Born Michael Eugene Archer in Richmond, Virginia 1974 he is the celebrated son of a preacher man. A visit to Harlem persuaded the teenage prodigy – he specialises in keyboards but nothing much else fazes him – that a career in music was to be his calling. Others agreed and after a short spell in the hip hop outfit I.D.U. (stands for Intelligent, Deadly but Unique) the street noise persuaded EMI to sign him up as an artist in development and for his obvious writing ability. His own hit single “U Will Know” covered those bases while a stint working with Black Men United sharpened his approach as he linked up with Brian McKnight, Usher, R. Kelly, Boyz 11 Men et al and held his own on a sharp learning curve.
D'Angelo’s debut, Brown Sugar, landed in 1995 and was the proverbial bomb. A fantastic meeting of classic soul tropes, funky and the sleekest R&B it garnered four Academy Award nominations and sold a million copies in the US and well over 100,000 in the UK. A groundbreaking foretaste of digital production with the producer elevated to the role of shape maker. Specialising in the glorious tones of Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ D’Angelo handled the bulk of playing with assists from Bob Power on guitar, a battery of string and orchestral specialists and a telling cameo from bass player Will Lee. The album is a precursor to the new smart trend of soul whose fellow followers include Maxwell, Fugees, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badou: artists with one foot in the future and one tickling the past greats like Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross.
In fact D’Angelo would hit large with his version of Smokey Robinson’s monster smash “Cruisin", Everything else is from the main man’s pen though some are co-writes with Ali Shaheed Muhammed, Angela Stone and cohort Raphael Saadiq. The results sprung neo-soul into life and gathered in hordes of new converts to a contemporary brand of R&B that had radio bounce and the integrity of the auteur in every lick and every single groove.
This masterpiece was followed by a frustrating period when label problems thwarted a fast successor. In between times he worked with Hill and used many of the musicians associated with Badou and the artist Common – aka the Soulquarians. The live disc, at the Jazz Café, London was something to be going on with and is very fine indeed. In the reissued version known as The Complete Show (2014) where previously unreleased visits to “I’m Glad You’re Mine”, “Lady” and “Can’t Hide Love”, written by the late, great Skip Scarborough expand upon the original 7-track affair it sounds particularly fine.
Now signed to Virgin D’Angelo made up for not altogether lost studio time with Voodoo, the cover depicting him in his raw sex symbol form. This grown up commentary on life, love and spirituality kept D’Angelo honest and in demand with millions flocking to the well to drink from a powerful brew that summoned up Sly, Jimi Hendrix and the bubbling under sound of Parliament/Funkadelic. Voodoo worked its magic and won the Grammy for Best R&B Album while Time magazine placed it #1 in its end of year poll. Voodoo is one of those albums that crosses over all genres and has an appeal that is timeless. If you’ve never really heard the whole thing it’s completely commended and is so worth discovering that devotees still hold it on a pedestal.
Combining vintage sounds and some retro equipment with Latin salsa rhythms in places and with Questlove’s delicious drumming all over it, Voodoo features such brilliant players as guitarist Charlie Hunter, bass man Pino Palladino, Q-Tip and even a cheeky Prince sample on “Africa”. Packed with hit tunes– “Devil’s Pie”, “Left & Right”, the Grammy vocal R&B performance winner “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”, “Send It On” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love” (the song made famous by Roberta Flack in 1974) – the production process was bolstered by careful examination of core soul figures like Sly Stone, Al Green, George Clinton, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and of course Hendrix, since they recorded this disc in the main at Electric Lady Studios to feel that vibe. Black music heaviness pervades the results and the entire album had a profound effect on the participants as well as the listeners.
Fourteen years will elapse until we get to hear Black Messiah. D'Angelo had set himself a ferocious schedule and felt somewhat dismayed by his perception as a sex symbol. He began to pursue different strands of social awareness, racial inequality and politics in general.
During this break he wasn’t short of input to other projects: he collaborated with J Dilla, Snoop Dogg, Common and others and returned to his own work in various spells. The resulting release has been hailed as an experimental soul masterpiece and was released digitally in December 2014 with the hit single “Really Love” hitting airwaves a month later. Guests on the latest suite of D’Angelo joints include The Time’s Jesse Johnson, legendary drummer James Gadson and the versatile master of syncopation Chris Dave.
We point you to the compilation The Best So Far… for its rarities and radio edits and the hits packed ICON where those honeyed vocals and superbly crafted songs will blow you away in no time at all.
Now that neo-soul has been integrated into the mainstream it’s timely to check out one of the men who made it happen: D’Angelo is the man in the vanguard.
Words: Max Bell
Five years after his Brown Sugar album helped launch contemporary R&B, D'Angelo finally returned with his sophomore effort, Voodoo. His soulful voice is just as sweet as it was on Brown Sugar, though D'Angelo stretches out with a varied cast of collaborators, including trumpeter Roy Hargrove and guitarist Charlie Hunter, fellow neo-soul stars Lauryn Hill and Raphael Saadiq, and hip-hop heads like DJ Premier, Method Man & Redman, and Q-Tip. It must have been difficult to match his debut (and the frequent delays prove it was on his mind), but Voodoo is just as rewarding a soul album as D'Angelo's first.
Words: John Bush
By the mid-'90s, most urban R&B had become rather predictable, working on similar combinations of soul and hip-hop, or relying on vocal theatrics on slow, seductive numbers. With his debut album, Brown Sugar, the 21-year-old D'Angelo crashed down some of those barriers. D'Angelo concentrates on classic versions of soul and R&B, but unlike most of his contemporaries, he doesn't cut and paste older songs with hip-hop beats; instead, he attacks the forms with a hip-hop attitude, breathing new life into traditional forms. Not all of his music works -- there are several songs that sound incomplete, relying more on sound than structure. But when he does have a good song -- like the hit "Brown Sugar," Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'," or the bluesy "Shit, Damn, Motherfucker," among several others -- D'Angelo's wild talents are evident. Brown Sugar might not be consistently brilliant, but it is one of the most exciting debuts of 1995, giving a good sense of how deep D'Angelo's talents run.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
D'Angelo's music was always smooth & easy to ride to.... You can tell that he was inspired by the "OLD SCHOOL MUSIC", back when music was REAL MUSIC----a person had to actually PLAY AN INSTRUMENT----and not depend on a drum/beat machine and a producer pushing buttons to get rid of the imperfections and "fake singing".... D'Angelo probably listened to Earth, Wind, & Fire, the Isley Brothers, Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, The Ohio Players, George Clinton, Bootsy, Stevie Wonder, & Luther Vandross----now that's "REAL / OLD SCHOOL MUSIC"!!!! Ya' dig?
Wurdz: Fresh S-1
The Japan-only original version of Live at the Jazz Cafe, London was released in 1996 as a stopgap between D'Angelo's first and second albums. Eighteen years later, it was expanded and widely reissued as a stopgap between the artist's second and third albums, the latter of which had yet to materialize. The 1996 release consisted of roughly two-thirds of the September 14, 1995 performance, with the selections presented out of sequence. The 2014 release contains the whole set, from the introduction to the rapt applause at the close of an 11-minute "Brown Sugar." In the U.K., D'Angelo's first single was three weeks away from release, yet the audience knew it from the first notes. In the States, the debut album from the 21 year-old was only two months old, on its way to platinum status. In the liner notes, manager Alan Leeds recalls that D'Angelo had done only a few gigs. Indeed, the early portion of this set sounds tentative. It begins with two-minute versions of Mandrill's "Fencewalk" and Ohio Players' "Sweet Sticky Thing," in which D'Angelo's trio of female background vocalists -- including collaborator Angie Stone, between pioneering rap group Sequence and her solo career -- are more prominent. From there, D'Angelo and his band roll through over half of the debut's songs, including an uptempo version of "Jonz in My Bonz" (co-written by Stone) and a livelier "Lady," greatly enhanced by the extra voices. There are other covers, not just one of Smokey Robinson and Marv Tarplin's "Cruisin'." Al Green's "I'm Glad You're Mine" includes a showcase for guitarist Mike Campbell, an essential player in Voodoo, while a joyously reverent "Can't Hide Love" -- written by Skip Scarborough for Creative Source, made more popular by Earth, Wind & Fire, and practically a standard -- gets another instant crowd reaction. This is a fascinating and satisfying document of a path-clearing young artist who had just gone supernova.
Words: Andy Kellman