It’s not until four songs into the album when D’Angelo finally properly introduces himself, singing “I’ve been gone, gone so long, just wanna sing, sing my song” on the laid-back groove of “The Line.”
Voodoo fully gathers heat during its midpoint, like a tube amplifier slowly coming to life, a kind of tactile warmth about it that the more modern counterparts just can’t touch. Though many of its songs comprise tracks primarily played by D’Angelo himself, it’s when he gets a real live-in-studio session going that the album feels most electric. There’s a loose, ecstatic srut to “Chicken Grease,” a more frenetic rhythm to the jazzier “Spanish Joint,” and lush layers of D’Angelo’s own vocals run up against a subtly intoxicating interplay of bass and guitar, both played by jazz musician Charlie Hunter on “Greatdayndamornin’/Booty.”
Yet the album’s biggest hit was also its greatest curse. “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”, a kind of velvety analog slow jam, became an MTV staple in 2000, its video depicting a nude D’Angelo from the waist up. An important note about that: between Brown Sugar and Voodoo, D’Angelo got ripped. He hired a personal trainer to get him back into shape and camera ready, which in turn made a highly reluctant sex symbol. He couldn’t get through a full song on his tour behind the album without being asked to take off his clothes, which frustrated him and without question contributed to his long absence from the stage.
Which made it seem like a revelation to actually witness him there again under the spotlights at FYF Fest in 2015. Draped in a long vest and brandishing a gilded guitar, he made soulful magic from hits and deep cuts alike, an in-the-flesh reminder that, for all of his time spent behind the scenes as he perfected a long-delayed work, he wasn’t just a genius in the studio. However infrequently we might experience it, he’s one of the greatest performers we’ll ever see.
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