SisQo Remember 'Unleash The Dragon' Album 20 Years Later
Courtesy of Def Soul

SisQo Shares Memories Of 'Unleash the Dragon' For Album's Anniversary

The R&B singer goes down memory lane on the 20th anniversary of his first solo studio album.

The late '90s was a magical time for R&B, with a plethora of talented acts infiltrating the genre. Among these new jacks was Dru Hill, a quartet out of Baltimore, Maryland with vocal chops reminiscent of the ensembles of yesteryear. Comprised of SisQó, Jazz, Woody, and Nokio, Dru Hill stormed the charts in 1996 with their self-titled debut, which struck platinum off the strength of hits like "Tell Me," "In My Bed," "Never Make a Promise," and "5 Steps." Riding high off the success of their debut, Dru Hill hit the movie soundtrack circuit hard, contributing singles for Soul Food ("We're Not Making Love No More") and How to Be a Player (“Big Bad Mama”) the following year. By that point, SisQó had emerged as the breakout star of the group, with his distinct vocals and palpable charisma quickly catching on with fans. He also began making waves with his songwriting, most notably his work for fellow DMV native Mýa, whose first two singles, "It's All About Me" and "Movin' On," were powered by his penmanship.

Returning alongside his groupmates with their 1998 sophomore album, Enter the Dru, SisQó and Dru Hill's careers skyrocketed, with the album peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard charts and earning double-platinum certification within months of its release. Featuring standouts like their chart-topping Rush Hour soundtrack single "How Deep," as well as ballads like "These Are The Times" and Beauty," Enter the Dru marked another victory for Dru Hill and positioned them as one of the hottest groups in all of music. However, Dru Hill would begin to splinter with the defection of member Woody in early 1999, leaving the direction of the group in limbo during the height of their success.

Taking matters into his own hands, SisQó capitalized on the buzz surrounding his name and decided to keep the fire burning with his own solo album, Unleash the Dragon, which was released on November 30, 1999, on Def Soul. A departure from the traditional Dru Hill sound, Unleash the Dragon, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, included a mix of ballads and amped-up club bangers and cast SisQó as a captivating dance machine with a voice thunderous enough to crush the buildings. Featuring the singles "Got To Get It," "Incomplete," and the seismic anthem, "Thong Song," Unleash the Dragon was one of the biggest R&B releases of the year, selling upwards of five million units in the U.S. alone and minting SisQó as a bonafide megastar.

With twenty years having passed since its release, VIBE spoke with SisQó about recording Unleash the Dragon, struggling to make the transition as a solo artist, the lasting impact of "Thong Song," label drama and much more.

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VIBE: When were you first approached to record a solo album and what's the backstory behind that?

SisQó: I was not really approached to do a solo album, basically what happened, it was right around the time all of the labels were consolidating. Back in the late '90s, early '00s, a lot of the labels were combining into one label and we were kinda being pushed onto the Def Jam imprint. We had previously worked with Def Jam and had great success with the song that we did, "How Deep," for the Rush Hour soundtrack. When we did that record, at the time, we had gotten paid more than anyone else to record a soundtrack song. So that song was our first No.1 single across the board and I believe it was a part of the Latin invasion, if you will, and that was all on Def Jam. We had also had another platinum success with the How To Be A Player soundtrack.

Dru Hill had just gotten on their label so they wanted a Dru Hill album. And we had just had prior success, like I said, with the song "How Deep" from the Rush Hour soundtrack and then we had a song with Will Smith called the "Wild Wild West." If you look at the video [for “Wild Wild West”], you'll see there were four of us in the beginning of the video and only three of us at the end. Woody [one of the members] decided that he didn't wanna sing with the group anymore. He had pretty much quit the group on the set of the "Wild Wild West" video and needless to say, it was pretty rough. That's why if you look at the video, I got my hat pulled down so far so you can't see my eyes 'cause I was really [upset].

We were really broken up because we had just gotten off our very successful European tour that *NSYNC and 98 Degrees were opening up for us on. We were at the pinnacle of our success, but when Woody quit the group, when we went to do the second leg of our tour, our American portion of the tour, the fans were very confused. They were used to the four of us being Dru Hill so attendance at the shows was kind of dwindling.

At that moment, I basically came to the label and was like, 'Hey, man, I think maybe now might be a good time for me to do a solo album.' And of course, they didn't want a solo album because that was a gamble for them because they had never seen any prior success with myself as a solo artist and only saw success with Dru Hill. And it was like a new genre for them because they were a hip-hop label. So I took my own money, recorded my album and basically went up and asked for a meeting with the label. I played them my album, "Thong Song" included, I guess they realized that I had something special and they decided to put the album out. And over 10-12 million albums later, maybe I was right (laughs).

Being that you were used to creating and performing in a group setting, what was the adjustment like making the transition as a solo artist?

The studio part was easy because we had been working together since we were fourteen years old. We came right out of high school right into the entertainment industry so we found several different ways to work. The recording part, that part was very easy, the part that wasn't so easy was when it came time to do the video. Hype Williams had shot "Got To Get It”. They shut Hollywood Boulevard down just to shoot my video. So we're on the roof and I'm about to do this performance. Hype Williams, one of my all-time favorite directors, is doing my video, everything's set up. They were like, “And... action!” and I just froze. I froze and I'm not really a shy person, anybody that knows me can tell you that, but yo, I got cold feet. I don't know if Hype still has the footage, but I literally looked back and didn't see Dru Hill and I just rolled out. It might've been a low-key panic attack, I don't know. I was like, “Yo, I can't shoot, I can't do the video.” He was like, “What?” I was like, “Yo, get the car, I'm out.” We had two days to shoot this video and I'm up there like, “I'm not doing it.”

So I hop in the car, I go back to my hotel room and then my brother was like, “What's going on?” I was like, "Yo, I don't think I can do it. What if people don't like the music, what if they don't like me? I don't know if I can do it without Dru Hill." He was like, “Yo if you don't do it now, you'll spend your life wondering could've, should've, would've and you'll regret it for the rest of your life.

“That's the worst thing you could do so why don't you just go up there and just do it, at least you can say you did it.” I was like, “You know what? You're right.” I showed up the next day and we went and shot the video for ”Got To Get It” and the rest is history. I never got cold feet like that [again], but that very first time, I was messed up."

In light of your previous success with Dru Hill and the hype surrounding your solo turn, did you feel any pressure to live up to expectations, especially with y'all going through your internal beef?

Well, we didn't have any internal beef. As a matter of fact, when I got my deal, I made sure the entire group got paid. I don't know if there is another group member or boy-band member that when they went solo made sure that their group members got paid. I might've been the first one in history to do that. Within my contract, when they paid me for my album, I made sure my group members got paid. I was like, 'If y'all don't pay my group members and me, then I'm not gonna sign with y'all so I basically made sure everybody ate while I was eating. Not to mention that I opened up the album to any member of the group that wanted to do a song so they can get publishing. A lot of people don't know that album was on my own label so I own my own masters. Everybody's making it seem like it's something new, but technically, I was one of the youngest artists to ever own their masters, a lot of people don't know that to this day. Like, the "Thong Song' is on my label.

Your album kicks off with the title track, which features a guest appearance from Beanie Sigel, who was a relatively new artist at the time. How did that particular collaboration come to life?

Beanie Sigel being on that record, that was really Def Jam. Beans was fairly new and I knew who Beans was. I had no idea that he was gonna be a part of my record. I thought it was dope for him to want to be a part of that 'cause me being on Def Jam, a lot of times I would see the Def Jam artists around so we would talk to each other in passing from time to time. But Beans being on the record, I thought that that was dope 'cause I felt like Beans had a lot of street cred. And him being on the “Unleash the Dragon” record, I think it gave the words I was saying a little more validity 'cause of him being so street and a part of JAY-Z's camp and what have you.

The album's second single "Thong Song" was an international smash and helped launch your career to unprecedented heights. What was the inspiration behind you dedicating a song to lingerie?

At the time, no one had really seen one before, myself included. I had gone on this date and the girl had the thong on and I was like, “Yo, what is that?” And she was all nonchalant, “This old thing? It's called a thong.” So basically, when I was putting the album together, I had got to this one song that had this track produced by this group of producers called Tim & Bob. It wasn't even a full song, it was a sample of about, I wanna say, thirty seconds maybe and it was at the end of a CD with a bunch of tracks on it. And this one specific sample was on there and that was the only one out of the whole CD that I liked so I called them and asked them if they could loop it and send it back to me. They looped it, sent it back and I basically freestyled the whole song to the "Dump like a truck"  'cause I didn't really know what I was gonna put right there.

And after I saw that girl’s thong, I told all my boy, “Yo, you gotta see this thing that I saw." He was like, "What are you talking about?' I was like, “Yo, I don't know what it was, but it's like some dental floss, it was like these tiny draws called a thong.” He was like, "A what?" I said, "A thong." I'm from Baltimore, so these are inner-city dudes. So all of a sudden everybody rolled out, going on a pilgrimage to find that one ring... it wasn't a ring though, it was a thong. The next day, my boy came back like, "Guess what this girl gave me?" I thought that she had handed him something and he said, "That thong-thong-thong-thong-thong!" I thought it was super funny that he made this big deal over this thing and even to this day, a thong is a big deal. If you're in some kind of relationship and the person that you're with come out with a thong, that is gonna be a story that you tell your friend the next day. Facts.

The song itself was a success, but it is also remembered in large part for its accompanying music video, which was a watershed moment for the video vixen era. How would you describe the activity on set and what are some memories from that shoot you can share?

Man, that's a whole separate interview, it was a lot going on (laughs). It's a whole other story with the stuff that went on that video. We just got our biopic green-lit by BET. I wanna save some of the stories for the biopic, but I can share one thing. When we had to do the auditions, it was about two days of just different women coming into a room, us pressing play on "Thong Song" and them just shaking off in thongs for two days straight. We had like five tapes of like several hours of different women from Miami and from all over the world that wanted to be in that video and at the time, it was crazy 'cause you couldn't even show a thong in a video. If you look at the "Thong Song" video, you notice you never see a straight-on thong 'cause you couldn't show it. Like when I'm walking on the beach [in the video], the girls are upside down so you're not really seeing a butt in a thong. And then when they're on the beach playing ball, it's like from the side, so you never really see a straight-on thong. After that video, the FCC kinda lightened up and then everyone went bananas. The only thing you didn't see was maybe an areola in a video and you even saw that on BET After Dark [Or BET: Uncut], so you're welcome (laughs).

The "Thong Song" can also be credited with popularizing thongs on a mainstream level and becoming synonymous with sex appeal. How did it feel to play a part in that and helping women feel more liberated?

I feel like women took their power back with "Thong Song," which was the magic of the record. It could've been looked at as misogynistic, which some people tried to make it that. But women took it as empowering because I believe women realized that and found the power that they had in their sexuality. When we were growing up, there was a lot of chauvinists, women were only being objectified in different ways and it was very hard for a lot of women to find their voice. And I feel like younger women of that time, they took that moment and seized it and now women are running everything. They took that like, "Oh, okay, we're gonna use this to kick the door open" (laughs). And that's awesome.

I read somewhere that Lil Kim was originally slated to be on the album version of "Thong Song." Is there any truth to that?

That story got mixed up. What happened was Lil Kim and I did the song "How Many Licks," I had written the chorus. So when I did the record, a lot of people don't know. If you're on a label and you have ownership of the label, basically you and whoever your distribution is, which was Def Jam at the time, basically have ownership of the music. Not only the music but the artist and artist's likeness and how the artist is portrayed and what have you. In order for Def Jam to be on board with me being a part of Lil Kim's album, I had to do some kind of favor for them. The favor that I did was to do a remix to the "Thong Song." Now granted, everybody knows that "Thong Song" didn't need a remix, but they wanted to put the remix on the Nutty Professor soundtrack. So I was like, "Okay, cool, y'all want me to do this remix, then y'all gotta sign off on me being in Lil Kim's video." They were like, "Okay, well if you're gonna do that, we want you to do this song for DMX, and that was "What These Bi***es Want." I did those two songs for them in order for them to not have a problem with me doing Lil Kim's video, but unfortunately, they got amnesia when it came time for me to be in Lil Kim's video and that kind of started the friction between myself and Def Jam.

Aside from your own singles, "What These Bi***es Want" was another song that really boosted your own profile as well as DMX's. What was it like working with DMX on that song?

Nokio, one of the members of Dru Hill, he's one of the producers on that record. I didn't know X that well and I had already done my favor for Def Jam which was the "Thong Song (Remix)" so I wasn't really interested in doing an extra favor for Def Jam. But Nokio had sent me the record and asked if I have an idea for it. Just out of respect for my brother, I was like, "You know what? I'ma go 'head and lace this joint and hopefully Def Jam won't have amnesia when it comes time for them to make good on their part of the bargain." But we all saw how that panned out.

The song recently gained new life and was reintroduced to a new generation of listeners via the #DMXChallenge on social media. What was your reaction to the song becoming a viral sensation twenty years after its release?

Let's just put it this way, it's good to have hits. Because you have a whole bunch of younger cats, a whole new generation who might not have even known the song or might not even have been born when it came out that got introduced to the song. That was cool, I was really happy to be a part of that song at that moment. It's crazy though, I just got back from Australia and they don't know the song as much as people know it over here. That's wild how different songs impact people in different ways.

Another song from Unleash the Dragon that caught on with the public was "Incomplete." How did that record fall into your hands?

Even to this day, people don't even know Montell Jordan wrote "Incomplete." I didn't even want to sing "Incomplete" initially because it sounded too much like Dru Hill, but to be fair, I hadn't really listened to it. I just heard the first couple of piano licks and was like, "Nah, that's too much like Dru Hill." If you notice, I sing in Dru Hill so it's undeniable that my voice is there and I can't not sound like me, but my music doesn't sound like Dru Hill's music. Like you can never hear Dru Hill singing "Thong Song," it's not a Dru Hill [type of] record. Back then [former Def Jam executive] Kevin Liles had asked me, "Just listen to the song... I mean, have you even heard the song?" I said "Nah, 'cause I didn't want anything that sounded like Dru Hill." And he was like, "Yo, just listen to the song, if you just listen to the record and you still think that it's bullsh*t, I won't try to force you to sing it." I listened to the record and then soon as I heard that line, "Got a bank account bigger than the law should allow," I was like "Yeah, I'm singing that." (laughs)

If you could choose three of the album cuts outside of the singles that struck a chord or are among your favorites, which three would you name?

I would say "Enchantment Passing Through" because the great Elton John had written the song and I produced and arranged it with Nathan Morring, my MD (music director) from my band and Dru Hill. And that song, I think, is just an incredible record. The song I did with my female group [LovHer], "Is Love Enough" was an incredible record. And the song "How Can I Love U 2nite" which I did with Nokio, which I feel was the best ballad that I sang as a solo artist that was written and produced by him.

What can the public look forward to from SisQó moving forward?

On Black Friday, you'll be able to pick up my brand new EP called SisQó Genesis. It's got three new songs and a song from the last album I did, The Last Dragon. I'm basically doing a series of EPs where I'm releasing three separate EPs and one new song from The Last Dragon and maybe I'll compile 'em all together and make one album. It's basically a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Unleash the Dragon album, that's why I called it SisQó Genesis.

Twenty years later, how does it feel to see the album still being talked about and celebrated as a classic body of work?

When we did the album, I had gotten nominated eight times for a Grammy. At the time, I was told that was the most that anybody had ever been nominated. And then a couple of years ago, Beyonce had gotten nominated nine times, which broke my record, but it was almost twenty years that I held that record so that was pretty cool. Even though I didn't win a Grammy, for some people who may not know the music so well or relegated the album to the most popular record, "Thong Song," for the whole album to still be recognized today, it really makes you feel good as an artist that you can still be recognized. It's a validation of your artistry and every artist just wants to be validated in their art.

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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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Mike Coppola

Back For The First Time: How 'We Are The Streets' Captured The Raw Essence of The LOX

First impressions are often lasting and can crystalize our view of people, places or things, but those initial experiences can be deceiving. At times, wolves dress in sheep's clothing, and a dog's bark may be bigger than its bite – everything isn't always what it seems. One example in hip-hop of an appraisal that proved to be misleading was the rap world's initial reception of The LOX, who went from being cast off as sell-outs to being hailed among the most revered purveyors of hardcore lyricism this side of the new millennium.

Comprised of Jason "Jadakiss" Phillips, David "Styles P" Styles, and Sean "Sheek Louch" Jacobs, the Yonkers-based trio started off as a duo, with Jada and Sheek's battles alongside one another on the gridiron as kids evolved into lunchroom ciphers in high school. With Styles P later joining the fold, the trio, originally known as the Bomb Squad, settled on the name the Warlocks and began catching wreck dominating the local rap scene. Scoring their first appearance on wax in 1994 after Jada and Sheek appeared on the song "Set It Off" from Main Source's sophomore album F**k What You Think, the break that would change The LOX's fortunes for the better was when fellow Yonkers native and R&B star Mary J. Blige passed the group's demo to Sean "Puffy" Combs, who had built his imprint Bad Boy Records into the most successful and popular rap label in the game.

By then, the group, which was being guided under the tutelage of then-management company Ruff Ryders, had already built a reputation as spitters during their time on the local freestyle and battle circuits but would see their buzz skyrocket in fall of 1996 with a pair of appearances on DJ Clue's Holiday Hold Up mixtape. In addition to the song "Thumbs Up" featuring Richie Thumbs, the tape included the original version of "All About The Benjamins," which paired Jadakiss and Sheek Louch with Puffy. A string of guest spots on subsequent Clue mixtapes like Triple Platinum, ClueManatti - The Clue World Order, and Show Me The Money, as well as high-profile features alongside The Notorious B.I.G. ("Last Day"), Mary J. Blige ("Can't Get You Off My Mind"), Ma$e ("24 Hrs.To Live"), and Mariah Carey ("Honey Remix") brought their approval rating to a crescendo. However, it would be their contributions to Puff Daddy's No Way Out album, which included the star-studded remix to "All About the Benjamins," that firmly put The LOX on the mainstream radar and paved the way for their own wildly anticipated debut, Money, Power & Respect.

Hitting shelves on January 13, 1998, Money, Power & Respect, the third rap album released in the aftermath of the murder of Bad Boy's flagship artist The Notorious B.I.G. the previous year, was significant because it was the first release from a rap group in the label's history and it looked to keep the house that Puffy and Big built on solid ground. Despite being a commercial success, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and earning platinum certification, the album was considered a mixed bag that relied too heavily on the glossy bells and whistles that had made previous Bad Boy efforts platinum sellers, particularly at a time when the Shiny Suit era was drawing to an abrupt close. The songs "Livin' The Life," "Everybody Wanna Rat," "So Right," "I Wanna Thank You," and the Lil Kim and DMX-assisted hit "Money, Power, Respect" are all quality inclusions that trend closer to The LOX's realm of reality rap, but Puff's influence and finger-tips can be found all over lackluster cuts like "Get This $," "Start Rap Over," "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" and the ill-advised single "If You Think I'm Jiggy."

The LOX may have enjoyed chart success, music videos in rotation on BET and MTV, and the cache that came from being down with Bad Boy, but they also felt the subtle backlash from a large portion of their core base. Given their street roots and raw lyrical talent, many felt the group had failed to meet expectations with Money, Power & Respect and were destined to succumb to the whims of the music industry, such as donning Shiny Suits, designer shades and penning contrived singles built around disco loops. This disdain slowly bubbled over, with Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. requesting to be let out of their contract with Puffy and Bad Boy to pursue other opportunities, most notably the chance to reunite with the Ruff Ryders, who by then had secured a distribution deal with Interscope Records based off the breakout success of DMX. A fellow native of Yonkers and frequent collaborator with the group, ironically, DMX had brought the streets back to the forefront of mainstream rap with his own 1998 debut, It's Dark & Hell is Hot, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and transformed the underdog into super-stardom.

With their sights set on an alliance with their management team and its promising roster of talent, The LOX approached Puffy for a release from their contract. A notoriously shrewd businessman, Puffy and his team of lawyers initially balked at the idea of letting the prized trio go, leading The LOX to rebel. In 1999, at New York City radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert, Jada, Sheek, Styles P. and their entourage sported "Let The LOX Go" t-shirts, a public denouncement of Puffy and Bad Boy Records. In an age when rap acts often languished in obscurity due to bad contracts, the move was unprecedented. "We was the first rebels, man," Sheek noted during a sitdown with Tim Westwood. "You didn't have a lot of guys going at major people like that." With the beef now public and tension brewing between The LOX and Puff, a deal was brokered between Darrin "Dee" Dean and Puff to terminate The LOX's contract, allowing them to sign with Ruff Ryders through Interscope Records. "He said, 'All right, you know what, if they're not happy here, I'll release them," Dee recalled in an interview. "Just pay up whatever they owe."

As for Puffy, he took a more diplomatic approach while speaking on the group's split from the label with MTV News. "The LOX situation, it just didn't work out," he said. "That's nothing new to any record company. Hopefully, the press won't try to dramatize that. Any record label and you have twenty acts, one, two, three of the acts aren't going to be happy. And it may be a situation that you can work out. We tried to work the situation out; it didn't work out. So we're in the process of selling them right now. And they are still to me some of the hottest rappers out. I wish them the best of luck. I'm sorry it didn't work out." With a steep price tag of three million dollars, Jada, Sheek and Styles P. were now down with one of the hottest movements in hip-hop and primed to revert back to their roots as hardened, no-frills lyricists.

Released on January 25, 2000, The LOX’s sophomore album We Are the Streets doubled as a rallying cry, with the trio thumbing their nose at all of the glitz and glamour synonymous with their former home. The album cover alone, which features each member's face cast in concrete, is a stark contrast from Money, Power & Respect, which saw them rocking shimmering leather coats and designer shades. The change in scenery was also reflected in the sound of the album, with producers Swizz Beatz, DJ Premier, P.K., and Timbaland exchanging rehashed loops and plush instrumentation for screw-face inducing drums, haunting keys, ghastly synths and more inventive usage of samples. Not oblivious to the critiques of their debut, The LOX kick off We Are the Streets with a skit in which disgruntled fans diss them, challenging their street cred and levying threats against the crew. This self-deprecatory moment is upended as the rapid snares on "F**k You," the album's introductory number, sets in, which finds Jada, Sheek and company wasting no time in addressing the haters and naysayers. Barking "If you hoped we wouldn't make it, f**k you/Talk with a heart full of hatred, f**k you" in unison, the label castaways proceed to attack the Swizz Beatz -produced track with a fervor that makes it evident that these weren’t the same guys rapping about getting jiggy just two years prior.

This message was driven home throughout the album, starting with "Breath Easy." Produced by P.K., who proclaims "No more shiny suits/None of that sh*t" at the beginning of the track, Jada and Sheek deliver the hook, with Sheek shouting "We gonna R.U double F.R.Y.D.E,"  in a show of allegiance to their new label. One of the premier offerings on the album, "Breath Easy" finds Styles P. stepping to the forefront, delivering a stanza full of nihilistic quips that foreshadowed the aggressive content he spewed on We Are the Streets and subsequent projects. As the more reserved member of The LOX, Styles P.'s succession of standout performances helped propel his reputation as a rhyme pugilist to another level, silencing any questions of him being able to flourish in the confines of a group or otherwise. Considered the de facto frontman of the group due to his elite lyrical exploits, Jadakiss had slowly crept into conversations debating the best spitters in rap, talk that he solidified with his highlight reel of verses on We Are the Streets.

Like Money, Power & Respect, We Are the Streets included a solo selection from each artist, the best of which is "Blood Pressure" by Jadakiss. Crowning himself as the streets' favorite, the baby-faced rapper scoffs "Who really the best rapper since B.I.G. ain't here," before alluding to his bad blood with Puff just a few lines later. While The LOX focus the bulk of their efforts towards terrorizing the competition and slaughtering instrumentals on We Are the Streets, their strained relationship with their former benefactor is alluded to on numerous occasions, particularly "Rape'n U Records," a scathing skit poking fun at Bad Boy's shady business practices. The skit is also notable for being the introduction of J Hood, a teen from Yonkers who would become one of the hottest young artists on the mixtape circuit just a few years later. We Are the Streets is short on guest appearances, save for a handful of features from Drag-On and Eve, the latter of whom's vocals appear on the album standout, "Recognize." Produced by DJ Premier, the song captures the synergy between the three members as they seamlessly bounce off one another, while a chopped up sample of Eve's verse from the Ruff Ryders posse cut "Ryde or Die."

In terms of singles, "Wild Out," a raucous Swizz Beatz-produced anthem, was a minor success, but its follow-up single, “Ryde or Die B*tch,” fared much more favorably, peaking at No. 22 on the US Rap chart. Produced by Timbaland, who also appears on the hook alongside Eve, "Ryde or Die B*tch" finds Jadakiss, Sheek Louch and Styles P. professing their desire for the type of woman that will please them sexually and stay loyal regardless of the consequences or circumstances. Other highlights from We Are the Streets include "Can I Live," solo efforts from Styles ("Felony Niggas") and Sheek ("Bring It On"), and "If You Know" featuring Drag-On, Eve and Swizz Beatz, which all touch on the rules of engagement and harsh realities that transpire when one lives off of experience.

Peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, We Are the Streets was eventually certified Gold and was regarded as one of the stronger group efforts of the year. Although the album failed to eclipse the success of Money, Power & Respect or their previous hits, We Are the Streets is remembered as a body of work that thrived off of the sheer fact that the artists involved were unleashed from the constraints of balancing pleasing the label with retaining their artistic integrity. In the years following its release, each member of The LOX would release solo albums, branching off to pursue careers individually, but never straying too far from the fold. The LOX would continue to record together and release material on a consistent basis, but contractual limbo would prevent the trio from crafting a proper commercial release as a unit until 2013, when they released The Trinity independently on their own label, D-Block Records. Having dropped classics in three different decades and counting, with no signs of hanging up the mic anytime soon, Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. are regarded as ambassadors of the streets. And while they will always be remembered for their tenure, and subsequent war with Bad Boy, in their hearts, they'll forever be Ruff Ryders, and We Are the Streets will forever be their magnum opus and shining moment.

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(L-R) Cynthia Erivo at the 25th Annual Critics' Choice Awards on January 12, 2020; Scarlett Johansson at Netflix's 'Marriage Story' L.A. premiere on November 05, 2019.
Matt Winkelmeyer and Kevork Djansezian

Cynthia Erivo, Scarlett Johansson And The Oscars' Ongoing Whiteness

The 2020 Academy Awards nominations were announced Monday, Jan. 13 and, after a few years of glad-handing their supposed embrace of diversity, the Academy’s nominees were once again a distressingly predictable bunch—particularly amongst the major award categories. Bemoaning lack of diversity at the Oscars has become a punchline unto itself, but, for an Academy that is suddenly so image-conscious, this was a step backward. Alongside a Best Director field made up exclusively of men, Black actors were almost totally shut out in the top categories. Strong performances from previous Oscar winners/nominees like Lupita Nyong’o, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx seemed to be likely contenders for a nomination but were snubbed. There is the notable exception, of course, of Cynthia Erivo. The Tony-winning actress received an Oscar nod for her turn as freedom fighter Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, a film that seemed to engender both praise and derision well before it opened in theaters in November 2019.

The British-born Erivo was at the center of much criticism when it was announced that she would be playing the legendary Tubman, the escaped slave born Araminta Ross, who led at least 13 trips along a treacherous journey from Maryland to Pennsylvania to free first her family, then others in bondage; she also became an officer in the Union army and an activist for women’s suffrage. The casting of Erivo as Tubman became a flashpoint after tweets from the actress were widely publicized in which she appeared to mock Black Americans in a Twitter exchange with actor Joel Montague after he asked her to sing a song she’d written.

“@joalMontague (ghetto American accent) baby u know I gatchu imma sing It To you but I still gatta do wadigattado, you feel me #scene xxx.”

The tweet was screenshotted and popped up on countless media sites, as the public criticism of Erivo grew. As she began making media rounds in the lead-up to Harriet, she addressed the issue.

"I would say it took a lot of hard work to get to this place [of playing Harriet Tubman] and I didn't take it lightly," Erivo said in an interview with Shadow And Act back in October. "I love this woman and I love Black people full stop. It would do me no service, it would be like hating myself.

“As for the tweets, taken out of context without giving me the room to tell you what it meant—and it wasn’t mocking anyone really. It wasn’t for that purpose at all. It was to celebrate a song I had wrote when I was 16.”

But the bad will had taken root. Harriet had a successful opening and a strong showing at the box office, but it was met with derision on Twitter as rumors swirled about various aspects of the film’s plot and historical inaccuracies. The word of mouth reception was far from glowing, but the borderline smearing of the film on social media was more scathing than the actual reviews once the movie hit theaters. But while the critical reception to the film itself was lukewarm, Erivo’s performance was consistently praised. “The British singer and actress…nails [Tubman’s] thousand-yard glare with a furious and mournful eloquence,” wrote Owen Gleiberman of Variety; and The New York Times’ A.O. Scott felt that “Erivo’s performance is grounded in the recognizable human emotions of grief, jealousy, anger, and love.” In an age when Black pain on the big screen can make for predictable platitudes from pundits, there is an ongoing question of who such a film as Harriet is meant to speak to and speak for. In the case of Erivo, you have more than a strong performance in a middling film. You have a performer who has, in many ways, lost the audience that would’ve been most invested in that performance.

Erivo's nomination for Harriet comes alongside a double-nod for Scarlett Johannson, another actress who found herself embroiled in controversy in 2019. Of course, ScarJo is much more high-profile than Erivo, an A-lister who finds herself in any number of prestige pictures and major blockbusters. But ScarJo’s defense of Woody Allen, at a time when Hollywood is at least attempting to come to grips with how it has enabled abusers, drew gasps and derision when she made press runs for her role in the acclaimed Netflix film Marriage Story. She told Vanity Fair in November:

“I’m not a politician, and I can’t lie about the way I feel about things,” she said. “I don’t have that. It’s just not a part of my personality. I don’t want to have to edit myself or temper what I think or say. I can’t live that way. It’s just not me. And also I think that when you have that kind of integrity, it’s going to probably rub people, some people, the wrong way. And that’s kind of par for the course, I guess.

“Even though there’s moments where I feel maybe more vulnerable because I’ve spoken my own opinion about something, my own truth and experience about it—and I know that it might be picked apart in some way, people might have a visceral reaction to it—I think it’s dangerous to temper how you represent yourself because you’re afraid of that kind of response. That, to me, doesn’t seem very progressive at all. That seems scary.”

Johansson’s controversial statements surrounding Woody Allen (and earlier comments about her playing trans and Asian characters) were met with widespread criticism that was subsequently muted by the acclaim following her turns in both Marriage Story and the WWII-set period comedy JoJo Rabbit. They weren’t misguided or misrepresented tweets from six years ago, they are her expressed positions on the subjects; she’s announced that she doesn’t intend to continuously apologize or even recant where she stands. And at the end of the day, she’s now a two-time Oscar nominee.

Obviously, Erivo is also basking in the recent glow of Academy recognition. This isn’t a case of a white actress bouncing back from backlash while a Black actress fades into obscurity because of it. But when Scarlett Johansson walks the red carpet on the night of the Oscars, if she takes the stage after her name is read as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress or both, she won’t have to contend with the idea that those who have given her the award stand in stark contrast to those for whom she wanted the film to resonate. Scarlett Johansson also wouldn’t have to wrestle with the idea that she’s only the second woman of her background to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. She won’t have to face the hurt that she and others like her were shut out in her native country’s biggest movie award. She won’t have to think about all the criticisms of “slave movies” and being nominated for being in one.

Whatever criticisms there may be of Cynthia Erivo, whatever criticisms there may be of the film in which she starred, there’s always a softer landing for those who don’t have darker skin; simply because being Black on the whitest of nights means that all eyes are on you. It also means you have to carry so much more than your white counterparts will ever be asked to shoulder. Oscar or no Oscar; criticism of Cynthia Erivo never required condemnation of Cynthia Erivo. But on a night when white actresses will once again be widely represented, from the reliable grace of Little Women to the martyr-making propaganda of Bombshell, it’s disappointing that this one Black actress being amongst them is going to be picked apart.

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