Happy 15th Anniversary to DAngelos sophomore album Voodoo, originally released January 25, 2000.
Last month, just when we all had naïvely assumed that the well of notable album releases in 2014 had dried up as a new year of new music beckoned, a familiar but recently withdrawn figure made a surprise return. Indeed, the musical resurrection of DAngelo in the form of the excellent Black Messiah LPs unexpected December release was one of the most universally celebrated music stories of the year, causing many of us to exhale a collective sigh of relief and joy following his nearly 15-year absence since releasing his last proper album. To be sure, DAngelos pace of recorded output has been methodical to say the least, with just three studio albums in twenty years. However, few are the contemporary artists who genuinely embody the idea of quality trumping quantity, as DAngelo unequivocally does. And Black Messiah has reminded us as if we needed reminding that any new music bestowed upon us by DAngelo is always cause for reflection, admiration and celebration.
But back to that aforementioned last proper album. Voodoo, now the well-ripened middle child of the impressive trio of albums bookended by 1995s Brown Sugar and the recent Black Messiah, warrants its own revival of sorts. Or at the very least, it deserves to be revisited by those of us who have always loved it, as well as those who never gave it adequate attention in the first place.
DAngelos second album arrived in early 2000 with expectations that were sky high, and perhaps unfairly so. Nearly five years earlier, Brown Sugar had signaled the arrival of DAngelo, an indisputable talent with a remarkable penchant for melding the spirit of R&Bs past with the promise of neo-souls future. His debut LP arguably represented the musical bridge extending the influence of its neo-soul movement precursors like Tony! Toni! Toné!s Sons of Soul (1993) and due to both its critical and commercial success paving the path forward for subsequent landmark LPs, of which Maxwells Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badus Baduizm (1997), Lauryn Hills The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) and Jill Scotts Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 (2000) most immediately come to mind. For me, the heavenly-sounding Brown Sugar was a revelation when I heard it for the first time. I love every song on the album and still reconnect with it on a regular basis, some twenty years later. No surprise, then, that my fingers are firmly crossed that its much-needed vinyl reissue will see the light of day sometime soon and fill the gaping void in my LP collection.
When DAngelo embarked upon developing the follow-up to Brown Sugar, he could have very easily and forgivably made Brown Sugar Part II. But he didnt. DAngelos nearly five-year hiatus between albums was purportedly marked by prolonged tussles with writers block, as well as profound disillusionment due to the quagmire of reconciling his passion for music, the competing demands of fame, and the compromises of the soul required by the business side of music-making. In a confessional May 2000 interview with Touré for Rolling Stone, DAngelo conceded that:
After Brown Sugar, I lost my enthusiasm to do all this. I coulda done without goin’ to 7-Eleven at three o’clock to get a pack of cigarettes and find yourself swarmed, signin’ autographs. I had to reiterate why I was doin’ that in the first place, and the reason was the love for the music. I was gettin’ jaded, lookin’ at what go on in the business. But, I had to say, even if I didn’t do this, I’d still be fuckin’ with the music. So I’m cursed, and I’m gon’ be cursed till the day I die. So this is what I’m gon’ do.”
Artists with flimsier integrity (or more accommodating managers) are understandably strong-armed by their labels to churn out album after album, every two years or so, often to diminishing creative returns. Not so much DAngelo, whose stubbornness to do things his own way has ensured that his musical output has remained of the highest caliber.
So when Voodoo surfaced, those expecting a logical continuation of its predecessors sonic direction must have been surprised by its nuanced, evolved sound. And many of us, myself included, were delighted by DAngelos newfound adventurism. Whereas the more conventionally crafted songs that comprise Brown Sugar sound tailor-made for radio urban, pop or otherwise Voodoos less orthodox, more jam-band inspired song structures are not as immediately palpable, more than likely to the dismay of the record label staff who were tasked with securing airplay, generating sales, and recouping their production investment. In lieu of superficial and commercial motivations, Voodoos songs seem as if they were more virtuously devised by DAngelo and his musical co-conspirators for no reasons other than inducing heads to nod, booties to wiggle, and daydreams to swirl. And while listeners may be forced to devote more effort toward the overall aural experience of Voodoo than is required of Brown Sugar, their patience is definitely rewarded in the end. Admittedly, I needed to listen to the album in its entirety a handful of times to finally appreciate its brilliance, and I now consider it to be his most accomplished and gratifying LP.
An intriguing amalgamation of musical lineages most evidently inspired by hip-hop, old-school soul, funk and jazz, Voodoo never feels eclectic for the sake of eclecticism. Instead, the ambience created by the fusing of these multi-dimensional styles and varied instrumentation (heavy on the guitars and horns with Questloves masterful percussion setting the pace throughout) sounds totally natural and harmonious. And while Voodoo is undeniably spearheaded by DAngelo, its most certainly a family affair as well, shaped by the Soulquarian philosophy of sound and featuring an all-star cast of collaborators including Raphael Saadiq, Method Man, Redman, DJ Premier, Roy Hargrove, and Q-Tip, all of whose contributions propel the albums kaleidoscopic sound even further. Keen listeners may also detect the ever-present influence of another universally revered pioneer of sound, one that Questlove admitted to Rolling Stone was always top of mind during the recording process: The biggest influence on the record was someone who never came to the studio: Prince. Way after Voodoo was finished, D and I sat down and listened to it, and we both admitted that this was our audition tape for Prince. Musical hubris or not, Voodoo makes for one kickass audition tape.
Considering that its primary impetus was neither radio spins nor units moved, its not surprising that Voodoo failed to replicate the commercial success of Brown Sugar. Despite debuting at #1 on the Billboard albums chart, achieving platinum sales, and winning Best R&B Album at the 2001 Grammy Awards, four of the five singles released from the album never cracked the upper ranks of the singles chart. The lone exception was the Raphael Saadiq co-written/produced Untitled (How Does It Feel), which fell just one spot short of topping the R&B singles chart. A gorgeous, stripped-down ballad that elevates DAngelos vocals more than many of his other songs, Untitled was a success largely due to its accompanying video, which many of you reading this post will surely be well acquainted with. If not, a glance at Voodoos cover image should jog your memory.
And while the video was broadly embraced for, uh, obvious reasons, it can be argued that the videos success and more specifically, the disproportionate amount of attention it garnered relative to the music itself undermined the realization of Voodoos grander vision. Much has been written about how the video symptomatic of the labels desperate attempts to seduce the lowest common denominator of music fans in order to bolster promotion of the album was largely responsible for fueling DAngelos subsequent identity crisis and sending him into musical hibernation for more than a decade. Recalling the Voodoo tour in a 2008 interview published in Spin, renowned trumpeter Roy Hargrove explained that “We couldn’t get through one song before women would start to scream for him to take off something. It wasn’t about the music. All they wanted him to do was take off his clothes.” In the same article, DAngelos then-manager Dominique Trenier conceded that ’Untitled’ wasn’t supposed to be (DAngelos) mission statement for Voodoo. I’m glad the video did what it did, but he and I were both disappointed because, to this day, in the general populace’s memory, he’s the naked dude.” Well, the myopia of the general populace be damned, in my opinion.
Granted, the destructive impact of the Untitled video cannot be denied. But its dubious legacy will invariably continue to fade into irrelevance as time passes. Meanwhile, Voodoos enchanting musical spell and the respect that its creator deserves for making such a brave and provocative album will endure for years to come, as his career continues to evolve and excite.
My Favorite Song: Feel Like Makin Love (Cover of 1974 Roberta Flack song)
“Untitled (How Does It Feel)” (2000)
“Devil’s Pie” (Live) (2000)
“Left & Right” (1999)
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