I was forewarned, and chose not to take heed. You know, how prophecy can get mofos all wound up like Chicken Little with the sky fallin—while you standin there, like, “uh-huh.” Sittin in the back of a music business course at Fordham Law, mindin my own, some whiteboy was talkin about how he discovered this prodigious 20-year-old hip-hop soulman from Richmond, Virginia. “U Will Know,” from the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack? He wrote and produced it, and my amped classmate claimed to have signed him to EMI. The whiteboy was Brian Koppleman, son of Charles Koppleman, former CEO of EMI. The kid, naturally, was D’Angelo.
Seven months later, on the midnight tube from Camden Town to a flat at Belsize Park in London, my mind was still trippin on D’Angelo live, sold out at the Jazz Café. My Brown Sugar summer of ’95 had held enough pointed tableaux as it was: like twistin Ls with my man Aleijuan up in sunny Harlem for Jazzmobile Wednesdays at Grant’s Tomb, in a parked Chevy with girls sittin on the hood, head-noddin in the mix with D’Angelo talkin bout “Soft like an angel, like the feathers laying on a dove/Touch me with your soul love till I lose control.” Then in London I jostled beside Chaka Khan and Lenny Kravitz, peering over heads in a limited-seating situation, peeping this Southern chile runnin wild behind his Rhodes through the Ohio Players’ “Sweet Sticky Thing,” Al Green’s “I’m So Glad You’re Mine,” and Smokey’s “Cruisin’.” Prophecy fulfilled can sneak up on ya.
Exactly one day shy of a year later, Tupac Shakur returned to the essence—on a Friday the 13th evening on which Giorgio Armani hosted a gig for D’Angelo downtown at the Armory. D’Angelo entered with a mighty healthy Vivica Fox on his arm, Armanied down. He dedicated songs to Pac all night. By this point, everyone knew the deal.
A songwriter and musician holding equal reverence for the tortured, sanctified romanticism of Marvin Gaye and the nth-degree astral-plane metaphors of Rakim, D was a consummate rhythm-and-blues man for these desolate times. Wild Seed—Wild Flower from Dionne Farris, Me’Shell Ndegéocello’s Plantation Lullabies, and Joi’s The Pendulum Vibe had already been speaking to the new black aesthetic. But when D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar appeared from the ether, it set the tone for future multiplatinum joints from Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill by parading the inevitable fusion of hip-hop and soul, from a kaya-blessed brother just as likely to freestyle on the mic—Michael D’Angelo Archer had been discovered emceeing with his cousins on a demo—as improvise a Moog solo.
Then he disappeared for five years.
** The Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson first captured D’Angelo’s attention at a concert by tapping out the beat to “Four,” a little-known track from Madhouse, Prince’s late-’80s jazz fusion project. ?uestlove recently remarked that by collaborating on Voodoo, he’s fullfilling his fantasy of playing Revolution drummer Bobby Z to D’Angelo’s Prince. D’s falsetto plays the “Do Me Baby”-era chocolate-seduction Prince role on “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” just like I now get to play the Greil Marcus role (hush yo mouth), dissecting D’Angelo’s looong-awaited second record. But beyond all the elder/ancestor worship, what is Voodoo actually worth, and what does it sound like after D’s Sade/Michael Jackson-length hiatus?
Let’s take it from the sections of Voodoo that make you smile. Like the airy echo at the end of “The Line” (“I gotta put it on the line,” he sings, “line” fading out like remnants of a sweet dream) and “One Mo’ Gin” (vocalizing “ah-AH-ah-AH-ah-AH-ah-AH-ah . . . ” to the same tender effect). Or the omnipresent party people channeled in from “What’s Going On” and “Voodoo Chile” (Voodoo was recorded at Electric Lady), laughin and carryin on all over “Chicken Grease” (where D quotes Rakim from “I Know You Got Soul”). Or the false endings: the spirited jam following “One Mo’ Gin” and “Booty,” tacked onto “Greatdayindamornin’.” Or the backward guitar solos (at least they sound backward) centering “Africa” and “The Root.” Not to mention Voodoo‘s coda, a few seconds of chopped-up track snippets—also run backward—after the disc’s closing song. However self-conscious, Voodoo sets out to be heard as an Album—in the tradition of past masterpieces from Marvin, Jimi, Stevie, and Prince.
“In the name of love and hope she took my shield and sword,” D’Angelo earnestly chants in “The Root.” “From the pit of the bottom that knows no floor/Like the rain to the dirt, from the vine to the wine/From the alpha of creation, to the end of all time.” Hifalutin language, admittedly—but the best songs here have a lyrical narrative that can actually be digested and emotionally felt, sadly rare for Hot 97 r&b. “The Root” is about D losin his mojo; some vengeful woman done worked a root on him, and guitarist Charlie Hunter has his nimble fingers all over it. “One Mo’ Gin” is about reconciling with an ex (“I miss your smile, your mouth, your laughter”), and powered by a hypnotic, sturdy bass groove and grinding organ that are sustained through almost the entire album. “The Line” could be about his MIA status (“Will I hang or get left hangin?/Will I fall off or is it bangin?/I say it’s up to God”), or about anyone facing doubters with a revolver loaded with talent and self-confidence (“I’m gonna put my finger on the trigger/I’m gonna pull it, and then we gon’ see/What the deal/I’m for real”). D’Angelo references the Five Percent Nation in “Devil’s Pie” (“85 are dumb and blind/A third of people compromise”), callin out the vast majority ignorant of the ways of the world, while preachin against deadly sins like “materialistic greed and lust” over a DJ Premier beat. Great stuff.
There were rumors of D’Angelo covering Prince’s “Adore” on Voodoo, rather than the decent Roberta Flack track “Feel Like Makin’ Love” (not featuring Lauryn Hill, despite what you’ve read elsewhere). But “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” is a far grander surprise, the most spiritedballad of D’s career despite its Dirty Mind–Controversy copy-catechisms.(Prince himself once similarly recorded “Make Your Mama Happy” to prove a point to ex-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin about Sly Stone; point probably being, “I can rock this style, too.”)
The critics who picked apart Sign o’ the Times in 1987 for being uneven are the same critics who now cite the double album as the pinnacle of Prince’s career. I ain’t goin out like that. Even with its heavy-handed emphasis on groove over melody, the majority of songs topping a self-indulgent six minutes, and D’Angelo not really singing enough, Voodoo is still that shit. Like Prince somewhere between For You and Dirty Mind, Marvin somewhere between Soulful Moods and What’s Going On, or Lauryn somewhere between Blunted on Reality and Miseducation, D’Angelo is striding on the path toward revealing his true self; with Voodoo, he’s halfway there.
But no apologetic “at least he’s trying” justification summary here. If you let it, Voodoo can be spellbinding. Fly in the face of prophecy at your own peril.