Something about the R&B class of ’96. Lauryn. Maxwell. Erykah. D’Angelo. Obsessive perfectionists who seemingly can’t get out of their own way, and in the process have practically turned into the crazy neighbor who hardly ever leaves the house.
In his way, D’Angelo is the worst. He might be the single most frustrating major artist working today: He created two all-time classic R&B albums, and for more than 14 years, there’s been nothing. You know there’s an amazing album, if not several, sitting on heaven knows how many reels of tape in heaven knows how many studios, marking the progression of the career he won’t allow to happen. And while we wait (and wait and wait), artists like Beyonce (good) or Usher and Adam Levine (please) cover or emulate his songs, and a series of lukewarm imitators come and go. He’s performed four new songs in concert over the past couple of years, and they’re good. Look them up on YouTube: “Ain’t That Easy,” “The Charade,” “In Another Life,” and “Sugar Daddy.”
Anyone who saw D’Angelo in his prime — ahem, Voodoo tour, Radio City, March 2000 — knows what a monumentally captivating performer he is. And while his basement-jam-onstage at Brooklyn Bowl with ?uestlove last year was a snooze (D never even stood up), days later he took the stage at Michael Dorf’s “Music of Prince” tribute at Carnegie Hall– with a rock-and-roll-fantasy-camp band featuring the Roots with Revolution alums Wendy and Susannah Melvoin and Eric Leeds — and brought the house down, leading a medley of “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” and “1999” that was more exciting than the peaks of the last three Prince concerts we’ve seen. It was vintage D’Angelo: He pumped up the crowd, kicked over the piano stool, did James Brown-style mic-stand drops, that silly flappy-bird hand-wave thing that Prince does, stomped from one end of the stage to the other… and after 12 minutes or so, it was, heartbreakingly, over.
Even though everyone but the subject wished it were a gig instead, Red Bull Music Academy’s highly touted “Conversation With D’Angelo” was a noble effort. Unfortunately, the man just wasn’t up to the billing. There could have been few better interviewers than veteran music journalist Nelson George, but D’Angelo clearly wasn’t very comfortable and only seemed to loosen up even a little after about 30 minutes, after he lit the first of four cigarettes.
Presumably many topics were off-limits: the drugs, the arrests, the love life, and of course, where the hell is the album? Instead, we got some fairly entertaining stories about his career, his early days, the process of recording Voodoo and his first album (which he said sounds “buttery” compared to the demos), the fact that his new material is more guitar-based than keyboard-based, and not a lot more. ?uestlove was called onstage twice, and was careful not to upstage his friend — let’s face it, he’s the Michael Jordan of interviews — but D’Angelo was more than happy to cede the spotlight.
Here’s a handful of nuggets we pulled from the 75-minute talk.
1) D’Angelo has heard Sly Stone’s new music — and it’s got Autotune on it.
“I met Sly recently. I always hear in the rumor mill that he’s constantly working, and it’s true, he’s got mad shit. And it’s not Family Stone shit, it’s progressive, it’s new — and he’s fuckin’ with the Autotune shit! I heard it, and and I was like, ‘Damn! Shit! What are you doin’ that for?!’ But the way he’s doin’ it is like no one else. He’s doing something with it that’s new.”
2) His friendship with ?uestlove remains deep and real.
Whenever ?uest came to the stage, D’Angelo’s face lit up. At the end of a long paragraph about how D’Angelo taught him to lay back and not always play so solidly on the beat, ?uest concluded with a Star Wars reference — “I just decided to trust The Force” — that caused D’Angelo to reach out and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder.
3) He played a set at in a rural church in Virginia and performed old-school gospel — and a Fishbone song.
“Me and my cousin and another cousin [and another person] put together a quartet and did a surprise little thing at this church in the woods. And it was great. It was funny because we was doing some real quartet gospel, and then we ended it with this interpretation of Fishbone. I called [Fishbone frontman] Angelo Moore and I told him about it. He was like ‘WHAT?! What song?’ It was, umm, the funk song [has to crowdsource the title]. ‘Properties of Propaganda.’ [Hums the song’s typically Fishbone angular horn riff.] The church, at first, was really up, but when we went into that… [makes a slack-jawed face.]
4) He insisted on singing a Peabo Bryson song for his first appearance at the Apollo Amateur Night, although his companions were insisting that he sing a gospel song.
“The girl who went on before me sang a gospel song, and they booed the shit out of her. No sympathy — it was so cold, she came offstage crying. ‘Alright young buck, you’re next!’ The MC comes out, ‘So we’ve got this kid, he’s from way down, deep down South.’ ‘BOOOO!’ Long story short, I won ’em over.”
5) His weight is up again.
He was in trim form last year for the shows at Brooklyn Bowl and Carnegie Hall, but he’s easily 30 pounds heavier now.
6) He still records on tape.
7) He often works inside a “cave” in the studio: a tarp tent with a humidifier, a keyboard and an ashtray inside.
“It’s like a teepee. I’m just trying to go deep, deep in the onion. I just get tired of being in the room. When it comes to the vocals, I’ll kick out the engineer, the assistant and run the board myself. We’ll set up the cave in the live room. I hear that’s how Sly used to do it.”
8) He claims to have no plans to join the ministry, despite his extensive background in the church and the fact that his father was a minister.
“Everybody back home always thinks I’m gonna take the Al Green route. I don’t see it. The stage is my pulpit. And when we’re playing and we’re getting the energy back and feeding it to the crowd and that exchange is happening, that’s my ministry.”
9) He never liked the term “neosoul.”
“Any time you put a name on something you put it in a box. So I think the main thing about the whole neosoul thing, not to put it down, but… ah… you don’t… you wouldn’t be in a position where you can grow as an artist. You never want to be told, ‘Hey, well, you’re a neosoul artist, why aren’t you doing that?’ Right now we’re going somewhere else. I’ve never played that. I used to say when I first came out, ‘I do black music.’ “
10) ?uestlove was the only person who dared to mention the new album — and sure enough, it ended the conversation.
“When Voodoo first came out it was a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow,” ?uestlove said. “It [seems] weird now because it’s in our DNA, but when it came out there were a lot of people like, ‘Woah, this sounds like an acid trip or something, what are you guys doing?’ Now it sounds normal — especially compared to… the unmentionable… unspoken third record! [Crowd applauds while D’Angelo laughs but says nothing.] And I think I just killed the interview. Thank you!”