The Time Is Out of Joint: Notes on D’Angelo’s Voodoo
by Jason King. Copyright © 2012. Do not distribute or reproduce without explicit permission.
I was commissioned to write these liner notes for vinyl re-release of D’angelo’s Voodoo, released by Light in the Attic Records, December 2012.
I’ve faithfully reproduced the notes here for you to read. Go to Light in the Attic Records to purchase the vinyl version; visit them on the web: http:lightintheattic.net
The Time Is Out of Joint: Notes on D’Angelo’s Voodoo
Voodoo hit store shelves on January 25th 2000, just a few weeks after New Year celebrations, so you could argue that it was the first great album of the new millennium. But Voodoo also belongs squarely in the 1990s. Its thirteen tracks were all produced in the late ’90s. And Voodoo’s muggy grooves capture the sound of premillennial anxiety as captivatingly as anything Tricky or Radiohead or Missy Elliot released during those paranoid years when we somehow convinced ourselves the Y2K bug would smite us with meltdown and global catastrophe.
Holdups and false starts kept Voodoo from a ’90s release. Perfectionist D’Angelo had become distracted by weed and weightlifting, and debilitated by sophomore pressure to follow up his groundbreaking 1995 debut Brown Sugar. In the interim he’d fathered two children, switched managers, jumped to a new record label, and made cameos on scattershot soundtracks. Two promo singles dropped: murky, sample-heavy “Devil’s Pie” in October 1998 and Redman/Method Man-assisted toe-tapper “Left and Right” a year later. But promises of a full-length studio album evaporated into the ether. Voodoo might have seen its commercial release in November 1999 but a planned duet with Lauryn Hill on a lurching cover of Roberta Flack’s 1975 “Feel Like Making Love” remained unfinished and the album was pushed back until just after the New Year. (The rendition would ultimately wind up on Voodoo as a solo D’Angelo record without Hill.)
Even if we wanted to claim Voodoo as a 1990s record, rather than one belonging to the 2000s, it was still a project obsessed with 1960s, ’70s and ’80s funk and soul—a nostalgic nod to the ideas and inventions of black music trailblazers like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Kool and the Gang, Al Green, and Prince, powered by avant-garde hip-hop-influenced rhythms. As such, Voodoo is decidedly postmodern, bopping in and out of and between eras without necessarily belonging to any singular era in particular. And perhaps the delayed, dislocated timing of Voodoo’s commercial release suggests a truism about D’Angelo himself: wherever he seems to go, the time is, as Hamlet once said, out of joint.
A lesser recording artist would have permanently scared off his audience by making it wait in anticipation for new work so long. But when Voodoo finally dropped, the lost time didn’t seem to matter. That’s because Voodoo mattered. And Voodoo mattered because D’Angelo mattered. 1995’s Brown Sugar had already strategically positioned D’Angelo—born Michael Eugene Archer and Virginia-reared to a Pentecostal preacher father—as the next Hendrix-like deity in black music, after Prince and maybe Lenny Kravitz. (Kravitz’s revivalist 1991 LP Mama Said is in some ways an underappreciated stylistic pre-cursor to Brown Sugar and Voodoo.)
In 1995 D’Angelo wasn’t just making soul music—he was making Hip-Hop Soul, reinventing R&B for audiences acculturated to hip-hop. He certainly wasn’t the first to do so: Teddy Riley, Mary J. Blige and others had been applying hip-hop aesthetics to soul in prior years. And both R. Kelly and DeVante Swing of Jodeci had already added hip-hop swagger to their respective soul crooner visual images; D’Angelo would take the ‘Ruffneck Romeo’ concept to even more seductive heights.
But D’Angelo brought something to hip-hop soul those artists did not: a bohemian passion for classic jazz. He’d been turned on to jazz by way of the shards and snippets he’d heard in hip-hop samples (particularly those of Native Tongue stalwarts A Tribe Called Quest), and via the dusty records he’d discovered in his DJ uncle’s vinyl collection. D’Angelo’s confluence of jazz, hip-hop and R&B proved irresistible, especially after the early success of artists like Tony! Toni! Toné! and Meshell Ndegeocello had already proven that the merger of those styles could have commercial legs). And so the genre neo-soul—with its retro emphasis on ‘real’ instruments, sophisticated musicianship and hip Afrocentricity—was officially born. Charismatic D’Angelo became its de facto, galvanizing superstar. Then, just as quickly, time fell out of joint: D’Angelo didn’t make another album for five years.
Brown Sugar relied on programming, with many of the songs pre-written and arranged before D’Angelo recorded them. Voodoo, on the other hand, was a more organic, improvisatory and experimental affair. Much of the songwriting occurred in the studio. The innovation kicked off, it seems, with Jimi Hendrix. In a recent interview, Voodoo’s mix engineer Russ Elevado recounted to me how he helped turn D’Angelo onto Hendrix in the mid ’90s. “All D’Angelo had heard of Jimi at that time were songs like Purple Haze and albums like Are You Experienced,” he said. “I had been hired to mix a few songs on Brown Sugar; and, around ‘94 or ‘95, I kept trying to play Jimi for D’Angelo but at the time he wasn’t really open to it. Finally when I went down to Virginia to talk about the concept for what was to become Voodoo, D’Angelo and I went out for breakfast, and in the car I popped in Electric Ladyland. He looked at me as if to say: ‘Who is this?’ We got back to his apartment and listened to the whole Electric Ladyland album, and I think for the first time he saw how Stevie Wonder and all these artists he admired had been originally influenced by Hendrix.”
No surprise, then, that they chose downtown New York’s Electric Lady, the famed studio Hendrix built before he died, as the venue for recording the album. “We scheduled a meeting with the studio manager,” Elevado recalls, “and as soon as we walked into the main room, which for the most part was still as Hendrix left it when he passed, D’Angelo said: ‘This is it. We have to do Voodoo here.’ And there we were, blowing the dust off the original Rhodes [electric piano] that Stevie [Wonder] supposedly recorded with in the early 1970s, and blowing dust off some of the microphones. You have to remember that at that time in the mid 1990s, hardly anybody in soul music was doing any recordings with vintage equipment like that. Nobody was really tracking bands anymore except for some of the rock guys. And so we really felt like we were bringing something back.” Electric Lady’s Studio C became D’Angelo’s brand new creative laboratory.
The concept behind Voodoo was simple. Put together a kick-ass ensemble of R&B musicians bent on grooving together. Record them live, in real-time, jamming face-to-face in an effort to capture their conviviality and chemistry. This was the way funk records used to be made in the pre-digital era when people who knew what they were doing were actually making them. For Voodoo’s core rhythm trio, D’Angelo recruited his friend and colleague, The Roots’ Afroed visionary Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson to play drums, and Welsh journeyman Pino Palladino to hold down the bass. Additional collaborators included guitar mavens Charlie Hunter, Spanky Alford and Mike Campbell, neo-soul stalwart James Poyser on keys, and jazz prodigy Roy Hargrove on horns.
These handpicked, impeccably-curated musicians were of the highest caliber. They were the kind of musicians that would probably be making music together even if they didn’t collect a check at the end of the session. The kind of musicians that play better together because of their mutual respect for each other as individual talents. It’s hard, in fact, to think of a better instrumentally-performed R&B album of the late 1990s/early 2000s than Voodoo. It’s an album of uncommon musical virtuosity—even just listening to co-writer Charlie Hunter deploying his custom-crafted eight-string guitar bass to play guitar and bass at the same time on three of Voodoo’s most melodious tracks seems like a profound intervention in the context of contemporary mainstream soul. Each of the core musicians seems irreplaceable and indispensable to the project as a whole, in direct contrast to so many digital-era soul records where the instrumentalists, and even the producers themselves, often seem haphazard and interchangeable.
Pino Palladino told me in a recent interview: “The first time we played together for the Voodoo sessions, the chemistry was evident immediately. I felt completely at home and I was smiling. And when we went into the control room to listen back to what we’d done it sounded evenbetter.” D’Angelo’s tour manager Alan Leeds, famous for his decades of behind-the-scenes work with the likes of James Brown and Prince, told me: “D’Angelo’s always surrounded himself with great musicians. But most importantly he gives them space. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a frontman artist that’s as unselfish musically and on stage as D’Angelo is. He’s like a jazz guy doing funk. I think he intrinsically gets the idea that’s foreign to so many musicians today that the beauty of the musical artform is the interplay. It’s one thing to sit at a computer and make a record, but the magic comes from the intercourse between the musicians and that’s a very jazz mentality. Everything about popular music is in the opposite direction for the last generation or two.”
In retrospect, Voodoo’s jazz-inspired ensemble playing and fetish for vintage analog sounds seems to have been about manufacturing an alternate musical universe as far removed as possible from the Styrofoam-thin synthetic urban beats and formulaic girl-power and boyband pop that ruled the late 1990s charts. Fans crowned D’Angelo the ‘Prince of Soul’, exalting him as a hero and musical savior, positioning him as the most viable solution to the problem of ever-diminishing returns in commercial music. Charlie Hunter told me in a recent interview: “When Voodoo came out there was very little music happening out there. It didn’t have much competition. And the reason people like the album so much is because it’s human. It’s humans playing instruments with each other, and there’s a certain kind of magic that you can only achieve when you do that. You can get an interesting sound from programming music, but it’s not magic; it’s science.”
Conscious heads have always despised pop music’s willfulness to be vapid, banal, frivolous and inauthentic. Voodoo was like crack for purists—this was Real Music, serious as a heart attack, deeply reverent and worshipful of the past. It earned realness points for its anti-materialist stance, reflected in the sermonizing screed of “Devil’s Pie” and in D’Angelo and Saul Williams’ original CD liner notes. Voodoo earned even more realness points in its unabashed and unapologetic celebration of everyday black culture and intra-community rituals. D’Angelo admitted that his objective on Voodoo was to “make strong, artistic Black music.” During the album’s long-gestating pre-production and production phases, D’Angelo, ?uestlove and Russ Elevado deliberately studied classic black music albums—D’Angelo and ?uestlove affectionately call soul masters like Al Green, George Clinton and Prince their “Yodas,” in reference to the sage Star Wars films’ puppet—and found creative ways to draw on their techniques and ideas. “It was a love for the dead state of black music,” ?uestlove once stated, “a love to show our idols how much they taught us. This was the love movement.” D’Angelo told Ebony magazine: “I consider myself very respectful of the masters who came before…In some ways, I feel a responsibility to continue and take the cue from what they were doing musically and vibe on it.”
The album title (evocative of Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland gem “Voodoo Child”) obviously refers to the Haitian religion, a point that’s driven home by the arresting black & white album photo art by French visionary Thierry LeGouès that depicts a stylish D’Angelo in the midst of a Voodoo ritual, shot in Havana. Trippy closer “Africa” is the album’s most profoundly Afrocentric moment, just narrowly beating out the call-and-response, old-school black-power-era funk workout “Chicken Grease” where D’Angelo spits a lyric that many brothas and sistas and the friends who love them will recognize as a decidedly black thang: “I’m like that old bucket of Crisco that’s sitting on top of the stove.” If Voodoo’s realness and authenticity is wrapped up in its celebration of African-American music and cultural rituals, those claims get even more complex when you consider that at least three of the album’s key contributors are neither of African descent nor American-born: Pino Palladino is white and Welsh, Charlie Hunter is white, Russ Elevado is a Filipino immigrant raised but not born in the US. Not unlike the deep funk records cut at Muscle Shoals in the ’60s, Voodoo is black music that was created and formatted by a multicultural ensemble.
The result of years of study and research into the micro- and macro-details of soulful funk, Voodoo is a form of recorded music as creative scholarship. A thirteen-song dissertation on the craft of black music itself. Soul music as a higher-level science. In a recent interview on his way to London, ?uestlove told me: “I consider Voodoo the diploma that me and D’Angelo received from our twelve years of ‘college.’ For me and D’Angelo and our generation, our entry into the so-called ‘alternative hip hop sphere’ started with The Jungle Brothers’ Straight Out the Jungle in 1988. That was like our ‘first grade’ in 1988. Voodoo was about taking all the knowledge we had gained since Straight Out the Jungle all the way up to twelve years later, in 2000, and ending it.”
He continues: “I consider Voodoo more than just an education, it was a real discovery period. By ’96, ’97, ‘98, I’d done a lot of tours with The Roots, you could say that I’d made 15 laps around the world, so to speak. I’d established a certain reputation not just as a drummer but as the student that wants to learn and was trustworthy. So people felt comfortable to share archives with me and trusted that I wouldn’t go out and exploit them. So I would get what I would call ‘treats:’ you know, an old promoter that might have worked for Bill Graham back in the day… would hand me a manila envelope and it would be, say, a rare copy of Sly and the Family Stone’s four shows at the Fillmore. I’d take it back to Electric Lady Studios and make copies of it and we’d just study it and then a week later we’d start working on it. That was the process. I was a kind of a walking YouTube before YouTube existed. I really consider that my contribution to D’Angelo’s record…. and to his creativity period. My job was as his co-pilot and that meant I was always providing him with information and treats. Album treats. You know, if we’d be low on energy trying to figure out ideas, I would take him information and that would get us going creatively. Now we had to consider what do we do with the information that we’ve got and how do we turn it into an album. We’d spent all of 1996 and most of 1997 just watching treats and jamming. I have to say we really hit our stride in late 1997 when I went to Japan and unearthed about 4000 video episodes of Soul Train. Then we really got down to business and started recording the album…In the five years it took to make Voodoo we’d taken every ounce of information we could and put it in a juicer and blended it up. We had to put the blender inside of a blender!“
Voodoo’s title also describes the album’s magical effect: you can get spellbound, hypnotized, listening to its minimalist funk grooves. They’re eccentric grooves—for some, they make immediate sense; for others, they’re an acquired taste. Grimy, dark, and austere, the album features no lush orchestral strings to make the production feel more classically sumptuous. Instead, Voodoo emphasizes a moody and fetid low end, bass that you can feel in your rump and up through your nervous system. You can’t really grasp Voodoo’s idiosyncratic sound concept unless you pay attention to what the bass is doing. Pino Palladino, who plays bass on many of the songs, sources his unique style on the album to three main iconic influences: Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone, James Jamerson of Motown fame, and Aston “Family Man” Barrett Bob Marley and the Wailers).
“There’s a looseness to Larry’s playing,” Pino told me in a recent interview. “His timing is so impeccable, he has this loose, rough quality—it doesn’t sound like he’s trying to play tight. It’s very natural sounding.” On Jamerson: “I’ve always been attracted to the way he naturally constructs his bass line with the vocal. With most of Motown, the vocals are featured and the bass is featured, and everything else is structured. The bass is free. Jamerson had such skill and dexterity and was allowed to run free through those songs pretty much. What I love is the way he would react to a vocal, or make a vocal melody work by changing some of the root notes.” On Family Man: “With him it’s all about the space. I grew up playing reggae even though I grew up in Wales. When I first heard hip-hop and listened to the role of the bass playing I realized the role of the bass was coming from reggae. There are so many interesting links between hip-hop and reggae and dub music.”
On Voodoo, you can feel the weightiness and the density of the grooves: lean and sinewy, these grooves are literally and figuratively heavy. Indeed, Voodoo is a feeling. Its sonics are palpable. Pino’s edgy tone is the result of his unique approach to playing his 1963 Fender Precision Bass with heavy La Bella flatwound strings. It’s also the result of engineer Russ Elevado driving the bass sound through vintage amplifiers. But it’s the off-kilter way the bass moves on Voodoo—most of the bass parts were pre-written and structured by D’Angelo himself and delivered to Pino who would then be expected to work his magic on the parts—that truly makes the sound unique. Pino notes: “When my musician friends first heard the album, they were confused. They thought: ‘it sounds kinda weird, the timing’s kinda weird on it.’D’Angelo explained the concept of how he wanted the bass to sound to me before we started playing. I attempted to put the bassline where I thought he wanted it. I would never have thought of putting it so far back behind the beat. But it becomes a different feeling: it stretches in and out of different accents.”
The heavy backphrasing is what D’Angelo collaborator Raphael Saadiq once referred to as performing with “the grease,” in the effort to achieve a “loose, way back in the pocket feel” or a “rubber band feeling.” The backphrasing means that the bass is constantly changing its location in relation to ?uestlove’s straight-ahead, heavy time, impeccable drumming. The effect is a jumpy, unsettling pulse. The bass seems out of joint, never quite landing where you’d expect. Pino continues: “That sort of backphrasing has been going on in jazz for a long time. D’Angelo honed in on that and used the rhythm section to backphrase as opposed to using solo instruments to backphrase. That was a huge jump forward there in my opinion.”
The out-of-joint placement of bass on Voodoo also has something to do with hip-hop aesthetics. Pino theorizes that D’Angelo likely takes his clues from hip-hop’s “deconstructed approach to music.” He explains: “hip-hop is music that’s been deconstructed, it’s made up of bits of samples arranged in different places and often placed behind the beat. The way people sampled stuff influenced D in terms of the way he would write his music. When I first heard the backing tracks for Voodoo, it struck me as the kind of thing J Dilla would do, how he would deconstruct and reconstruct rhythms and just kinda deliberately mess things up. So you get these messed-up wobbly rhythms. You know, Dilla might take a four-chord pattern and start it on the second chord. D does that kinda thing too in his writing. It’s very subtle.”
Keyboardist James Poyser (co-writer of “Chicken Grease” and member of the Soulquarian collective) confirmed this interpretation in a recent interview: “The sound on Voodoo was very influenced by the early hip-hop samples where you couldn’t get stuff perfectly in time. So the musicians started to play like that—with the timing off, not quantized or perfect, a bit wrong and messy. That sound appeals to people, not when it’s so perfect that it’s absolutely correct, but when it’s wrong and a little bit messy. That gives the sound a little character.”
?uestlove echoes his colleagues when he discusses his drumming on Voodoo. “The thing that really attracted me to D’Angelo’s music was this inebriated execution thing that he had, which we both got from J. Dilla. Dilla would program his drums non-quantized: in layman’s speak, it’s the equivalent of having a five-year old play drums. It sounds sloppy, but there’s a human quality there. Playing drums the way I did for the Voodoo sessions was necessary for me because I had been playing differently before we started recording. There was a time in the 1990s where there was resistance to The Roots’ presentation: there were hip-hoppers who felt like we were doing a disservice to the culture because we weren’t real enough for the street. In a culture of samples, I had been told I sound too much like a drummer. So prior to Voodoo, I had been going through a period where I felt I had to prove to people that I was a machine: I had decided that my playing was going to be cold, you wouldn’t be able to tell if I was a sample or not. I spent three years of just icing my presentation to a science where I was just a kind of super-metronome; I spent three years of trying to hide myself. Then, in walks D’Angelo, and he basically tells me: ‘Yo, I need you to strip yourself of all that coldness and play human. I need you to play fucked up!’ He wanted me to play as drunk and as slow and as dusted as I’ve ever played in my life. I don’t smoke or drink, so he really guided me to a level of creativity I wouldn’t normally reach without some sort of stimulant. The first year of recording he would say: ‘I need you to keep the pocket but don’t drag behind me, but play a little crooked,’ if that makes any sense whatsoever.”
Dislocated and backphrased bass also helps Voodoo’s retro funk come across as avant-garde and futuristic. James Poyser draws an analogy: “it’s like the movie Mad Max, how it’s set in the future but (the) way they’re dressed it’s like from the past…you go so far in the future that it went back.” Sometimes the bass is sometimes placed so far back in the groove, it almost seems like it’s forward again. Pino says something similar about Voodoo’s offbeat timing in his assessment: “I think that whole style on Voodoo was rhythmically ahead of its time…it looks forward using many influences from the past. But it was a very forward-thinking album sonically and rhythmically. People are still just getting hip to the feeling.”
Voodoo’s retro-futuristic grooves are also spacious: they breathe. Beyond the mix itself, the sense of airiness and roominess on the album is partly an effect of the instrumental performances and the arrangement of the vocals, which leave room and space for vibe to occur, making the songs sound full yet spare and minimalist. Pino told me: “I’ve always been working on the space in between the notes…with Voodoo I felt like I was home, able to put into effect all the concepts that I’d been working on over the years. Space goes back to my influence with reggae music: Marley and the Wailers, old soul records, Stax. There has to be a tension created by the rhythmic section. Luckily, there was just a natural chemistry between D and Ahmir that enabled us to leave space in the music.”
Voodoo not only plays with notions of space but also with time. Most of the songs are six minutes or more (lengthy for pop).and almost all the intoxicating, druggy tempos (with the exception of the driving “Spanish Joint”) check in far below 100 bpms. Those molasses tempos are extremely unusual for commercial R&B, which often clocks in at 120 bpms or higher. The resulting feeling on Voodoo is chilled out, unhurried. It’s an album that takes its sweet time. Rolling Stone critic James Hunter once deftly described the sound of Voodoo as “loose grooves and lazy-smoke,” calling it ”soul music that moves like smoke easing from a blunt.”
The mix (the postproduction balance of levels and sounds) is another key element responsible for the magic of Voodoo. The artisanal handiwork of Russ Elevado working in tandem with D’Angelo, Voodoo’s mix takes on a personality unto itself, similar to how the acid and PCP-influenced mixes of Sly’s 1971 There’s a Riot Going On and 1973 Fresh emerged as indispensable features of those classic albums. While so much 1990s hip-hop and R&B is mixed to a glossy bling-bling sheen, Elevado (who won a Grammy for his work on Voodoo) instead went after the blunted vibe of ‘60s and ’70s psychedelia for Voodoo. “I grew up on soul and rock,” Russ told me in his interview. “My influences [he cites Zeppelin, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Miles Davis as some of his primary ones] were all soul and rock based… I wanted to make records that sounded like that.”
He continues: “Before I met D’Angelo I was working in New York doing the whole R&B sound with groups like Groove Theory and Dru Hill. Everything I was working on was sequenced and processed and the drum machine sounds were limiting. I was very disillusioned because I wanted to do more organic music with organic instruments. I was about to take a step back and see what else I could do with my career. Then I worked with Roberta Flack [on her 1994 Roberta album,] and I thought it would be great if I could do more of this live music. D’Angelo kinda saved my career and gave me hope that there’s another way to do music.”
“With Voodoo,” he notes, “I just wanted to show people that you could make an album that sounds better than anyone’s heard…with real instruments, real musicians, miking a kick drum, making it sound huge, but done in an organic way. I was on a mission to prove to everyone, you can still make a record that sounds like a Sly record but with the fidelity that we have with the CD technology. Voodoo was the vehicle for me to show him what I could do.” Elevado’s psychedelic rock influences are most evident on the trippy album interludes, in his George Martin-esque use of flanging and panning, and especially through his deployment of reverse backward guitars on “Africa” and “The Root”—but the effect of his inspirations runs throughout the entire record in subtle ways.
Voodoo sounds like the quietest and most rapturous of storms. The dynamics are hushed and mellow, and the audio levels are kept consistent (even in the presence of automation) so nothing jumps out at you to disturb your mood, nothing’s in-your-face. There are no anthems here, and no instrument ever sounds abused. Like the best ambient music, Voodoo can float out of the speakers, and waft in the background, tinting the atmosphere without you even knowing it. It’s drift music. Dulcet elements in the production help balance out the jerky grooves. D’Angelo’s flapjack-stacked falsetto vocals, sounding like an impossible collaboration between the Golden Gate Quartet and P-Funk, are lithe, quilted, manicured to perfection. On songs like “Spanish Joint” and “Chicken Grease” his angular and slightly nasal tenor is curbed by a flanging effect, which makes it sound like he’s singing through a screen. The prettified electric keyboards and patches further blanket the mix in soothing delicacy.
What’s more, Elevado tracked and mixed Voodoo entirely on analog tape (it was also mastered on tape) using vintage gear, even though digital technologies were widely available. Analog bathes the album in a tangible warmth and clarity, perhaps best evidenced on arch-romantic “Send It On,” supposedly the first song written for the album and composed after the birth of D’Angelo’s son: it’s all mirth and light, like the opening of a carnation. In terms of sensuality and intimacy, Voodoo is very much in league with other classic boudoir concept albums like Marvin Gaye’s 1976 I Want You or side 2 of The Isley Brothers’ 1975 The Heat is On.
Roy Hargrove’s nimble, quicksilver horns—performed in a compacted and brisk style reminiscent of Fela Kuti’s 1970s brass—are yet another intriguing element in the production. His horn sounds both retro and warm, and is stunningly folded into the mix, providing accents and stabs without ever seeming obtrusive. Russ told me the following about recording Hargrove: “I always heard him on a subliminal context on the album. I wanted to just make the horns tuck in the mix like D’Angelo vocals…Roy’s presence is so strong that if it’s too loud it takes away from what Roy’s actually playing. So we were really careful about how we placed him in the mix. I used a lot of ribbon mikes, old RCA mikes that weren’t in the best condition. There was one of them that I had refurbished before I used it. It sounded perfect for his style. I tried to boost him when I felt like it was right to highlight him. Most times he played right underneath the mix.”
If Voodoo were strictly an instrumental groove album, it would still be considered a work of art, albeit a minimalist one. But D’Angelo’s lyrics—sometimes hard to decipher because of his frustratingly muffled articulation—have a special significance. Often written by D’Angelo in collaboration with partners like Raphael Saadiq, James Poyser, ex-girlfriend Angie Stone, and his brother Luther, Voodoo’s lyrics are introspective ruminations on a variety of topics. “Playa Playa” is an ode to basketball and street corner one-upmanship. On it D’Angelo sneers “bring the drama playa / give me all you got / make your move / shoot your best shot.” “Greatdayndamornin’/Booty” delivers a series of disconnected thoughts about the everyday courage it takes to wake from sleep: “I search for answers often, I paid the price for many / still long for happiness / not promised to the plenty.” Haunting “The Line” seems to be a dark, direct response to the claustrophobic pressure of fame: “I am goin’ to hold, hold on to my pride / I’m gonna stick, I’m gonna stick to my guns / I’m gonna put my finger on the trigger I’m gonna pull it and we gon see what the deal.”
D’Angelo once said about the content of Voodoo: “This album is a personal testimony about my life and my emotions. My life kinda changed overnight when Brown Sugar came out. It took me a while just to get used to that – the attention, the money, and everything that comes along with that…At times I felt like I wanted to run away from it. I still reject a lot of shit. A lot of people say, “Well you’re a superstar now.” If I start to look at it like that, then something’s wrong. I have to continue to remind myself why I’m doing this and the things that inspired or motivated me way back before Brown Sugar ever happened and before I ever got into this business – just my love for the music and wanting to reach the people.”
D’Angelo’s most evocative lyrics, however, are about love, sex and relationships. “Left & Right” is the preacher’s kid at his most carnal: “Smack your ass, pull your hair / And I even kiss you way down there / You know I will / Think I won’t?” Grown-folks’ music, Voodoo wore its parental advisory sticker on its CD cover like a fashionable brooch. Other Voodoo tunes are break-up numbers that suggest damaged intimacy; happy feelings pulled down to earth by the gravity of the blues. “One Mo’ Gin” is melancholic, full of wistful yearning. So is “The Root,” but it adds a dash of paranoia as D’Angelo sings about a former lover who “worked a root” on him “that will not be reversed” and says: “I been feelin’ this pain for much too long / I feel like my soul is empty / My blood is cold and I can’t feel my legs / I need someone to hold me.” And “Feel like Making Love” discards Roberta Flack’s original daydreamy production; instead, it goes for a marauding, off-kilter groove that transforms the romantic lyric into disturbed ruminations that could have been lifted from a stalker’s diary. Voodoo may be lovemaking music, but it’s also disquieting, ominous, full of trouble.
Some fans couldn’t quite get into the songwriting on Voodoo. Or maybe they got bored by its sleepiness. Many, however, managed to rediscover the album’s songs attending The Voodoo World Tour. While D’Angelo had not consistently toured after Brown Sugar, he hit the road to support Voodoo with an astonishing thirteen-piece band called The Soultronics that included Hargrove and Palladino and others from the album. In the effort to prepare the album tracks for the stage, the band radically revised the album’s arrangements, making them decidedly more chipper and raucous. Songs were completely reimagined, turned inside out, until they ended up sounding like hard-driving Kool and the Gang, Bar-Kays or P-Funk uptempos. The tour smoked. Voodoo tour manager Alan Leeds recalls that: “Voodoo wasa dark record. It’s not an easily accessible record sonically. Hearing the music live just plain made it more accessible: you could understand the lyrics better, and there were other aspects of the music that came to the forefront instrumentally that weren’t as prevalent in the mixes of the record. I think you just got a broader picture of what the songs had in them, the songs were able to grow and blossom, you got more out of an individual song than you did on the record.”
D’Angelo had also evolved into a dynamically charismatic live performer in the interim between Brown Sugar and Voodoo.” Leeds remarks: “I was surprised. I too had seen him early on—I remember him as a kid with a trenchcoat sitting at a keyboard. The pacing wasn’t exciting and he didn’t make any real effort to perform center stage without a keyboard for much of the show. But when I saw him in the rehearsals for the Voodoo tour, I was stunned, I had no idea he had this in him.” Leeds notes that D’Angelo is an incredibly generous performer. “He wants the musicians to get him off. He comes to the stage for that. As opposed to just coming for the audience, he actually comes for the musicians to get him off.”
But let’s face it: one of the main reasons certain fans came to see D’Angelo was to hear (and see) him perform Voodoo’s only real hit single, “Untitled (How Does it Feel). Co-written by Raphael Saadiq, “Untitled” is a slowburn ballad that borrows chord progressions and production ideas from 1980s Prince ballads —to my ears, it sounds like a lost track that might have been written sometime between 1981’s “Do Me Baby” and 1987’s “Adore.” Given its appearance on an album full of deliberately unfocused and unhurried grooves, Alan Leeds referred to “Untitled” as “the album’s anomaly,” “a fastball down the middle,” “an easily accessible track with the radio hook.” The most conventionally arranged album track, it starts off spare and builds to a rousing, uh, climax. It also marks the first time you hear D’Angelo really dramatically build his vocal and sing out (he squalls at the end as Prince memorably does at the end of Purple Rain’s “The Beautiful Ones”.) It won the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for good reason.
But it was the high-concept, simple-execution music video for “Untitled”—in which a shirtless D’Angelo, filmed from just below the waist up, sings to the camera, getting who knows what done to him by an unseen partner—that sent audiences, especially women and gay men, rushing to see D’Angelo live and to purchase the album. The one-step-away-from-soft-porn video, which literally leaves everything to your imagination, entered heavy rotation on media outlets like BET in late December 1999, even before the album dropped, and it became an overnight sensation. In 2000, it was the video you had to see, and the video you had to have an opinion about it. The subject of academic articles and endless on- and offline discussions, the “Untitled” video has become so iconic in terms of the history of black male sexual representation that it’s almost impossible to think about the song as an independent entity outside of its visual marketing. The video did its job: it drove sales for both the song and the album (and the tour); “Untitled” ultimately rose to #2 on the R&B charts.
The “Untitled” video was the idea of Dominique Trenier, D’Angelo’s savvy manager, who wisely forecast that the key to making D’Angelo’s experimental album reach a wider audience was to market him as a sex symbol. He also deftly understood how to exploit D’Angelo’s intrinsic shyness and insecurity—his enigma—and turn it into seductive mystique. In preparation for Voodoo, D’Angelo would lose the Brown Sugar era trenchcoat and babyfat, and submit to daily workouts with personal trainer Mark Jenkins.
Proud of his hard-earned new physique, D’Angelo never seemed to have a problem taking his shirt off or flaunting his muscles and tattoos during the Voodoo era. (Yes, he appears shirtless on the album cover.) His attire changed as well: the cornrows remained, but now he wrapped his head in a folded black bandanna, and donned a ‘wifebeater’ tank-top with leather pants, making him look like something of a cross between Hendrix’ rock god and Tupac’s thug Adonis. D’Angelo already been praised as ‘phyne’ during his Brown Sugar days but now he’d become a universally-recognized chiseled hunk, and something of a fashion and visual icon. There he was, promoting Voodoo by appearing in a bikini on the cover Paper magazine, or chatting about his jones for cunnilingus in Essence. He seemed just as absorbed by sexual excess as his predecessor Marvin Gaye before him. A&R vet Gary Harris, who first signed D’Angelo to his EMI record deal that resulted in Brown Sugar, notes: “D’Angelo captured a moment, and he’d released pent up female sexuality in the culture.” He’d opened Pandora’s box, and there was no way to undo it.
If “Untitled” was the key to Voodoo’s success, it was also the key to D’Angelo’s ultimate unraveling. Part of the problem was that he’d become recognized in the culture as more of a bachelor stud than a serious musician, and his recognition of that misplaced respect may have been deleterious to his confidence and psychological health. Alan Leeds recalls the first series of shows of the Voodoo tour in which “girls in the audience were shouting ‘take it off!’. The look on D’s face—I don’t even know how to describe. He was stunned. There was a certain percentage of our audience thinking it was Chippendales. I don’t think he thought it through to think how the video was going to come back at him when he got on the stage.” Not convinced that audiences were necessarily supporting his art, D’Angelo needed a lot of preparatory work just to gain confidence to get on stage. Tour dates even had to be canceled. Leeds notes: “This is a guy who’s self-conscious by nature. He really has to do a deep breath in the mirror before he goes on stage. All this did was exacerbate that part of him. It complicated things. It became a distraction for him.” D’Angelo had become, for some, a pin-up, a kind of black male version of Marilyn Monroe. When an artist becomes reduced solely to the terms of his or her body, it can stifle a career, or even foreclose it altogether. What makes the story worse is that D’Angelo had willfully participated in his own exploitation.
“Untitled” was the album’s third official single but the album’s only breakaway hit (the fourth official single “Send It On” only made it to #33 on the R&B and Hot 100 charts). But while “Untitled” went to #2 on the R&B charts, it stalled at #25 on the pop charts. Clearly, the song did not cross over to the same degree that the video did. Virgin Records, co-helmed at the time by executives Ashley Newton and Ray Cooper, had released the record just eight months after Napster emerged, at a time of significant financial turbulence at record labels in general. There was allegedly tension between D’Angelo and the label, and compounding the issue was the tremendous expense incurred in the creation of Voodoo: those why-bother-looking-at-the-clock studio sessions had meant that Voodoo was way too long in the making, way over budget. Budget issues can hurt an artist on the back end when the label ultimately has to recoup the money it’s shelled out.
Leeds, who was co-managing D’Angelo at the time, recalls: “Voodoo wasn’t a fastball, it wasn’t an easy record. It wasn’t a record with obvious radio-friendly singles. But I thought the label did an absolutely horrible job in cashing in on the success of the video and the single. They were absolutely incapable of breaking another single off the album. I’m not saying there were easy singles there, but they sure didn’t figure it out. More importantly they failed miserably at crossing the single over to pop radio despite the success of the video on MTV, VH1, and mainstream media. Despite the fact that we had a noticeable Caucasian audience element, I don’t think they even seriously tried crossing the single over. Simply put, the label failed to exploit the album to the degree that it should have been.” Given the fact that “Untitled” drove the success of Voodoo and sealed D’Angelo’s iconic status, Leeds asks an important hypothetical question: “what would have happened to D’Angelo in 2000 if “Untitled” hadn’t been on the album?” Indeed: you might not be holding this vinyl re-release album in your hands right now.
We’ll never know. But we do know the saga after Voodoo went platinum and spent more than thirty weeks on the charts before fading from the marketplace. With the exception of a few scattered musical collaborations here and there, D’Angelo entered into a long exile from the music industry. Brown Sugar and Voodoo were the only two albums he released in the sixteen years between 1995 and 2011. (While his ultra-prolific idol Prince waged wars with Warner Music in the effort to release more material, D’Angelo was just the opposite: aprolific and unproductive. They couldn’t be more different in terms of their approach to the business of music.) For some, D’Angelo became more known for his appearance on tabloid websites than for his music: over the years we’d hear about him drunk, on drugs, in rehab, in label turmoil, in a near-fatal car accident, arrested for soliciting an undercover female cop for sex. Our Internet searches would be haunted by a 2005 Virginia mugshot in which D’Angelo looked flat and bloated: the exact inverse of his Voodoo image. Oh, how he’d come undone.
And so, in retrospect, Voodoo is something of cautionary tale, another chapter in the depressing story of black male soul geniuses whose careers descend into dysfunction. For all of Voodoo’s claims to realness and authenticity, D’Angelo’s imaging, while rooted in promise, had been in some ways a charade, an unsustainable performance of black masculinity gone awry. As Charlie Hunter noted: “It was sad to see him become such a superstar: that’s not something you would wish on your worst enemy. For someone who is human and who has a real deep love of music and playing music and creating music as D’Angelo did, being a star was (the) worst possible punishment I could imagine. It’s the thing that can take you as far away from the root of the music as possible.” Gary Harris notes: “D’Angelo unleashed a lot of demons that had been pent up in the culture and in himself. The sexuality and funkiness of Voodoo were a lot to handle. Sly, George Clinton, James Brown were all challenged in some way, and had varying degrees of functionality. D’Angelo was wrestling with questions of responsibility of being a sex symbol. In order to make it work, he had to put his career on pause.” D’Angelo would not tour again until 2012, when he returned to the stage in support of an album project that is still in the works as of the writing of these notes.
Another way to look at D’Angelo’s career trajectory is that he has always marched to the beat of his own metronome. With the exception of maybe Terrence Malick, no other celebrity of the 1990s or 2000s has fucked with time, and the expectations around time, as much D’Angelo—both in the music and in his career as a whole. He takes his own sweet time. We can name tons of celebrities who seem to be running faster than the speed of light, multitasking and oversharing in a sometimes desperate effort to stay afloat in the marketplace. D’Angelo, on the other hand, is a hermit and a chronic undersharer. He rarely does interviews unless he’s got a product to hock, he doesn’t have a fashion line and businesses on the side, he doesn’t appear on infomercials, he doesn’t do films and he doesn’t have a TV sitcom in the works. D’Angelo is simply a musician to his core. And that’s enough. For reasons that have clearly not always been under his control, D’Angelo’s entire career suggests an alternate narrative to the need for speed and immediacy and high visibility that is pop culture in the age of the Internet. Nope, D’Angelo just does his own thang. As a result, it’s something of an event when it’s time for him to release a new album, even if it’s only every five or twelve years. From a branding and marketing perspective, the anticipation leading up to Voodoo, just like the anticipation leading up to his post-Voodoo studio album project, suggests that if your music is of superior quality and speaks for itself, it’s possible to cultivate audience anticipation just as much through your absence from public visibility as from your presence.
Whatever the case, time has proven kind to Voodoo, which won the Grammy Award in 2001 for Best R&B album. Ranked #48 in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Best Albums of the Decade, Voodoo has also had significant impact on the sound of artists as diverse as Outkast, The Roots, Slum Village, The RH Factor, Common, Bilal, Erykah Badu, Gnarls Barkley, Van Hunt, and Nikka Costa. Voodoo’s dislocated grooves would ripple out across the culture: as early as 2001 you’d start to hear its eccentric approach appear in the broken rhythms of the music of IG Culture, Amp Fiddler, Raphael Saadiq (his solo albums might not have taken the shape they did without Voodoo), Spacek, Sa-Ra, Brandy (particularly her 2001 Rodney Jerkins’ produced Full Moon), Jamie Lidell, and James Blake. Hard to imagine the crooner stylings of R&B artists like Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, and Frank Ocean had Voodoo not existed. We might not have watched the rise of Anthony Hamilton, who did time in the Voodoo World Tour band as a back up singer before emerging into solo success. And John Mayer, inspired by Voodoo, recruited Pino Palladino to play on his 2005 Continuum album. (Mayer even published an online letter in 2005 begging D’Angelo to release a follow up to Voodoo and volunteering his services to help him do so.)
?uestlove recently shared with me his thoughts on the album: “For some Voodoo was the dawning of a new age. But I think in some ways Voodoo represents the end of it. It’s like with Miles’ Birth of the Cool: that ended the renaissance of bop and brought a new method in. You can also look at the coming of Miles’ Bitches’ Brew as the ending for jazz in its creativity period…Part of me gets sad when I hear Prince’s Lovesexy. There’s a part of me that’s sad when I listen to Parliament’s Gloryhallastoopid, maybe. I don’t know. It’s sad when you know that period is over…The same can be said for Saturday Night Fever—people thought it the dawning of disco. But it was really the end. Or the same could be said about Thriller – people said, oh, Michael Jackson’s arrival! Or was it his exit?”
Voodoo was a last gasp for sophisticated and mature major label R&B of the CD era, before the iPod, before iTunes, before social networking, before 9/11, before oil wars altered our changed musical and industry and cultural priorities and made us look at the world with a little less innocence. Voodoo also happens to be the most cohesive neo-soul album ever released, and the greatest sonic representation of black intimacy on record since the classic work of artists like Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross. Voodoo’s sublime sensuality offers us a way into the mysteries of great sex and romance without actually having it. It’s the next best thing, and in some cases, maybe even better. And now, it’s finally on vinyl, where its visionary retro concept feels totally at home, where its mysteries and secrets can get lost in the spaces and crevices between those analog grooves. Let’s all get it on.
—- Jason King. Copyright © 2012. Do not distribute or reproduce without explicit permission.
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