Friday, April 07, 2006

Searching for D'Angelo



"C'mon D and sang the song, yeah..."

The first time I heard of D'Angelo was a brief glimpse of him in the video for "U Will Know," from the group Black Men United. Co-written and co-produced by this cat, the song was from the 1994 film Jason's Lyric and featured a who's who of talent such as Tevin Campbell, H-Town, Boyz II Men, Brian McKnight, Lenny Kravitz, and Raphael Saadiq. The brother appeared to be mesmerized in the company of some great individuals as he dabbled at the keyboard. About a year later, I was gigging at KSYM-90.1 FM when the new batch of CD's came into the studio. I began shifting through them when I stumbled upon a single called "Brown Sugar." My co-host Jamal and I played the track and immediately liked what we heard. The music was fresh and much needed in an era of blunt hats, Dickies, and chronic smoke. That weekend, we premiered "Brown Sugar" on the show and watched as it quickly became one of our most requested songs.

In 1995, this cornrowed brother from Virginia took the world by storm with a sound that became dubbed as "neo soul." With a nod to Prince, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield, Michael Eugene Archer was suddenly the poster child for throwback grooves and real instrumentation. Written, produced, arranged, and composed by D'Angelo, Brown Sugar proved that the brother had skills in the studio. With hits like "Lady," "Sh*t, Damn, Motherf*cker," and a classic rendition of Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin," D'Angelo was on a course for major success. Tours, awards, and videos in heavy rotation made the brother a household name. Legend has it that at a concert, the place was so packed that even his idol Prince couldn't get in the door.

It would take five years before D'Angelo would bless the masses again with some new music. Along the way would be a single here, a soundtrack contribution there, and a TV appearance somwehere, but that was about it. In that timeframe, fresh faces like Maxwell, Rahsaan Patterson, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Musiq Soulchild would make their mark in the "neo soul" movement. Across the water, a dreadlocked brother named Omar (who many consider to be the founding father of "neo soul") was doing his thing as well. With flicks like love jones, these musicians provided the soundtrack and it was cool to rock headwraps and dig in on esoteric studies like Eastern philosophy and 5% wisdom.

After calling Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios home for a hot minute, in 2000 D'Angelo dropped the eclectic Voodoo. With rhythms reminiscent of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, D had concocted his own blend of musical gumbo for the masses. Dropping tracks like "Left and Right," the Prince-like "Chicken Grease," and "Send It On," many people consider Voodoo to be a masterpiece. What sent this CD flying off the shelves was the sensual "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" video with D'Angelo against a black background. Wearing nothing but a headful of neat cornrows and a chisled physique, he became the object of desire and a sex symbol for the new millenium. The album would go on to sell two million units and earn D a pair of Grammy Awards. He launched a very successful tour that featured ?uestlove of the Roots, Roy Hargrove, and an unknown background singer named Anthony Hamilton. D'Angelo was now "The Man" and had the success to prove it.

And then... he vanished.

Talk of a D'Angelo live album taken from the Voodoo tour came and went without a trace. Bootlegs of songs popped up on the internet but that was the extent of so-called new music. Word from the vine was that he was in the studio working on some new material never produced anything. The most we got to see of him was a guest spot in the video for "Be Here" featuring collaborator Raphael Saadiq. A lot of fans wondered, myself included, what happened and where did the brother go? His run-ins with the law were well documented and rumors of his emotional state made it's way in gossip columns. It wasn't until an arrest in early 2005 that the world got a glimpse of what was really going on with the brother. The charges of drunk driving and drug possession and an infamous mug shot of a bloated D'Angelo only proved that he had fallen off. To make matters worse, in September of 2005 the singer was driving in his Hummer when the vehicle slammed into a fence and overturned. Not wearing a seatbelt, he was ejected from the vehicle and sustained serious injury. Days later, he issued a statement saying that he "felt fine" and that he didn't remember much about the accident. That was the last anyone has heard from D'Angelo. Alan Leeds, former manager for Prince and now manager to D'Angelo, gave an interview earlier this year in which he stated that D'Angelo has recorded at least ten LP's worth of material. He also mentioned that D is having issues with his record label and that is what is what's holding up the new music.

I am a D'Angelo admirer. I love the music and I have followed his career since he first emerged on the scene. However, I am one of those cats who is looking forward to some new music from the brother. I would hate to know that he has gone the route of Shuggie Otis, a very talented multi-instrumentalist who released three LP's in the early to mid 70's and was never heard from again until recent years. With the state of (commercial) music today, someone of D'Angelo's caliber is highly needed. "Neo soul," a once promising genre of music in the 90's, has seen some of it's brightest and most innovative stars fall by the wayside with either label issues or record industry burn-out. Whatever the scenario that involves Michael Eugene Archer, he is missed in major way.

C'mon back, brother.