D’Angelo Is Really Back – I Saw It With My Own Eyes

D’Angelo made what is, quite possibly, the best album of my adult-life. When Voodoo dropped in 2000, it split my head open. Black music had a remarkable (and sinisterly slept-on) run from about 1998 through 2002. But of all those classics – Things Fall Apart, Black on Both Sides , Reflection Eternal, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, Mama’s Gun, The Blueprint, Fantastic Vol. 2, Like Water For Chocolate, Stankonia, Black Star, Who Is Jill Scott? – your boy D’Angelo dropped the biggest hammer. And the architects of the other classics I just mentioned will tell you that. They know what time it is.

If music holds outsized importance in your life, like it does in mine, then one of the biggest disappointments over the last 10 years or so is that D’Angelo has yet to record another album. This is different from Dre’s Detox shenanigans, because Dre still releases music. I mean, Kendrick Lamar’s joint was basically a Dre album. With D’Angelo though, we had a man that was destined to be the greatest artist of his generation – and a stalwart for black music – just drop off the music map.

Things got extra frustrating when he reappeared a couple of years ago and dropped “1,000 Deaths” and then dropped his mic, like, “Just in case you clowns forgot, y’all can’t eff with me.”

Over the past five to six years, there have been rumored albums and false starts on his career renaissance. It’s gone into hyper-drive over the last 18 months, however, with D’Angelo touring Europe, doing magazine interviews and doing away with the Lochness cloud he’s been shrouded in since Voodoo.

Monday night, I got a chance to witness history of sorts. Late last week, Brooklyn Bowl announced that Questlove and D’Angelo were going to hit the stage for a two-man set. This came just days after Questo practically mortgaged his well-earned reputation on D finally releasing the Voodoo follow-up, guaranteeing that we’ll get the album in 2013.

I went to Monday’s two-man show looking for indicators of D’Angelo’s seriousness and reliability. Would D come across like someone diligently navigating the comeback trail or would he seem off-kilter, like Lauryn Hill has often appeared in her sporadic shows? The good news is that D seemed healthy and lucid. For most of the show he was working a Fender Rhodes and Moog at the same time on some Stevie Wonder ish. His voice was strong. He smiled a lot. He was engaging. He was…professional. I can’t tell you how happy that made me. He could’ve went Katt Williams on us or offered some weird, hermitic performance. Instead, the man appeared to be about his business.

Here’s what concerns me, though: D’Angelo the artist might get kidnapped, again. Thirsty women hijacked him a little more than 10 years ago; hipsters may be the criminals this go 'round.

Last June, GQ profiled D’Angelo and a portion of the piece focused on how D’Angelo succumbed to the pressure of pleasing the hordes of women that lusted after the man they watched in the “Untitled” video:

Thanks to D'Angelo's luscious physicality, albums started flying off the shelves. But the trouble began right away, at the start of the Voodoo tour in L.A. "It was a week of warm-up gigs at House of Blues just to kick off the tour, draw some attention, break in the band," says Alan Leeds, D's tour manager then and now. "And from the beginning, it's 'Take it off!' " Questlove, the tour's bandleader, was alarmed. "We thought, okay, we're going to build the perfect art machine, and people are going to love and appreciate it," he says. "And then by mid-tour it just became, what can we do to stop the 'Take it off' stuff?" D'Angelo felt tortured, Questlove says, by the pressure to give the audience what it wanted. Worried that he didn't look as cut as he did in the video, he'd delay shows to do stomach crunches. He'd often give in, peeling off his shirt, but he resented being reduced to that. Wasn't he an artist? Couldn't the audience hear the power of his music and value him for that? He would explode, Questlove recalls, and throw things. Sometimes he'd have to be coaxed not to cancel shows altogether.

Questlove is a Pied Piper. Right now, there are very few people that can rival him as a tastemaker. If Quest blesses an artist with a Twitter shout out or gets them a spot on Jimmy Fallon, that artist enters a sort of cultural zeitgeist. No one knew who Roc Marciano was for a while, other than boom bap heads. Quest shouted him out on Twitter months after the Marcberg album had dropped and – boom! – Marc was a critical favorite.

If you mine Quest’s words as closely as I do, then you know that he holds three artists in rarefied esteem – Prince, the late J Dilla and D’Angelo. Quest is a legend and idol in his own right, but he idolizes those three men. Over the years, Quest has routinely kept D’Angelo’s legend alive. Leaking a grainy, unfinished version of “Really Love” on an Australian radio show years ago; stoking the James River intrigue with progress updates and breathless quotes, like “For all intents and purposes, this album is the black version of [The Beach Boys'] Smile – at best, it will go down in the Smile/ There's a Riot Goin' On/Miles Davis' On the Corner category.”

Interestingly – and not at all surprisingly – the first thing I noticed about the crowd at Brooklyn Bowl is that it featured a lot of ponytails…not on black women, but on white men. I guess that’s the new thing. You’re going to get a significant hipster quotient at Brooklyn Bowl almost based on its location alone (smack in the middle of Williamsburg), but we’re talking like an 80/20 ratio for the D’Angelo show.

We need to get something straight about D’Angelo, however – the man makes exceedingly black music. He’s not Frank Ocean. Young Frank is a cold dude, but he’s like Cream of Wheat to D’Angelo’s grits. This negro D’Angelo walked on to the set of his video for the “Lady” remix in all black leather and some cornrows, sat down at the baby grand and started playing keys. When I saw videos of D’Angelo’s shows in Stockholm early last year, the first thing I thought was, “Geez, that’s some churchified music.” I stood in the audience Monday night wondering if there was a critical mass of fans of D’Angelo’s actual music as opposed to cultural voyeurs and fans of the D’Angelo legend that Quest has fostered.

Before Quest and D hit the stage, Mick Boogie blessed us on the ones and twos. He dropped cold tune after cold tune – “Dance Tonight,” “Who Got The Props,” “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “Smooth Criminal” … I have no choice but to react when those kind of jams come on. At one point, Boogie dropped “So Whatcha Sayin’” and, when I scanned the venue, most people seemed unmoved, like Eric and Parrish weren’t on some classic ish. If you dig D’Angelo, you will, at a minimum, either bust a two-step or nod your head clear off your neck when a DJ plays “So Whatcha Sayin’.” That’s a fact. So, suffice to say, I started giving side-eyes.

For instance, I live uptown; it takes me about 30 minutes to get to Williamsburg…I played “Jonz In My Bones” for practically my entire trip to BK. I played “The Root” for almost the entire cab ride home. D’Angelo’s music moves me the way Curtis Mayfield’s music moves an old head. There were a lot of glazed looks throughout the Brooklyn Bowl audience. Not too many singing along with D, because a majority of them probably didn’t know the lyrics. It was an arms-length kind of crowd and I don’t know how D’Angelo feels about that. He got a ton of love, no doubt, but much of the audience was spectators – not too many participants.

You have two extremes. There was the “take it off” panty-throwers of 10 years ago who participated a little too much and, now, he has the gawkers that are interested in his music solely for cultural currency/credibility. Given D’s well-documented neuroses and sensitivity, this could be an issue moving forward.

Or maybe D’Angelo has moved past the natural (and warranted) proprietary inclinations that paralyze some artist. If we’re just going off optics, he seemed like he was in a good space. I left that show feeling as sure as Quest that a new album is on the way. Musically speaking, that’s the best news in a decade.

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