Friday, October 19, 2007

[046] Voodoo

Album: Voodoo
Artist: D'Angelo
Release Date: January 2000
Label: Virgin
Producers: D'Angelo & Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, with DJ Premier and Raphael Saadiq

“Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas. Number one: those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment, and number two: those who use it for mere background music. The thing is this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence. This record is the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality. Cats who live for music, and all the new directions it can show you, have cried when I played this record for them. I don't wanna embarrass no one, but I assure you at least 7 of your favorite artists were on their knees BAWLING because of this astounding document of music. This is what we need today. This is no
“miseducation”. This is the blueprint right here!
- Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, from his Voodoo “review” on [late 1999]

Name a CLASSIC R&B album in the last 20 years. Don’t worry, I’ll wait...
In late 1982, R&B, or more specifically, Soul music, died. It was the moment that Thriller detonated across everyone’s eardrums. Ya see, Michael was the only one who didn’t let disco’s clinical gleam die peacefully. He held onto the notion that the endless possibilities of a multi-million dollar studio were as important as the songs, or the blood, sweat & tears that went into the vocals and the performances. The world’s biggest R&B star became the world’s biggest Pop star; with the exception of the Funk monster “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, Michael Jackson thinned his sound out and got his Pop chart dominance. And that was it. The battle was over. Prince was already too busy exploring other styles; he never left the Funk totally alone, but his appetite for new sounds was insatiable, so his fault is that much less in the matter. They were the two artists set to carry the torch for icons like James, Marvin, Curtis, Aretha, Sly, Stevie, George, and Reverend Al, and they chose to put the torch down. For more than 15 years, we got nothing but second best, good but not great, great but not classic; the histrionics of Whitney, the chipmunk saccharine nonsense of New Edition, the lecherous thuggery of R. Kelly. Mary J. Blige was really the only hopeful, and she managed to navigate around the fresh sounds of Hip-Hop, but her potentially undeniable classic album never materialized. There was far too much of what Wu-Tang called “Rap & Bullshit”. Maxwell gave us a little hope, and then floated away. Erykah was real close, but she never held it down for a whole album. D’Angelo, well, he looked like a good one on Brown Sugar, but not The One. His debut was smooth and rough at the same time, but for the most part too indebted to the past. Then he met Ahmir Thompson, a.k.a. ?uestlove from The Roots.

“My groove is tight, drummer’s drumming right; dirt’s our secret weapon each and every night..."
“Playa Playa”, the creeping seven-minute groove that opens the album is filthy. I don’t mean it has explicit lyrics. I mean it sounds like it’s rolled in dirt and grime. It’s Superfly hanging out in the 36 Chambers. Dating from ’96, D’Angelo and
?uestlove put it together for the Space Jam soundtrack, and of course when they turned it in, The WB looked at them like they were the aliens from the movie. It became the template for one of the greatest R&B albums of all-time. Voodoo came after what seemed like a long wait – almost five years separate D’s two albums, but he used that time wisely. He stretched his legs on songs for soundtracks and worked the tribute pieces out of his system, all the while jamming with Ahmir on the side. The crackling loops at work in “Devil’s Pie” approach the Voodoo sound from the other end. If “Playa Playa” was classic Funk of the most dank, organic variety, then this DJ Premier-produced track, originally found on the soundtrack to Belly, was Hip-Hop at its most crispy, D gliding over top with a condemnation of the jiggy era, and how Hip-Hop’s fascination with excess is always food related – dough, cheese, cream, ice, etc. It’s interesting that these two songs introduce the album as they represent the opposing poles of D’s inherent musical personality; the spiritual, soulful lover-man that was known to break into the rhymes of entire Gang Starr albums between funky workouts.

Once you enter those gates, Voodoo is the Soul music of a new age, significantly recorded in Electric Lady Studios in NYC, the studio built brick by brick by Jimi Hendrix, assimilating not just the obvious influences that critics wanted to use as talking points, but everything that D and his collaborators had heard in their lifetimes. For instance, the overlapping verses and throbbing jazz guitar of “The Root” is specifically positioned as the centerpiece of the album simply because D wanted the album to flow similar to our #49 entry, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, and its corresponding song, “Electric Relaxation”. Not only does “The Root” house what seems like the album’s spiritual mission statement – “Like the rain to the dirt, from the vine to the wine, from the alpha of creation to the end of all time” – it’s one of three songs to feature the virtuoso Charlie Hunter. It bears mentioning that Voodoo has no overdubs; it exists pretty much as it was recorded, carved out of reels and reels of analog jams, which is even more amazing when you hear the playing of Hunter, who plays an 8-string guitar, 5 guitar and 3 bass, so the guitar and bass you hear was played at the same time by one person. “Spanish Joint” is a spicy workout with Hunter going nuts, and yet overshadowed by Roy Hargrove’s victorious horns. The third of Hunter’s appearances is the sun-kissed “Greatdayindamornin’”, which has the lazy bounce of every G-Funk summer BBQ video the West Coast was turning out only five years earlier.

Voodoo was the coming out party for The Soulquarians, which was the production axis of D, ?uest, Lauryn Hill producer James Poyser, and the late J Dilla, who at that point was still in Slum Village. Jay is absent from the liner notes, but his ideas seem to be everywhere; similarly, a planned duet with Lauryn was left off the album at the last minute, but Voodoo still seems like one up on her Miseducation. Most songs on the album sprang from all-night jam sessions after
“family” dinners at Electric Lady. Friends like Common, Erykah, Q-Tip, and Pete Rock would drive hours just to hang out, maybe do some handclaps. The southern grit of “Chicken Grease” sounds like a particularly alive and funky night, banging out some of the stankiest sublimity. The “future funk” of “Left & Right” started as a collaboration between D & Q-Tip to make a classic party song as good as those on Biggie’s Life After Death, one that played to the dichotomy of his fans, the street corner thugs and the fainting females. The skeletal pulse is blurry and bloodshot, like the rarely seen X-rated video that accompanied it; “One Mo’Gin”
is even murkier, soaked in the sexual tension of the lyric. Raphael Saadiq pitched in on the hit Prince tribute “Untitled”, and the swaying “The Line”, which deals with the self-doubt in following his debut album, being compared with his idols, and being an enduring artist. Where D deals with this stress lyrically on “The Line”, he deals with it musically on songs like the Kool & The Gang-influenced show-stopping ballad “Send It On”, the Roberta Flack cover “Feel Like Makin’
Love”, and the Wonder-fully gorgeous set-piece “Africa”, adorned in damp bass, backwards guitar, and music box bells & chimes.

This atmosphere of artistic community trying to build something to be truly proud of from what they were left by their forefathers birthed brilliance that spilled over onto The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, and D’s subsequent tour. I witnessed the happening from the fourth row of Radio City Music Hall, and it remains one of the most special nights of my life. It was musical perfection, and it remains a sad fact that a planned live album from the tour went up in smoke with D’s countless blunts, and maybe label money that hadn’t been recouped. Despite debuting at number 1, Voodoo was deemed somewhat of a failure because it was too opaque, and casual listeners failed D’s test. With R&B now back in the gutter where D found it, and Hip-Hop in an even worse state seven years on, this essential classic is in danger of eventually being lost to time. I had to do my part to spread D’s gospel, cuz I’m worried I’ll have to wait another 30 years for a Soul album this good.

01. "Playa Playa"
02. "Devil's Pie"
03. "Left & Right" [feat. Method Man & Redman]
04. "The Line"
05. "Send It On"
06. "Chicken Grease"
07. "One Mo'Gin"
08. "The Root"
09. "Spanish Joint"
10. "Feel Like Makin' Love"
11. "Greatdayindamornin'/Booty"
12. "Untitled (How Does It Feel)"
13. "Africa"

"Chicken Grease" [live on HBO's Chris Rock Show, late 1999]

"Left & Right" [video edit]

- BONUS: "Devil's Pie" [audio]
- BONUS: "Send It On" [video]
- BONUS: "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Africa" [audio]

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