D'Angelo's Voodoo Turns Ten: One Man's Rebirth Is Another's Demise

This is the second 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.

Part one can be found here.

D'Angelo performs during the 2000 Voodoo tour.
D'Angelo performs during the 2000 Voodoo tour.

He stands there, clad in a dark robe, towards the front of the stage at Chicago's Arie Crown Theater. Behind him are The Soultronics, an eleven-piece band bathed in light more appropriate for a druid wake than a live show.

The figure at the mic poses there for a moment, not saying or singing anything. The near-capacity crowd, assuming it's the man they paid money to see, a guy that hasn't played a show in weeks, is the same cat that produced one of the greatest albums of the decade.

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A minute or so later, the man in the robe, D'Angelo, begins to recite lyrics in a recognizable raspy timbre to "Devil's Pie," the soul-bathed diatribe featured on his recently released Voodoo (2000). The lights remain dim as driving horn quotations and hypnotic backing vocalists give the song's lyrics ("Fuck the slice we want the pie/Why ask why 'til we fry?/Watch us all stand in line for a slice of the devil's pie") a sharp edge of anxiety.

The soul singer finishes the bridge, the robe falls to the floor, somebody flips the switch to the stage lights, and it's on for the next three hours - an eighth of a day of bliss that won't ever happen again in quite the same way - as the well-oiled sonic machine tears the roof off the joint with a oh-my-effing-god-wow performance that doesn't belong on this planet.

There is something larger happening, too. Specifically, the lives of two people in that concert hall will never be the same.

***

Every music nerd has his or her life-changing record. For me, it's D'Angelo's Voodoo. (To understand why, allow me to rewind to the past for a moment.)

For my first 22 years of breathing air, I exclusively lived in Arizona, a place that seemed pretty pleasant to grow up, but not exactly a spot for deep cultural exposure. I trudged through my childhood existence like most middle-class kids in my sleepy Tempe suburb, which predominantly housed white and Jewish folks, whether it was playing sports on neatly manicured grass or swimming at any number of my friend's pools.

However, I did notice, even back then, something different about my household; namely, the wide ranges of music that played throughout the house. My Texas-reared dad fancied listening to down home country and western; my mother learned classical piano from Alexander Graham Bell's granddaughter, so she leaned towards playing Chopin and Beethoven; my middle brother was all about rock, ranging from Sabbath to AC/DC; and my oldest brother, who spent his formative years during the height of the '70s soul resurgence, horded 8-tracks of Stevie Wonder, The Commodores, and Earth, Wind, & Fire.

The author at age six, probably listening to something soulful.
The author at age six, probably listening to something soulful.

With all sorts of choices at my disposal, I picked soul music. I'm not really sure why I did - maybe simply because I thought my brother ruled - but I do recall that it helped that he left behind his music stash when he took off for an out-of-state college in the early '80s. That meant for the first time in my young life, I had music that I could call my own.

By age 14, that all changed. Anybody that has been taught outside of the home in high school knows that image is the end-all, be-all factor in not looking like a jackass at that age. I definitely fell into the trap. Because of it, the sleekly-produced music of R. Kelly, Jodeci, and Boyz II Men - all decent stuff, in my opinion, but not exactly rooted in bona fide sincerity - replaced the old folks' music I reared myself on. Simply put, it wasn't cool anymore to listen to Stevie, Marvin, and Aretha.

Looking back, that music also replaced the carefree spirit within me.

***

I didn't give much thought to Voodoo when it was released in January 2000. At the time, I was more into surviving a strange situation that I had put myself in.

Following a first-time, two-day visit to the Windy City, I sold my car, packed up some stuff for shipment, and moved to Illinois cold, sans a job, a place to live, or any semblance of a game plan. I didn't really know anybody out there so I ended up rooming with this weird party kid that I'd met through a classified ad in the local alternative weekly newspaper. When I wasn't listening to my roommate talking about all of the drugs that he had done the night before, I spent my time sending out resumes from the public library Internet terminal and sleeping on the freezing hardwood floor of the one-hundred-year old flat.

Aside from being on my own at a university two hours from my hometown, I had never lived so far away from home. Though I didn't admit this to myself, I needed some sort stability in this strange situation, something solid that I arguably hadn't experienced since I was a child.

Promo shot of D'Angelo from the Voodoo days.
Promo shot of D'Angelo from the Voodoo days.

One miserable and cold evening following another fruitless session of job searching, I chatted on the phone with a friend from L.A. The conversation was a nice break from the doldrums I was feeling, especially towards the end, when my pal started talking about new album releases. She knew music made me whole so, detecting the sadness in my voice, she began dishing about some new album by D'Angelo. I remember that she punctuated her opinion about Voodoo with something like, "Dude, you have to go out and get it right now."

Up until that point, my only frame of reference regarding D'Angelo was Brown Sugar, an album that I totally blew off when it was released in 1995. His debut differed from, say, the latest Keith Sweat, thanks to its lo-fi tendencies, real instrument tracks, and lyrics that discussed subject matter other than how a girl's body tastes. In other words, it wasn't for me, so I was all set to say whatever to Voodoo as well.

The opposite happened.

Long story short, I found my footing in Voodoo, thanks to tunes like the spellbinding slow jam "One Mo'gin" and the ditty "The Root" that chronicles heartbreak in an upbeat, funk-layered sonic package. For me, the 79-minute effort had it all, ranging from the gritty production to the nuanced odes to soul music's storied past. It also changed my perspective of how recorded art is really supposed to sound. Rather than hearing K-Ci & JoJo singing pretty sounding songs about their mothers, Voodoo listened like a message in a bottle sent from antediluvian Africa, care of Bessie Smith, and hand-delivered by Prince.

After a while, the album became much more to me.

Specifically, it was a time machine back to those moments in my parents' modest adobe block home in Tempe, a time when I was content on listening to my brother's clunky 8-track cartridges of some of the galaxy's greatest artists through headphones that nearly swallowed my six-year old head.

In other words, I had finally found my personal home base.

***

Other folks didn't hear Voodoo quite like I did.

I remember it well, perched there in the balcony of the Arie Crown in Chicago. The baiting call of "Take! It! Off!" by sex-crazed fans anxious to see a live interpretation of "Untitled (How Does It Feel)."

A still from "Untitled," the music video that would ruin D'Angelo's life.
A still from "Untitled," the music video that would ruin D'Angelo's life.

Before all of that, D and the band had quoted '60s Motown, '70s funk, and hard rock on tunes like the rearranged "Shit, Damn, Motherfucker" in which D'Angelo went ninja on a mic stand. By that point, the performance, which remains tops in my concert-attending docket, had cemented my faith in Voodoo.

On the other hand, impatience had built up inside of "Untitled" wanting dudettes and dudes. Sitting there all annoyed that I couldn't hear the music over the catcalls, I didn't even think that such rabid displays of want and lust - which reminded me of out-of-control fools at a pro football game - would be the psychological-baggage recipe that's sent a man into his shell for ten years.

It's been documented in detail why this happened, how D'Angelo canceled three weeks of tour dates based on insecurities with his appearance, and the resulting strife that it's caused an artist who was well on his way to reinventing soul music over and over again. For the uninitiated, Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Raphael Saadiq co-produced "Untitled," which is a solid love jam, but nothing super spectacular. Shortly thereafter, an accompanying video followed. In it, a basically naked and totally chiseled D'Angelo is portrayed as the male version of Nefertiti as the slow-moving camera pans up, over, and almost down there. The simple-but-effective approach worked too well in creating a memorable memory (and one based on all of the wrong reasons).

It also helped to shatter a fragile man's ego and the career of a soul-music savior, which is the exact opposite of what I experienced with the album.

A 2005 booking photo of D'Angelo.
A 2005 booking photo of D'Angelo.
Chesterfield, Virginia, Police Department

D'Angelo hasn't dropped an album since Voodoo (though, every few years, someone will report that he's working on something) and has only appeared as a guest musician on other people's records. Instead, he's been in a car crash, on lockdown at an alcohol abuse treatment center, and wrapped up in legal woes -- for example, in 2003, he settled a civil suit with a woman that accused Michael Eugene Archer (D'Angelo's birth name) of spitting on her. He's also refused every single interview request since 2000.

The entire thing is a fascinating riches-to-rags tale chock-full of gripping plot points such as insecurity, depression, and the real goal of music marketing. D'Angelo's self-imposed, Sly Stone-esque removal from society could even be considered a modern-day tragedy. Honestly, I'm not really sure what to make of it, mostly because we've never heard his side of the story. The way things have gone, we may never find out.

One thing I do know is that as I was experiencing a life changer for the better inside of a south side Chicago concert hall, a man in the same room was going through the worst moment of his life.

External Links:

*"Untitled (How Does It Feel)" music video.

*Interview in the 2003 issue of The Believer with Ahmir Questlove Thompson, the drummer of The Roots who played an integral role in the making of Voodoo.

*Fascinating piece in the August 2008 issue of Spin chronicling D'Angelo downfall.

*Questlove's SwiftFM's page featuring live cuts and outtakes from the Voodoo sessions. (There are also hours upon hours of wonderful soul dusties as well as other random sonic bits.)


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