#LongPlayLove: Celebrating 20 Years of D’Angelo’s ‘Brown Sugar’ [FULL ALBUM STREAM]

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By Justin Chadwick | @justin_chadwick

Happy 20th Anniversary to D’Angelo’s debut album Brown Sugar, originally released July 3, 1995.

If you happen to follow the Chinese zodiac, you’re already aware that 2015 is the Year of the Sheep (or the Goat, depending on one’s respective cultural disposition). The Chinese word for sheep, yáng, means auspiciousness and according to Chinese astrological tradition, the sheep signifies a year of hope and prosperity. From a musical perspective, a convincing case can be made that 2015 is proving to be the year of D’Angelo, as few artists are enjoying a more auspicious and prosperous year than he is. From the unveiling of the universally acclaimed, career-reinvigorating Black Messiah album to the sold-out “The Second Coming” world tour to marking 15 years since the release of his sophomore LP Voodoo this past January, the Richmond, VA-bred soulman has been ubiquitous, as he solidifies his already indelible legacy. And now, today, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the album that originally launched D’Angelo’s career into stratospheric heights, Brown Sugar.

The summer of 1995 was a pivotal time in my life, as I had just recently graduated high school and was counting down the days to the commencement of my freshman year at UCLA. I had much to contemplate during that transitional period between adolescence and young adulthood, and I recall gravitating more heavily than usual toward music as a means of alleviating the anxieties I harbored. The album that I most vividly remember turning to on a consistent basis throughout those long summer days was Brown Sugar. I bought it the day it arrived in stores and played it incessantly thereafter, objectively recognizing its understated brilliance while selfishly reveling in its therapeutic powers. I’ve never even remotely tired of it, and I suspect I never will. And while most older heads like myself surely consider Voodoo their D’Angelo album of choice and the younger generation has embraced Black Messiah as the new standard of superior soul, Brown Sugar remains my favorite of the three, albeit by a razor-thin margin.

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Much ink has been devoted to D’Angelo’s nearly 15-year self-imposed exile and creative hibernation that followed the success of Voodoo. In fact, arguably too much has been made about it, which has had the unfortunate consequence of overshadowing the legacy that Michael “D’Angelo” Archer began cultivating in the early ‘90s, long before Voodoo even came to fruition. After earning modest attention in a pair of fledgling groups formed around his native Richmond, VA (Michael Archer and Precise and hip-hop group I.D.U.), D’Angelo caught the ears of the EMI label, and urban music mogul Kedar Massenburg in particular. He signed a publishing deal with EMI in 1991, and two years later, he parlayed it into a full-fledged recording contract.

As these doors of opportunity were opening, D’Angelo was already conceiving the material that would ultimately morph into his debut LP. Nine months before D’Angelo’s first single surfaced, he enjoyed his first taste of broader success when he wrote and co-produced R&B super-group Black Men United’s lone single “U Will Know,” which featured on the soundtrack to the 1994 film Jason’s Lyric. With the industry now buzzing about D’Angelo’s many talents, he hunkered down in the studio to complete his first album, Brown Sugar.

D’Angelo’s DIY approach to recording was a rare phenomenon, particularly so among new R&B artists who typically surrounded themselves with marquee producers and peppered their albums with cameos from other artists. His record label was more than a little skeptical of their superstar-in-the-making’s independent streak, as he recently explained:

I wrote [Brown Sugar]—the majority of that record—in my bedroom in Richmond. All of the demos for it were done on a 4-track, in my bedroom. And I think EMI was a little leery of me being in the studio producing it on my own, which was what I was fighting for. So it was important for them that I go in with someone, an engineer. I picked [revered studio engineer] Bob Power, because of my love for [A Tribe Called Quest] and what they were doing [together].

The consummate virtuoso, D’Angelo supplied the majority of the vocals and played the lion’s share of the instruments heard on the album. Crediting Prince as the inspiration for his multi-dimensional expertise, D’Angelo once confided to soulhead and Wax Poetics contributor Michael A. Gonzales that “Everything [Prince] did was the bomb. And, he could do it all himself. I was one of those kids reading the album credits. I knew back then that I wanted to do that type of shit.” As further testament to his unparalleled ambition and self-sufficient work ethic, D’Angelo also produced all ten tracks, with help from Power on a handful of tracks, as well as Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Raphael Saadiq, who co-produced the title track and “Lady,” respectively.

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By the middle of the decade, soul music was fatigued and starved for revitalization. Whatever creative energy had flowed during the early ‘90s apex of the new jack swing movement had effectively been sapped by 1995. Only a small handful of adventurous artists – Tony! Toni! Toné! and Me’Shell Ndegeocello immediately come to mind – were pushing the sonic envelope for soul music at the time, so to speak. While there were a few stellar soul albums released that year, most offered little to nothing beyond the predictable fare squarely calculated for mainstream airplay and sales.

The 21 year-old D’Angelo arguably reignited the artistic flame of contemporary soul with Brown Sugar, singlehandedly, and his motivations for doing so were fueled by purer forces of unbridled passion and perfectionism. Shortly after the album’s release, he clarified that “I just want to make some dope black music, some good soul music. I could [not] care less about a hit song. This is only my first album. I feel like I’m growing musically, that now I know what I want to do, and how better to do it. I just want to keep elevating my music to a new level.”

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D’Angelo always envisioned the album’s sound as more organic, less artificially polished.  Although he has recently alluded to harboring at least some dissatisfaction with the final output – which he has referred to as too “buttery” – D’Angelo’s original vision was largely fulfilled.  From vintage analog instruments (Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ) to more modern digital technology (drum machines, computers), the mélange of sonic ingredients used during recording coalesced to form a savory gumbo of an album founded upon a warmer, more natural sound. Brown Sugar expanded beyond its obvious classic soul evocations to integrate hip-hop flavors, jazz stylings, traditional blues and gospel inspirations throughout. In other words, this was quintessentially neo-soul, the marketing-driven term that the early D’Angelo champion Massenburg would coin a few years later as a way to differentiate the emerging sound and aesthetic from those that came before.

Propelled by D’Angelo’s Southern drawl-drenched falsetto vocals layered atop lushly languid grooves, Brown Sugar’s filler-free ten tracks exude a palpable swagger, an effortless cool. Nowhere is this more richly manifested than on the album-opening title track. As the first of four singles released from the LP, the hypnotic “Brown Sugar” was our formal introduction to D’Angelo’s many charms, though the song’s innuendos may have been lost on some. Not, in fact, a tune about one of D’Angelo’s lady friends, “Brown Sugar” was a slyly clever ode to Mary Jane, in the same spirit of Rick James’ 1978 hit song. Check the lines midway through the song’s first verse (“See, we be making love constantly / That’s why my eyes are a shade blood burgundy”) and you’ll wonder how you could have missed the true meaning all along.

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The rest of the album is largely comprised of laid-back love songs awash in thick bass lines and heavy organ/piano riffs, the highlights of which are “Alright,” “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine, “Lady,” and “When We Get By.” Two additional standouts are the gospel-tinged “Higher,” an impassioned hymn to the power of love, and the funky “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker,” a slowly smoldering lament for a cheating wife that ultimately takes a twisted, fatal turn.

Twenty years ago today, Brown Sugar redefined the soul long player as we knew it then and ushered in a crucial pivot point in the history of the genre. Merging critical aplomb with commercial viability, it became the new prototype for contemporary soul – subsequently branded as neo-soul – and one that countless artists would work hard to emulate during the latter half of the 1990s and beyond. And while D’Angelo’s recorded output to date may be sparse relative to others who have been in the game for two decades plus, from a consistency and quality perspective, his body of work is unparalleled and it all began with Brown Sugar.

My Favorite Song: “Lady”

Bonus Videos:

“Brown Sugar”

“Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine”

“Cruisin’”

“Lady” (Live on The Chris Rock Show, 1997)

BUY D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar via Amazon | iTunes

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