After five long years, D’Angelo has blessed us with his otherwordly sophomore album, Voodoo. dream hampton talks to R&B’s ruffneck Romeo about the inspiration behind his music: growing up in the church, the birth of his son, and channeling old souls.
“…tarry…until ye be endued with power from on high” —Luke 24:49
D’Angelo was raised Pentecostal. Speaking in tongues. The Holy Ghost coming down on the anointed. Shouting and tarrying. Sanctified. Pentecostalism is to Christianity what hip hop is to black music. It’s hardcore. Pentecostalists don’t call the way they worship by its ancient name. To call their religion ancestor worship would be blasphemous. By the time D’Angelo was a small boy, his grandparents had broken away from the other Pentecostalists in Virginia. In relatively rural Richmond, his grandfather forbade his family—on any level—with other dandified church members or Baptists. “They were strict,” D’Angelo says. But they wielded influence over the family because of their deep spirituality. They “had the power,” he says.
All his life, D’Angelo has watched the faithful become occupied by spirits—what in Haitian voodoo ceremonies is called “being mounted.” For in a sanctified church—where women aren’t allowed to wear pants or makeup, male leaders are titled elders, church mothers stand alert in white nurse’s uniforms prepared to revive anyone overcome with Spirit, and service is several days a week and many hours long—if there is no mounting, there is no true salvation. When D’Angelo’s older brother Rodney was 9, he caught the Holy Ghost. Began speaking in ancient tongues, “I was scared,” D’Angelo admits now, “because I could see how real it was. He was taken over. Completely.” Possessed.
“I saw this one lady, she used to catch demons,” he continues. “She used to always catch’ em. And one night at this revival in the mountains, she caught a demon. She was going out of her way to disrupt. She ripped the Bible apart. She was being sexual. Stripping. Foaming at the mouth. She was speaking an evil tongue. I had never heard before, but I knew it was evil. And this brother from the choir, he and the evangelist tried to get it out of her—to exorcise her. And she was screaming, ‘No! No!’ She crawled out of there on all fours. There was a graveyard out back, and she was jumping on the hoods of the cars. And the whole church went out and made a circle around her and started praying and singing. Then my grandfather laid hands on her. And it was over.” At the time, Michael D’Angelo Archer, the youngest of three sons of a sanctified preacher (himself the son of a preacher) and a “powerful” mother, was 12.
D’Angelo recorded his long-awaited new album, Voodoo (Virgin), at Electric Lady Studios, which Jimi Hendrix built on Eighth Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The studio pet, a white cat named Jimi, would follow D’Angelo around and curl up in his lap while D worked out some lyric or chord. And of course, he has nightmares about conjuring Marvin Gaye. Yes, he knows that on “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” the single from Voodoo, he sounds like Prince; it’s an homage. He was challenging the dirty mind The Artist abandoned for Jehovah. But Voodoo isn’t about them. It’s about his grandmother and grandfather. And tambourines. And the tarrying that still goes on till four in the mourning. Because sometimes it’s the slow-coming, baring one’s soul. Becoming naked to God, vulnerable to the ancestors. And their ancient tongues. Sometimes it takes three whole years of tarrying to call Spirit down.
“WHEN YOU WITNESS A BIRTH, THAT’S DEFINITELY A TRUE WORK OF GOD,” SAYS D’ANGELO. “I JUST FELL ON MY KNEES AND CRIED.”
When, “Brown Sugar,” D’Angelo’s first single (from the album of the same name), dropped in the spring of ’95, Raekwon ruled the streets, Biggie ran the radio, and Tupac was recovering from gunshot wounds in a prison cell. Twenty-one-year-old D’Angelo and his sticky ode to cannabis seemed to come out of nowhere; he simply could not have been anticipated. Black radio gave the single a cautious embrace then caught up as momentum for the record soared. (I distinctively remember my stripper girlfriends from Detroit going on and on about this song that was making them rich weeks before radio broke it.) With an 8-track sensibility, keys that recalled choir organs, and D’Angelo’s often incomprehensible but guided falsetto, Brown Sugar the album (EMI) was the early tremor of what lovers of soul hoped would be a seismic shift, a repatriation, if you will, to real music. There were a couple of funky bands (whose members played instruments) that managed to break through back then; actually there were exactly two: Tony Toni Toné, who were headed for a breakup, and Mint Condition, who seemed locked in some powerful curse that kept them from the success and recognition they deserved. Mostly what was passing for R&B were Jodeci knockoffs. Actual soul music—music where notes sounded wet like teardrops, music delivered to our parents by Minnie Riperton, Al Green, and the Isley Brothers—was like a distant memory. Brown Sugar was the elixir no one knew to want. Like a promise made in silence, fulfilled. Then we began to learn who D’Angelo was; scouring his CD cover for the standard Babyface or Teddy Riley production credit, we were alarmed to learn that he’d written, produced, arranged, and performed the album himself—as a teenager, in his bedroom in Richmond. This kind of self-containment, delivered from the edge of nowhere hadn’t been witnessed since…well, since Prince.
D’Angelo became a major story. R. Kelly would earn and keep the crown of R&B king, but D’Angelo was something deeper. He became a symbol for integrity and musicianship and artistry. An ambassador for something so old it was new. As other soulful artists, like Erykah Badu and Rahsaan Patterson, followed him, journalists scrambled for a name for this “new” category of music. Neo-soul, retro-roots—but none of them truly stuck. When other singers, like Chico DeBarge and Maxwell, submitted their efforts, they, too, were lumped into this category. With Voodoo, a brave deconstruction of his sound, D’Angelo has pushed the game even further than he had before. As prodigious jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who plays on Voodoo, puts it, “D’Angelo has set the standard for other artists.” Even other renowned musicians recognize—D’Angelo is virtually peerless.
That there was a five-year gap between Brown Sugar and Voodoo is something of a story in itself. Of the half-dozen cover stories and feature articles you’ll read on D’Angelo, most will begin with the fact that his sophomore album took so long to be completed. In the record industry, he’s accused of being indulged beyond reason, in a marketing sense. His cover of “She’s Always in My Hair” from the Scream 2 soundtrack (Capitol, 1977) was like a hand-written to Prince, but it never received a promotional push and remained a kind of secret between them. The one original song that dropped between the first and second albums, the brilliant “Devil’s Pie” from the Belly soundtrack (Def Jam, 1988), signaled the funkier, more experimental direction D’Angelo was headed in but was perhaps too self-indulgent for fans hoping for another melodious standard like “Lady.” Raphael Saadiq, who cocreated “Untitled,” says D’Angelo is hyperaware of pushing the limits of his sound. “We always say, ‘Do you want to go there with the music?’ because we have to fight all the things that are out now.” So D’s short answer to this most frequently asked question, Why so long?, is “I had to get it right; I just wanted it to be right.”
The long answer is slightly more involved. In the beginning, he suffered from severe writer’s block. Then he witnessed the birth of his son, Michael D’Angelo Archer II, with his ex-girlfriend, singer Angie Stone. “When you witness a birth, that’s definitely a true work of God….I mean, it’s a part of you,” says D’Angelo. “I just fell on my knees and I cried. I was so humbled I couldn’t get it together. The nurses were like, ‘All right, get up!’” And he did. The floodgates opened. He and Stone took their newborn son home and wrote “Send It On,” a love letter to their child about heritage and flow and spirit and love. “Voodoo started the day we were with our son,” says Stone, who cowrote four tracks on the album with D’Angelo. “I felt like he approached the album as if it were a celebration. ‘Send it On’ jump-started the project, and I credit our son for that. The song had a spiritual overtone that came with revelation and faith and ‘Thank you, God, for such a beautiful gift.’” In the end, the album’s beleaguered release date came down to just that—releasing Voodoo. The record had become, during the three years he recorded it, very much like another child—a baby to him and the people who helped create it. After thousands of hours of experimenting and free flowing, Roots drummer and D’Angelo’s “copilot” on the album, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and Russell “The Dragon” Elevado, D’s indefatigable and loyal engineer, had a hard time letting go of the experience of making Voodoo. “I didn’t want it to end,” D’Angelo told Ahmir on the Tuesday in January that the album hit record stores. “Me either, man,” replied Ahmir, “me either.”
D’Angelo insists that the length of time it took to deliver Voodoo wasn’t about some slack worth ethic or all-consuming herb habit. It wasn’t about his tender age (26) or an exceedingly ambitious vision of what his sophomore album should be. It definitely wasn’t about challenging pop music’s mandate that an artist cough up a 74-minute disc every two years (D’s too busy being an artist to raise some radical protest like that). Nor was it about a crippling fear. “I wasn’t really thinking about the sophomore-jinx thing,” he says. “I was really thinking about the whole picture—not just the second album, but all the albums that come after that. It had to be evolutionary, and whatever it took to get that…”
“I WASN’T THINKING ABOUT THE SOPHOMORE-JINX THING,” SAYS D. “I WAS THINKING ABOUT THE WHOLE PICTURE.”
D’Angelo is what vanguard jazz musician Charlie Hunter (who plays guitar on Voodoo) calls “the perfect blend of the intellectual and the visceral,” someone whose ability to make music is matched by his knowledge of music history. He is perfectly willing to contextualize his own evolution. “I realized that everything that exists, all music, comes from Africa,” D’Angelo explains. “I started to see all the connections of music pointing back to Africa, and I wanted to express all those genres. Like what Sly [Stone] was trying to do, like what Prince was trying to do, and Jimi too.” To shed light on his own falsetto and his willingness to marry major and minor chords, D will reference Same Cooke—“the way he would do his vocals, with his musicians all playing major chords”—then he’ll grab his guitar and demonstrate an example into the phone receiver. “And he [Cooke] would just come out of nowhere in this minor key—it’s hard to put in words the effect that has on you—the chills. It’s just evolutionary….I want to be free like that.”
D’Angelo can go on and on about music. But his confidant and “Soulaquarian” brother Questlove believes that in the beginning he suffered from writer’s block for the same reason most of us do—because of the same reason most of us do—because of the demise of his love relationship. “My theory on D’s writer’s block,” Ahmir says, “was about something Angie said to him once, kind of saying he wanted to turn what was tumultuous about their relationship into songs.” Voodoo is reserved in that way, like a slow striptease, not quite the naked autobiography we’re sure to witness on his future recordings, God willing. I ask him about his relatively conservative approach to writing. Conservative, compared to the freedom he expresses as a vocalist and to a greater extent as a producer and thinking musician. I accuse him of being private, of protecting the people in his life, of keeping secrets. “That’s exactly what I do,” he admits. “I’m just so…so private, like you said. It’s hard,” he stutters. “Writing is a place I want to be completely open; it’ll happen.” Not that D’Angelo isn’t achingly intimate. We haven’t heard ecstasy-inducing lines like, “…I’d love to make you wet / In between your thighs ‘cause / I love it when it comes inside you,” since Marvin Gaye told his second wife, “I want to give you some head.”
When it came time to physically reveal himself for this project, D’Angelo went all the way. The video for “Untitled,” a nearly uninterrupted shot of D’s naked torso, is two seconds short of pure exhibitionism, but it comes off because, well, he seems to be getting off. Where D seemed trapped behind his keyboard for the whole of Brown Sugar, hiding a chubbier physique with peacoats and leather jackets, he’s stripped down now. And the “Untitled” clip gives the impression that an incredibly skilled friend of his is doing some work of her own just below the camera’s frame. “Me and Dom [his manager, Dominique Trenier] talked about the concept for the video for a half hour. Then we didn’t talk about it again. I just showed up. And it was really about concentrating on my performance. I had to sing the song 17 times.”
D’Angelo is really shy. He listens more than he talks, especially when he first meets you. He doesn’t frequent New York City’s hot nightclubs on a regular basis or hobnob with other celebrities. He keeps a close-knit circle of like-minded artists around him and drives his Range Rover home to Richmond whenever he needs a break from Manhattan—which is monthly. Yet he can be overwhelmingly familiar. I once had a two-hour conversation with him, for an interlude on Voodoo (I’m the chick laughing right after “Feel Like Makin’ Love”), and he held my hand the entire time. When I said something that delighted him, like, “I told my mother I’d slit my wrists if she didn’t get me tickets to the Jacksons’ Victory tour,” he’d kiss me on the cheek. Even with other men he’s constantly touching. He hears what you’re saying, but what he really wants to do is feel you. Or as DJ Premier, who coproduced “Devil’s Pie,” puts it, “When you converse with him, he gives you a pound, every 20, 30 seconds; he just keeps shaking your hand, that’s his thing.
Still, you know he could just easily throw you up against a wall, like you’re being arrested, and keep you there till the sun comes up. Or fight a nigga. He can do that too, all that. He is stormy and light, and cerebral and earthy. He truly is, save his issue with revelatory writing, his music. “I’ve never come across a spirit like that,” says Chicago rapper Common, who was recording his album upstairs at Electric Lady while D’Angelo worked in the basement. “His spirit is too strong… It comes from another dimension.”
“MY THEORY,” SAYS QUESTLOVE, “IS THAT HE WANTED TO TURN WHAT WAS TUMULTUOUS ABOUT HIS RELATIONSHIP INTO SONGS.”
“I’ve been reading this book about angels,” D’Angelo tells me over the phone from his hotel room in Atlanta, where he’s donating the first check to the Curtis Mayfield Scholarship Foundation, which he helped establish. “And it was saying that every angel controlled an element and that it controlled the exact opposite elements too. Like fire and water.” Yes, I tell him, I haven’t read the same book but I’ve seen those yin-yang principles constructed in other places: in the Yoruba myth of Ogun; the Biblical myth of Lucifer; and in the autobiographical myth of Marvin. The hero-warrior who, in a rage, murders his entire family; the most glorious and revered angel in Heaven banished to be forever loathed and feared; the lonely son who’s as afraid of his sexuality as he is of his father’s God. We speak incoherently of being too vulnerable, opening oneself up to spirits that are destructive or, worse, suicidal. I ask him about channeling, about inviting musical forefathers in. Asking for the bright parts of what these immortals once were. Dancing around their cavernous shadows. “Like not letting Jimi have you entirely, just be with you for a few chords or something.” I suggest. He laughs. “It’s too real for me. That’s why I don’t even want to talk about Marvin or all that stuff,” D says. “On one hand it’s arrogant, on the other hand it’s like… playing with something dangerous. It’s too real.”
As with a lot of gifted artists, one of D’Angelo’s greatest challenges will be to break out of the music history that precedes him. The very history with which he is obsessed. It’s a challenge that must be met because there will never be another Marvin. Prince is still alive as The Artist and still making important music. We don’t need another one. Those who criticize D’Angelo, who say, for instance, that “Untitled” is too direct an allusion to Prince, have no idea that it’s Prince who rings D’Angelo up. Eric Clapton, who performed with D at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame’s banquet last March, is equally wowed; he dropped by Electric Lady to see what the wunderkind was up to. When B.B. King first met D’Angelo three years ago, he pulled D’s manager Trenier aside and told him, “That boy’s not 22 years old. I’m telling you, he’s not.” But he was.
Since then, D has read Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye and the latest biography on Muhammad Ali. He and Questlove have screened endless hours of performance footage featuring James Brown, Parliament, and Sly & the Family Stone. He studies black genius, black male iconography. Still, he’s got to live it. He’s got to have his love affairs, his failed attempts at perfection, his battles with the music industry. Last September, when D’Angelo performed “Chicken Grease” on The Chris Rock Show the night after The Artist previewed some of his songs from Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (Artista, 1999) at a media listening party, a wide-eyed D’Angelo wants to know how The Artist was, whether the material was banging. Questlove, forever generous, gives a glowing review. But I can only look D’Angelo dead in the eye and beg of him, “Man, even if you get saved and turn 40 and everything, can you just try to stay, I dunno, nasty?” Everyone in the dressing room thinks this is a fine joke, but I’m not laughing, and D stares back at me and swears he hears me. “I feel you,” is what he says. “I’ma stay nasty.”
On the phone in that hotel room in Atlanta, after talk of demons and speaking in tongues, tragic soul singers and their major and minor chords, I remind D’Angelo of that promise he made a few months earlier. There are rumors that he will abandon the instrument from which he commands his sexiest sounds: the keyboard. I’ve heard his next album will be an attempt at the kind of raw, guitar-driven funk-rock Sly Stone had summoned from above. D’Angelo offers no confirmation, only the confidence enjoyed by the chosen: “I got a bullet in the chamber.”
Additional reporting by Abby Addis and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.