Happy 20th Anniversary to DAngelos debut album Brown Sugar, originally released July 3, 1995.
If you happen to follow the Chinese zodiac, youre already aware that 2015 is the Year of the Sheep (or the Goat, depending on ones 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 DAngelo, 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 DAngelos 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. Ive never even remotely tired of it, and I suspect I never will. And while most older heads like myself surely consider Voodoo their DAngelo 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.
Much ink has been devoted to DAngelos 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 DAngelo 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.), DAngelo 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, DAngelo was already conceiving the material that would ultimately morph into his debut LP. Nine months before DAngelos first single surfaced, he enjoyed his first taste of broader success when he wrote and co-produced R&B super-group Black Men Uniteds lone single U Will Know, which featured on the soundtrack to the 1994 film Jasons Lyric. With the industry now buzzing about DAngelos 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-makings independent streak, as he recently explained:
I wrote [Brown Sugar]the majority of that recordin 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, DAngelo supplied the majority of the vocals and played the lions share of the instruments heard on the album. Crediting Prince as the inspiration for his multi-dimensional expertise, DAngelo 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, DAngelo 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.
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 MeShell 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 DAngelo 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 albums 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 Im 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.
DAngelo always envisioned the albums 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 DAngelos 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 DAngelo 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 DAngelos Southern drawl-drenched falsetto vocals layered atop lushly languid grooves, Brown Sugars 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 DAngelos many charms, though the songs innuendos may have been lost on some. Not, in fact, a tune about one of DAngelos 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 songs first verse (See, we be making love constantly / That’s why my eyes are a shade blood burgundy) and youll wonder how you could have missed the true meaning all along.
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 DAngelos 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
Me and Those Dreamin Eyes of Mine
Lady (Live on The Chris Rock Show, 1997)
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