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Nipsey Hussle’s NYC ‘Marathon’ Pop-Up: A Bitter Sweet Success

It’s been eight months since the rapper was violently gunned down in front of his South Central L.A. Marathon Clothing store.

It’s Day 2 at the very first Marathon Clothing New York City pop-up held at Live Nation. It’s a little after 12:30 p.m. on a sunny brisk Saturday afternoon in the Meatpacking District and I’m greeted by Jorge Peniche, former tour manager of the prolific rapper Nipsey Hussle, but more importantly, he was family. He says he’s catching a red-eye back to L.A. to celebrate his son’s Mickey Mouse-themed 2nd birthday party. We chat for a bit and then I head outside to talk to fans waiting in line. Isha Kabba Al-Saadi, who drove from Boston the night before and waited in line for four hours before entering the pop-up, said Nipsey’s music and entrepreneurial interviews inspired her to be her own boss.

“I got my real estate license. I’m done working for people. You want to be something in this life, get your own and be your own boss.” Her goal is to continue to educate others on financial freedom and financial literacy. Another fan waiting in line to get his hands on TMC merchandise was Rob who said Nipsey’s 2013 Crenshaw mixtape helped him through college. His lyrical messages were a great reminder to keep pushing forward by any means necessary.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been eight months since the rapper was violently gunned down in front of his South Central L.A. Marathon Clothing store on March 31, 2019. For New Yorkers who have never visited the City of Angels, rocking a Crenshaw snapback ($40.00) or hoodie ($100.00) would give them a tangible taste of Crenshaw and Slauson, where Nip resided. Not to mention meeting the Marathon team in person like Jorge, Nip’s older brother Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom, Adam Andebrhan, Jonathan Fagan, Archer One and of course Slauson Bruce who surprised the crowd when he appeared on opening day dressed as Santa Claus. J Stone, an artist that Hussle signed to his label, was also in attendance promoting his newly released album titled The Definition of Loyalty. The team also flew out Nipsey’s beloved grandmother, Margaret Boutte, who was visiting the Big Apple for the very first time and took photos with fans at the pop-up. I asked Jorge why the team decided to open on Black Friday and he said they’ve done that in previous years and had a successful turn out financially.

I make my way inside the crowded pop-up where I find myself bumping to Victory Lap playing in the background. Fans are crowded around me trying to get their hands on their favorite items. From Crenshaw lighters to Marathon baby onesies, TMC had something for everyone at different price points. Veteran music and film director Benny Boom even stopped by to show support and purchased some merch before he sat down with VIBE to talk about his friend.

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I know you wanted Nipsey to play Snoop Dogg in the film All Eyez On Me but due to circumstances, he couldn’t do it.
Benny Boom: Yeah, I’ve known Nip for a really long time. Since he was 19. I came to L.A. in 2005 to direct and produce a movie called Crenshaw Boulevard and I had to meet with the Rollin 60s. One of those meetings he was there. He was kind of quiet in the background and that’s when I first met him and we became cool after that.

What was he like as a person?
Benny Boom: Every time I saw him he was just the same guy as when I first met him. He was very reserved and quiet. It was actually a birthday party for Big U’s son and Nipsey was there so it was a very family, informal situation. It was in a backyard in L.A. he was just cool, something about him. The first thing that struck me was “Man, this kid looks like Snoop so much.” It was crazy.

I’m sure he got that a lot!
Benny Boom: He got that a lot which was probably a lot of the reason why I think when we were trying to get him for the role, it was part of the reason why he backed off of it because he didn’t really want that attached to him when he was about to really blow up.

I understand that though.
Benny Boom: When I lived in L.A., we lived in the same apartment complex so I would see him often. We would just hang out. I had a really good relationship with him when we’d see each other. I watched him go from Neighborhood Nip to Slauson Boys to an MC to a rapper and it was really great to see that transition.

Then for him to be at the Grammys…
Benny Boom: That was amazing to me because when I first met him I didn’t know he was a rapper. I always thought he was one of the kids from the 60s that we had to talk to. He’s inspirational. As he went on, I remember when he first started this line. I was in L.A. doing a project and a friend of mine told me, ”You know that Crenshaw stuff, that’s Nipsey’s stuff.” I’m like, “Really?” I got in touch with him and he said, “What do you need?” and I said, “A couple of shirts, a couple of hats.” He sent over two boxes full and I said, “C’mon man that’s too much merchandise.”

I feel like that’s how he was.
Benny Boom: Yeah that’s how he was. I just wanted a few shirts and he sent over so much merchandise that I had to bring it back home to New York and I had to give it away. This was 2014 when I first got the stuff. I don’t think the store opened yet and he said, “Man, just tell people about it,” and I said, “Alright” and I came back to New York. I was giving people Crenshaw tee shirts and you know people from New York were like, “Crenshaw? What’s that?” and I said, “No, this is Nipsey Hussle’s line.” That was five or six years ago.

So forward it to now and he has his first pop-up in New York City and unfortunately, he’s not here. Just coming to the pop-up today, how did you feel?
Benny Boom: It sends a little chill. Anytime I'm around people that know him or talk to him…to see something like this. I wish he was here because this is something he would’ve wanted to happen. Just the respect that he had for everybody around him.

It wasn’t just celebrities. It was anybody.
Benny Boom: To see this travel the way it has. His message and people quoting him the way that they quote Dr. King. The whole marathon continues I think it's very real. The little bit of what we were able to get from him. That small portion of knowledge and celebrity as you would call it. I think it's going to travel the distance. It’s going to travel in terms of time. Ten years from now, I think people are going to still be quoting him. Out of the tragedy, something good has to happen. We always look for the silver lining in things. Of course, the family and Lauren [London], who’s a good friend of mine, the kids, they miss him. We miss him. They are aching more and we’re here to support them. That’s the reason why I’m here to support the movement. It’s not just about talking, it's about walking as well. I just wish he was here. He was such a great kid and I have my memories of him that I’ll always hold on to. Us laughing in the backyard or us hanging out by the pool in the complex in L.A. just talking regular, everyday-life-talk so I’m holding on to those things.

 

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Now open for business NYC! Pull up on us!

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How does the marathon continue in your life?
Benny Boom: It continues with me because I look at where I’ve gone. I’ve been directing for 20 years now. It's like the next phase of my career and what I want to do. If you ever get disgruntled, you just have to keep going on. The marathon continues. It's not just a saying, you gotta really believe it. I’m a firm believer in the bible. I’m a Christian. I believe things happen for a reason and sometimes divine intervention happens. These things happen in life and it's a sign for you to take notice and to give you a message and messages come in different ways. If we can learn anything from his death, I would say that we have to learn how to love one another a little bit better. I don’t know all the circumstances, the guy and why he did it.

None of us do.
Benny Boom: At the end of the day, it’s not that important but I do know that Nipsey had love for everybody that was around him. Even the person that did it, at some point we do know that Nipsey had love for him too. So we walk away from it thinking how can we be better to each other as human beings and I think that is what the Marathon is about as well. It's about the things he talked about but it's also about the thing that happened, his death and how do we be better to each other as human beings. Our brothers, our sisters. How do we take care of each other better? We’re not slaves anymore, you know what I’m saying? We’ve come a long way since then and we’re all in a position to help one another to be better. I think that for me is what the marathon was. You saw how the gangs came together.

That was beautiful. That was history in the making.
Benny Boom: It was historic for everyone to look at that and to really understand that all these gangs...I know a lot of those guys, not from the 60s but from other neighborhoods that shouldn’t go over there just to hang out. They would never come to the Marathon store.

But they did.
Benny Boom: They did for HIM.

That says a lot about him.
Benny Boom: And the respect that he had in that city and everywhere else. I think if we continue to love one another, to uplift each other, to try to help each other, that’s what Nipsey was doing. Sometime in the future, I’ll be able to do something outside the career. Something tangible that I’ve been thinking of trying to put together that would be an extension of what Nipsey was trying to do.

Would you ever do a movie on him?
Benny Boom: I don’t know. For me it’s difficult and I think it's too soon. I definitely think it’s too soon. We need to heal. I don’t think the healing has happened yet. Part of the reason why the line is so long outside is because the healing hasn’t happened. Especially here in New York. People in New York, we just got a little taste of what Nipsey was. In L.A., I’ll be driving down Fairfax and I’ll think, why is there no pop-up here and I just can’t imagine. That street would be crazy. It would be 10,000 people out there so I love the fact that it came here to New York City. I think there needs to be one in Chicago, Atlanta, Miami. We need to take this to other places and not just be about commerce. It needs to be about what you’re doing. Sitting down talking to people that either knew him or had some connection to him that can actually talk about what it means to come here and be a part of something historic with the Marathon pop-up. It should travel. That’s part of the marathon as well.

 

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Today’s the last day to shop with us NYC. We just opened up, come get your gear before it’s gone. Come through! 🏁

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I hope so. I hope they do. I feel like they are. 2020…you never know. Philly, you’re next!
Benny Boom: Philly, that’s my hometown. If you put it in Philly I’ll tell you now it's going to be 20,000 people out there. They have to start making merchandise now. People will be out there because that’s the type of city that really embraced Nipsey and everything that he stood for and they loved him.

I feel like everybody really loved him. That’s what he exudes...love.

Shortly after my conversation with Benny, comedian Tony Rock enters from the side entrance. He’s looking through boxes of Marathon product to find his size. I walk up to him and introduce myself. He tells me he went to The Marathon store in L.A. to show his support after Nipsey’s passing and how he had to welcome the TMC team to his city.

How does it feel having the pop-up shop here in the Concrete Jungle?
Tony Rock: There should be one in New York. There should be one in Atlanta. There should be one in L.A. But you know, it's a slow build-up.

As a comedian, how has Nip inspired you? It’s not just about the music. The marathon continues in comedy too.
Tony Rock: You know what the crazy thing is? If you look at the black experience, every couple of years or so a black person has the blueprint and black people just don’t for whatever reason follow that person’s lead and Nip had the blueprint. How we could have financial freedom. How we could own. How we could live in harmony, so to speak, and it took something horrible for the God in us to wake everybody up and realize he really had the blueprint. I say that not jokingly. God is in everybody but it takes something for us to wake up and realize we have to walk in our purpose and Nip did that. He walked on the left side for a while and then when God woke him up he became a whole different person. That’s why it affected people because they realize he’s walking in his purpose.

Wow. How are you continuing the marathon in your own life?
Tony Rock: In my life, I’m trying to do the same thing. I’m trying to lead by example. I hire my friends. Any capacity that my friends can be of service to where I don’t need to hire the next man to do, I make sure my friends get that job. If I have to teach my friends how to do that job, I will. That keeps the marathon going.

What’s one of your favorite Nipsey songs?
Tony Rock: “None of This” and many more but that’s the one I have on repeat when I’m at the crib getting ready to go out.

I had a lot of guys say they listen to his music when they workout. Do you do that?
Tony Rock: It’s more inspirational than a workout. It’s more when you’re chilling, trying to get your mind right than lifting weights. Plus I don’t workout (Laughs).

Hours pass and people continue to line up outside waiting to get a glimpse in. I sat down with the man behind the graphics for the clothing line designer, Archer One. When he first arrived on Black Friday and saw the line wrap around the corner he became emotional but in a good way. Growing up in South Central himself, as a kid from the West Coast, it was heartwarming to see and feel the love from New York.

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Grammy Contender Lucky Daye Is Waving R&B's Melodic Flag With Pride

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.”

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10 Problems With The Grammy Awards And How To Fix Them

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.

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D'Angelo at the VH1 Men Strike Back concert at Madison Square Gardens in New York, USA on April 11, 2000.
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The Incantation of D'Angelo's 'Voodoo'

“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

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