"I hear he's getting a blowjob." So say the whispers one cubicle over from me, where two African-American women are discussing the new D'Angelo video. You know, the one where D'Angelo stands buck-naked from the waist up against a black void, singing into the camera? During the scene in question, the camera pans down to his belly, where the plaited prince is doing an unusual amount of sweating. No matter what's going on down there, the seeds of wonder have been planted. And the song's oblique title, "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," only fuels the rumor.
D'Angelo has been kind of a curious anomaly ever since his first single, "Brown Sugar," hit the air in the mid-'90s. When it quickly became obvious that the smoky ballad was more about Mary Jane than any fine sista, Buddhaheads pushed up their lighters in salute and D earned instant credibility among men. Women loved him, too--those eyes, those lips--but his preference for rough braids over an S-Curl, his perpetual scowl, and his simple, respectful black leather jacket made him all right with the fellas as well. D'Angelo further bolstered his roughneck resume by working with such hiphop icons as DJ Premier and the GZA. He even made a song ("Shit, Damn, Motherfucker") where he catches his lady cheating and goes buck-wild with a firearm. Simply put, D'Angelo was the kind of cat you could sit and listen to with your shorty, puff on a blunt, and not feel like a pussy.
It's been five years since D'Angelo's first album came out. At some point in the interim, he lost his shirt. And this time around, the marketing strategy features the bare-chested brother plastered across everything from magazines to album covers to TV screens to 15-foot Virgin Records trucks parked on Park Avenue.
Fortunately for the brothers who have been forced to listen to D's latest album from its release until Valentine's Day and beyond, Voodoo is smooth enough for your girl but no sweeter than Brown Sugar. In certain ways, it's more rugged. Brown Sugar was blessed with hard beats and heavy bass lines. On Voodoo, the beats bump along more than they bang, and the bass bubbles more than it broods, but the song arrangements are looser and more experimental.
The album sort of eases up on you, with the first track, "Playa Playa," sounding like a relaxed groove session. That laid-back, anything-goes vibe persists through most of the album but is especially evident on cuts like "Chicken Grease" and "Greatdayndamornin'/Booty." Right up front, D'Angelo reminds you that he hasn't forgotten about the hard core. The album's second cut, "Devil's Pie," was produced by headnod king Premier; the third, "Left & Right," features the rowdy, dynamic duo of Redman and Method Man. From then on, the collection remains relatively mellow.
"The Line" and "Send It On" sound a little too similar to run back-to-back, but they're too cool to be disturbing. The album's low point is D'Angelo's cover of Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway's "Feel Like Makin' Love." Not only is it a poor rendition, it doesn't even stack up to D'Angelo's steamy remake of Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'" off of Brown Sugar. But Voodoo holds more highs than lows. "One Mo'Gin" takes a deliciously long time to progress from a groove to an actual song--and hooks you by the end. It's followed up by "The Root," just as catchy and twice as sexy.
D'Angelo belongs to a whole new class of "alternative" R&B artists, whose ranks also include Eric Benet, Omar, and Erykah Badu. These new jacks tend to be earthier and, to varying degrees, more Afrocentric and less concerned with overt sexual themes and dance-floor politics than, say, Ginuwine or TLC. D'Angelo and his alt-R&B colleagues do, however, share the airwaves with mainstream artists of the genre. And major record labels are eager to sign more Afro-bohemian folks in the vein of Angie Stone, Grenique, and the Jazzyfatnastees. That's because, at its heart, R&B is about love and lust songs. And sexy soul singers, whether they're sporting leather pants and a sheer silk shirt or an Afro and a dashiki, sell love songs.
The great thing about the music of this so-called R&B subgenre is that it often works on more levels than the mainstream, sex-you-up radio stuff. D'Angelo has grown into a half-scatting singing style that is indecipherable without a little effort. So if you want to bypass the lyrical content, you can easily just pretend you don't speak the language and sink into his vibe. If, however, you're bent on finding out what's on the brother's mind, there's something for you as well. D's no great poet, but the chorus to "Devil's Pie" would probably fly at your local open-mike night: "Main ingredients to this dish/Goes like this/Here's the list/Materialistic, greed and lust, jealousy, envious/Bread and dough, cheddar cheese, flash and stash, cash and cream/Temperatures at a high degree/Where niggas come to feast."
The album closes with an uplifting new negro spiritual, "Africa." D'Angelo throws in one last consciousness-raising comment with "I dwell within a land that's meant/for many men not my tone." But for most of Voodoo, D'Angelo spares you such didacticism in favor of well-written and subtle lyrical seduction. You know, love songs. CP