D'Angelo is sexy. He can sing, too. In today's radio wasteland, this combination is apparently enough to evoke some pretty strong responses from fans and media alike. Yet even though D'Angelo has enraptured the youth of this era much as Marvin Gaye did in his, it's incorrect, and dangerous, to call him the "new" anybody, as many people have, because the comparison minimizes the potential of the former and the contributions of the latter. D'Angelo's seven-year career has yielded only two complete albums, Brown Sugar and Voodoo, and their combined significance has yet to compare to the catalog and social impact of cultural icon Marvin.
However, D'Angelo is supremely impressive when viewed in the context of his contemporaries, a clash of flash-and-cash artists who constantly bastardize Boogie Down beats and Dre Day grooves with mindless sexual drivel. Too many of his urban-pop-mates think they know hip-hop and call dirty language -- in three-part harmony -- R&B, mistaking platinum status for passion and volume sales for vocal power. As a result, their forgettable releases mock the arts of sampling and beat orchestration and disgrace the legacies of Mayfield and Aretha, Pendergrass and Gladys. D'Angelo sings in an era when most of his peers are content spitting out tinny vocals with fake, gospel-music-styled solos.
This isn't to say he's without influences. "Untitled (How Does It Feel?)" owes its swing to the Nameless Purple Monarch from Minneapolis. Yet, unlike the irreverent parodies Beck contributed this year, D'Angelo and co-writer Raphael Saadiq are passionate, not ironic, and pay sincere homage to the Artist's signature style. And though dozens of remakes have been bungled throughout modern pop history (including Madonna's recent miscalculation), D'Angelo's retouch of Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love" is as discreetly sensual as the original. Unlike many in his genre, D'Angelo doesn't need to make the romantic standard illicit or otherwise unrecognizable to make it his own.
Each carefully constructed track on Voodoo easily lends itself to the infinite improvisation of live jazz and puts the "jam" in "jam band." For instance, "Chicken Grease" swings as hard as any Ellington or Basie track, but all Mingused out. Instead of horn sections, a funky rhythm-guitar layer covers drums that hop along as well as any program by DJ Premiere (who, incidentally, co-produced another standout track, "Devil's Pie"). D'Angelo, as lead vocal, even freestyles call-and-response with the chorus, an act tailor-made to be duplicated onstage as call-and-response with the audience or background vocalists.
There's enough commotion in these songs, and enough sonic variation, to enthrall an audience for 20 minutes as easily as for three. With such a commanding presence on tape, D'Angelo's music seems perfectly constructed for the live setting -- he performs at the Fox Theatre on April 20 -- and reminds the listener that commercial recording began as a way to attract an audience to witness the performer live.
There is not now -- nor will there ever be -- a replacement for the men and women who created the classic Soul and R&B, even after the music of Cooke and Etta, Burke, Maxine Brown or Ann Peebles has long since been dropped from regular rotation and relegated to journalistic metaphors. However, "when you get that feelin'," you can grab your loved one, turn the lights down low and meld to Voodoo, a descendant of tradition even the Artist would applaud.