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Twenty Years Later, The Magic Of D’Angelo’s ‘Voodoo’ Remains

Written by on January 24, 2020

The camera starts on a black backdrop before shifting to the left, moving over the back of a head adorned with tight cornrows. It pans around, locking in on a face, on a set of closed eyes. They remain shut as an instrumental struts along in 3/4 time, the way an early Prince ballad would, until a falsetto kicks in. “Girl, it’s only you,” D’Angelo sings as he opens his eyes. The lens moves downward, landing on his lips. “Have it your way.” The camera pulls out, slowly, revealing first his shoulders, then his pecs, then his chiseled abs, and finally his full glistening frame. For the next three-plus minutes, we’re alone with D’Angelo as the lens trains on every inch of his upper body while the then-25-year-old singer belts his pleas through a flange effect. “You’ve already got me right where you want me, baby,” he closes the first verse. “I just want to be your man.”

At that moment, D’Angelo became the man of hundreds of thousands of suddenly ravenous fans, whether he liked it or not. For some, the “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” video was their introduction to D’Angelo. For others, it was a reintroduction. He had risen to modest notoriety a few years earlier as a soul wunderkind in a long black leather trench coat, inspiring comparisons to the likes of Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. But even the people who knew D’Angelo didn’t know this D’Angelo—one stripped of inhibitions and, seemingly, all of his clothes. (In actuality, he wore low-hanging pajama pants during the shoot.) “Untitled” was as intimate as any video that had graced MTV in the channel’s history; the song as seductive as any by the masters whom D’Angelo had studied so closely. It presented him in a new light—a sex god and soul icon wrapped into one.

But that image also threatened to overshadow the project it was designed to promote: Voodoo, the first great musical endeavor of the young millennium. Released on January 25, 2000, the album was born out of legendary jam sessions, a feverish worship of the classic works of black music, and D’Angelo’s ability to conjure magic out of both himself and his world-class collaborators. At times it became difficult for him to reconcile his devotion to his craft with his newfound status as a reluctant sex symbol. But through everything that happened in the album’s wake—his frustrations with his new fans, his sometimes-public struggles with his demons, his eventual triumphant reemergence after a 14-year hiatus—Voodoo has remained one of the pillars of soul music that’s transcended its era and defined its genre, nearly as much as one video almost came to define D’Angelo.

Born Michael Archer in 1974 in Virginia, D’Angelo grew up the son of a Pentecostal preacher in a household so devout his mother and aunts couldn’t wear makeup, skirts, or jewelry. He began learning the piano at age 3, picking up other instruments along the way and quickly establishing himself as the most talented musician in his family. Early on, he was told to stay away from secular music—or “devil’s music,” as his family called it, he told GQ in 2012—but eventually his grandmother encouraged him to use his talents in whatever way he liked. That included a brief stint with a rap group named I.D.U. (Intelligent, Deadly, but Unique) and a couple of trips to the Apollo Theater’s amateur nights. When he was 16, he won one of the competitions singing Johnny Gill’s “Rub You the Right Way.”

D’Angelo burst into the mainstream consciousness with 1995’s Brown Sugar, an album he wrote and demoed in his Richmond bedroom before entering the studio with Bob Power, a legendary engineer known for working with A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Black Sheep. The album, which featured D’Angelo playing most of the instruments himself, wore its influences on its sleeve, invoking the Motown and Stax forefathers who paved the way for him—right down to a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’.” The album was well received, striking a chord at a time when the lines between hip-hop and R&B were becoming increasingly blurred. It eventually went platinum, earned D’Angelo four Grammy nominations, and helped spark the burgeoning genre of neo-soul, a term intended to market a rising group of R&B and hip-hop artists who incorporated aesthetics of classic soul and jazz. Brown Sugar wasn’t, however, typically heralded as groundbreaking: “He’s no trailblazer,” proclaimed a Rolling Stone review at the time. “Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Prince have all walked down the same musical paths where D’Angelo meanders.”

D’Angelo toured for two years following Brown Sugar, and afterward, he found himself stuck with writer’s block. He released a few more covers, including a version of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Your Precious Love” with Erykah Badu, but no new music came as he passed the time smoking weed and lifting weights, searching for inspiration. “The thing about writer’s block is that you want to write so fucking bad,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2000, “[but] the songs don’t come out that way. They come from life. So you’ve got to live to write.” Inspiration would soon come in a few forms. First was the birth of his oldest son, Michael Jr., whom he fathered with singer Angie Stone. Meanwhile, his music family also started to grow: D’Angelo began working more closely with musicians like Roots drummer Questlove, keyboardist James Poyser, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and hip-hop beatsmith J Dilla. The group—which also included Badu and rappers Common and Q-Tip—called themselves the Soulquarians, playing off of the shared zodiac sign of several key members. The music they played was in some ways traditional, but in others thrilling, especially in an era dominated by Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Records.

“I was just doing stuff that I felt at that time, stuff that I liked,” Poyser says now. “It wasn’t like, ‘It has to do this like this.’ I was just like, ‘This is the kind of stuff that I feel.’ And it just so happened that it was on a wavelength that a lot of people were on at the same time.”

Beginning in 1998, D’Angelo started writing and recording in Greenwich Village’s Electric Lady, the studio bought and renovated by Jimi Hendrix shortly before he died in 1970. A handful of classic albums had been recorded there in the intervening decades—including David Bowie’s Young Americans and Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book and Music of My Mind—but it had gone largely underused. D’Angelo and his cohorts took over the studio and its three recording rooms, walking in to find a main studio that still had its original mixing board and plenty of now-vintage instruments and equipment. It quickly became their home base. At one point, D’Angelo was recording in Studio A while Common was working on what would become Like Water for Chocolate in Studio B, as artists like Mos Def, Bilal, and Talib Kweli would take turns in the third room. Poyser, who produced and wrote on several of the classic albums credited to the Soulquarians and who now serves as the keyboard player for the Roots, recalled the collaborative environment vividly.

“It was just a community of people just there, creating, and everybody checking out everybody’s stuff, and like, ‘OK, I got to make this better,’” Poyser says. “Or, ‘That’s what they’re doing? I got to make this better.’”

If the gentle competition or Electric Lady’s analog instruments and psychedelic walls weren’t inspiration enough, there was always the music of the “Yodas,” as Quest, D’Angelo, and engineer Russell Elevado called them. Countless hours were spent listening to and studying the music and concerts of George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Fela Kuti, Sly and the Family Stone, Hendrix. Questlove had also acquired a massive treasure trove of old Soul Train episodes for the group to pore over. Often, after a long evening of dissecting one classic or another, they’d start jamming just to “see what happens,” as Quest put it in 2013. They’d play for a few hours until something interesting jumped out, and then they’d workshop that.

“The studio and the history in the studio played a part, ’cause we were there, listening to the history and seeing the history and feeling the history and turning that history into what [D’Angelo] wanted to do,” Poyser says.

When DJ Premier arrived at the studio, he found walls covered by pictures of the Isley Brothers and Prince, and a vibe where “everything organically just flowed.” D’Angelo and Premier spent four sessions recording what would become “Devil’s Pie.” During their downtime, conversations always came back to their music influences—and one big one in particular: Prince, whom D’Angelo and Quest basically worshipped. “It’s like talking to somebody [about] sports,” Premier said recently. “When you really know your sports, you can go deeper than just who you’re picking to win the game, or you like somebody just because of the color of their uniform. With Prince, we were going that deep on every level.”

But despite the massive debt owed to the masters who came before D’Angelo and Co., these sessions were producing something much different than the throwback affair that was Brown Sugar. The songs that would eventually come to make up Voodoo were conversant with the history of black music, not direct homages—you may be able to hear strains of Parliament on the Poyser-produced “Chicken Grease” or bits of Fela Kuti on the up-tempo “Spanish Joint,” but the influences were interwoven into the fabric of the music. “You hear it but you’re not being beat over the head,” says Faith Pennick, whose 33 ⅓ book about the album is slated to come out in March. “Marvin’s obvious, but it’s all rivers that flow into an ocean and that ocean is Voodoo.”

The word “voodoo” conjures a certain image. It has roots in the Haitian religion of Vodou, and the term for its practitioners translates into “servants of the spirits.” In the Western world, where it also refers to a set of beliefs and practices belonging to the African diaspora in Louisiana, the word can connote a sort of dark magic that can leave you spellbound. As the songs on D’Angelo’s sophomore album took shape, the title began to fit like a glove.

Voodoo, whose name is also an obvious homage to one of Hendrix’s most famous works, does away with the lush arrangements of Brown Sugar. None of the album’s 13 tracks clock in at shorter than 4:30, and more than half exceed the six-minute mark. Each song is anchored by a thick, driving bass line typically played by D’Angelo or Welsh musician Pino Palladino, but the sounds around the groove are easy to get lost in. The songs are raw, but still inviting; stripped down but living, vibrant things. They’re at once woozy and technically sharp, played with a looseness while never falling out of pocket.

Playing like that required some of the more classically trained musicians in the group to make adjustments. Questlove, in particular, had to change the way he approached his drumming. His band, the Roots, was an anomaly at the time: a hip-hop group comprising live musicians. As the backbone, he had to focus on playing with absolute precision—“as straight as 12 o’clock,” he said in a 2014 interview—so a Roots record would fit in among rap songs composed with samplers and drum machines. When Quest started working closely with D’Angelo, he was asked to stop drumming like a metronome and play with more feel, dragging behind the groove while maintaining the beat. “It was like being told to use the force in Star Wars,” Questlove said in that interview. “Like, ‘Just trust me, just keep it in the pocket, be sloppy as hell, and it’s going to work.’”

D’Angelo, however, wasn’t the first person in the Soulquarians to deploy that drunken style on record. That distinction belongs to one of Voodoo’s greatest inspirational rivers: J Dilla, the legendary hip-hop producer who died in 2006. Beatmakers have traditionally composed their tracks using a feature called “quantize,” which will correct imperfections in their playing; if they’re a millisecond off in triggering a hi-hat or snare, the quantize function snaps it in place, giving the beat a perfectly locked-in rhythm. Dilla had no use for it; he chopped samples and programmed drums with a priority on feel over machine-like accuracy and left the blemishes in when they sounded right. The result was something more organic than what most hip-hop fans were used to at that point—the just out-of-step drums that were infectious nonetheless, on Slum Village cuts like “CB4” or The Shining’s “So Far to Go.” “It was almost like J Dilla was discovering different colors,” says longtime music journalist Jeff Weiss.

The hypnotic vibe extended beyond Voodoo’s instrumentation. D’Angelo’s writing was more nuanced here than it was on Brown Sugar, which was built on tender love songs and a title track that was an obvious metaphor for smoking weed. On Voodoo, he broached more spiritual, deeper concerns. “The Line,” a hookless early-album cut that puts his falsetto on full display, grapples with his place in the music world, opening with lines alluding to the long hiatus between his first and second albums before diving into his internal struggle over the push and pull of the industry:

I’m gonna, I’m gonna hold, hold on

Hold on to my pride, my pride

I’m gonna stick, I’m gonna stick, I’m gonna stick

I’m gonna stick to my guns, gonna stick to my guns

I’m gonna put my finger on the trigger

I’m gonna pull it and we gon’ see what the deal

He sang to his newborn on a song that also tackled honesty and faith in love (“Send It On”), while on other songs, he ruminated on past relationships (“One Mo’Gin” and “The Root,” the latter of which alluded to the spellbinding, voodoo-like effect lost loves can have on a person), piecing together an emotional mosaic that was shockingly mature for a 25-year-old. “D’Angelo writes lyrics in a way that to me is almost like good literature,” Pennick says. “He’s great with rhymes, he’s great with phrases, and he talks about things that matter to himself, and also I think would matter to his listeners. It’s not just ‘I’m just going to put words to these great beats.’”

Nowhere was that more apparent than on “Devil’s Pie,” the album’s centerpiece. Produced by DJ Premier, the song is unlike any other on Voodoo—its backdrop was a hard hip-hop beat, composed of a chopped Teddy Pendergrass bass line and pounding drums. Primo had originally offered the beat to Canibus, but the lyrically gifted MC turned it down in favor of something softer. His loss was a gain for D’Angelo, who invited the legendary Gang Starr producer to swing by the studio with the track: “I played it for him,” Premier remembers. “He immediately started screaming, ‘Whoa! I’m about to kill this shit! Yeah, I want this! I want this!’”

Over the course of the song’s five minutes and 21 seconds, D’Angelo deconstructed modern-day materialism while alluding to the prison-industrial complex and his religious upbringing and evoking a vibe he said was similar to a chain gang. The chorus laid it all bare: “Fuck the slice, we want the pie / Why ask why till we fry? / Watch us all stand in line / For a slice of the devil’s pie.” It all builds to a bridge of vocal samples scratched in by Premier, culminating in a line from Fat Joe’s “Success” that serves as the song’s thesis: “That’s how it be in this everlasting game.”

“There’s a darkness to it,” says music writer Oliver Wang, who’s covered hip-hop and soul music for more than two decades. “There’s a mood, and I mean, what is Voodoo as an album if not a dark mood? And ‘Devil’s Pie’ fits really, really well into it.”

On October 31, 1998, “Devil’s Pie” was released as the first single off of Voodoo, nearly 15 months before the album eventually came out. Despite its appearance in the Nas and DMX movie Belly, the song made little commercial impact, failing to crack the Billboard Hot 100. Perhaps part of the reason was the world it was released into: 1998 was the height of the Bad Boy era, when hip-hop and R&B had become synonymous, just not in the way D’Angelo had married them. Rap had always been somewhat about excess—Big Daddy Kane and Slick Rick aren’t the same without their gold chains—but the songs dominating the radio and MTV in ’98 often valued materialism and hedonism over all else. An artist like Mase best exemplifies the time: A few years earlier, he was a Harlem street rapper who went by “Murda Mase” and hung with Cam’ron and Big L. But under Puff Daddy’s tutelage, he became a mainstream darling, mumbling his words and cooing over saccharine beats on his singles. And while sampling had been a part of hip-hop since its inception, Bad Boy employed the practice liberally. Tracks like Mase’s Total-assisted “What You Want” swiped from Curtis Mayfield (a key D’Angelo influence) wholesale … and became the biggest hits of the year.

The music being created by D’Angelo and the Soulquarians stood in opposition to that. The collective’s work—which begins with the Roots’ Things Fall Apart and includes Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun—sounded fresh, like an oasis in a desert littered with shiny suits and Cristal bottles. Much of what they produced fit under the neo-soul umbrella, a label that not all of the artists agreed with but signaled that the music they were creating was on a different wavelength than what listeners had become accustomed to. “R&B of that era felt very derivative of whatever hip-hop hits are,” Wang says. “‘Let’s just take that same beat but then put singers over it.’ Whereas neo-soul felt like: This is artists making music that’s not derivative of hip-hop, even if it’s conversant with some of the traditions of hip-hop that returns to classic ’60s and ’70s soul and funk music.”

Voodoo’s second single, “Left and Right,” which came out a year after “Devil’s Pie,” seemed to try to split the difference between the music environment it was competing in and the aesthetics the Soulquarians were going for. D’Angelo played all the instruments on the song; Q-Tip, the nasally frontman for A Tribe Called Quest, contributed a verse for the song, but he was replaced by a then-red-hot Method Man and Redman, who cackled their way through back-and-forth, occasionally misogynistic bars. (Sample Redman line: “I fuck brown sugar behind the fiber glass window.”)

Despite the rappers’ presence and a much lighter vibe than “Devil’s Pie,” however, “Left and Right” performed only slightly better on the charts, topping out at no. 70. With the singles disappointing and label and management issues looming, Virgin Records pushed Voodoo’s planned release back.

But Voodoo’s prospects changed when its third single—and the accompanying iconic video—came out a few weeks later. On the first day of the new millennium, “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” was released into the world. If there were no video, the song would still be worth discussing: It’s sultry and immediate, packed with come-ons that could sound off-putting, but are undeniable coming from D’Angelo’s mouth. And while it’s clearly influenced by Prince, it never veers into imitation. It’s a beautiful, vulnerable song that starts softly and climaxes with vocal tracks stacked a mile high and an overdriven guitar line that seduces you and—before you know what’s happened—stops cold, snapping you back to reality.

But the song by itself didn’t redefine the singer—the heavy lifting was done by the video, directed by Paul Hunter and D’Angelo’s then-manager Dominique Trenier. The idea, as conceived by Trenier, was to make it appear like a personal, intimate encounter—a POV experience with a (presumably) naked D’Angelo. (And despite the sweat on his abdomen, the rumors of him getting a little, um, assistance on the set were completely untrue, he said at the time.) It was a total departure for the singer, a once-chubby introvert who grew up in the church, and he was more than a little reluctant to do it. But eventually, there he stood, in the center of the frame, donning nothing but a small, gold crucifix.

It was a jaw-dropping visual—Pennick remembers watching “Untitled” for the first time with her mouth agape, staring at the TV and saying, “What?” repeatedly. “We all watched that, and it was just like, ‘Holy fuck,’” she says.

“That was everything we ever wanted in our lives,” Pennick continues. “To have some good-looking, sensitive, attractive black man talking about how he was going to be what we desired. I mean, I’m going to give you everything that you desire? Where? Who are you? Can you come to my house today?”

The “Untitled” video received heavy airplay on both MTV and BET and helped push the single to no. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. (Though not all viewers were enraptured by D’Angelo and his abs: A New York Times piece from the time noted that most men “turn away and scowl” when the video was on.) Voodoo arrived a few weeks later, selling 320,000 copies out the gate, topping the album charts, and receiving effusive praise. Some listeners, Pennick says, rejected the album upon its debut for being a totally different experience than the generally pleasant Brown Sugar. But after hearing it for the the first time—on a dubbed cassette no less—she knew the album was something special: “I went, ‘Holy shit, what is this? Things are about to change.’” Weiss, who was in college at the time, compares Voodoo to Outkast’s momentous third album, Aquemini, and remembers it being everywhere, as if it were “standard issue.”

“It was just sort of in the bloodstream, you know what I mean?” Weiss says. “You couldn’t escape it, I don’t think, on a level of cultural ubiquity.”

D’Angelo had created a groundbreaking no. 1 hit album while making few concessions to mainstream demands or retracing roads that had already been walked. The ensuing tour that kicked off a few months later should’ve been a total victory lap. But the reaction from fans—many of whom had been introduced to him as the naked sex deity promising to make all of their dreams come true—often made it feel like anything but. Women would throw their panties at him and call for him to strip before the first song had even wrapped. D’Angelo obliged at first, but quickly began to feel objectified. “He really doesn’t wanna do it,” Questlove told Rolling Stone in 2000. “We do all this preparation to give a balanced show, and he goes out and gets treated like women get treated every day—like a piece of meat.” Eventually D’Angelo’s apprehension turned to outright anger: “He’d get angry and start breaking shit,” Questlove told Spin in 2008. “The audience thinking, ‘Fuck your art, I wanna see your ass!’ made him angry.”

Over the next few years, reports of D’Angelo’s struggles grew. He retreated to his home in Virginia and fell out of touch with his family, as drinking and drug use increased. As the decade stretched on, there was little talk of new music, except for people wondering whether it would ever come. Eventually, D’Angelo found himself back in the news in 2005 after an arrest for drunk driving and marijuana and cocaine possession. That produced its own striking image—a mug shot of the once-muscular singer looking overweight and disheveled. A car accident in which he was ejected from the vehicle and another arrest followed, and soon, his friends and collaborators began making public pleas for his well-being. New music seemed to be the furthest thing from anybody’s mind. “When three years turned into five years and then five years turned into 10 years … at that point, we were like, ‘Well, yeah, maybe it’s never going to happen,’” Wang says.

While there were many contributing factors—a breakup, deaths of people close to him, grappling with his religious roots—most people around D’Angelo said that the image created by the “Untitled” video came to overwhelm him. “If you’re not prepared for that, and also if you’re that sensitive of a person and you feel like your artistry is being overlooked and ignored, then yeah, you’re going to start to resent it,” Pennick says.

For DJ Premier, who had spent time bonding with D’Angelo over their respective drug use, it was sad, but understandable—part of the burden of being a virtuosic musician. “The mind of an artist—we’re different, man,” Premier says. “We go through so many phases of our life, and then on top of that we have to balance out our celebrity and our music that we put out to the people. Because that’s crazy energy that we have when we put our music out to people to see if they feel it.”

During the aughts, D’Angelo’s career arc started to resemble those of so many black musical geniuses who came before him. “Nina Simone, for example, Sly and the Family Stone or Sly Stone, to a lesser extent perhaps Michael Jackson,” Wang says. “We’ve seen this happen time and time again.” But just as it seemed D’Angelo would fade into history as a cautionary tale of fame and expectation, he rose again.

In December 2014, D’Angelo returned with his third studio album, Black Messiah, which was at once both long-awaited and seemingly out of nowhere. It was more rock-influenced than its predecessors—the multi-instrumentalist had used the intervening years to master the guitar—and it wasn’t born out of legendary jam sessions that people write books about, but it was excellent in its own right. “We had all basically made peace with the idea that the D’Angelo that we knew or D’Angelo we wanted to hear from—that’s just not going to happen,” Wang says. “And so Black Messiah was just the surprise and the gift in many ways.”

That lengthy delay only added to the allure of D’Angelo’s work. Because he wasn’t diluting his work with a new album every year or touring relentlessly, overexposing himself the way other legacy acts may have, D’Angelo’s return took on a near-mythic quality. “Black Messiah is timeless, Brown Sugar is timeless,” Weiss says. “You could credibly make the arguments that D’Angelo has the best—whether you want to call it R&B or soul or even funk—album of the last three decades.”

Beyond the quality of the music on Black Messiah, D’Angelo appeared to be happy and healthy around the time of its release. He wasn’t the same person he was when he filmed “Untitled,” but he was a long way from the troubling mug shots and police reports. He had cleaned up and seemingly cast the shadow of the video and all it wrought aside. The hiatus between Black Messiah and whatever his fourth album will be has now stretched on longer than the one between Brown Sugar and Voodoo, but this break feels different than the previous ones. In 2018, D’Angelo—a noted video game enthusiast—contributed a song to Red Dead Redemption 2.

“It grows on people,” Pennick says, reflecting once more on Voodoo. “It takes people a minute to really appreciate the tapestry that’s been sewn for them.” The album’s true sorcery lies in something greater than D’Angelo’s dark days or the long hiatuses or even that sweaty, sexed-up video. It’s become a tributary flowing into the inspirational ocean of classic black music that influenced him, from Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times to Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life—or even Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, probably the most recent album in this lineage. D’Angelo took his influences, ran them through two years in Electric Lady while playing with some of the best musicians in the world, and spit out a raw, psychedelic soul masterpiece.

For many, D’Angelo’s name still evokes the glistening, muscular Adonis who asked us how it felt. But 20 years after the “Untitled” video first seduced us, the image has faded: D’Angelo is older, and we’ve developed a greater understanding for the toll that period took on him. We’ve also had two decades to sit with Voodoo, which remains as stunning today as it was upon its release. His long breaks from releasing music only deepened our appreciation for what he created on his sophomore album, and for most of us, he’s remembered how he also wanted to be: a musician with an undying devotion to his craft who was able to carve out his own place among the pioneers who preceded him.

“This was a supremely talented artist who made an absolutely great album that’s influenced a lot of musicians and vocalists to this day and will continue to do so,” Poyser says. “So many kids that I’ve met reference this album: ‘Let’s do some stuff with that Voodoo feel, that kind of vibe.’ It’s made its mark.”

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