This is the first in a two-part series by two Phoenix-based music critics that happen to feel that D'Angelo's Voodoo, which turned ten years old this week, is (to put it bluntly) one of the best things ever.
It was appropriate that weeks before the release date for Voodoo (January 25, 2000) that the world had partied like it was 1999. Reason being is that the sophomore effort and subsequent world tour from son-of-a-preacher-man R&B artist D'Angelo had more than a hint of His Purple Majesty's influence.
Michael "D'Angelo" Archer's musical co-pilot for the nearly four year-long process of recording a follow-up to his 1995 debut Brown Sugar was Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, the master drummer and band leader of acclaimed hip-hop band The Roots. As recording began in 1996 - sparked by a collaboration for the Men in Black soundtrack - a community began to grow around the project. D'Angelo and Thompson were soon joined by Miseducation of Lauryn Hill co-producer James Poyser and beatsmith James "Jay Dee" Yancey (who tragically died in 2006 due to complications from a rare blood disease).
The four formed the core of an informal production group, with the scope of collaborators incrementally widened to include vocalist and musician Bilal; rappers Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Q-Tip; and singer-songwriter Erykah Badu. Noting that most of them shared the astrological sign of Aquarius - and all were concerned with pumping some life back into their respective genres - they took on the portmanteau moniker of the Soulquarians.
In their studio sessions, long jams stretching for hours would eventually yield the basis for the songs that would make up Voodoo as well as The Roots' Things Fall Apart (1999), Badu's Mama's Gun (2000), Common's Like Water for Chocolate (2000), and Bilal's First Born Second (2001). All the while, they drew inspiration from various icons of funk, soul, and rock. Their pantheon of music gods, which they referred to as their Yodas - the artists whose excellence and passion they looked to for creative inspiration - included James Brown, George Clinton, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Jimi Hendrix (his Electric Ladyland recording studio in New York would became the Soulquarians' homebase), Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder.
While Archer and Thompson took it upon themselves to track down alternate takes of their songs and bootleg videos of their performances, they took special delight in soaking up the electric flair of their youngest Yoda, Prince. Both D'Angelo and ?uestlove attest to risking many an ass-whupping in their adolescence by sneaking the at-times raunchy, but musically masterful albums of the Paisley One into their respective houses.
On Voodoo, there's a sprinkle of Stevie in "Spanish Joint" and "Africa"; a splash of Clinton's P-Funk in "Chicken Grease"; and a dash of Fela and Sly's rebel defiance in "Devil's Pie." However, it's Prince's influence that looms largest over the Voodoo experience. In the liner notes he scribed for the album, poet Saul Williams concedes that listeners might think that "[D'Angelo] just sounds like he's trying to be Prince." Considering his damn vacation as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince at the time, it was welcome.
To remove any doubt that allowing that influence to flow freely was an accident, one only needs to listen to all seven minutes and ten seconds of "Untitled (How Does It Feel)." Part homage and part audition to join Prince's ranks, the careful percussion provides the barest of outlines for playful and slinky seduction to boil over into full-bodied ecstasy. D's voice starts husky and grounded, flaring into falsetto now and again, until lazy funky guitars gain momentum and pushes the song into a frenzy, resulting in vocals igniting into an overdubbed explosion. One last Prince trick is pulled out of the hat, as the track abruptly stops at its apex, evoking a "what the hell just happened?" reaction.
It's almost as jarring as the fact that a decade has passed and D'Angelo only has a handful of collaborations with other artists under his belt and no new album.
After a banner year in 2000 - including receiving a Grammy for Best R&B Album of the Year and a critically acclaimed tour - D'Angelo fell off the map. The tour itself was plagued with cancellations, first due to D'Angelo's throat infections, and then later due to emotional breakdowns associated with anxiety over maintaining the shape his body was in for the "Untitled" video, where he's practically naked throughout. Additionally, the demands of female concert goers for D'Angelo-as-sex-symbol began, in his mind, to overshadow his role as an envelope-pushing artist.
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Video of D'Angelo and The Soultronics @ The 2000 MTV Music Awards
False starts on a new album, family and relationship woes, and alcoholism - Archer entered rehab in 2005 following an automobile accident while under the influence - have kept D'Angelo, who has refused to be interviewed since 2000, out of the spotlight. Ironically, just as Voodoo sought to revive the soulful and groove-based artistic spirit missing in R&B as well as in Prince's post-Warner Brothers career (and knocked the "neo" off of the annoying "neo-soul" label), the music industry could use another effort to make the leap that Voodoo did.
It'd be great if it came from D'Angelo, but it'd be wiser to throw on Voodoo "One Mo'gin" than to hold your breath.