Footsteps in the Dark

Voodoo chili chef D'Angelo

Voodoo chili chef D'Angelo

Not since Marvin Gaye's creative exhale in the mid-Seventies did soul luxuriate between the beats like 1995's "Brown Sugar," the single that introduced us to Michael D'Angelo Archer. "Let me tell you 'bout this girl," it began, like a barroom boast--"or maybe I shouldn't." It was as if the storyteller suddenly realized how falling in hopeless lust makes one's machismo more vulnerable than love ever could. D'Angelo, as he called himself, lit this thematic spliff and burned it from both ends (dope was his metaphor for sex, and vice versa). He confessed his addiction--"I gets high off your love/Don't know how to behave"--and glowed with pride. The bass massaged, the organ tickled, the vocals sighed.

It's easy to see how a 20-year-old African-American singer from Richmond, Virginia, with cornrows and an eternally hooded gaze might be seen as someone who could free popular R&B from the old trap of seeming too eager to please. Yet the pleasures of Brown Sugar, the album he crafted around the single, were probably elusive to anyone not weaned on hip hop. With what Vibe aptly called "a kind of contemporary blankness," D'Angelo subsumed Prince's sexual spirituality into a cool Rakim could envy. He adapted rap's vocal cadence to crooning--a trick Montell Jordan and Nate Dogg mastered before him--and then mimicked the repetitive nonsong structures that make hip hop hypnotic.

Well before unveiling the new followup, Voodoo (Virgin), D'Angelo was hailed by soul's cognoscenti and royalty alike as a genre savior. He was a "real" musician who, one hoped, could make old-school verities sound newer than new jack and its inheritors. But the most anticipated cult followup since Pulp Fiction feels neither comforting in its retro nor comfortable in its status as R&B currency. The auteur still uses live instruments Al Green might own, and he records them in analog. In interviews he betrays a filial piety for his influences--Stevie, Jimi, Marvin--that borders on incestuous obsession. (He studies live videotapes of Prince at First Avenue like a coach watching old Super Bowl films.)

Yet I imagine D'Angelo's elders react to him the way Martin Denny might take Stereolab: with a smile of recognition, perhaps--and an arched eyebrow. For all of its gestures toward what might be called black-music classicism (the Roots' ?uestlove keeps the beat crisp, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and guitarist Charlie Hunter each lend a steady hand), the album is in essence a very, very weird piece of grooving. That's what children are for, I suppose, and I'm not surprised critics have either shrunk from panning Voodoo or leapt protectively to its defense. Even its most nostalgic dip into midtempo balladry--with a bridge, no less--is too stretched out and diffuse to be measured against an L-Boogie, much less an R. Kelly hit. "Send It On" wafts with the slowness and clarity of a smoke signal; it draws from Kool & the Gang's "Sea of Tranquility" and dots its lyric sheet with Princely 2's and U's. (It was co-written with D'Angelo's baby-mama, Angie Stone.) Yet the whole is vaguer and simpler than any Artistic-erotic paean to reciprocated devotion ("Send it up/Send it through/Send it right back 2 U").

The album then dissolves into "Chicken Grease," with its bop-around-the-bottom bassline and D's incomprehensible slurring (voodoo chants recorded through a baby monitor?)--and a minor epiphany arrives. Having spent a fifth of his life working on this stuff--"I'll wait 'til I've mastered this," he sings, "Let the others go first/So the brothers won't miss"--he has produced a music made by and for aesthetes. Call it the R&B corollary to A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders--or call it "alternative," in the outdated sense: contrary, not crossover. Method Man and Redman do drop by to show their party faces on "Left & Right." But the closest D'Angelo comes to courting rap's East-ghost appeal is "Devil's Pie," an eerie DJ Premier-produced single that appeared on the Belly soundtrack. Looping what sounds like a pick repeatedly dragged down a guitar string, the song lets its gentle sermon about greed ("ain't no justice--just us") insinuate itself into your morning hum. Hardly another "This Is How We Do It."

The thing is, D'Angelo's dove-cries and ripped upper torso in the video for "Untitled (How Does It Feel?)" belie the fact that his aesthetic always insists on underpowering us. His music could be following any sex columnist's most rudimentary advice: "It's easier for a woman to ask for more than to tell you she wants less" (according to the February Details). D'Angelo demands listeners meet him halfway--he demands that we beckon. "How does it feel?" he asks endlessly on "Untitled," never letting his multitracked falsettos instruct us how to swoon.

It's either a sign of advanced security or advanced procrastination that Voodoo's lope echoes the water-torture rhythms of D'Angelo's career. Call it, more accurately, a series of low-pressure caresses that began with some medium-temperature raves and spread through the music press and black radio like a crush through a third-grade class. For a period of years, magazine profiles were appearing every month, injudiciously timed to minor collaborations--or timed to nothing at all. I can't think of anyone else who graced a glossy (XXL) a full year before his album dropped, or was prominently reviewed (in Vibe) two months before his release.

Unfortunately, the rhythms of criticism are more the wham-bam variety: Big magazines sometimes average five days between when a critic receives an album and writes about it. And I'm not sure a pressure-cooker quickie--even this very, very late one--can do Voodoo any real justice. This music is already taken apart in the air; it doesn't need to be disassembled on the page.