The contributors to this web site often employ the use of masturbation metaphors when writing about music. As I explained to one of those writers while imploring him to stop sleeping on D’angleo’s masterpiece, Voodoo, that line of “literary” comparison would not work for my sales pitch. To the extent this album is about sex, it is about sex between two or more people. No one has ever masturbated to Untitled (How Does it Feel?).
Without question, Voodoo is a well-known album. Ask any given music fan, and they might acknowledge you with a comment like, "That is a great album to Fuck to."
I've written this to tell you that taking this approach is selling not only the album short, but you as well. During the tours following Voodoo, large numbers of alleged female "fans" would chant, "Take it off," inspired by the iconic video for Untitled, in which D’ sings passionately with no clothes on - leaving the band, and most importantly it's leader, woefully disenfranchised.
Thinking only about sex in relation to Voodoo puts you squarely in the same category with the "Take it off" fans.
Appreciating the full extent of this record requires an artistic-level music appreciation that only can come from a rock snob. In the serious music fan’s world of Pitchfork-inspired rock-snobbery, SYFFAL has a refreshing viewpoint. However, elitism is not always a bad thing. Amir Questlove Thompson, the Roots drummer, a close friend and collaborator of D's, said of this record, “[Voodoo] is not for the middle.”
If we can learn anything from today’s politics, “the middle” is not very entertaining (see: Fox News and MSNBC), nor is it challenging. You, SYFFAL reader, deserve better than the middle. Voodoo is an album that requires a musician or a rock-snob to completely appreciate it; let’s face it, you are probably both.
Five years passed between the successful release of D'angelo's first album, Brown Sugar, and Voodoo. Brown Sugar was heralded as a leader of the 90’s neo-soul movement, while showcasing the raw talent of its author, particularly in regard to D’ playing many instruments on several tracks, a la Prince or James Brown. When comparing the two records, though, you start to understand what took so long. Brown Sugar is an R&B album.
Voodoo is unlike anything you have heard before. In Voodoo’s liner notes, D' offers, “It would have been easy to make another record like Brown Sugar.” Surely he could have done so in a few months, leading to more money, awards, and fame. But Brown Sugar's success left him disoriented. He became all too acclimated with the business of music that was becoming ever more business-like, and he withdrew as his success was peaking. Like Dave Chappelle or Ricky Williams (Men who cracked under pressure? Or made conscience decisions to turn their back on their work when integrity was threatened?).
This man is too serious an artist, walking the line between genius and insanity, for the record label's desired path: to turn out more material and strike while the iron is still hot. Instead, he assembled a tribe of musicians that recorded in Philadelphia over the next five years, practically living in the studio, watching concert films, turning out other albums during the day for artists like Erykah Badu and Common, then coming back to Voodoo.
The collective results of D'Angelo's extended recording process are incredible. To push the art of popular music, something more is needed than new collections of words and melodies in a traditional pop structure. However, making a record that is sonically, harmonically, structurally different - yet still pleasurable to listen to - is, of course, very difficult. Voodoo succeeds wildly in combing these elements to make a work that sounds better with every listen, even twelve years later.
The analog-recorded sound is warm and organic, a sonic texture increasingly embraced in the post-White Stripes era of indie music, but unusual in 2000. The instrumentation is a tour-de-force of talent, conveying minimalist, simplistic licks that are shockingly gorgeous. See Charlie Hunter’s guitar on The Root, or Questlove’s drumbeat for Spanish Joint. While not specifically credited for any part of the album, the legendary hip-hop producer J Dilla’s influence can be heard throughout the underlying beats and texture (this influence was direct, as Dilla was in the studio during many of the recording sessions). And if you are still looking for evidence of prodigious technical talent, try to find the time signature on the aforementioned Spanish Joint. If you are successful halfway through, you have done better than many musicians I know.
However, it is the complexity of the vocals that builds upon this minimalist sonic groundwork. The vocals are where the music truly delves into the realm of creation. As music fans, we always want to make comparisons. Prince comes to mind. In Saul William’s liner notes to Voodoo, he suggested that a listener might wonder, “…that nigga sounds like Bobbie McFerrin on opium!”
D' sings with the sensuality of Al Green and the outsider/anti-pop attitude of Sly Stone. But the sound is all its own. If you want to explain the difference between the phrases “sounds like” and “influenced by,” this would be a great place to start. While these comparisons are all valid and somewhat obvious, deepening your understanding of D'Angelo and Voodoo takes a new dimension when the comparison is made with Brian Wilson.
Wilson was the founder and leader of the Beach Boys. He created a sound, largely rooted in vocal harmony, with an influence on popular music so ingrained that it is also often slept-on (a concept in need of an entirely new column). What Wilson did with his voice created a sound unlike anything heard before. This aspect of creation is what makes Voodoo so uniquely rewarding, but the Brian Wilson comparison does not end with sound.
Wilson's crowning artistic achievement was the 1966 album Pet Sounds. The album was largely inspired by the new, artistically-driven direction of pop music brought on by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. After Pet Sounds, the Beatles continued the new direction, releasing Revolver and Sergeant Pepper. At the same time, Wilson had started working on an ambitious project he named Smile. Forty years would pass before Smile would see a proper release, during which Wilson battled drug addiction, mental illness, and his own psychotic perfectionism.
D'Angelo's last twelve years have eerie similarities to Brian Wilson's damaging quest for Smile.
After overcoming his disenfranchisement from the success of Brown Sugar to successfully craft Voodoo, D' has been missing. He started to unravel during the Voodoo tour, succumbing to mountains of pressures (both self-imposed and otherwise), from frustration with a new audience ("take it off!”) to the responsibility of driving music, particularly black music, forward as an art; he often could barely bring himself to perform.
After completing the Voodoo tour, other than an occasional release for a compilation, the only news the public heard of D’ was of massive weight gain, DUI arrest, and cocaine abuse. He often claimed to be working on a follow-up to Voodoo, but his erratic behavior pushed many who were closest to him away, including Questlove. While the time after Brown Sugar seemed to be due to an artist honing his craft, the last twelve years have made us wonder if D's vast potential would ever be realized again.
However, unlike Smile, this story's happy ending appears to be upon us much sooner than the 40 years we waited for Wilson’s masterpiece. All signs are pointing in one direction: that D'Angelo has overcome his demons and perfectionism to share his gifts again. His next album seems to be truly near completion with over fifty songs recorded -rumored to be narrowed to twelve - and a modest European tour is under his belt, as well as a surprise set at Bonaroo. The early reviews are encouraging, and a headlining appearance at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans has been announced.
The common perception of Brian Wilson's withdrawal was that the pressure of creating Smile drove him to the brink of insanity. I believe that is what also happened to D'Angelo. What is your next move when you complete a masterpiece before your thirtieth birthday? How do you carry the weight of a culture on your shoulders? As stated in Amy Wallace's brilliant GQ piece, the muse that reconciled D'Angelo and Questlove, leading to real work on Voodoo's follow-up, was the death of J Dilla. D'Angelo always maintained that the true muse for Voodoo was the birth of his son. If the perspective gained by creating life gave us the masterpiece of creation that is Voodoo, what will the muse of death, realized and averted, finally bring? We will know soon, and you still have time to learn the back-story, building your own excitement for the most anticipated record release since Smile.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, responded in an interview about the difference between love and sex saying, "people will die for love." This quote comes to mind when I think about my favorite lyrical passage from Voodoo, in the song, The Root;
"in the name of love and war took my shield and sword,
from the pit of the bottom, that knows no floor,
like the rain to dirt, from the vine to the wine,
from alpha to creation, until the end of time"
Without question, Voodoo is about sex. But Voodoo is also about love. Voodoo is about loss, the simple pleasures of home, longing, and self-doubt. But this record is not just about any of these things; it is of them. This album is pure soul. Soul. Something timeless; something we all need. Listen to Voodoo, and if you already have, listen again. You may have been sleeping on D’Angelo without ever knowing.