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Perhaps it was a baton passed by February 2019 Vibe digital cover star H.E.R. during Grammy that solidified Lucky Daye’s 2020 nominations. At an intimate gathering during Grammy weekend last year, the 2019 Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance winner sweetly sang a rendition of “Roll Some Mo,” much to Daye’s amazement. As H.E.R. struck gold with five nominations last year, walking away with two gramophones, Lucky is poised for a similar fate, nominated for Best R&B Song (“Roll Some Mo”), Best R&B Album (Painted), Best R&B Performance (“Roll Some Mo”), and Best Traditional R&B Performance (“Real Games”). Though the nominations were announced merely two months ago, for Daye, the news finally sunk in as he attended The Recording Academy’s L.A. Chapter Celebration.
“My body doesn't react to verbal news, it’s like a normal thing. I'm so used to expecting stuff that people say--especially in music--and it not happening,” Daye says, as we speak a day following the L.A. Chapter Celebration. “Now that I should be excited early--because I want to be excited this whole time--it [doesn’t] happen until I walk into a room. Then I get all jittery and nervous, like, ‘oh my God, this is happening.'”
While the Grammys have previously been attuned with Black artists accruing few awards (only ten Black artists have won Album of the Year in the show’s 60-year history), the Recording Academy has attempted to diversify their categories. This means adapting to the stark change in the R&B climate, leaning on subgenres and mixtapes, rather than solely mainstream artists. Daye’s 2019 debut album Painted was transfixed in the lush, instrument-driven sounds of funk’s heyday, enriched by vocal sensibilities and near-spiritual opulence, stamping his destiny in R&B. Fellow singer-songwriter Victoria Monet shared with Billboard that Painted was her favorite album of last year, noting that Daye’s hometown of New Orleans was “the soul of the project”. For Daye, Painted wasn’t just a reclamation of home, but a testament of emotional reverence.
“I got a chance to get everything out, like, my deepest emotions and feelings. To finally say it without getting cut off, or to finally say it and not get a rebuttal before I actually try to get people to hear it… Most times, I get feedback and it discourages me, [but] this time, it was too late for anybody to discourage me since the album was done,” he says. “I was already like, ‘I love it, so I don’t care what anybody thinks’. To me, it felt good to get a response from people [but] a positive one, for once. I’m still adjusting, [so] I’m kind of new to how it’s moving and I’m new to the people liking stuff from me. People don’t really get it, it’s a different side of life that I’ve never been on.”
Daye, previously known as D. Brown during a run of being a songwriter and background vocalist, follows a tradition of fellow songwriter-turned-full fledged R&B artists including D’Angelo and Faith Evans. However, he assures that crafting music behind the scenes wasn’t his end goal, as collaborating with producer D’Mile ignited his passion of re-pursuing solo stardom. In a recent Rolling Stone profile of D’Mile, the producer noticed an uptick in contemporary R&B paying homage to the 70’s, notably psychedelic cut “Redbone”, which snagged Childish Gambino a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance in 2018.
Both Daye and D’Mile followed suit, with their own formulaic reverence to 70’s funk and soul on Painted, ushering in a modern take. Daye mentions that while D’Mile is knowledgeable of music theory, it was Daye’s “chemical imbalance” over D’Mile’s production and radical instrumentation that essentially made them musical soulmates. “When it comes to music, [it] will teach consciousness in the body to be open, to be understanding of everything. To have multiple perceptions, it’s rare, and [D’Mile] has that,” Daye says. “If anything else, we know that at the end of the day, it’s all going to boil down to music. We’re here to do something on Earth at this age and time, and I’m indebted to him.”
For long-time fans of Daye, some were initially surprised once playing the album, as songs featured on his introductory EPs I and II were featured prominently on Painted. For Daye, he wanted to ease his listeners into living with his music for a while longer before presenting the remainder of his debut, unexpectedly recommended by a rap icon. “I didn’t want [fans] to listen to it and be like, ‘yo, it’s a jumble of a bunch of mess’, because honestly, that’s how I felt at the time. I just felt like, ‘they’re not gonna like it’. If we’re going to really put it out and [make] it a big deal, I don’t want to mess this up. The best advice was putting it out piece by piece. I talked to Nicki Minaj about that and that’s where the idea originally came from,” he says, referencing that he accompanied a friend to a studio session with Minaj.
“This was probably eight months before [Painted] came out. We’re sitting in there, they couldn’t come up with [any] ideas and she was like, ‘Why you sitting over there quiet? What you humming? Sounds like you got something if you wanna hop in, you can.’ I just hopped in and freestyled a whole song.”
Taking Minaj’s advice made for the organic success of his EPs, and a gradual acclimation of ‘Daye Ones’--a token for Daye’s dedicated fanbase--especially those who witnessed his performances during a streak of three tours in the past year. After joining Ella Mai and Kiana Lede during Mai’s debut tour, Daye launched into The Painted Tour, later heading to Australia with Khalid during The Spirit Tour. Daye admits the stage is where he’s most carefree, but that he’s still getting acclimated with finding time to rest. “It’s so crazy because I look around [and] sometimes I’ll push my friends too hard, or I’ll push other people too hard because of my expectations,” he says. “Fresh off the Khalid tour, I didn’t sleep for a week, I was like ‘I don’t know what’s going on’. I’m calling doctors, Kehlani’s helping me like, ‘maybe you should drink that’, I just realized it was adrenaline. It’s hard to go to sleep when you’re running off that kind of energy.”
Daye’s adrenaline and charismatic stage presence made his mainly-female audiences buckle at their knees, even intimately crooning select attendees to violin-driven track “Concentrate” at shows. But it was the track “Roll Some Mo” that stood apart from his catalog, instantly becoming a fan favorite and soundtracking The Photograph, which premieres on Valentine’s Day next month. Though “Roll Some Mo” is beloved for its penchant in marijuana-infused desire, Daye says he initially rejected the song being featured on Painted. “That was the fastest song I did. Most times when I write fast, I’m not trying and I felt like I didn’t put my all into it. That’s why, to me, “Roll Some Mo” wasn’t strong. I felt like I could do better, but everyone else was like ‘that’s the one’,” he says. “So I should just write and not think, that’s a lesson I’ve learned from misjudging “Roll Some Mo”: don’t overthink and do not try to make it perfect.”
Long accustomed to songwriting, Daye had a natural inclination to join the ranks of Keep Cool Records, especially the intensity of their songwriting boot camps. Prior guests of the boot camps have included Masego and Baby Rose, and Daye mentions that he also attended recording sessions of Revenge of the Dreamers III on their final day. “It’s so much pressure at writing camps like [Keep Cool Records] because there are so many people that are amazing. They go in with that mindset--and I understand that because I can write, as well--I just don’t do it with that type of intensity, because my confidence has been killed in that area,” Daye says. “Being in a room with those people, you learn different ways to make music and that’s the beauty [of it]. Music is art, it’s in me and I can’t do nothing about that, so to be in that environment is paradise.”
With writing credits for Keith Sweat, Boyz II Men and Keke Palmer years prior to releasing Painted, it was mentorship from Mary J. Blige during recording sessions for Blige’s 2017 album Strength of a Woman, that aided Daye with honing in on lyrical simplicity. Co-writing “Love Yourself” and “U + Me (Love Session)”, with admiration for Blige, Daye even attended her 2018 Walk of Fame commencement. “[Blige] always speaks vulnerability and she always taught me a lot about changing words [for them] to make more sense,” Daye says. “I’m way more abstract than I was when Painted came out, and she’d always bring me back, like, ‘why don’t you just say it like this?’ I’m like, ‘that’s ghetto’. (laughs) She’d be like, ‘but it’s good’. I’d be like, ‘Well, alright, I got it; just do what I normally do if I was talking to somebody.’”
With Blige’s guidance in mind, Daye knew that he wanted the apex of Painted to revolve around intricacies of love, his previous relationships being the basis of the album, notably, overexerting himself while in those relationships. “On Painted, I wanted to convey love as being misunderstood and not what you always expect it to be. I feel like we watch all of these things around us and we got these high expectations of what love is supposed to be and it’s really an illusion. When you find somebody who’s actually a real person and they don’t meet your illusion, they fail in your eyes,” he says, subtly warning women to beware of overzealous suitors. “I just wanted to say ‘it’s fine to not be perfect, it’s fine to be normal’. Being normal is actually what love is, everything else is extra. You can’t always exhaust yourself. I’ve exhausted myself and I wanted to portray that on the album, like, I’ve done that already. I’ve tried everything I could to try to stay in love and try to be in love. It allowed me to fall in love and get my heartbroken, and that created more content for me and it created more depth for my character.”
With room to create meaningful content, though not intentional, Daye withheld from having collaborations on Painted. For many listeners, the “Roll Some Mo” remix featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Wale was the first time they heard Daye accompanied by featured guests. “I don’t think I had any power to even get anybody that wanted to get on my record. I would like to think that the music industry would hear good music and want to get with it because it’s good to them, not necessarily good to popular people,” he says. “I wanted to at least do my first album complete and not wait on features. I think all great artists can do an album with no features and you’ll still be able to listen to the whole album. I don’t care who it is, if someone’s not good on my record, I’m not putting it out.”
While Painted didn’t lack in vulnerability, Daye is open to the possibility of having features on his sophomore album. With his majorly-female audience in mind, he wants to reintroduce an influx of female features to create melodic balance. “The second album might be a little bit different. I’m probably gonna do an album that has a great amount of features on it and I’m working on that right now. We’re reaching for gold,” he says. “When it comes to singing, girls are listening to me. Most guys, they have too much ego to listen to me, I’m too real. They don’t want to feel soft. I feel like if get girls featured, it’ll make more sense for me than male features because I talk about love a lot. Ain’t too many guys I know that’s gonna open up like that on a record. That’s one of my goals, I want to do a lot of songs with girls like Marvin Gaye did.”
With music videos traditionally having a cinematic, thoroughly crafted feel, Daye shares that a visual album is soon to come, with a slew of screenplays already written. Initially wanting to release a visual album alongside Painted, he’s tentatively reserving it for his sophomore album. Though he’s mapped out his plans for 2020, Daye says that he’s willing to let go of his reigns to get better acquainted with fans. “I’m gonna make myself more uncomfortable this year when it comes to putting myself out there--controlling less of what I think I should be controlling--and just be more free and just be present. I want them to know, if there’s anything I should do, I’m open [to it].”
During a generation of R&B when artists are arguably most hands-on with their creative intention, Daye fits right in, nominated in nearly every R&B category of the 2020 Grammys. Hinting at surprise single before the ceremony, while arguably a veteran, Daye assures that his journey is far from over. “The fact that [artists] can reach so many people, just with one button, that’s awesome. Most people have to climb, they climb a long way from city to city and it takes years just to get to a level. I have millions of views in a year, and I believe [“Roll Some Mo”] might be gold. Just to do that in one year, being able to touch so many people, I feel like we’re getting closer,” he says. “It’s come back around, for sure, [but] there’s way more to accomplish. I plan on having at least eleven albums, and I feel satisfied, kind of, but this is the beginning. I just started, it’s the first day.”
Going into the 2020 iteration of the show, The Grammy Awards couldn’t be more irrelevant and in a place of struggling to attract younger viewers. Each year sets new lows in the coveted 18-49 demographic, and the show continues to take one step forward and ten steps back when it comes to its relationship with hip-hop. The step forward this year will be the confirmed tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle featuring Kirk Franklin, DJ Khaled, John Legend, Meek Mill, Roddy Ricch, and YG. Fixing what was once the most cherished institution of the music business and one of the most-watched events of each year is complicated and will require drastic directional shifts and changes to elements of the show that have been part of its fabric for many years. These are the 10 problems with the Grammy Awards and how to fix them.
“Envision this: a lone man in a haunted room surrounded by glowing instruments. What sounds are evoked from a room where Jimi once slept? What are the rewards of those who tend to their God-given talents as they would have the Creator tend to their spirits and daily lives? What happens when the artist becomes the conjur man?”
Twenty years ago, poet Saul Williams posed this question in the liner notes for D’Angelo’s sophomore offering, Voodoo: notes that served as a listener guide while exploring the long-awaited follow up to 1995’s Brown Sugar. Voodoo is considered by most as D’Angelo’s definitive work. (In fairness, he’s only graced us with three studio albums in his 25-year career.) Upon release, the LP was widely celebrated; it landed near the top of every major year-end list for 2000, and garnered the Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2001. In the years since, living up to its name, Voodoo has become something spiritual for many – a totem of musical greatness and genius. Okayplayer declared it “neo-soul’s most salient creation,” and no doubt this month there’ll be a flood of pieces examining the project’s importance in R&B music. Indeed, D’Angelo’s debut and sophomore albums each marked turning points in R&B. The Virginia native’s first outing came two years before the phrase “neo-soul” was coined. Add Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997), and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and you have the four musical horsemen of neo-soul. Baduizm inspired executive Kedar Massenberg, who also oversaw Brown Sugar, to create a descriptor that came to define a subgenre. But when Brown Sugar first hit the streets, it simply felt like an extension of the jazz and classic soul influences found in the work of D’Angelo’s future collaborators from A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots.
Five years later, Voodoo bowed at the top of a new millennium, at a time when the R&B genre was evolving and fracturing in ways that R&B and soul purists are still lamenting today (Hi, it’s me. I’m lamenting). In 1999, TLC’s Fanmail and Destiny’s Child’s Writing’s on the Wall signaled the pop-leaning, bounce and tempo-driven, slickly-produced direction R&B was heading toward to maintain a presence on hip-hop dominated airwaves. Voodoo was a collective resistance, a labor of love from some of the finest artists of the era. A harkening back to musical foundations. Rolling Stone dubbed it “an ambitious record that seeks nothing less than to unstick black music from commercial considerations and leave it free to seek its muse.” Questlove wrote of the album effort shortly before release, “It was a love for the dead state of black music, a love to show our idols how much they taught us. (T)his was the love movement. (A)nd this was the beginning.”
“We have come in the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie, all artists formerly known as spirits and all spirits formerly known as stars. We have come in the tradition of burning bushes, burning ghettos, burning splifs, and the ever-burning candles of our bedrooms and silent chambers. We have come bearing instruments and our voices: Falsetto and baritone, percussion and horns…We speak of darkness, not as ignorance, but as the unknown and the mysterious of the unseen.” - Saul Williams
The Avengers-esque origin story of Voodoo is part of the album’s power and mythology. The project inspired the formation of the Soulquarians collective, a superhero music taskforce that began with D’Angelo, Questlove, J. Dilla and James Poyser (all Aquarians), taking over the long-dormant Electric Lady Studios – former studio home of Jimi Hendrix – to create something new and real. The crew expanded as Common and Erykah also camped out at Electric Lady to work on their upcoming projects, and other collaborators including Q-Tip and Raphael Saadiq fell through in regular rotation. Quest, D and camp went full music nerd, using the studio’s vintage equipment and keeping everything as organic and analog as possible to create a retro energy and sound. They studied old performances of Prince, Stevie Wonder and other Yodas - their name for the masters - obsessively, channeling the spirits of their heroes. Voodoo was the start of a legacy.
Famed music critic Robert Christgau said Voodoo is “widely regarded as the greatest R&B album of the post-Prince era.” And it is…but are we puttin’ too much on it? I do believe D’s lack of visibility and minimal output since Voodoo adds a preciousness to the album (not unlike Miseducation, which might be discussed differently if there was more work to talk about). But also, Voodoo is not an R&B album; it’s some unnamed sh*t (calling it neo-soul is reductive) that the Soulquarians pioneered and mastered. You can’t approach it casually; you’re not gonna just throw this joint on while cleaning the house. Quest additionally said of Voodoo in his (admittedly biased) review, “Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas. (N)umber one: those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment and number two: those who use it for mere background music. (T)he thing is, this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence. (T)his record is the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality.”
“Here is a peer that is focused wholly on his craft and has given himself the challenge of bettering himself. I mean really, D could have come out with any ol’ follow-up album after Brown Sugar dropped so that he could double his sales “While he’s still hot.” You know, an album that sounds just like Brown Sugar, uses all the same formulas, so that audiences don’t have to think….or grow, they just keep liking the same shit. He could even sample songs that you’re already familiar with so that you don’t have to go through the “hard work” of getting used to a new melody or bass line. Y’all don’t hear me.” – Saul Williams
Voodoo is without question a superior album to Brown Sugar, technically and sonically. It takes the formula D’Angelo created in his mama’s Virginia home, blending soul, funk and a dash of hip-hop, and elevates it. Late trumpeter Roy Hargrove added jazz’s controlled chaos. J. Dilla’s beat alchemy and Premier’s deft precision rendered the few samples used almost unrecognizable. Pino Palladino contributed his legendary bass lines. Rounded out with Tip and Ray Ray, plus Quest steering the ship as co-captain along with D’Angelo – it was a soul fantasy league. Yes, Voodoo is a stronger album, but I’d argue Brown Sugar is more focused (though some would say it’s just more formulaic). It’s definitely a more accessible work. The New York Times, examining how the Soulquarians brought Voodoo together, said the process was “vague, halting, nonlinear.” Voodoo is a long jam session – literally. They approached much of the completely original material through retro engineering: long jam sessions of hero material - Prince, Curtis, etc - would evolve into a new song. You can especially pick this up in “The Line,” which feels like it was maybe going to be an interlude and just kept going, and “Chicken Grease.”
The transitions between songs can be jarring, and the songs are so gritty and raw that some give a bootleg or demo feel – undoubtedly intentional, as Questlove and D’Angelo were studying bootlegs of their faves. Rolling Stone’s reviewer declared the album sounded “loose and unfinished” (but worth noting that it was No. 4 on their top albums of the year list later). The highest praise for a single universally went to “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s outstanding homage to his and Questlove’s most esteemed Yoda, Prince. It’s one of the more familiar-sounding tracks, along with “Send it On,” “Feel Like Making Love” and “Left and Right,” which feel the most like Brown Sugar follow-ups.
Those aside, Voodoo is to Brown Sugar what Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is to Good Kid m.A.A.d City in terms of expansion and departure from the sound fans originally fell in love with. Some embraced it, some couldn’t get all the way with it. I can testify firsthand that when D’Angelo brought that jam session energy to Essence Fest in 2012 to launch his first tour in over ten years, folks were less than thrilled that after waiting so long to see him on stage again, he was prioritizing the un-danceable, less melodic cuts like “Devil’s Pie” and “Chicken Grease” on the setlist, and then didn’t play the album versions of the hits so they could hit a two-step and sing along.
What Voodoo is, is grown. As hell. Not only is it not music for a casual fan, it’s not music for a casual love thing, either. Brown Sugar is adoration expressed publicly; let me tell folks how much I’m digging you. Brown Sugar is dating. You can let it rock at a kick back with a crew. Voodoo is intimate. It’s a relationship. You don’t play “How Does It Feel” or “Send it On” in a house full of people (and if you do, I have questions).
Which brings us to the gift and curse of Voodoo: D’Angelo becoming a sex symbol. The 20-year old, lip licking, possibly blunted D’Angelo was sexy in a dude-off-the-block way with his baggy jeans, Avirex coats, and timbs. But 25-year old D’Angelo took the baggy clothes off, and had cut abs, a v-line, and the bold audacity to showcase it, on the album cover and in the visual for the project’s third single…and nobody knew how to act. This is where Voodoo simultaneously goes left and becomes legend all at once. Also, why we can’t have nice things.
Twenty years ago, there were no blogs, no social media and no such thing as going viral. Music video channels still specialized in… music videos. And D’Angelo’s manager Dominique Trenier, and director Paul Hunter conceptualized a visual for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” that The New York Times called “the most controversial video to air in years.” The clip, eventually referred to in conversation as simply “the video,” was a four and a half minute-long, single shot of D’Angelo wearing nothing but a gold chain and cornrows. And sweat. There were no shiny suits, no dancers, no fish-eye lenses. Just Michael Archer staring into our souls through the camera.
The success and notoriety of the video propelled Voodoo to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Top 200. The plan was to break D’Angelo out of the R&B/neo-soul space to a broader audience, and it worked. Too well. By the time D launched the Voodoo tour in the Spring of 2000, the attention, grabbing, catcalling and screaming were overwhelming. As an artist, he’d put painstaking time and effort into creating the greatest piece of work possible; art that would impact hearts and minds. Spent grueling hours preparing a live show that would measure up to James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic - and fans were just yelling incessantly for him to take his shirt off. “It feels good, actually, when I do it,” D ‘Angelo told Rolling Stone near the beginning of the tour. “But I don’t want it to turn into a thing where that’s what it’s all about. I don’t want it to turn things away from the music and what we doin’ up there…I’m not no stripper. I’m up there doin’ somethin’ I strongly believe in.”
(Shout out to Anthony Hamilton’s background vocals coming through all loud and clear)
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, and D grew so self-conscious and uncomfortable he eventually suspended the tour three weeks early, and retreated from the public eye. Over the next several years there were multiple arrests (with bloated mugshots looking kind of like Thor when he took his hammer and went home in Endgame), at least one trip to rehab, and several tentative returns before he surprised the world with Black Messiah in December of 2014 – almost 15 years later.
“Untitled (How Does it Feel)” is still a highlight in Voodoo conversations, it still evokes immediate remarks about D’s body and sex (I’m guilty of this), and it’s still a sore spot for the artist. So much so that when he reemerged in the public eye in 2012, he and Paul Hunter insisted the video’s inspiration was D’Angelo’s grandmother’s cooking and the Holy Ghost. (Insert side-eye gif here.)
But this is the challenge of a great artist: put everything you have into the work, then give that work to the world, and by doing so relinquish control over what the world does with it. So is Voodoo the millennial answer to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Is it the centerpiece of the neo-soul movement? Is it the Soulquarian stone? Is it just an outstanding groove? Is it just D’Angelo in leather pants and no shirt and you really don’t care about all that other stuff? The answer, according to our original Voodoo guide, Saul Williams, depends on us.
“D’Angelo has made his choices, carefully weaving them into his character, and has courageously stepped into the void bearing these sonic offerings to be delivered to the beckoning goddess of the new age. I do not wish to overly dissect this album. It’s true dissection occurs in how it seeps into your life shapes your moments. What you were doing when you realized he was saying this or that? How it played softly in the back ground when you first saw him or her. How you kept it on repeat on that special night. You’ll see. These songs are incantations” – Saul Williams