Ten years ago today, D'Angelo saved R&B from itself and sent himself into a long descent into hell. The Pentecostal preacher's son released "Voodoo" in January 2000 -- the first month of the first year of the first decade of the 21st century. "Voodoo" was an album that recovered 40 years of black soul music, packed it in a spaceship, and sent it 40 years into the future. It was the second album D'Angelo ever made. It was also the last.
To fully understand the impact and importance of "Voodoo," you have to place yourself in the middle of the late 20th century R&B landscape, where a battle was being waged for the soul of black American music. On one side stood an army of MTV-bred pop stars posing as "R&B." Black Eyed Peas, 98 Degrees, 'NSync, and dozens of overly polished, middle-of-the-road musicians all mutating soul into a saccharine, sellable product. At the time, D'Angelo himself said in an interview with Jet magazine, "The term R&B doesn't mean what it used to mean. R&B is pop, that's the new word for R&B."
Facing down the poseurs were a loose band of old school soul confederates determined to return R&B to its vintage, analog roots. Meshell Ndegeocello, Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, and yes, a band called The Roots, stood alongside D'Angelo, with 'fros tall, cornrows long, and grooves loose. "Voodoo" was the first shot in the latest R&B battlefront. And for a moment, it looked as if victory was theirs.
"Voodoo" was an unqualified success. Music critics fell over themselves trying to find superlatives to describe it: "masterpiece," "classic," even (one of my favorites) "aural aphrodisiac." The record-buying audience -- used to predictable, super-sized productions -- was at first slow to catch on to the collection's raw-sensuality-meets-bare-bones experimentalism. That all changed when D'Angelo made his video for the album's third single, "Untitled (How Does It Feel)."
Consisting of one shot, D'Angelo stood naked and chiseled in front of the camera (he was wearing pajama bottoms just out of view of the camera) and proceeded to seduce every woman within reach of a television. Turns out there were a LOT of women ready to be seduced. The video for "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" transformed D'Angelo into the new century's first sex symbol. On the subsequent "Voodoo" tour, women threw their clothes onstage and begged the ripped star to take off his own.
And here is where D'Angelo began to unravel. The artist he longed to be was overshadowed by the sex symbol he had become. Introverted and insecure, D'Angelo began worrying about looking as good onstage as he did in the video. Tour dates were cancelled. According to Questlove, the Roots drummer who served as D'Angelo's musical director, "Some shows got cancelled because he didn't feel physically prepared, but it was such a delusion... He was like, 'They don't understand. They don't get it. They just want me to take off my clothes.' Had he known what the repercussions of 'Untitled' would've been, I don't think he would've done it."
When the "Voodoo" tour ended at the end of 2000, D'Angelo headed back to his native Virginia. He drank, smoked weed, snorted coke, and isolated himself. A 2005 DUI led him to Crossroads, Eric Clapton's rehab facility in Antigua. The once ripped singer was now addicted and 40 pounds overweight. But he's out of rehab now and has made some tentative steps back into the neo-soul army he once led. D'Angelo has made appearances on singles from Common, Snoop Dogg and Questlove. As for his own album, the world has been waiting for "James River" since it was first rumored three years ago.
Ten years later, at the start of another decade, the time is right for another revolution. My bet is that D'Angelo could lead it once again. This time with the shirt on.
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