D’Angelo’s ‘Voodoo’ Turns 20
D’Angelo’s Voodoo is indisputably the first classic soul album of the 21st century. Released on January 25, 2000, it was the follow-up to his impressive debut, 1995’s Brown Sugar, and it seemed to take eons to arrive. Sure, EMI had released Live at the Jazz Cafe, London in 1996, but the anticipation for a proper sophomore album had reached a fever pitch by the turn of the century — especially after it was reported that the sessions featured heavyweight jazz cats like trumpeter Roy Hargrove and guitarist Charlie Hunter.
Those sessions also included drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and keyboardist James Poyser of the Roots; ace bassist Pino Palladino; DJ Premier; rappers Method Man and Redman; and many others. Still, on much of the record D’Angelo produced and played nearly all the instruments.
Voodoo was crafted during the late ’90s, an artistically fertile period in the history of black music. A lot of the left-leaning hip-hop sensibilities that emerged out of the Native Tongues scene were getting a second wind, thanks to such acts as the Roots, Slum Village, Lauryn Hill, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, and Common. The so-called neo-soul scene was making noise as well, with Erykah Badu, Maxwell and Meshell Ndegeocello working in the mainstream. Fela Kuti’s incessant Afrobeat percolated through deep house, broken beat, hip-hop and soul cuts. Some of jazz’s top young artists, like Hargrove, the keyboardist Marc Cary and the saxophonist Courtney Pine, were building bridges from their jazz heritage to the hip-hop they loved. D’Angelo channeled all that creative energy.
He holed up inside New York’s Electric Lady Studios for the Voodoo sessions, surrounded by kindred spirits known as the Soulquarians. While he was recording, so were Badu and Common, who released Mama’s Gun and Like Water for Chocolate, respectively, in 2000. Those three albums are now referred to as a holy trinity of the Soulquarian sound, owing to their overlapping personnel, including sound engineer Russ Elevado.
Of those LPs, Voodoo had the gauziest sonic feel — humid soundscapes made possible by Elevado’s wizardly blend of old-school analog warmth and digital-age crispness. D’Angelo’s vocals, honed in the Pentecostal church, were multitracked throughout, generating a kaleidoscopic splendor; the process also made some of the lyrics indecipherable. Nevertheless, the sound hypnotized, causing heads to nod, hips to gyrate and babies to be conceived.
Although Voodoo’s first two singles — “Devil’s Pie” and “Left & Right” — yielded relatively lukewarm chart performance, the album on the whole became immensely successful, going Platinum, winning the Grammy for R&B album, topping the Billboard 200 and making it onto countless best-of-year and best-of-decade lists.
But it was the album’s Grammy-winning third single, “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” that transformed D’Angelo from a soul sensation into an international sex symbol. “Untitled,” co-written by bassist and producer Raphael Saadiq, evoked a Prince ballad from his Sign o’ the Times/Lovesexy period. With its willfully lax pacing, sweltering keyboard chords and D’Angelo’s breathtaking falsetto performance, the song expressed the intoxicating blend of sweaty Saturday-night lovemaking and the subsequent Sunday-morning church confession. Then there was the provocative music video, during which the camera focused intensely on D’Angelo’s chiseled physique and handsome face. As the camera slowly panned outward, it depicted a seemingly nude D’Angelo crooning carnal desire.
The worldwide attention D’Angelo gained from the “Untitled” video eventually triggered major anxiety, which, combined with depression, substance abuse and grueling tours, led to a long retreat from the spotlight. He didn’t truly emerge from his self-imposed exile until 14 years later, with his third album, Black Messiah.
Twenty years after its release, Voodoo has aged magnificently, and its influence has been profound. Many, many soul singers and musicians — particularly men — have adopted D’Angelo’s potent swagger, clipped melodic phrasing, gospel-laden keyboard chords and implied jazz-rooted swing. What’s more, the album’s deliriously laidback rhythmic feel and hazy atmosphere transformed the language of jazz, hip-hop and neo-soul — and opened up an expansive musical space shared between them. Below are eight cuts that owe a debt to D’Angelo’s Voodoo.
“Soul Sista” (2001)
Of all the R&B singers to emerge in the wake of Voodoo, Bilal caused the most excitement. His singing, with its vast range, striking agility and melodic unpredictability, has rivaled — and often surpassed — D’Angelo’s. His 2001 debut album, 1st Born Second, is his most conventional release, and it too was shaped with considerable help from the Soulquarians, evident in this erotic ballad marked by stuttering beats, throbbing bass and gospel-laden keyboard work.
The Roots Featuring Musiq
“Break You Off” (2002)
Including “Break You Off” is a no-brainer, considering that the original version featured D’Angelo singing the braggadocio lyrics about a Lothario’s ability to make a paramour reach orgasm. Similar to how Jill Scott first sang the guest vocals on the Roots’ “You Got Me,” only to be replaced by Erykah Badu when the song was released, this single featured Musiq Soulchild, who handled the lead vocals admirably.
“I’m a Mess” (2003)
Anthony Hamilton, who sang backup on D’Angelo’s legendary Voodoo tour, released his debut album back in 1996, and became a force to be reckoned with following his 2003 sophomore disc, Comin’ From Where I’m From. Compared to D’Angelo and Maxwell’s sweet falsetto, Hamilton’s gritty baritone made him come off like the country cousin who hailed from the Deep South. Even so, he could deliver the goods when it came to soul’s penchant for making heartbreaking love songs sound like gospel hymns. On “I’m a Mess,” he brings the church to the fore like his life depends on it, especially as the song reaches toward testifying ecstasy.
“A.N.G.E.L. (Reprise)” (2003)
This Detroit-based singer-songwriter caused a stir with his acclaimed self-released debut of 2000, Rize. By the time Subject, his first album for a major label, came out in 2003, comparisons to D’Angelo were unavoidable, even though Dwele’s approach to singing and production were markedly different. Still, there’s no denying that the chugging swing heard on D’Angelo’s “Left & Right” informed this snapping groove.
The RH Factor
“The Stroke” (2003)
The late jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove made indispensable contributions to the Soulquarians’ signature sound. Hargrove’s stacked trumpet harmonies and razor-sharp riffs animated Voodoo, Mama’s Gun, Like Water for Chocolate and other classics associated with the collective. So it came as no surprise when he decided to do his own take on the Soulquarian vibe with the RH Factor’s Hard Groove. The album even featured D’Angelo singing a cover of Funkadelic’s “I’ll Stay,” along with appearances from such heavyweights as Erykah Badu, Common and Q-Tip. But as this glowing ballad demonstrates, the trumpeter needed no vocals to prove his Soulquarian bona fides.
D’Angelo’s influence didn’t impact only male singers; his phrasing and sparsely arranged slow jams made their way onto albums by female soul singers, too. Tweet isn’t often mentioned alongside neo-soul singers like Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, but she’s one of the best R&B stylists to have arrived in the aughts. This melancholy ballad bounces to D’Angelo’s signature beat-heavy slow tempo and barebones arranging style. Tweet sounds exposed, to brilliant effect, as she sings about being stonewalled by a lover.
When José James emerged on the jazz scene in 2008, he brought a much-needed sexiness to the game. It’s also worth noting that before his arrival, young black male singers were conspicuously absent from jazz for most of the decade. Since then, James’ art has been defined by a perfect blend of jazz tradition and DJ culture. For his Blue Note Records debut, No Beginning No End, he picked up vibes from Voodoo and combined them with some of the jazz/hip-hop fusion concocted by Robert Glasper. This sashaying midtempo joint emits a bit of the same funk heard on Voodoo, with its darting horn charts, swelling organ fills, rolling bassline and boom-bap live drumming.
This heartfelt ballad proves just how far-reaching Voodoo’s influence on the global soul scene has been. Jordan Rakei, a talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, was born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, yet his sound is heavily steeped in contemporary black American music. That influence is evident throughout “Alright,” a soul-searching lament on which Rakei powers his quivering tenor across a stop-start groove that flowers into a breezy jazz excursion. The track could easily be mistaken for a Voodoo outtake.
John Murph has held editorial positions at AARP The Magazine and BET, and written for the Washington Post, NPR Music, the Atlantic, the Root, DownBeat and other outlets. He lives and DJs in Washington, D.C.
Photo: D’Angelo performs in Chicago in 2000. Credit: Paul Natkin/WireImage.
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