It’s hard to overstate the significance of D’Angelo’s Voodoo. While it was a commercially successful album by any measure, it also remains the distillation of a pivotal moment in music and the soundtrack to a bygone era. Channeling the spirits of James, Sly, Stevie, Marvin, Prince and others from the pantheon of soul (collectively referred to by D as Yoda), it’s also kept cratediggers searching for original vinyl pressings years after it was certified platinum. A dense, heady piece that rewards repeat spins over a decade later, the record has plenty to unpack while remaining accessible to the casual listener. Its lyrics express a range of emotion, from sultry and sexy to spiritually sublime, with themes covering an impressive amount of ground delivered in its auteur’s trademark, nearly-unintelligible murmur.
Soon after the album’s slick opener slinks into form, D reminds the listener on his ostensible mission statement that dirt’s our secret weapon, each and every night. Although the album contains its fair share of intimate moments, “dirt” is actually codeword D used for the sonic nooks and crannies that he and his studio crew built through aesthetic texture, organic rhythmic timing and vintage sensibilities. The album’s recording techniques also contributed to this vibe— well into the Pro Tools era, album engineer Russ “The Dragon” Elevado famously recorded the sessions on analog equipment and won a Grammy for his contributions behind the boards.
Many listeners caught their first glimpse of the album through the single Left & Right, which got a decent amount of airplay on urban radio. Unfortunately, that particular track could be construed as a casualty of A&R meddling, as Method Man and Redman bark an awkwardly uninspired, misogynistic back-and-forth on a funky instrumental. Some present for the song’s recording session have suggested that Q-Tip (credited on the track for vocal percussion) was originally tapped to contribute the verse, but his offerings were left on the cutting room floor as the verses were deemed subpar.
Were it not for those uncomfortably placed verses — the album’s only raps — the project would be nearly flawless. Still, front to back it’s a timeless work and as close to perfection as soul music gets. A prolific instrumentalist, D wrote and produced most of the music while performing much instrumentation, including turns on the keyboards, bass, guitar and even some drums. He also had help from a jaw dropping list of greats, including ?uestlove, DJ Premier, Raphael Saadiq, James Poyser, Roy Hargrove and veteran bassist Pino Palladino. While he wasn’t explicitly credited, J Dilla was also said to be present at the sessions and his production techniques were a heavy influence on the album’s sound. Like much of late producer’s work, the album’s percussion captures a uniquely human sound; ever-so-slightly delayed snares stacked with claps complement the laid back grooves that give the tracks a distinctive feel. A bevy of renowned musicians and entertainers also stopped by the jam sessions that yielded the album’s final tracks. Recorded in an environment recalled as the “left-of-center black music renaissance”, these gatherings are the stuff of music folklore.
Leading up to the Voodoo recording sessions, album engineer Russ Elevado reintroduced D’Angelo to the catalog of Jimi Hendrix. Only acquainted with a few of the legend’s singles beforehand, D quickly recognized Hendrix’s place in the legacy of black music, observing that the rocker’s style had influenced many of his musical heroes. With this discovery he jumped at the opportunity to record at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, which Hendrix himself built. Beyond housing some of Hendrix’s last sessions, the studio’s booths had hosted some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians, including Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Dylan and John Lennon.
At the time of Voodoo’s recording, Common and Erykah Badu were also on the premises recording their respective masterpieces Like Water for Chocolate and Mama’s Gun. With ?uestlove at the helm of all three albums, the works are connected by a sonic thread that shaped a distinctive turn of the century evolution in soul music. Artists from each project visited each other’s studio rooms on a regular basis, and this intimate environment facilitated a musical potluck of sorts. (Common actually ended up swapping what would become Voodoo’s “Chicken Grease” for the instrumental behind LWFC’s “Geto Heaven Part Two”.) The Voodoo sessions also produced a coveted bundle of B-sides and unreleased material, including covers of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Superman Lover”, Gang Starr’s “Ex Girl to the Next Girl” and Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, which has become an underground classic in its own right.
The subsequent international tour was another noteworthy chapter in the Voodoo saga, as ?uestlove presided over D’s touring band dubbed the Soultronics. Months after the album’s release, its A-list studio personnel hit the world stage, along with a relatively unknown Anthony Hamilton singing backup and opening acts including Slum Village’s original lineup. Critics across several continents praised the show for its throwback energy and its headliner’s peerless showmanship, which cemented the performer’s role in the lineage of R&B, soul and funk greats.
Despite a promising start, the frontman’s demons began to take a toll as the tour picked up steam. Pressure from his image, combined with the harsh realities of substance abuse, led to a meltdown behind the scenes. As the ensemble hit sold out venues night after night, the virtuoso grew frustrated that his musicianship kept taking a backseat to his newfound sex-symbol status in the eyes of many concertgoers. After his infamous video for “Untitled” portrayed his recently-chiseled figure nude from the waist up, he grew tormented by swarms of female fans who were apparently more interested in his body of muscle than his body of music. While the Soultronics initially planned on recording a live album along with new studio material, their momentum fizzled as with their leader’s mental health deteriorated.
Like one L Boogie, D followed his magnum opus by fading into obscurity and isolation, seemingly losing himself under the weight of his own genius. Since 2000, he has experienced a number of run-ins with the law, punctuated by a much-blogged mug shot depicting an overweight, unkempt figure bearing a resemblance to Wu-Tang’s ODB. In recent years he’s remained elusive, refusing to grant press interviews and only appearing on a handful of album features and unauthorized leaks from the archives.
Despite these setbacks, recent interviews with his creative associates indicate that D’s long-awaited follow up James River is in post-production, and news broke in late 2011 that he’ll be performing at several 2012 European dates in with much of his former touring band. Rumor has it he’s got another classic on his hands, and may actually release this much-delayed project before the year is out. It sounds like D may have finally exorcised the negative energy that plagued him for much of the last decade and could be ready to share the new voodoo he’s been conjuring up. If that’s the case, he’s poised to answer the cry from legions of listeners who have been waiting for him to cast a spell on us all over again.
Written by: @BrotherHayling