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POP MUSIC

Old School's New Soul

D'Angelo has been leading a return to smoother sounds since his 1995 debut. After a nearly five-year absence, the singer returns with his 'Voodoo' album.

January 23, 2000|SOREN BAKER | Soren Baker writes about pop music for Calendar

D'Angelo knew that he wasn't in the right frame of mind when he started working on his second album three years ago. The singer was burned out from touring. He felt immense pressure from his record company to make a commercially potent follow-up to his hit debut album, 1995's "Brown Sugar."

The mix of exhaustion and pressure produced a severe case of writer's block, and starting in 1997 he had an additional distraction--Michael D'Angelo Archer II, the son born to him and his then-girlfriend, singer Angie Stone.

His options were to rush an album that would capitalize on his success but might ultimately tarnish his reputation, or take longer and risk losing his momentum, a precious asset in the fast-changing music business.

D'Angelo's decision? Well, when "Voodoo" comes out Tuesday, it will be nearly five years after his debut.

"I was just trying to create, taking my time to make the best music possible," D'Angelo says. "I kind of just shut out all of the extracurricular activities that were going on around me that [I didn't have] before I got a record deal.

"Before I did 'Brown Sugar,' I was at home in Richmond [Va.], just writing songs and doing whatever I wanted to do. I tried to keep it there. All of the record company [dealings] and all of the expectations, I just tried to shut that out."

Indeed, the expectations for "Voodoo" are extremely high.

Besides selling 1.4 million copies in the U.S., "Brown Sugar" was a groundbreaking album that reintroduced old-school soul values to a field that was bogged down in themes of mindless sexual pursuit and locked into a hip-hop style of production.

He arrived out of nowhere with a classic sound, an old-fashioned gallantry and a soothing voice that evoked Prince and Curtis Mayfield. Among the current class of artists indebted to his impact: Macy Gray, Maxwell and Lauryn Hill.

"I think the anticipation [for "Voodoo"] really stepped up when the second video hit," says Violet Brown, director of urban music for the Wherehouse retail chain, alluding to the steamy video for the new single "Untitled." In the clip, the singer appears to be naked as he stands and sings the sensuous song.

"I'm not really going after the sex symbol thing," D'Angelo says with a wry smile. "I'm going for a music thing. That's what I'm here for and that's what I do. I'm not here to be no sexy man or no model."

But Brown says that calls to Wherehouse stores asking about the album have increased significantly since that video debuted. It just might be the marketing tool needed to jump-start the campaign, which started slowly when the first single, "Left & Right" wasn't an instant smash. Early reviews of the album have also been mixed.

But the music on "Voodoo" shows that D'Angelo made the right decision when he stepped back and slowed down.

Songs such as the spare "Left & Right," with rappers Method Man and Redman, and the pulsating "Spanish Joint" add a new musical direction to D'Angelo's sound, but like "Brown Sugar," "Voodoo" sounds as if it were lifted from another era, with its moody organs, thick bass lines and heavenly background choruses. And D'Angelo's gentle falsetto is back to calm any troubled spirit.

"This brother is what we needed to rotate into from years ago, what Marvin Gaye was doing, what Parliament was doing," singer Mary J. Blige says of her friend. "He is soul right now. This is not something he rehearsed. It was born in him. He's a natural-born soul child."

*

It can't be easy to be cast as the savior of soul music, but D'Angelo, 25, seems relaxed as he sits in a Wiltern Theatre dressing room before his headlining performance at a benefit concert last month. He's slouched in his stiff chair, casually smoking a cigarette and speaking in a hushed tone about the pressures and complications surrounding his new album.

He claims to be unconcerned about the reaction fans and critics will have to "Voodoo." That's one of the reasons he took a different direction when he recorded it.

Many artists stick to a formula once they achieve success, but D'Angelo took a different approach to the new album, emphasizing live instruments and improvisational studio sessions. The result is a much rawer record.

"I always thought 'Brown Sugar' was a little overproduced," he says. "It was a little too slick. I used to love the 'Brown Sugar' demos we recorded in Virginia. I wanted this album to feel like that. I wasn't too concerned with things sounding too perfect or neat or clean. A lot of [the sound] is dirty, and it's intentionally like that.

"I shut all of the record company people out," he adds with a smile. "They didn't know what I was doing. They just knew I was spending money working on this music. They didn't hear nothing. When I turned it in to them, they didn't know what to expect, and I guess it wasn't what they expected. They were expecting to hear a lot of radio-type singles, but the album is a lot of live instrumentation and a lot of groove."

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