I dabbled with the ‘neo-soul’ movement while at university, inspired by my love of old soul / r&b / funk powerhouses like Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin and Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder. I delved into Maxwell, Jill Scott, related hip-hop acts like The Roots and Common, and later, John Legend and Janelle Monae. Probably the album of the genre that I still dig out the most from this school is D’Angelo’s mythical, career-defining and spirit-breaking second album, Voodoo.
Voodoo is a strange beast. I bought it almost as soon as it came out, intrigued by salivating hyperbole emanating from critics who talked about it as being an instant soul/jazz/funk/roots/R&B/whatever classic, who placed it in a lineage with the aforementioned greats: Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder and Prince and Sly & The Family Stone and Funkadelic and Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix – no expectation or pressure there then.
The copious sleevenotes, and even more copious musicological analysis you can find online, explain exactly how much of an influence the likes of Sly, Prince, Jimi, Stevie, and Marvin etc were on D’Angelo during the record’s gestation, but for the most part Voodoo sounds like nothing so much as itself. For a start, it’s a record very much about vibe and groove rather than about tunes – I was expecting melodies like Stevie Wonder’s on first listen and was confused and disappointed when they didn’t emerge. D’Angelo absorbed the musical lessons of his idols, and used what he learnt to create something different. As a result, Voodoo is hard to categorise; I think of it and use it more like a jazz album than a collection of songs qua songs.
Recorded on vintage analogue gear at Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio, musically Voodoo is comprised of languid, behind-the-beat drum patterns (courtesy of ?uestlove) and languorous basslines, which are up front and centre like hip hop beats. Above and behind this there are taut, high-up-the-chest guitar lines and riffs, woozy horns, indolent piano and organs, plus scratching, studio FX and chatter. The instruments were apparently recorded almost entirely live in a room, with barely any overdubs.
There are plenty of overdubs on D’Angelo’s vocals, though, as his voice floats over the top of everything else, harmonising with himself almost impenetrably, lyrics hard to discern but mood pretty easy to ascertain. He sings about sex, faith, and love, admonishes the greedy, prays for this son, the vocal melodies less recognisable as songs than understandable as blissful incantations.
Voodoo is world away from the modern digital R&B it was contemporaneous to. Is it better? Not necessarily – the likes of Aaliyah produced some sublime, heart-stopping music – but it is different. As indulgent as an album can possibly be, it is incredibly long, focussed to the point of myopia, obsessed with intangible notions like authenticity and spirit and soul. I go through periods where I get obsessed with it, with unravelling its secrets (and it does feel like it contains secrets), and then I put it away again and forget about it for a year or three or five. Because how often can you find the time and space and mood to listen to a record like this?
“Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”, the penultimate song and big single (with the abs-featuring video that seemingly ruined D’Angelo’s psyche for a decade), is like the ghost of a Prince ballad, the tune so clearly beautiful but so hard to touch that even as you’re listening to it you feel like you’re remembering it rather than experiencing it. It’s the only song to build to a climax, to feature bona fide hooks and a chorus, but it just stops dead, cutting to silence apros of nothing before it ever reaches the ecstatic plateau it’s been teasing you with for seven minutes. For a long time, the fear was that D’Angelo’s career might have done the same.