This review by Ryan Dombal of D’Angelo’s second album, which has just been re-released on vinyl, comes from the Pitchfork Media website, dated Dec. 12th…
It’s impossible to talk about Voodoo without talking about what’s happened since Voodoo. Or, more accurately, what hasn’t happened since Voodoo. It’s been 12 years since D’Angelo released his dirt-encrusted soul opus in the first month of the new millennium, and we have yet to see a follow-up. During those dozen calendar runs, the Virginia-bred singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer has learned to play guitar and spent countless hours in various studios, trying to find his way to the next sound. This time last year, unofficial D’Angelo status updater and kindred spirit/collaborator ?uestlove told me the new album is “pretty much 97% done.” And this year, D played a number of live shows, his first in a decade. That’s the upside.
He’s also been arrested – for disturbing the peace, marijuana possession, carrying a concealed weapon, and driving under the influence in 2005, and then for offering an undercover NYPD officer $40 for a blowjob in 2010. There were several attempts at rehab. And he’s almost died at least once, when he drunkenly crashed through a fence and flipped his Hummer alongside Virginia’s Route 711 seven years ago. In 2010, when I asked ?uestlove how his friend stacks up against the other luminaries he’s worked with – people like Jay-Z and Al Green – he summed up the D’Angelo dilemma well: “I consider him a genius beyond words. At the same time, I say to myself, ‘How can I scream someone’s genius if they hardly have any work to show for it?’ Then again, the last work he did was so powerful that it’s lasted 10 years.”
At this point, it’s easy to forget that Voodoo itself was, for quite awhile, one of those forever-delayed studio myths, too. “I’ve been gone so long, just wanna sing my song,” D’Angelo sings on “The Line”, a self-directed pep talk and explanation of his slug-like pace, “I know you been hearing a lot of things about me.” Voodoo arrived five years behind D’s home-recorded bap&B debut, Brown Sugar, and blew through its fair share of release dates before touching down on January 25, 2000. Its arrival came during the twilight of the mega-CD era – six months after Napster’s birth, two years before the iPod – but its four-year gestation occurred during the halcyon 90s, a time when artists were afforded the chance to tinker for years on end while blazing through bottomless studio budgets. The record topped the Billboard albums chart during its first two weeks out, and looking at 2000’s other #1s – including N’Sync’s record-breaking No Strings Attached, Eminem’s angsty Marshall Mathers LP, and, uh, Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water – Voodoo stands tall with October’s Kid A as a paranoid, mysterious, and challenging artistic statement that somehow managed to scale the industry.
Riding high off of 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Maxwell’s first two LPs, and Erykah Badu’s 1997 album Baduizm, the so-called neo-soul movement, which favored earthy 70s production rather than 90s slickness, was reaching an apex in 2000. And Voodoo was positioned as a more down-to-earth alternative to the infinite excess of late-90s hip-hop and R&B. “[Contemporary R&B]’s a joke,” scoffed D’Angelo at the time. “It’s sad – the people making this shit have turned black music into a club thing.” (For his sake, here’s hoping D hasn’t flipped on the radio in the last five years.)
While this viewpoint may seem somewhat myopic in our poptimist era, to understand D’Angelo is to understand who he looked to for musical and spiritual guidance: Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Otis Redding, Prince – supremely gifted artists known for expertly plying their craft. His devotion isn’t merely cosmetic or fashionable, though – by all accounts he’s a hardcore music nerd who “knows every Prince concert’s playlist,” according to recent GQ profiler Amy Wallace. His love of musical lore is partly why he chose to make Voodoo in Electric Lady Studios, the downtown Manhattan recording space Hendrix built in 1969. Listening to the album, his influences are apparent, but also ingrained in a way that’s equal parts reverent and uncanny. Rather than just listening to old Funkadelic or Stevie albums for inspiration, Voodoo was literally born from them; a typical night at Electric Lady would have D, ?uestlove, bassist Pino Palladino, and maybe one of two of their prodigious buddies playing an entire classic soul album through, and then seeing where those jams led them. This went on for years. The result is ineffably natural, the type of live-in-studio sound that requires copious god-given talent – D’Angelo started playing piano at age 4 – and constant woodshedding to really pull off. There are no shortcuts.
D’Angelo’s old-school obsessions extended even further than songwriting inspiration. Voodoo was recorded on 2″ tape – 120 reels of the stuff were used in total according to engineer Russell Elevado – and many of the songs’ instrumental takes were recorded live without overdubs. Vintage gear was employed. The analog fetishism is ironic considering how, at the time of its release, vinyl had yet to make a resurgence; indeed, this 2xLP reissue is a godsend in that respect, especially for anyone who’s considered dropping $100 on eBay for one of the few LPs originally made in 2000. I’ve been listening to this album since it came out – my original 74-minute CD-R, burned from a friend, left out the 79-minute album’s last song – and it never gets old, or grating, or tired. While this is obviously largely due to quality of the songs, it’s hard not to think that the warm glow given off by the equipment and recording techniques used to create it factors in as well. Not all music needs to be built to last, but Voodoo was designed and willed and technically optimized to be a testament for the ages; it captures empty space and heartbreak as well as it does rim shots and joy. The grooves deepen. When the news of a bare-bones, no-bonus-tracks vinyl reissue causes palpable excitement 12 years later, it’s a rare accomplishment.
But Voodoo is more than a fetish object for analog geeks and old-soul collectors. It’s peppered with hip-hop inflections largely informed by the singular work of J Dilla, the record’s biggest modern influence. D’Angelo probably had Dilla’s beats in mind when he wanted ?uestlove to dirty his impeccable timing to drum like he had just “drank some moonshine behind a chuckwagon,” as ?uest once put it. In GQ, D cited the Detroit producer’s 2006 death as the moment he decided to wake up from his booze-and-cocaine fueled lost years. “I felt like I was going to be next,” he said. And when he played this year’s Made in America festival in Philadelphia, he stepped out to the strains of obscure Canadian band Motherlode’s “When I Die”, which Dilla flipped on the finale of his last true album, Donuts. The song’s hook: “When I die, I hope to be a better man than you thought I’d be.” Voodoo‘s element of sampling is crucial and varied as well, whether through flawless interpolations (as on “Send It On”, which borrows its horn-laden lilt from Kool and the Gang’s Sea of Tranquility”), or sly cut-ups (like when DJ Premier drops in a line of Fat Joe’s materialistic “Success” into the anti-materialism screed “Devil’s Pie”), or well-chosen covers (the slowed-down brilliance of “Feel Like Makin’ Love”, a #1 for Roberta Flack in 1974).
Given his extensive repertoire of male R&B legends, the fact that D chose Voodoo‘s only cover to be a song made famous by a woman also seems key. Because another aspect of the album’s overall concept involves an embrace of femininity. “The Aquarian Age is a matriarchal age, and if we are to exist as men in this new world many of us must learn to embrace and nurture that which is feminine with all of our hearts,” wrote singer/poet Saul Williams in the record’s liner notes. “But is there any room for artistry in hip hop’s decadent man-sion?” The album’s most uncharacteristic moment involves this schism between hip-hop and misogyny and feminism, when guest stars Method Man and Redman drop tone-deaf dick-fluffing broadsides on “Left and Right”. (Intriguingly, Q-Tip recorded a more thematically appropriate verse for the track, though that version has yet to surface.) But everywhere else, Voodoo exhibits a mature attitude toward women and relationships – one that doesn’t pander, but empathizes, and shows that the then-26-year-old and father of two was becoming acquainted with all sides of love.
Voodoo‘s second half, from “One Mo’ Gin” through “Africa”, goes from the depths of despondency, to regret, to carnal ecstasy, to something more spiritual and everlasting. These songs get to the bottom of nothing less than the core of human interaction; what happens when people collide and come together and break apart. And it’s all done with the omnipotent knowing of a saint. Nothing is overstated. “The Root” is the record’s most downtrodden track lyrically, where D’Angelo confesses, “I feel my soul is empty, my blood is cold and I can’t feel my legs/I need someone to hold me, bring me back to life before I’m dead.” But instead of dour instrumentation, the song’s accompanying rhythm is comforting, warm. The whole song leads to a kind of exorcism – in its final minutes, the singer masterfully layers his own voice on top of itself, vocal lines coming in at every imaginable direction, offering a peek inside his brain. Then it all smooths out, finding comfort in infinity: “From the Alpha of creation, to the end of all time.” D’Angelo knows these stakes are high but, as he concludes on “The Line”, “If I can hold on, I’m sure everything will be alright.” Voodoo is the sound of him holding on; its ensuing silence marks his lost grip.
Details also give Voodoo its timelessness. The album’s gentle avoidance of common song structures adds spontaneity; even after hundreds of listens, it’s still possible to be surprised. The barely-heard words spoken in intros and outros give things continuity and a voyeuristic quality, like you’re hearing it all through a city wall; listen again for the sweetly awkward conversation with an ex that starts “One Mo’ Gin” or the way “Greatdayndamornin'” is introduced with D’Angelo praising ?uestlove to journalist dream hampton: “I was like, ‘You gonna be my drummer one of these days,” gushes D.
The concept of voodoo itself – as portrayed via the record’s voodoo-ceremony photos – is multi-layered. While probably using voodoo’s exaggerated and misrepresented image within modern popular culture to add some mystique and danger, D’Angelo’s also likely referencing the religion’s African origins, and how it was coveted by uprooted slaves, feared by slave owners, and ignited the Haitian Revolution of 1791. D’Angelo was born the son of a Pentecostal minister, and he was exposed to that religion’s closely intertwining relationship between the spiritual and earthly realms: speaking in tongues, divine healing. And music. “I learned at an early age that what we were doing in the choir was just as important as the preacher,” he told GQ. “The stage is our pulpit, and you can use all of that energy and that music and the lights and the colors and the sound. But you know, you’ve got to be careful.” Coming out of D’s mouth, this is more than hokum – he believes it and he makes you believe it. There are many ghosts hidden within this record. They’re still being drawn out.
Still, many simply know Voodoo for a certain naked music video. The clip for “Untitled “How Does It Feel)” is the reason why the album went platinum, and it plays a large part in D’s ensuing disappearance. It instantly transformed the singer from a very talented artist to a pin-up. The song was the last track recorded for Voodoo, and it’s the most direct thing here, a churning Prince-inspired ballad that bests nearly every actual ballad Prince ever recorded. It’s about lust, sure, but it’s a two-way street. The way he sings it, “how does it feel?” isn’t necessarily rhetorical, no matter how much it should be considering the power of the music. And if you look closely, the video isn’t just a handsome and muscular guy flexing his pecs. There’s a vulnerability in D’Angelo’s eyes, an awkwardness that’s both endearing and slightly uncomfortable.
“You’ve got to realize, he’d never looked like that before in his life,” D’s trainer Mark Jenkins told Spin in 2008. “To be somebody who was so introverted, and then, in a matter of three or four months, to be so ripped – everything was happening so quickly.” The video became a phenomenon and, soon enough, women were standing at the lip of D’Angelo’s stage, telling him to take off his clothes. The attention was infuriating to him, and it sent the singer to a dark place – all that work, all that time blown away by a few sweaty shots of his abdomen. Then again, while he was hesitant, he still shot the video. The unfortunate ordeal causes writer Jason King to conclude, in this reissue’s new liner notes: “For all of Voodoo‘s claims to realness and authenticity, D’Angelo’s imaging, while rooted in promise, had been in some ways a charade, an unsustainable performance of black masculinity gone awry.”
“I got something I’m seeing; I got a vision,” D’Angelo told Time upon Voodoo‘s release. “This album is the second step to that vision.” It seems safe to say the prophecy he was speaking about did not entail more than a decade of nothingness, or drug addiction, or shame. Now, it’s difficult to say where this vision is leading. Playing an upbeat new funk track called “Sugar Daddy” at this year’s BET Awards, he looked solid, and his voice sounded fantastic, but it was almost as interesting to watch the cutaway shots – to see Nicki Minaj staring on, seemingly confused, or Kanye talking to someone during the performance, or Beyonce standing up, loving every second. (BET headlined the clip: “D’Angelo’s Sexiest Performance Ever!”)
There’s a big difference between a prodigious, smooth-skinned 26-year-old playing retro-styled music and a 38-year-old doing the same thing. The backwards-looking pose can calcify; by the time Prince was 38, he was well into his symbol phase. That said, D’Angelo is the quintessential old soul. And there’s hope in the comebacks of fellow 90s refugees Maxwell and Badu, who both released some of their best work after long layoffs over the last few years. But D’Angelo’s inactivity has only helped to inflate Voodoo‘s myth, though it doesn’t need much help. It’s frustrating to think about how someone so enamored with the past, who knew his heroes’ successes and failures so well, could be doomed to repeat them. It’s almost as if he studied them too much, and the same spiritual power that fueled his greatest moment couldn’t help but bring him down. Like that’s how he thought it was supposed to go. In an interview between ?uestlove and D around the release of Voodoo, the drummer confronted the singer about his idols: “They all have one thing in common, they were all vanguards, but 98% of them crashed and burned.” To which D’Angelo responded: “I think about that all the time.”