D’ANGELO: The Gift & The Curse
He was a quiet, softly spoken, artsy type that clearly preferred to let his music do the talking. It seems like a lifetime ago. In many ways it was - 1995. A musical generation ago.
The ’90’s. When the world was full of musical possibilities, when the term neo soul was uniting the races, the ages and hip-hop with R&B and soul while speaking to more than just the dance floor and speakers. There was an insurmountable wave of anticipation sweeping the music industry about the young all rounder,D’Angelo. We were sitting in EMI Records’ New York offices. I remember D’Angelo (born Michael Eugene Archer, February 11th 1974) telling me that part of his audition with the label was simply sitting at the piano and the A&R guy who signed him, asking the young musician to play any song that he named off the top of his head, which he did effortlessly. Back then, as was often the cross many new male artists had to bear - that have the rare gift of being able to play a musical instrument and sing at the same time(!) - D’Angelo was being compared to Prince. However, as our interview progressed and he revealed an often strained relationship with his father, a Pentacostal preacher, and in light of his recent failings, perhaps a comparison with Marvin Gaye may have been more fitting.
D’Angelo’s break through debut album, 'Brown Sugar' really was a turning of the tide musically, allowing the music industry to embrace en masse neo-soul as it began to be known. At the time of landing a huge publishing and record deal with EMI Music, D’Angelo, like Marvin Gaye (who married Berry Gordy’s sister, Anna, 17 years his senior) sought the comfort and nurturing of an older woman, singer/ songwriter Angie Stone (the two have a son, Michael Jr together). She claimed it was her who helped her young beau craft 'Brown Sugar'. Musically it seems like an obvious fit. While the single 'Brown Sugar' itself was a clever lyrical mesh of conventional and contemporary R&B ('Brown Sugar' refers to marijuana sung in a way that could equally be about a female love interest), other hits such as 'Lady' and the remake of Smokey Robinson’s 'Cruisin' are more conventionally R&B.
I recall after the album’s success there were rumours abound of D’Angelo’s constant weed smokin’ and weight gain. Around this time I remember walking past Quadrasonic studios in Manhattan and seeing D’Angelo in the doorway. I hardly recognised the bloated figure standing there smoking a cigarette. The musical world held it’s breath in anticipation of his all important second album. And it held it’s breath... and held it’s breath. The rumour mill began swirling stories of how D’Angelo was ensconced in Electric Lady studios in Greenwich Village, costing Virgin Records an absolute fortune wallowing in musical self indulgence with no end or single in sight. Eventually five years after his debut, D’Angelo surfaced from his musical hibernation with “Voodoo”. The album’s marketing hit its stride spectacularly with a lean, mean ripped crooner singing in the buff for the video for the first album, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”. The album was pure neo-soul self indulgence. For an urban music industry that is famously hit single driven in “Voodoo” Virgin Record execs must have inwardly despaired at what had been delivered. Listening back to it today it really is a good album and has been described as such by many critics and musicians alike. The problem, D’Angelo’s label faced was the fact that it just wasn’t that commercial. More of a jam session with friends. It was unapologetically self-indulgent and speaking as a purist that’s how music should always be made, by pleasing the artist first. Unfortunately, when art and commerce collide art rarely wins, especially when your record co. has been forking out untold amounts of money to indulge you artistically. They want a return and translating “Voodoo” in to a slew of hit singles was clearly an tough fight. His management issued a statement comparing “Voddoo” as the R&B musical equivalent of Radiohead’s ground breaking “OK Computer”. Unfortunately experimental English indie art/rock and the US urban music biz are two entirely different animals. They exist in opposite universes and attempting to compare the two would be like asking George Bush to don a tie dye shirt, and march barefoot at a Peace rally. In the end “Voodoo” won a grammy for best R&B album and another for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance but it certainly wasn’t the meteoric commercial success his label had hoped for. An artist like D’Angelo - straddled with personal demons, sensitivity and a raging creative fire will never be a record company darling like an Usher or Beyoncé. They are simply wired differently.
D’Angelo subsequently collaborated on a series on projects with fellow, like minded spirits such as Lauryn Hill, Raphael Saadiq, Q-Tip and the late J Dilla. Then in recent years the rumours and truths began to take a turn for he worst for the southern singer, who had by now traded the Big Apple for his home state of Virginia.
In January of 2005, D’Angelo was arrested and charged for possession of marij-uana. possession of a controlled substance and driving while intoxicated. He pleaded guilty to the DUI and marijuana charge and on April 13th was given a fine and suspended sentence and his drivers license was revoked. On September 12 he received a three-year suspended sentence on the cocaine charge.
On September 19th, 2005 just a week after being sentenced for cocaine possess-ion, D’Angelo was critically injured in Powhatan County, Virginia when the SUV he was riding in hit a fence, ejecting him. He was not wearing a seatbelt.
In August 2006 D’Angelo exited a drug rehab facility on the island of Antigua and began collaborations with rappers Common and Q-Tip. Most recently D’Angelo was featured on the song “Imagine” by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre from his album, “Tha Blue Carpet Treatment” released on Nov. 21st 2006.
On April 17, 2007 a new song called “Really Love” was leaked on Triple J Radio in Australia by The Roots’ ?uestlove. D’Angelo also had a guest appearance on Common’s most recent album “Finding Forever” on the track “So Far To Go”.
Despite the guest appearances the fact remains however, that eight years after his sophomore set, D’Angelo has yet to release another album. That means he’s released two albums in 13 years. Now well into his 30’s he’s considered a veteran in the game but his body of work is sparse to say the least. As a true artist and musician, his 20’s and ’30’s should have been a period of prolific output. Clearly all has not been well. Drugs have surely played their part. Is/was he an addict? His stint in rehab would imply so. Has he been frustrated to the point of not wanting to stem his artistic inclinations to suit record company marketing plans and thus not release music they would deem commercially viable? The fact that he now appears to be affiliated outside of his former EMI home would also imply so. Or maybe his old label just decided to cut their losses on an artist who promised so much but delivered so little. Whatever the reason I sincerely hope the D’Angelo story doesn’t choose to wind down ignominiously here, that he can finally get his act together that there is more incredible music and that the prodigal son will return home once again to a musically starved public and an industry devoid of artistic greatness and genuine star power.
Words JEFF LOREZ