“I was really thinking about the whole picture – not just the second album, but all the albums that come after that. It had to be evolutionary.” – D’Angelo on Voodoo, Vibe 2001
D’Angelo’s debut album, Brown Sugar, took contemporary R&B listeners by surprise. In 1995, the slick production and puffed-up beats of producers like R. Kelly were dominating ‘urban radio’ airwaves. The cool, nonchalant vocal delivery, laid-back swung beats and raw, sparse funk of Brown Sugar’s title track sounded like a stark contrast. And at a time when producers often shaped the careers singers, the 21 year-old formerly known as Michael Archer followed in the footsteps of Prince and Stevie Wonder, as he wrote, performed, arranged and produced much of the album himself.
At the time, D’Angelo was managed by producer Kedar Massenburg, who not only had a great ear, but also a great marketing instinct. He later become president of the most commercially successful Black-owned label Motown Records, and he also coined the term ‘neo-soul’ and fostered the career of Erykah Badu. Brown Sugar paved the way for three more classic albums in the ensuing years: Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998). A movement had been founded, obviously spearheaded by D’Angelo’s debut but having quietly grown beforehand with artists like Omar and Me’Shell Ndegé, and now the pressure was on for a follow-up.
Of course there was a two-year tour and afterward, collaborations and covers for movie soundtracks such as his ‘Your Precious Love’ duet with Badu, a collaboration with Hill on ‘Nothing Even Matters’ for Hill’s debut, his own cover of Prince’s ‘She’s Always in My Hair’ for the Scream 2 soundtrack and a cover of Ohio Players’ ‘Heaven Must Be Like This’ for the Down in the Delta soundtrack. But the clock ticked on without signs of a second record.
Writer’s block plagued the young artist who aspired to create classic albums in the wake of heritage artists like Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone. As he later told Vibe magazine, “The thing about writer’s block is that you want to write so fucking bad, [but] the songs don’t come out that way. They come from life. So you’ve got to live to write.” And D’Angelo certainly had been taking a new life path with his relationship with a significantly older woman, singer Angie Stone, attests.
Together they had son and according to Stone who would co-write four songs on the forthcoming album, “Voodoo started the day we were with our son. I felt like he [D’Angelo] approached the album as if it were a celebration.” The first song written for the new record was ‘Send It On’, written with Stone and recorded in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Here and in South Carolina he connected with his Southern roots and African-American musical history and was reminded of his Pentecostal upbringing and his grandparents’ practice of the ‘old religion’.
Newly inspired, D’Angelo hunkered down in the basement of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios. He was uninspired by modern R&B as he told Jet, “the term R&B doesn’t mean what it used to mean. R&B is pop, that’s the new word for R&B.” He turned to the funk greats like James Brown and George Clinton, soulsters like Al Green, rockers like Sly and Jimi, Afrobeat’s Fela Kuti and also to hip-hop’s ‘Golden Age’, Native Tongues and J Dilla’s own distinctive brand of beat. He turned to these artists for inspiration rather than replication, as he wanted to make his own musical imprint. He told Ebony, “I consider myself very respectful of the masters who came before. In some ways, I feel a responsibility to continue and take the cue from what they were doing musically and vibe on it. That’s what I want to do. But I want to do it for this time and this generation”.
D’Angelo worked over the course of nearly three years and enlisted producer and drummer QuestLove of The Roots who assisted D’Angelo throughout the recording. The two would listen to classic albums such as Prince’s Parade and Sly’s There’s A Riot Going On to set a vibe. D’Angelo also brought in other guests such as DJ Premier, Raphael Saadiq, Roy Hargrove, James Poyser, Method Man and Redman amongst others. The studio was a hothouse of talent as Badu was recording Mama’s Gun, The Roots’ were putting touches onto Things Fall Apart and Common was creating his classic Like Water for Chocolate. D’Angelo’s Soulquarian music collective colleagues also paid visits as did comedian Chris Rock, producer Rick Rubin and guitar god Eric Clapton.
Amidst this whirlwind of creativity, D’Angelo produced the record that was as evolutionary as he had hoped. ‘Voodoo’ broke down the conventional song structures of his debut and the album cover of his bare torso reflected the stripped-down music and its muscular beats. Despite the futuristic funk feel of the record, the sonics had a vintage soul feel due to the older recording and mixing equipment often used in the studio. D’Angelo had also used the Fender Rhodes used by Stevie Wonder for Talking Book so a certain essence of his soul forebears was distilled throughout the album.
The album has an overall feel and vibe almost like and sounds like a complete work with a sea of immersive sounds rather than subdivided into separate songs although it did feature singles: ‘Devil’s Pie’, ‘Left & Right’, ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ (with an accompanying sexy video that would later haunt the singer) and ‘Send it On’ that provided the big peaks.
Voodoo was not only a massive artistic achievement, but it was also commercially successful. The album debuted at Number One on the Billboard 200 Chart and won D’Angelo two Grammy Awards: ‘Best Male R&B Vocal’ and ‘Best R&B Album’. The album was the high point of the Soulquarian sound, the centrepiece of the movement. Despite or most likely because of the album’s massive success, D’Angelo disappeared from music-making once again, only to emerge over a decade later with his third album Black Messiah. But as good as that album may be, it’s Voodoo that still has the magic.