By Jake Ebdale
For many here in New Zealand, the inaugural Soulfest will be a highlight of 2014's live schedule. It brings Maxwell, Common, Mos Def, Anthony Hamilton and Musiq Soulchild to Western Springs Stadium onSunday October 26th. The day sounds like absolute quality - many of the artists haven't crossed our shores yet - including one I've left out, the big draw card.
D'Angelo, the reclusive, talented multi-instrumentalist with only two LPs to his name, is making his way here for the Labour weekend festival. The man is an industry legend, and for his very brief catalogue, is still held in high regard on the Soulfest bill. A pioneer of a unique genre called 'neo-soul', he paved the way for most of the acts in the line-up; Anthony Hamilton got his break as a backup singer in D's band, Maxwell has credited him with kick-starting his own career, D and Common traded 'Chicken Grease' and session musicians, he had a son with Angie Stone. All at one point have associated themselves with The Roots. While the neo soul tag may be irrelevant today, it was a defining movement, a minor revolution. And D started it all.
In 2012, D'Angelo had finally returned to the live circuit. This was a big deal, as he hadn't toured for a long time. His career burnt bright for around 7 years, starting with his first self penned hit in 1994, Black Men United's 'U Will Know', to the 1995 hip hop/soul classic Brown Sugar, and finally imploding in 2000 with the enigmatic, ill fated Voodoo Tour, built around that year's triumphant, rim-shot masterpiece Voodoo. Then it all ground to a halt.
The 2000 performances were phenomenal: music beamed from the ether, the grimy remnants of a past era. They were so revelatory that D'Angelo was billed by revered rock critic Robert Christgau as "R&B Jesus" - no mean feat, considering the talent that surrounded him. Along with The Roots, Common, Bilal, Q-Tip andErykah Badu, D revived the natural, full sounding soul of the 70s, which had then become an afterthought to samples in rap songs (what didn't Diddy do?). R&B itself had become synthesized, spit shined and chart ready. So D'Angelo's mission, along with the Soulquarians crew, was to school people on the real stuff. The sold out Voodoo shows were revisionist blasts, featuring elongated tributes to Stevie, Curtis, Jimi, Sly,Marvin and Prince, not to mention Tribe and Dilla - as well as huge work outs from his own albums. The man was something else, a melting pot of influence.
It seemed that D'Angelo was living every man's dream. But there was another element at play - the devil's work.
Raised in a god fearing family in Richmond, Virginia, the man born Michael Eugene Archer was raised by the church into a god fearing family. Stemming from his background as a Pentecostal preacher's son, he was instilled with a humble, but vulnerable (and soon to be dangerous) persona. In performances from Brown Sugar's era, he appeared shy, a man hardly 20, hiding beneath baggy clothes or behind the Rhodes keyboard, an instrument he has always shown immeasurable talent on. In other ways, he was just normal kid trying to make it out of the south.
Five years later, D'Angelo went through a startling physical transformation, which was displayed in the'Untitled (How Does It Feel)' video. Gained from years of lifting weights, smoking weed and studying rare VHS tapes of Soul Train, it was taboo from the start, a crazy idea. Close to soft porn (and it's still flagged on YouTube), the video featured sweaty abs, licking lips, and very slow camera pans. But the gamble paid off; the gains stratospheric.
Females were in a frenzy, boyfriends gave him props. For a minute, D'Angelo was the sex symbol, the icon. But like so many others before him, it came crashing down in a haze of substance abuse and bruised ego, the classic case of 'quiet kid gains money and fame, doesn't know how to use it.' To this man of god, all of the hard, honest work leading up to the tour hadn't done his conscience a dime. He felt the fans weren't at his shows for the music, but for his body - his stage not a conduit for the spiritual, but for a glorified striptease.
He tried to please everyone. Musically relentless, the tour was also imbibed with a sexual intensity so strong that the ladies would throw their panties and bras up, try to grab at his ankles, even throw money at him. And it all came from a video supposedly about his grandmother's cooking. The quest to conquer his crippling insecurity, one that had plagued him since the doughier days of Brown Sugar, had done more damage than good.
Sure, there were positives: stars like Madonna wanted to get with him. He did a duet with Tom Jones, madeappearances on talk shows, won two Grammys for Voodoo. There were parodies of his naked guy status, the most memorable being Jamie Foxx's, and a nice reference on short-lived Judd Apatow series Undeclared. But the paranoia crept in through the cracks. He would do countless sit ups before gigs and throw tantrums backstage, sometimes delaying the production for hours, just to match his look in the video. It was this image that D'Angelo felt he needed to live up to - it was no longer crippling insecurity that ailed him, but crippling expectations.
In some ways, D'Angelo was right: people didn't notice how good the music was. To experience the live Sao Paulo rendition of his most famous tune is to witness a misunderstood genius, buried underneath an infamous, masculine physique. The same physique graced Voodoo's album cover, an image provocative enough to make a male consumer think twice about buying it. In that stellar rendition of 'Untitled' in Brazil, he gives it all he's got for ten straight minutes. It's a masterpiece.
The full, 7 minute studio version is equally great: it's not just a delicate, bubbling Prince tribute, but an exercise in tense emotional release. The playing is top notch - including bass and guitar by Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Raphael Saadiq, who also co-wrote the tune. When D's vocals flutter, dip and weave in the build up to the last chorus, well, it could be my favourite moment in music full stop. There are other classic monuments to soul and hip hop in his repertoire - 'The Root', 'Devils Pie', 'Africa', 'Jonz in my Bonz' and 'Brown Sugar' to name a few - but 'Untitled' was the apex, the zeitgeist of neo-soul. You could argue it caused the genre's eventual demise.
Amidst this haze of activity, D told frequent collaborator, producer and drummer Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson that he "was going to grow a beard, drink hooch and live in the woods" after the tour to shake it all off. Questo thought he was joking - he wasn't. It was all too much. And then it broke him, starting the sabbatical that would last twelve years. It's an unfair, somewhat tragic story.
Once the Voodoo tour had abruptly finished, an exhausted Archer kept to his word: he had become an alcoholic. He gained weight. There were drug fuelled arrests, a botched stay at Eric Clapton's rehab centre Crossroads. A record deal worth millions fell through, due to a near fatal car crash where he careened through a fence, flipping his Hummer. Like the forever delayed (to this day) third album, D was stuck in a rut - no more apparent than when his bloated, ODB-like mugshot was posted on the internet. When close friend J Dilla passed away after a short, debilitating battle with lupus in 2006, D was faced with another crossroads: kick the vices and keep on the straight and narrow, or end up a recluse like Sly; possibly go the same way as Jimi.
So luckily, with good faith from family and friends, D'Angelo has been attempting a very slow come-back. There have been sporadic features in the years since Voodoo - some great cuts include 'So Far to Go' on Dilla's posthumous record The Shining, 'Bullshit' on Roy Hargrove's RH Factor, 'Imagine' on Snoop Dogg's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, 'Believe' on Q-Tip's Renaissance and 'Glass Mountain Trust' on Mark Ronson's RecordCollection. Listen to each song in order and his voice sounds weightier, huskier, more menacing with age - but most importantly, all are pointing towards an abrasive, interesting direction musically.
Upon the delayed 2012 return to the public eye, D managed to play some blazing shows that gifted fans with new songs. Whilst in shape, his frame was bulkier; his hair no longer in cornrows, but worn out or in loose dreads - he even had eyeliner on for some. Instead of half naked, he was usually draped in heavy leather wearing large boots. He was playing a different part this time.
The new songs were, for lack of a better description, funk rock - but not on a Red Hot Chili Peppers tip. He was no longer pushing the sensuality of 'Send It On' or '...Dreamin' Eyes of Mine' - instead, the tunes were hard, groove-centric and weighty. 'The Charade' channelled a brawnier Prince with synth-pads, solos and the distinct layered vocals that have become the D'Angelo trademark. 'Ain't That Easy' had a fuzzy, tangled up Sly Stone rhythm - 'Another Life' transcendent, 'Sugar Daddy' vaudevillian slave funk. 'Really Love' was a chilled, Dilla-snap cousin to 'Spanish Joint'. The leaked '1000 Deaths', still the best, most uncharacteristic new track, is a moaning, lurching deep cut that features D's newfound prowess on the guitar. It effectively sends those chiselled abs, cornrows and lover-man features spiralling into the deep with a concrete suit on.
No official studio recordings have surfaced of those new songs. If anything, we can get a hint at what the new album may sound like through the radical covers that he now performs. D'Angelo has always laced other peoples tunes - 'Cruisin'' (Smokey Robinson) and 'Feel Like Makin' Love' (Roberta Flack) were two of his big hits, and depending on how you roll, improved on the originals. 'She's Always in My Hair', a b-side from Prince's 1985 'Raspberry Beret' single, was a defining rock moment for him pre-Voodoo and was equallyamazing live this year. A gritty interpolation of Soundgarden's 'Black Hole Sun' and Johnny Watson's'Superman Lover' come to mind too. He's been an integral part of recent tributes to James Brown and again,Prince. But it's these recent live covers that shake up what D'Angelo is supposed to be about, what people expect from him.
An eerie, mumbling Paris take on David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' was the first glimpse, and he pulled it off exceptionally well. In his most recent show at the free Afro Punk festival in Brooklyn, The Wailer's 'Burnin' and Lootin' was switched into a woozy death march with guttural screams - seemingly a rapid response to the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. There have been whole gigs worth of covers - including two man shows with Questlove and a triumphant US comeback at Bonnaroo - which saw 'What is and What Should Never Be' from Led Zeppelin 2, 'She Came in Through the Bathroom Window' from the Beatles' White Album, 'Power to Love' from Band of Gypsies and numerous Funkadelic songs get the D treatment. He's pulled out 'Wishing Well' by Terence Trent D'Arby at one gig, Fishbone at another. It's all very rocky, guitar driven stuff, all coming from a man who used to drag his feet across the stage, hip hopping at the Apollo. He can still pull out a straight love song if he wants, like his defining take on SOS Band's 'Tell Me If You Still Care'. Smooth.
These new tunes and covers are only hints at where the man is going, pieces of a soul sized puzzle - and it's constant speculation and rumour that keep the D'Angelo thread alive. A lecture in May, surely the longest interview he has ever engaged in, revealed little about the third album, except he's trying to "go deeper in the onion" and that he doesn't make neo soul, he makes "black music... out of the box". Questlove, tour manager Alan Leeds and Russell Elevado, producer and engineer of Voodoo, keep dropping hints to satiate hungry fans - including promises of release dates, ones that always seem to fall through. It can get frustrating.
And of course, there are his detractors - including the A&R man who broke him into the industry, Gary Harris, accusing D of being a charlatan, a pimp, and one who doesn't care for his fans. Casual music consumers would say that D hasn't done anything noteworthy since 'Untitled', and I'd be hard pressed to argue that point. Many soul artists are notorious for taking their time with new material - Maxwell and Erykah Badu included. But D'Angelo has been the worst: no official new music in nearly 15 years. It's reaching near Chinese Democracy levels.
Nonetheless, D'Angelo's reputation has positively blown up post-2000, and the high expectations remain. Comb through the prominent artists of today, ranging from Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, James Blake, Frank Ocean and Pharrell to Panic! At the Disco (meh) and Chris Brown (ugh), and they've spoken of his influence in one way or another. He's made an impact on Aotearoa too: ask Six60, Fat Freddys Drop, Sola Rosa, basically any reggae or soul band here, and they will say D'Angelo's a god. Shit, there have been references on American Dad, Perez Hilton, The Voice. People still remember him, if mostly for the wrong reasons.
When you see D'Angelo in October (if he shows up that is), you'll see a different man from the Soulfest promos. In reality, he is now 40, slightly rugged, overweight. He's got a few kids. There will be no shirts removed. There are chances he doesn't even play 'Untitled' (the closest has been a near-perfect 4 minute version, solo on the keys in Paris 2012). Female fans will surely be disappointed, projecting all the male sexual objectification that brought him down in the first place (hey, it can happen to us too!). What you willsee at Soulfest, however, is a legend in a new phase of his career, embracing the funk with his band, The Vanguard.
Some people are hell-bent on reacting negatively - I like to call it Dylan syndrome - which is built on un-educated, crazy expectations for live acts. You'll always have your Brown Sugar CD if you want it. But go in expecting something different on the day, maybe open your mind a little, and you'll be surprised. Listen, the closest there is to a bonafide black rock star today is Kanye West - not taking anything away from him - but there needs to be someone else flying a different flag, with a bit more humility. D is that guy.
The 2014 D'Angelo wants to transcend genre, era and expectation. It's something he will forever struggle with. The weight of that one video still has the power to end him. Or it may fuel the most anticipated comeback in recent history. It's tightrope thin at the moment.
There will be a third album when he's ready, whenever that may be. Maybe it's taken fourteen years for the man to conjure up something worthy, a different type of voodoo. I'm sure whatever the sound, Archer will enchant us once again.
D'Angelo plays as part of Soulfest on October 26th at Western Springs Stadium, Auckland.