D'Angelo Finally Does That Voodoo
The fact that people even care five years after the release of his debut, Brown Sugar, says a lot about D'Angelo's appeal and how important he is to R&B. His 1995 album dropped a welcome splash of color on the mundane Jodeci/Boyz II Men canvas that R&B had become. You could hear Prince, Al Green, and Donny Hathaway among his influences, but D'Angelo did more than steal riffs. While groups such as Tony! Toni! Tone! had been making "retro soul" for almost 10 years, D'Angelo brought a hip-hop sensibility and his own unique voice to Brown Sugar and, in the process, changed modern black music and the way a whole generationnot to mention several industriesthought about it.
D'Angelo was the inventor, exemplar, and voice of modern Black Bohemia, and Brown Sugar became its soundtrack. The album's commercial success was concrete proof that there was a market for black culture that wasn't "ghetto"-ized or aimed toward the fortysomething Terry McMillan crowd. Slick, Teddy Riley-descended singers never made any cultural impact beyond racking up a few hits. By contrast, D'Angelo's success opened the doors for singers such as Maxwell and Erykah Badu to make their own unique music. You could argue that, by proving a young, African-American demographic hungry for something different existed, D'Angelo also had at least a tertiary effect on films such as Love Jones and The Best Man getting the green light from studios. So, in the words of the great poets of De La Soul, when it comes to D'Angelo's second album, "Stakes is high."
Therein lies D'Angelo's biggest problem: the expectations raised by his long absence. First of all, five years is a very long time in musican eternity. time enough for bands to break up and reform, public tastes to shift, and musicians themselves evolve. Second, by waiting (or procrastinating) all this time, D'Angelo has built up expectations for his follow-up that even albums such as Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, or A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Maraudersclassics that took years to earn their reputationswould have trouble living up to. That's the level he's found himself on, and no one had to wait five years for any of those records.
So how is Voodoo? Well, it's a very good album. But it's not a great one. Perhaps the most glaring problem is a nagging feeling that D'Angelo is playing it safe; maybe the sales debacles suffered by other ambitious critical darlings (see Maxwell's Embrya) weighed on his mind. The new album's organic, live-groove feel certainly constitutes a risk when it comes to radio play, but considering that D'Angelo had five years to write, many of the songs are disappointments. "Send It On" and "One Mo' Gin" are solid tunes, but neither is anything that, say, Chico Debarge couldn't come up with. "The Line" is downright boring and tepidit copies the simplistic beat of Brown Sugar's "Lady," and the contrived feeling-the-second-album-pressure lyrics don't help. While D'Angelo's rendition of Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love" is competent, there's an overriding sense that its inclusion is an emotionless marketing ploy, simply there to fulfill the Remake That Can Safely Be Played on Both Urban and Adult-Contemporary Radio Stations Quota. Perhaps he was just feeling a little uninspired, but when fans wait five years, it's hard for them not to expect more.
When D'Angelo lets loose on Voodoo, however, the results are sublime. Backed up by the turntable mastery of DJ Premier, "Devil's Pie" is the type of soul/hip-hop hybrid Prince tried and failed to make throughout the early '90s. D'Angelo syncopates his singing, and he almost raps as he comments on the troubles and temptations of the world. "Devil's Pie" flows seamlessly into "Left & Right," with D'Angelo's bass picking up Premier's beat, while hip-hop's leading tag teamRedman and Method Mantake over the rapping chores. Unlike Prince, it's obvious that D'Angelo grew up listening to hip-hop, that it's become part of his musical vocabulary. The hip-hop elements complement his tracks instead of overshadowing them, as hip-hop is wont to do when it's mixed with R&B. Unfortunately, both songs are almost too familiar, having received heavy airplay for almost a year to satiate a D'Angelo-thirsty audience.
Speaking of the squiggly one, Voodoo's penultimate song and its current hit, "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," is the best Prince song of the last decade. The explicit lyrics, the mounting vocal passion doubling as a metaphor for sexual activity leading to orgasm, the sensual guitar licksit's all there. D'Angelo doesn't even try to pretend that he's doing anything but a Prince riff here, but it's a damn good one.
Like Price, D'Angelo is a musician first and foremost, and that manages to come out on Voodoo too. The improvised sound that falls flat on "The Line" works wonderfully on "Chicken Grease," as moonlighting Roots member ?uestlove's authoritative percussion and D'Angelo's nasty guitar licks drive the song into a good-natured jam session. "The Root" and "Spanish Joint" are the most ambitious songs on Voodoo, and are among the most rewarding. Buttressed by a haunting, minimalist bass line, D'Angelo changes tempo and rhythm throughout "The Root," showing off the musical growth he's experienced in the years he's been MIA. "Spanish Joint" is just thata buoyant Latin-influenced cut with nice horn lines, exquisite guitar playing, and heartfelt vocals ready-made for summertime.
Voodoo wasn't worth the five-year wait, but it's still a solid album and proof that D'Angelo isn't a one-hit wonder. And is it possible the album is hiding its true greatness, waiting for a patient listener? Maybe. But there are just too many cuts on Voodoo that sound as though they could have been sung by any one of the D'Angelo imitators who have sprung up in his absence. Hopefully, the next time out he will take more chances and deliver a more distinctive album. And it would be nice if we didn't have to wait five years for it.
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