Warp + Weft: D’Angelo :: Voodoo

September 4, 2007 by Webmaster  
Filed under Columns

{mosimage}Back in 2000, R&B was about as bloodless and cold as a frozen turkey. And then came D'Angelo's Voodoo, a fuzzy, overgrown, sloppy mess and the best R&B album to be released in the last 20 years.

Virgin Records

Back in 2000, R&B was about as bloodless and cold as a frozen turkey, despite the best efforts of Maxwell, Erykah Badu, and D'Angelo himself to reinvigorate the form toward the end of the '90s. They were all a part of what was called "neo-soul," a movement that focused on organic R&B and soul, as opposed to the digital and drum machine-fueled pap that had been flooding the market since the late '80s. And to be sure, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, Badu's Baduizm, and D'Angelo's Brown Sugar were all great albums in their own right. Still, they were all poor preparation for D'Angelo's masterpiece, the skewed, brilliant, black and brown Voodoo.

For anyone expecting the gloss and vibrancy of Brown Sugar, the first impression that Voodoo left was of emptiness and flatness. The songs blend into one another in such a way as to at first make them indistinguishable. The melodies are simple, the instrumentation largely centered around Pino Palladino's bass playing (yes, he of Gary Numan, Tears for Fears, and Don Henley) and Questlove's drumming, with occasional dabs of guitar from Charlie Hunter, trumpet from Roy Hargrove, and Rhodes from D'Angelo himself. Picking "Left & Right" (a great track ruined utterly by Redman and Method Man, who shit all over it with inane and vulgar raps that demean D'Angelo's subtle and sexy swagger) as the first single probably didn't do much for expectant fans, either. Picking the best Prince song Prince never wrote, "Untitled (How Does It Feel?)" for the second, though, was pure genius.

It's the handiest point of entry into the album, although it's actually the second-to-last track on the disc. But it casts light back on the front end of the album, containing as it does the essential quality that lifts Voodoo up into the realm of a classic: a willful yet casual sloppiness. It's startling how simple it is, really: Just listen to the first two bars of "Untitled" and it sounds like a disaster. Questlove's cross-snare clicks on the two and four are so far off the beat they're practically sitting in the lap of the next beat. His kick is equally messed up, and Palladino's bass is slipping and sliding across bars like a lightweight at the end of a pub crawl. And yet the groove of the track is paradoxically more solid than a muh'fucker. It's tension, but it's tension on both a more micro and macro scale than you'd ever expect.

Take any song, and chances are it works on tension and release. Maybe this means soft verses and loud choruses ("Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, "I Alone" by Live) or maybe it means a kind of gradual buildup to something (which certainly happens in "Untitled"). Or maybe it's a more subtle textural or rhythmic thing that happens within the verses or over the course of the bridge. Or it's harmonic in the case of a lot of jazz music, where the soloists can play off tension in the chords or the changes to heighten it or counteract it. All these things happen in different scales: over a whole song, over the verse, over a line. But in "Untitled," D'Angelo has subdivided this tension into each moment, where there's no linear way to measure how far off things slide before they pull themselves back. This stuff can't be measured in beats or fractions of beats in a meaningful way. For lack of a less cliched word, it's entirely "feel." And rather than using this kind of syncopation as a flavoring or a departure from a center, it is the center—of "Untitled," of the whole album.

This approach is evident in D'Angelo's vocals as well, although it's more subtle because it's the same kind of idea applied to melody, harmony, and phrasing. The first two lines of "Untitled" are telling. They read, "Girl, it's on you / Have it your way," but as sung, it's closer to "Girlit'sonnayou … … … haveitchyourwaay." That gap between the lines is epic. Just epic. There's enough room in there for all the soul from most any mainstream R&B record to fit with space leftover. Each line of the song is sung in such a casual style that it almost completely subverts the archetypal idea of the smooth R&B singer, re-inventing it as something simultaneously more sincere and self-deprecating. At its base, it's a very self-aware homage to Prince, complete with falsetto climbs and skittery phrasing, but the track is so buttery behind it that it resonates, particularly on the lush choruses.

"How does it feel?" asks a chorus of D'Angelo's, their harmonies falling all over each other. Following their each and every slip and slide is impossible, but that's the particular genius at work here. It's like a tiny miracle every instant of the song that it doesn't completely fall apart, the most ramshackle and rough hewn R&B gem to come out in the last 20 years and a tribute to pretty much the slickest cat to come out in the last 30, Prince. What sets it apart from most of the rest of the album, though, is that in addition to its sloppiness, there's also a song-spanning dynamic here that shows itself after the bridge and guitar break.

Everything drops away save for the bass and drums, tiny sparks of Rhodes and guitar chords hovering in the background alongside a few indistinct whispers. The climb back up to the chorus is, to not mince words, the finest musical approximation of sexual climax since Serge Gainsbourg's "Je T'Aime, Moi Non Plus." Even after it hits a peak, it keeps rising, the chorus of voices fizzing into overdrive and the whole track gradually succumbing to a wash of reverb before stopping dead in its tracks mid-phrase.

The full stop doesn't stand out when you hear the song by itself, but the shocking thing you'll realize if you go back and start at the beginning of the record and listen all the way through is that it's the first distinct song break—a full two seconds of silence—that you've experienced in the last hour-plus of listening. I'd hazard to say that the first time you fully realize that you've been listening to uninterrupted music for that long is the first time you really fall in love with this record, but let's go back to the beginning and look at some of the ways that D'Angelo's sloppy brilliance turns Voodoo from a collection of songs into a real album.

"Playa Playa," the song that kicks the whole album off, is really a kind of manifesto as well. Palladino lays about the squarest bass line you can imagine against a fluid Questlove beat and D'Angelo spells it out: "My groove is tight / Drummer's drumming right / Dirt's our secret weapon / Each and every night." Dirt is D'Angelo's own term for his "in between the cracks" approach to rhythm, a term he would use frequently in interviews, going so far as to label it a "concept" whose inner workings he wasn't prepared to reveal. It certainly has the feel of alchemy here, wrapping the foundation of "Playa Playa" in a gauzy haze of brass, plinky guitar, wah, and handclaps. The track (like the album as a whole) really springs to life on headphones, where you can hear how every element rubs o
ff the others. The disc emits a soft glow aurally, a slow simmer of ideas and dirt.

As such, it's an album full of small, gorgeous moments too numerous to name: the lockstep middle-low-high entrance of the three-part harmony at the 4:10 mark of "The Line"; the flurry of trumpets that echoes the vocal melody at the 5:22 mark of "Send It On" as the drums falter and the bass lays in counterpoint lines; the last two minutes of "The Root," where the chorus feeds back into itself over and over again, turning from a hook into a mantra into a gospel affirmation; the moment at 4:40 of "Spanish Joint" when you can hear D'Angelo murmur, "I'm going to the chorus again." There are literally dozens of these sprinkled throughout the album, some of them accidental and human, others almost sublimely well-orchestrated.

And so the almost molecular tension of each moment of the record is reflected in the entire album's blend of the carefully arranged (this is an album, after all, that took four years to make) and the carelessly tossed-off. The net result is then not so much a set of dynamic arcs as a finely textured blanket, something more akin to a large-scale pencil drawing where each mark feels unmistakably human, yet the whole can appear almost photographic in its precision and grace.

It's now been seven years since Voodoo came out, and since then D'Angelo's been arrested, critically injured in a car accident, and collaborated with several different musicians, but we've seen no follow-up to his masterwork. Rumor has it that he's hard at work on an album with the working title of James River, and if and when it comes, I wouldn't be surprised if he's re-written the rules all over again. This is, after all, the man that critic Robert Christgau referred to as "R&B Jesus," and even if his Second Coming never happens, music fans would be hard-pressed to complain if Voodoo remains his enduring statement—a subtle grower of an album, that's always better than you remember when you come back to it.


D'Angelo :: Brown Sugar :: Virgin Records :: 1995

The infamous video for "Untitled (How Does It Feel?)"

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