D’Angelo is a tease. With its boudoir-soul languor, purring tenor, and aching falsetto, Brown Sugar, his 1995 debut, established the Richmond, Virginia, singer as the natural soul savior of a genre that had come to be dominated by the processed likes of R. Kelly. But instead of following Brown Sugar with the definitive nineties-soul album his career seemed to promise, he all but disappeared into studio perfectionism, leaving his fans to satisfy themselves with the less overtly sexy Maxwell and obsess over his occasional guest appearances (a duet with Lauryn Hill here, a soundtrack cut there, and even a live gig accompanying the Artist Formerly Known as Prince).
Now that he’s released Voodoo (Cheeba Sound/Virgin), D’Angelo is still making his listeners delay their gratification. Even the video for the single “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” unfolds as something of a striptease. As D’Angelo sings along to gradually swelling soul, the camera pulls back to reveal his torso – shirtless, sweaty, and muscular, thanks to a commercially canny workout regime. Then, panning to the northern edge of NC-17, it reveals that socks are the only clothes he could conceivably be wearing.
Nor do the songs themselves deliver right away. Voodoo was so long in coming because D’Angelo carved most of the tunes out of two years’ worth of jam sessions. (Though D’Angelo plays guitar, keyboards, drums, and bass, Voodoo also features just about every player who’s anyone in R&B, including Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson, Tony! Toni! Toné! guitarist Raphael Saadiq, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.) It’s an intriguing approach, and many cuts, including the album-opening “Playa Playa,” begin with stealthy fade-ins because they evolved spontaneously.
On the other hand, most of the songs aren’t really songs at all – at least, not in the traditional sense. Performed without a definitive structure, they settle into a groove and rarely progress from verse to chorus to bridge or even shift their energy level from a seductive mid-tempo grind. That’s partly due to the influence of hip-hop, which often subordinates song structure to a steady foundation for a rapper’s flow. But D’Angelo, whose first recordings were rap demo tapes, now name-checks Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green – legends for whom soul music was about inhabiting a tune, not merely finding a great groove and sticking with it.
Emphasizing texture over structure isn’t bad – it just means sacrificing hooks. So the best cuts on Voodoo are the most carefully crafted. Roy Hargrove’s intricate horn arrangements on the Stevie Wonder-influenced “Spanish Joint” force the song to move forward instead of run in place. And though “Untitled” includes a meandering guitar solo, it also follows a defined trajectory, starting softly and gradually building to a crescendo of wailing guitar and Prince-worthy shouts. Too many of the other tracks – “The Line,” “Send It On,” “Chicken Grease” – merge into an amorphous soul soup. The lyrics, too, blend together. In their guest appearance on “Left & Right,” rappers Method Man and Redman spew nonsense like “Liar, liar, set your pussy on fire,” and even D’Angelo sometimes sounds like he made up the sillier lines on the spot (“If you get a feeling / feeling that I am feeling / won’t you come closer to me, baby”). But at least he owns up to it: The singer half-jokingly describes himself in the liner notes as “Bobby McFerrin on opium.”
Then again, who’s really listening for lyrics? D’Angelo’s intense charisma and pleading voice are his real medium – and his sultry message.