On January 25, 2000, R&B and soul music fans all over the country were flocking to record stores to pick up the long-awaited sophomore release from D’angelo, Voodoo.
Fans had been waiting for what seemed like forever for the follow-up to his debut album, 1995’s Brown Sugar. That album catapulted D’Angelo to superhero status as he was appointed the man who would save black music from the Bad Boy era of shiny suits and songs built around 80’s pop hits. Voodoo was to be the nail in the coffin.
Unfortunately, the pressure took its toll on D’Angelo and after bouts with writers block, rumors of drug addiction, and so on, Voodoo was constantly delayed and it seemed like it would never see the light of day.
When the album finally hit stores in January of 2000, I was confused.
The album’s sparse production coupled with D’Angelo’s often indecipherable singing made me wonder “what the hell took so long??” But as it goes with any classic album, its genius unfolded over time. It became crystal clear that the time spent working on the album wasn’t wasted.
D’Angelo and his team for this album spent that time studying. Countless hours were spent in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studio watching bootlegged episodes of Soul Train, Prince concert footage, James Brown television performances, and even more were spent with D’Angelo and his band warming up in the studio by recording covers of their favorite songs that they probably never even intended to release.
Songs like Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s 70’s funk classic “Superman Lover”
These figures that D’Angelo and his crew immersed themselves in became known as the Yodas, a reference to the powerful Jedi master in the Star Wars films who trained Luke Skywalker in the ways of the force. D’angelo, obviously, was Luke Skywalker.
And learn the ways of a Jedi master, D’Angelo did.
One close listen to the record and you can feel the influence of the Ohio Players (“Playa Playa”), Prince (“Untitled,” “Africa,” “Chicken Grease”), Kool & The Gang (“Send It On”), Al Green (“Greatdayndamornin/Booty”), Sly & The Family Stone (“Feel Like Making Love”), Parliament-Funkadelic (“Left & Right”), James Brown (“Chicken Grease”), and the youngest of the Yodas, the late J Dilla (“Feel Like Making Love”).
After the lukewarm reception to the lead single from the album, “Left & Right” featuring Method Man & Redman, D’Angelo shot the classic “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video which caused many a woman to shift in her seat, and sent many men scrambling to the gym to recapture their women’s attention due to the fact that the video featured nothing more than a very sweaty and very naked D’Angelo shot from the waist up standing in front of a black backdrop and asking his female viewers “How Does It Feel” over and over again. This video would be the tipping point in D’Angelo’s career and mark the beginning of his downward spiral.
On D’Angelo’s tour in support of Voodoo, the old-school soul revue stage performance was overshadowed by throngs of women who were only there for “Untitled” and wanted to see him nearly naked.
In a 2003 interview with Touré published in The Believer, ?uestlove, who left The Roots temporarily to tour with D’Angelo, spoke on how the catcalls affected D’Angelo.
Some nights on tour he’d look in the mirror and say, “I don’t look like the video” It was totally in his mind, on some Kate Moss shit. So, he’d say, “Lemme do 200 more stomach crunches.” He’d literally hold the show up for half an hour just to do crunches. We would hold the show for an hour and a half if he didn’t feel mentally prepared or physically prepared. Some shows got canceled because he didn’t feel physically prepared, but it was such a delusion…
In the world of karma, it was sweet poetic justice for any woman that’s ever been sexually harassed, that’s ever had to work twice as hard just to prove she could work like a man. Literally. When we started this Voodoo project, we were like, “Man, we’re gonna give a gift to the world, and not on a pretentious level. We’re gonna create something that’s totally our world, and we’re gonna bring people to our world and they’re gonna love it, and it’s gonna be art.” But the first night of the Voodoo tour the “take-it-off” chants started not ten minutes into the show. This is a three-hour show. And he had mastered all the tricks from the Yodas. The Al Green Yoda tricks of him giving a wink to the drummer, and all the music stops, and Al Green goin away from the mic and singing to the audience without the microphone. We planned every trick out. But the girls are like, “Take it off! Take it off!” That put too much pressure on him…
They wanted “Untitled.” He hated every moment of that. So… to motivate him past night four became problematic. He’d say, “Well, [frustrated] let’s do ‘Untitled’ earlier.” We’d say, “No, you gotta end with ‘Untitled.’” Then it became just compromise. How can we stop the bleeding so that we can at least get the show out [of] the way before the “take it off” chants come? But no night was unscathed. Three weeks into it, it became unbearable. Absolutely unbearable. So as a result, the cheerleading starts. If we need him to get out of his disappointment, depression thing, you might have to start at four o’clock in the afternoon like, “What’s up, man [with exaggerated happiness]! Yo, let’s go record shopping!” Like, let’s con him into being happy all day! We go record shopping, then it’s like, “Let’s go to Roscoe’s! Oh, that’s right, you can’t eat, so you go exercise. All right, Mark [the physical trainer], you’re it.” Mark comes, trains him. I come back. “Yo, man! I got this new Prince joint!” We watch Prince. We get amped. Rewind it a couple times. “Alright, you ready? I’ma get dressed, and in fifteen minutes we’ll get in the car, go to the venue.” Some nights that would work. Other nights he’d just be psychosomatic. Like, “Yo man, I can’t do it.” I’m like, “What?” He’s like, “I can’t do it.” I’m like, “Just go out there. They love you!” He’s like, “They don’t love me, man.” That’s the respect and love thing. He wants the respect. I want the love…
Had he known what the repercussions of “Untitled” would’ve been, I don’t think he would’ve done it.
Despite a few run-ins with the law and a bad car accident, D’Angelo has largely been like the Howard Hughes of black music. He’s rarely heard from, and seen even less. His released output in the last 10 years has been limited to guest appearances and can be counted on one hand (The RH Factor’s “I’ll Stay”, Common “So Far To Go”, Q-Tip “I Believe”, and an unreleased version of The Roots’ “Break You Off” immediately come to mind)
So will D’Angelo ever come back into the public eye?
He recently signed a record deal with J Records (please, no duets with Alicia Keys, Clive!) and has indeed been working on the follow-up to Voodoo. But only God and D’Angelo himself know when the rest of us will get a chance to hear what he’s been conjuring up in the studio.
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