Brown Sugar (EMI ’95) Rating: A-
Fusing a hip-hop attitude (for example, one song is called “Jonz In My Bonz”) with a classic soul style (school of Marvin Gaye), D’Angelo is a soul brother I can get on board with, and he figures to help lead r&b into the new millennium. A little slow, repetitive, and even boring at first, D’Angelo’s funky yet sexy voodoo soul is chill out mood music that gets much better with repeat listens. Highlights include the excellent title track, a groovy love letter to marijuana, a great cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’” that includes vocal acrobatics galore, and “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker,” an unforgettable tale of betrayal and its tragic aftermath. You can really feel D’Angelo’s disorientation and anguish on this track, and when he snaps completely it comes as no great surprise. The songs on this album usually develop slowly, and are musically anchored by organic late night organ and a groovy mid-tempo beat, with the icing on the cake being supplied by the voice of one of the finest soul singers around today (then again, the current competition is pretty scarce, unfortunately). Some optimistic and uplifting love lyrics are a nice surprise, too, and the albums relaxed vibe makes me feel good. Despite his modest protestations on “Smooth” ("when I'm around you, I can't keep my cool"), D’Angelo is one cool customer, and almost all of these songs offer something to recommend them by. That said, rather than the songs themselves, it’s the album’s groovy overall mood that will keep you coming back.
Voodoo (Virgin ’00) Rating: A-
At 79 minutes long Voodoo is definitely too much of a good thing, and there’s some credence to the complaint that “there’s no songs.” But if you treat this album as one long listening experience and spend some time with it, the rewards are well worth it, for the aptly titled Voodoo sets and maintains a seductively sexy and funky mood while also unleashing arguably modern soul’s finest falsetto vocalist. Prince is probably D’Angelo’s primary influence here, but he’s not the only one – there’s also Marvin, Al, Curtis, Stevie, Smokey, Sly - all the right ones, basically. Most of these songs settle into loose mid-tempo grooves, with D’Angelo again playing many of the instruments himself while other top notch musicians such as drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and horn player Roy Hargrove also assist. As for the lyrics, I’ll quote the liner notes (“his vocal collaging intrigues me”) and simply say that that goes likewise for me, and that on Voodoo D’Angelo has nailed his groovy, head-bobbin’ late night sound. However, now that he’s mastered his sound, the challenge for D’Angelo is to write more songs as great as “Feel Like Makin’ Love” (this album’s superlative cover song, originally done by Roberta Flack) and “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” (the album's best song and also its breakout single, in large part due to its racy video which made D'Angelo a major sex symbol). Then and only then will he truly be able to join the legendary ranks of his inspirations. Then again, this album has really grown on me over the years, as it creates its own self-contained world that you can get lost within like few albums in recent memory. True, many of these songs do blend together, and I could easily live without the Method Man and Redmond rap cameos, but this is arguably the most acclaimed soul album of the 2000s for good reason.
Black Messiah (RCA ’14) Rating: A-
After a 15 year hiatus during which time precious little was seen or heard from D’Angelo comes Black Messiah, which was released in mid-December, causing many critics to have to rewrite their “best albums of 2014” lists. This album is billed as D’Angelo and The Vanguard for good reason, as the album very much sounds like a band oriented effort, and the band, including accomplished real life musicians such as drummer Questlove, bassist Pino Pallandino, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, is damn good. So is this album; call it a funky soul album or a soulful funk album, it really is unclassifiable as there are jazz elements as well as D’Angelo again nods to Sly, Prince, and (at his most lush) Philly soul while ultimately delivering another very good albeit flawed album. Although certainly more manageable than Voodoo (56 minutes vs. 79), my main problem with D’Angelo remains that as much as I love his rich, organic sound and his layered vocals (though maybe he goes overboard with the layering and the falsettos this time out), I still have trouble remembering individual songs when all is said and done. These songs could be hookier and more memorable is what I’m saying, but the vast majority of these funky, mid-tempo, head-bobbin’ grooves sure sound good while they’re playing. I suspect that the album will greatly please the majority of D’Angelo’s fans who have waited so patiently for this release, and let’s face it a guy who names his album Black Messiah isn’t lacking in confidence or ambition. Right away the album peaks with “Ain’t That Easy,” which shows off those funky mid-tempo grooves and multi-tracked, often falsetto’d vocals I previously mentioned, and if pressed I’d say that right now my other favorite tracks include “Really Love,” the album’s first single which is a simple love song at heart but with accoutrements such as violins, Spanish guitars, and whispered female vocals. Other highlights for me are “Betray My Heart,” which is D’Angelo at his most catchy and accessible (so the album does have hooks, even if it takes several listens for them to grab hold), “The Door,” which is also hooky and features fine falsettos and memorable whistling (a la Axl Rose and Billy Joel), and “Another Life,” probably the best example of a lush Phlly soul type of song on the album. Of course, this is the type of album that you need to live with for a while in order to fully appreciate it, much like Voodoo before it (long before it!), so eventually I may grow to like some of the other songs just as much. For example, I like the mellow, melodic vibe of “The Charade” and also how it gets more intense at times, “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” delivers some cool chill out music that’s effortlessly pleasurable, and the guitars really cook on “Prayer.” But again, Black Messiah isn’t about individual songs so much, like Voodoo it’s a vibe record (like only D’Angelo can do) and extremely enjoyable as such.