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Nashville Scene Time to Develop

After five years, R&B wunderkind emerges a more mature performer on his sophomore effort

By Ron Wynn

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  Instrumentalist/vocalist/composer Michael D'Angelo Archer's 1995 debut Brown Sugar shocked some R&B fans and thrilled others. As with Stevie Wonder's Music of My Mind and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince's 1999, D'Angelo wrote and produced every cut, playing virtually all the instruments as well. The then-20-year-old's mastery of multi-track dubbing and sampling was paralleled by an old-school soulfulness in his leads, plus stunning proficiency on everything from keyboards to guitars to drums. His influences proved equally diverse: D'Angelo's music sagely incorporated funk, rock, soul, gospel, and even fusion, while his swelling, swooping vocals and poignant, provocative lyrics paid homage to Marvin Gaye, with an occasional nod toward Curtis Mayfield.

D'Angelo has always been a quick study. He was a featured keyboard soloist in his father's Richmond, Va., church at age 5, and EMI snatched him for a label deal at 18, following three consecutive wins in talent competitions at Harlem's storied Apollo Theater. D'Angelo's hybrid sound was eventually tabbed "neo-soul," and others followed in his wake: fellow conceptualist Maxwell, former artistic comrade and lover Angie Stone, and sultry sirens Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu.

Uncomfortable with being viewed as the new R&B oracle, D'Angelo rejected the notion he was a trendsetter and refused to churn out a quick second release to capitalize on Brown Sugar's momentum. Instead, he became a perennial guest contributor. Besides furnishing several songs for the soundtrack of Hype Williams' dismal film Belly, D'Angelo worked with artists ranging from B.B. King and Eric Clapton to Method Man and Lauryn Hill; he also found time for multiple jam sessions with George Clinton and the Artist, among others.

The lessons D'Angelo learned during his post-Brown Sugar development period are evident throughout his latest album, Voodoo (Virgin), an early candidate for R&B release of the year. Now a seasoned veteran at 25, D'Angelo not only takes his glorious falsetto higher than before, his voice sounds fuller and more assured. He remains an extraordinary producer, able to integrate fragments and samples into a seamless musical tapestry. In some ways, Voodoo is a 21st-century R&B version of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew: While there's nowhere near as much improvisation, the record has the same freewheeling quality, and it shifts just as easily between prerecorded and spontaneous segments.

Despite being the son and grandson of fundamentalist preachers, D'Angelo frequently embraces erotic themes in his music. "Left & Right," a collaboration with rappers Method Man and Redman, degenerates into obscenity, but "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" and the splendid remake of Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Making Love" showcase D'Angelo's crooning, alluring delivery.

Jazz players make first-rate contributions on "Spanish Joint" and "The Root." Trumpeter Roy Hargrove cowrote "Spanish Joint," adding fiery underpinning to D'Angelo's bluesy refrains, while Charlie Hunter's understated, delicate guitar nicely buttresses the melancholy themes of "The Root." Raphael Saddiq and D'Angelo tartly swap riffs during "Untitled," which boasts arguably D'Angelo's hottest vocal.

It's fitting that the song "Africa" concludes Voodoo. The disc's most overtly political cut, it also offers the best musical arrangement. Aided by drummer/percussionist Ahmir Thompson from The Roots, the song's percolating rhythm sets the agenda but without engulfing the vocal or overshadowing the lyrics. D'Angelo celebrates his heritage and reaffirms his contemporary mission, linking the two without sounding at all pretentious. Like the music of Bob Marley and Fela Kuti, "Africa" should command the attention of even the most apolitical listener with its hypnotic musical foundation and its stirring message.

With only two releases under his belt, it's impossible to tell whether D'Angelo will enjoy the long-term staying power and impact of his idols, which include Jimi Hendrix, along with Davis, Gaye, Wonder, and Mayfield. But he's currently making far superior music to The Artist, and at the very least, Voodoo indicates that D'Angelo is capable of scoring even more triumphs in the years to come.

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