Albums We Love: D'Angelo - "Voodoo"

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If you pushed me on one of those ambiguous, meaningless questions that drive the grit of hundreds to thousands of music blogs each day, say, "What's the greatest sexy time music?"  My response would be Al Green.  If you were to push me into another question, equally boring and impotent, like, "What's the best produced record of all time?" I'd say Al Green again, and if you asked me to be more specific, I'd say anything that Willie Mitchell produced.  Not being a musician, nor a recording rat, nor running a label, I don't really have any idea what a producer does.  I have the vague suspicion that they are given more credit than's due sometimes and less others.  So, that sounds to me like an editor.  There are those like Gordon Lish, who eviscerated (and created) Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and Maxwell Perkins who helped turn Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby into what it is today.  In other words, there are those who can do more than make a great book--they can define a style, a movement, a new way of thinking. 

In 2000, the rumors were all over the place.  The rumor was that D'Angelo was receiving a bit of -- howdothekidssayitthesedays -- fellatio in the mesmerizing video for "Untitled (How Does it Feel)." The third single off his second album Voodoo.  Who knows how rumors begin, though in the case of this particular rumor, it's hard not to see it as attached to the video's raw sexuality.  A heightened form of cinema verite displaying a type of black male sexuality that hadn't hit the mainstream until then--sensitive, impressive, uninhibited and unrestrained.

In this sense, anyway, the video for "Untitled (How Does it Feel)" operates as a microcosm for the entire Voodoo album.  Snaking its way through the record, the instrumentation reveals sparse landscapes.  It's more of a rap album than a soul album or vice versa -- the rhythm section looms large not as bombast but as a subtle heartbeat, the thudding foundation.  Even the subdued flourish on "Send it on" rolls into a gentle thump or the glorious chorus from "Untitled (How Does it Feel)" moves with a distanced bass roll before the the tighter chord progression.

The core of producers who made up the team for Voodoo -- D'Angelo, Questlove, J Dilla -- were the core members of the neo soul movement for which Voodoo remains one of the most outstanding expressions.  Musically, its precision matches that of Willie Mitchell and Al Green, while the albums understanding of music seems to subvert the very foundations of mainstream music.  When the vocals come in on the incomparable "Feel like Makin' Love," they're almost inaudible.  The horn section seems to be miles behind while the melody is stitched on the sinuous and sexy bass, drums, handclap. Even the most straight up hip-hop track on the record, "Left and Right," featuring Method Man and Red Man pre-How High (and featuring the rather forgettable line "Liar, Liar set your pussy on fire"), feels like one of the weirder collaborations that that damn guitar lick just keeps together.

In many ways, Voodoo expresses itself so gently both musically and lyrically (Method Man and Red Man being the exception) it's difficult to have on, unless it's sexy time.  The album exudes minimalist soul.  The subtle variations like the keyboard riff on "One Mo'Gin" seems like an anomaly before it flourishes, flourishes and flourishes again.  Voodoo reduces soul to its essence, which emerges a sort of slow-roll hip-hop and recasts it over and over again.  D'Angelo's incredible vocals, doubled and doubled, become a sort of lyrical pastiche--a vocal collage.  As Saul Williams notes in the liner notes, not even he can understand what D'Angelo is saying.  In "Devil's Pie" it sounds like he could be describing hell or actually giving you a recipe.

Despite the apparent simplicity in arrangement and instrumentation, Voodoo remains one of the most engaging listens even 12 years after its release.  The complexity of production and songwriting remain unmatched even with the sophistication of releases like Kanye's My Dark Twisted Fantasy.  This is a record that, like Al Green and all the other great soul records, makes its impact on placement rather than soundscape.  No note is spared, no note is spare.

And while this keeps the album musically involving (a sort of renewable resource), what remains elusive is why the sort of raw sexuality and sensuality which gets displayed here is still so elusive among male musicians.  D'Angelo's accomplishment in Voodoo isn't just in crystalizing the sonic ideas of neo-Soul, it's in his definition of sexuality as something that remains close to you, like in the video, right up--something from which you can't turn away.

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