HISTORY LESSON: D'Angelo Releases Modern R&B Masterpiece "Voodoo"

20 years ago today, D'Angelo put out "Voodoo" blowing everyone away before leaving for over a decade.

HISTORY LESSON: D'Angelo Releases Modern R&B Masterpiece "Voodoo"


Aaron Chan

1/25/2020 10:00 AM

20 years out the gate, D’Angelo’s Voodoo is an undeniable classic. The labour of intense collaboration, the album benefits most from the genius of its star and his creative process. Voodoo’s sound mix is an absolute wonder and its sonic picture and clean analog recording is one of the most organic things ever put to tape. When it came out, many thought it would change the game for modern R&B, but personal frustrations and the price of fame caused D’Angelo, at the time the biggest and best artist in urban music to give up music for 14 years.

The son of a Pentecostal minister, D’Angelo, born Micheal Eugene Archer, had built a reputation as one of the best vocalists in contemporary R&B, producing all of his recordings with a focus on performance over hooks. Brown Sugar, his first album had great songs, was selling 40,000 copies a week for its first four months, and paved the way for other urban naturalists like Erykah Badu and Rafael Saadiq.

In the four and a half year lead up to Voodoo, D’Angelo released the odd single and cover until the birth of his first child in 1998 inspired him to begin putting material together for his sophomore effort. He reconnected with the musical lineage (gospel, jazz, early Sly, early James Brown) that originally inspired him during his youth in Virginia. Voodoo’s famously organic sound can be traced back to D’Angelo and his “co-pilot”, Roots architect Questlove’s dissatisfaction with the direction R&B was taking at the time. Quest joined D’Angelo for the entirety of the Voodoo sessions providing creative direction and drumming on nearly all its tracks.

D’Angelo was angry at the current state of commercial R&B, with popular tastes gravitating towards labels like Arista and Bad Boy. Much of it was digitized and featured pop hooks that pushed mainly for club play, which D’Angelo found to be in-genuine. Years after Questlove explained, ”We knew this album would be a hard pill to swallow. People may want D’ to play into their R&B love-god fantasies—wearing Armani suits, singing something sweet in your ear—but he made a conscious effort to shake people up…”

Recording took place at Electric Ladyland studios over the course of two years. It was the 90’s and massive studio budgets benefitting from a profitable music industry allowed for artists to take their time. Striving to achieve a nostalgic pastiche, D’Angelo and Questlove would watch videotapes of classic R&B artists, play selections from their catalog, jam, and then recorded for inspiration. According to Touré, who interviewed D’Angelo for Rolling Stone in the promotional push for Voodoo, select sessions involved the band playing renditions of full albums front to back like Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On or Prince’s Parade and seeing what original phoenixes could be pulled from the fire.

D’Angelo also really got into shape during the Voodoo sessions. The success of Brown Sugar allowed for Virgin records to hire a personal trainer to get D’Angelo into shape. Mark Jenkins, who according to Questlove “didn’t take no shit”, worked with D’ for the years spent recording Voodoo, getting him into unbelievable physical shape and possibly inspiring the unbreakable focus and discipline that yielded the album.

It was clear to anyone in D’Angelo’s orbit during recording, something special was happening at Electric Ladyland.

Fellow Soulquarians (the New York neo soul collective superhero team), Q Tip, Mos & Talib, James Poyser, Erykah Badu, and Common who recorded Mama’s Gun and Like Water for Chocolate during the day respectively, visited D’s studio frequently. Promotional footage for the album showed Rick Rubin and Chris Rock dropping in for a listen and floored by the recordings D’Angelo previewed. On one visit, Eric Clapton reacted to “Spanish Joint” by dropping his jaw and arms and asking, “Is it all like this?”

Russell Elevado the engineer who recorded and mixed Voodoo for nearly three years, used analog and vintage mixing gear and aside from “Untitled”, there are no overdubs with all songs taken live off the floor. The fender rhodes D used to play keys was the same one used originally by Stevie Wonder on Talking Book. The board used to record was originally used by Hendrix. D’ composed all of the basslines and hired the legendary Pino Palladino whom he had met through B.B. King to play them. D’Angelo provided all vocals and the multi tracking on the album is breathtaking, approaching the scale of choirs from a singular source. Saul Williams called it “vocal collaging” and “Bobby McFerrin on opium.” Q Tip’s verse on “Left and Right” was deemed unsatisfactory and scrapped for a more boisterous appearance from Method Man and Redman.

D’Angelo wanted grooves (most evidently “Chicken Grease” and “The Root”) to sit behind time, making them feel loose and sloppy. He had already been playing with intentionally misplayed or “drunken” rhythms famously on “Me and those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine”. Now, inspired by pioneering jazz rap producer J Dilla whose Slum Village Vol. 1 was introduced to him by Q-Tip, D’Angelo was even more interested in a distinctly human feel to hip hop, a fundamentally programmed genre. Dilla had apparently visited the studio frequently and his presence and influence is evident on the drum frequencies and overall sound of the album. Questlove explained the association: ”He's the zenith of hip-hop to us. Jay Dee helped to bring out the album's dirty sound and encouraged the false starts and the non-quantized sound of the record"

Questlove originally had reservations of how reversing his life long goal of playing perfect time would effect his reputation as a professional musician, still he got the big picture. When Lenny Kravitz was brought on to play guitar on a song, he claimed he “(Couldn’t) play (because) there’s a discrepancy in the drum pattern” not knowing that this was intentional.

Though it debuted at number one dethroning Santana’s Supernatural, Voodoo proved difficult to push as singles were long and worked best in the context of the album. D’s management rebranded it as “the R&B equivalent to Radiohead’s OK Computer” in an effort to sell albums versus boost radio play. Questlove issued an essay regarding the album’s creation calling it a "vicarious fantasy", a "new direction of soul for 2000", and "the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality” implying the album is so emotionally powerful you will find yourself after first listen.

And then came the “Untitled” music video. The clip featured a single shot of a nude D’angelo filmed from the waist up and received heavy rotation on BET and MTV. It birthed D’Angelo the sex icon, perhaps for the worse.

Cue the Voodoo tour, a pure spectacle in the midst of one of the best albums of its time. The band was directed and selected by Questlove and J Dilla opened select dates. The release of the video for “Untitled” midway through the tour incited sexist behaviour from audiences with females tossing clothes at D’Angelo and yelling for him to take his clothes off. D’Angelo would react in anger and frustration sometimes breaking equipment and began cancelling shows including two weeks worth in Japan citing personal and emotional problems. This meant reparations from venues and Questlove never received full payment for his work on Voodoo. D’Angelo subsequently left the music scene for over a decade, getting into legal trouble before disappearing from public consciousness completely.

Over the years, the strength of Voodoo and its unmet standard of organic urban music had generations new and old wondering if D’Angelo would ever return. Then after playing a series of comeback concerts in Europe in 2012, he surprise released Black Messiah in 2014 to rapturous reception. Today, 20 years after its release, Voodoo is a bonafide classic that immortalized D’Angelo as one of the best artists to ever make R&B music.

Check out our senior contributor the great Blake Bartholomew's retrospective review of Voodoo here